The findings of the latest research from the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA) on the level of plumbing compliance across the country are concerning. This is especially true in a water-stressed country that is also grappling with a severe water, sanitation and energy crisis. Non-compliant plumbing installations aggravate the situation, while posing a serious risk to the health and safety of the general public; have a negative impact on the environment; and damaging public and private property.
Brendan Reynolds, executive director of IOPSA, says the findings demonstrate a grave disregard for the rule of law and a very limited understanding of the importance of the plumbing profession. “Municipal bylaws are poorly enforced, a situation that has allowed many unqualified ‘plumbers’ to operate without fear of repercussions. This is despite the many risks associated with substandard plumbing work. Based on anecdotal evidence, we expected to find a significant number of non-compliant plumbing installations across the country.
However, we certainly did not expect the situation to be so serious. IOPSA had a good idea of the extent of non-compliant water heater system installations, as our inspectors review them regularly and their research has only confirmed our concerns. Yet we were unprepared for the extent of other types of non-compliant plumbing installations. Conservatively, we expected between 30% and 40% of these plumbing installations to be non-compliant. We were therefore alarmed to learn that between 70% and 80% of these facilities do not comply with the law. To be clear, most qualified plumbers are trustworthy and adhere to regulations and standards. The challenge is really with unqualified “plumbers” who have not been properly trained and who often cause serious problems without their knowledge. said Reynolds.
The research was undertaken by 42 experienced IOPSA plumbing inspectors spread across the country in April and May 2022. A total of 725 formal housing sector properties were inspected across eight provinces. IOPSA inspectors requested permission from homeowners to visually inspect other aspects of their plumbing. They focused only on significant and/or critical security failures. Owners have also been alerted to these issues so they can take the necessary steps to correct them. Inspectors only reported what they could see on the outside, and to fully determine the extent of the non-compliance, further investigation would be required. However, the information collected by the team of IOPSA inspectors was sufficient to provide a statistically significant indication of the level of compliance of plumbing installations in the country.
Worryingly, many landlords have not allowed IOPSA staff to inspect other plumbing fixtures on their properties. This was particularly the case in suburbs located in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Free State, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, while no reports were received from inspectors from the IOPSA in the Northwest. As a result, IOPSA search results focus primarily on Gauteng and the Western Cape. They are also heavily weighted by water heating systems, such as geysers, solar water heaters and heat pumps.
Of the 725 water heater installations inspected nationally, 67% were found to be non-compliant.
These facilities are not energy efficient, putting additional strain on an already strained power grid and increasing the carbon footprint of properties. They also pose many health and safety risks. These include scald and electrocution, while non-compliant water heating systems are also a breeding ground for harmful bacteria and pathogens. Legionnaires’ disease and Pontiac fever, for example, are caused by Legionella bacteria that grow and multiply in building water systems. Water containing Legionella can spread in droplets small enough for people to inhale. Under extenuating circumstances, an improperly installed water heater system can also explode, endangering the lives of a building’s occupants. Not to mention the significant damage that improperly installed water heating systems can cause to property.
IOPSA auditors inspected 394 water supply installations, including cold water lines to property and facilities, nationwide. Of these installations, 57.6% were found to be non-compliant.
It is imperative that these systems are installed correctly to avoid contaminating drinking water and eliminate leaks. Fixing leaks is always the first step for responsible homeowners in reducing their water footprint. These interventions, combined with the use of water-saving smart appliances and other measures, helped Cape Town avoid a crisis as it was in the grip of the worst drought in its history. The Eastern Cape now faces its ‘zero day’ when the taps run completely dry. This is a stark reminder of the need to use our scarce water resources more efficiently, and it starts with ensuring that the supply systems have been properly installed.
Meanwhile, 65.5% of the 264 waste water installations from, among others, basins, sinks, bathtubs and showers, which were inspected did not comply with the legislation.
These substandard facilities spread dangerous waterborne diseases and can contaminate scarce freshwater and groundwater resources. Certainly, it is concerning that compliance is so low, as many areas are still struggling with severe drought.
Many regions, where dry conditions have persisted for the past seven years, rely heavily on groundwater resources as the only supply alternative. These water sources must therefore be protected against contamination.
IOPSA inspectors also examined drainage systems, such as toilet, gully and manhole sewers, on the properties. Of the 248 facilities inspected, 74.2% were found to be non-compliant. These faulty installations can also contaminate freshwater sources and spread waterborne diseases. In addition, they can damage municipal infrastructure, putting additional strain on already strained local government service delivery systems. More than a quarter of municipalities in South Africa are on the verge of collapse and therefore lack the financial means to develop new service delivery infrastructure.
A total of 159 rainwater systems were inspected by IOPSA. They included, among other things, gutters, sub-drainage and storm sewers on the properties. 48.4% were found to be non-compliant. These systems can also damage municipal infrastructure; contaminate freshwater sources; and spread waterborne diseases. They are also contributing to the severe flooding that many parts of the country have experienced this year.
A total of 727 other plumbing systems, such as grease traps and those that handle pool waste, were also inspected by IOPSA auditors, and 17.6% were found to be non-compliant.
While IOPSA inspectors focused only on installations, previous research by, among other organizations, the Water Research Commission found that up to 60 percent of all plumbing materials used in country are not compliant. According to Reynolds, “we have this strange situation in South Africa where it is legal to sell certain products but illegal to install them”. “This, combined with a severe shortage of qualified plumbers in the country, has led to a significant increase in substandard plumbing work in South Africa,” he says.
Research by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit and Trade & Industrial Policy Strategies in 2019 found that only 20,000 of the 126,000 people who worked as plumbers were qualified professionals. A qualified plumber has completed three years of structured and formal training. By the time they have completed their theoretical and practical training, they also have a more global view of the industry. This includes the importance of safety, health, environment and quality.
The results show that authorities also need to help regulate this industry by enforcing their municipal service bylaws. A survey conducted by IOPSA in 2021 found that only 33% of plumbers have a copy of their municipal water bylaws. Only 80 of 256 municipalities had bylaws on publicly available water services, and just 15% of plumbers said the local government held them accountable for their work.
“Plumbing is an essential part of water and sanitation. While much of the focus is on developing “hard” infrastructure, like dams and desalination plants, water still has to get from there to homes and businesses. Wastewater treatment plants and bulk services are meaningless if the wastewater never reaches them. These are important roles that are filled by qualified plumbers. It is painfully clear that something must be done urgently to stop the situation. I doubt that stretched municipalities can accomplish the necessary changes on their own.
The private sector has already devised a viable solution in the form of a Certificate of Compliance from the Plumbing Industry Registration Board, the professional body for plumbers. Significant positive impacts could be achieved in very little time and at very little cost if we focus on safeguarding quality plumbing work. Given the water and sanitation, as well as energy challenges the country is facing, there is no more time to deliberate. We need immediate and decisive action,” concludes Reynolds.