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Plumbers: Licensed or Unlicensed?

Posted By: Bruce Davis Sr. Maintenance ,

It’s not uncommon for property owners and management companies to use an unlicensed maintenance person or ‘Handyman’ to do lots of things on their property including their plumbing.

Is this a good practice? Although many of my contractor colleagues will strongly disagree, in my opinion the answer is both yes and no. Let me explain.

There are many plumbing repairs that can be both legal and practical to have a trained but unlicensed person do, including:

  • toilet adjustments and repairs
  • faucet repairs
  • dishwasher installations
  • garbage disposal installations
  • drain cleaning any of the interior small drains, (1-1/2” and 2”; not main drains; and yes, drain cleaning is considered ‘plumbing work’ and is included in the Plumbing Code)
  • water heater replacement

How do these ‘unlicensed’ people get trained? Unfortunately, they learn mostly by trial and error, at the owner’s expense. But, after 4 or 5 years, they usually know enough to be fairly safe, and to not cause a flood.

If you have a solid working relationship with a good licensed plumbing contractor, they might be happy to help train your maintenance people to do some common tasks, like those mentioned above. When we do that with our clients, we recommend they videotape the training, so they have it for new people. (YouTube may seem fine, but you don’t really know the source of the advice, nor is it necessarily applicable to our state.)

In Washington, the law requires that in most cases, anyone working on/repairing/remodeling plumbing needs to have a current Washington State Plumbing License, or a State Plumber-Trainee License, and a trainee needs to be working under the direct supervision of a licensed/certified Journeyman plumber.

There are a few exceptions that might be practical and legal…

  • Homeowners can do their own plumbing
  • Business owners and their direct employees can do plumbing on the business building.

That said, except for minor repairs and some “same-for-same” fixture replacements, almost all plumbing work needs to be covered by a Plumbing Permit, with an inspection by the A.H.J. (the Authority Having Jurisdiction; who we used to call the Plumbing Inspector) no matter who does the work.

What does it take to get a plumbing license? In our state, before taking the required State Plumbing Exam, it takes 3-years of working under the direct supervision of a licensed plumber to become a Residential Journeyman Plumber. Then, if the tech wants a full Commercial Plumbing License, an additional year of supervised work experience is needed on top of that (the last time I checked, over 75% of everyone taking the State Exam fails the first time they take it).

What’s the big deal? Why the long, working, and supervised apprenticeship and the tough state exam? Well, besides the property damage that can occur due to flooding etc., the big deal is literally the health of our nation. There are several major water-born or air-borne pathogens that can and have caused infection and illness and in some cases death, from or involving the plumbing system. Here are just a few of them:

  • Giardia: A parasitic infection, causing cramps, bloating, nausea, fatigue or malaise, painful gas and watery diarrhea, usually found and in connection to poor sanitation and unsafe, infected water. It is spread through unsafe contaminated water, sometimes due to bad plumbing, contaminated food and person-to-person contact. The Mayo Clinic says Giardia infection is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in the U.S. and the parasitic infection can last from a couple weeks to several months; and re-infection is not uncommon.
  • Cryptosporidium: another diarrhea-inducing parasite commonly found in poorly maintained pools and hot tubs.
  • Pseudomonas: water-born bacteria that burrows into hair follicles, causing severe itching, red bumps and infections.
  • Shigella: a gastrointestinal illness causing severe diarrhea, fever nausea, vomiting, cramps etc. Caused by swallowing contaminated water from bad plumbing, lakes, pools etc. In the U.S. alone about 500,000 illnesses annually.
  • Legionella: bacteria that infects the airways, the bacteria can induce a virulent form of pneumonia called Legionnaires Disease, a very severe form of flu, especially dangerous for the elderly and those with secondary conditions and has sometimes been fatal. Often found and spread by bad plumbing and in the steamy air around hot tubs, spas etc.
  • Norovirus: causes stomach pain, fever, vomiting and diarrhea. It spreads on surfaces, in food and in water, sometimes through bad plumbing. The CDC says on average, this illness causes 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths each year.
  • Cyanobacteria: another water-born pathogen, it induces headaches, vomiting, and even liver damage in severe cases.
    Naegleria fowleri: The CDC says that, although rare it is almost always fatal. Since the 1960’s there have been 138 cases but only three survived. It’s a parasite native to warm, freshwater and can spread in any water after infection; normally referred to as the “brain-eating” amoeba infection.
  • SAARS: a strain of coronavirus, and according to the World Health Organization and the World Plumbing Council, in 2002 - 2003 when the SARS outbreak occurred in China, it was traced back to a problem at the Amoy Gardens Apartments in Hong Kong. The building had ‘dry P-traps’ that occurred due to non-code, un-licensed and un-inspected plumbing work. The dry traps allowed contaminated air and wastewater aerosols to enter some apartments in the high-rise, infecting the occupants.
  • COVID-19: Another coronavirus, causing an infectious disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2). The origin and spread of the virus is still uncertain, but as a coronavirus that is often spread via small droplets from sneezing, talking, coughing and touching contaminated surfaces, it is my opinion that like SAARS, it will likely be discovered that unlicensed and un-inspected plumbing work will have played a major role in the Pandemic.

A big part of being a licensed Journeyman plumber, is being fully trained and current in the good, approved, and proven code guidelines and practices that protect the public from infections through pathogens (any organism that causes disease).

Yes, there are times that it can be practical and reasonable to use a maintenance person or handyman for some plumbing work, but there are many plumbing jobs that should only be attempted by a licensed Journeyman plumber. If you’re not sure, your lLicensed plumbing contractor can help you make your decision.


Bruce Davis Sr. is President of Day & Nite Plumbing & Heating, Inc., a 65-year old family owned and operated plumbing and heating business in Lynnwood, Washington. Bruce can be contacted at bruce@dayandnite.net. Visit their website at dayandnite.net or call (800) 972-7000.