The system has too many leaks - but YOU can help plug them.

If there's anything resembling a sacred cow to this industry, it's the system of license-permit-inspection that conveys professional stature upon the plumbing trade. Without this system in place, anyone can claim to be a plumber and perform the work of the trade, to the detriment of public health and safety. Unfortunately, there are many leaks in the system. These are the ones that arise time and time again in contractor gripe sessions.

1. Too many jurisdictions. The word “system” should really be plural in recognition of hundreds of building jurisdictions throughout the land that all seem to have their own peculiar ways of doing things. Many adopt a state or county plumbing code, but way too many see fit to reinvent the wheel simply because they have the authority to do so. There are parts of the country where a plumber may need to hold half a dozen licenses just to work in a normal trading area of a few dozen square miles. Accompanying this, of course, is more bureaucracy than is good for anyone's mental health.

2. Poor inspector quality or performance. Let's not over-generalize about this. A majority of inspectors are knowledgeable and hard-working. Yet, some inspector ranks are filled with political hacks and failed craftsmen whose knowledge of good plumbing and the local code may be marginal. Or, they may have the knowledge but succumb to the public sector work ethic, which means jobs get delayed while inspectors take their sweet time coming around to visit.

3. Over-zealous inspectors. Conversely, a common complaint has to do with inspectors who nitpick jobs to death and fail to see the forest for the trees. Most codes contain some ambiguities and contradictions. When confronted with these dilemmas, the best inspectors rely on the spirit of code enforcement more than the letter of the law by asking themselves, “Is it safe … Will it hold together?”

At the other end of the spectrum, I've heard of inspectors shutting down jobs because a rooftop vent was a half-inch short. Inside the minds of these characters lay power trips, a bureaucratic mentality, or personal vendettas against certain contractors.

4. Skewed enforcement priorities. All of the previous problems pale beside the No. 1 complaint of contractors in dealing with code and licensing authorities. That is, lackadaisical enforcement - or even worse - cracking down on the wrong people.

A conundrum of license and code enforcement is that the contractors who play by the rules tend to come under closest scrutiny. If you qualify for a license and pay the fee, pull required permits and call for inspections, it's easy to keep track of your activities. It takes much more effort to uncover illegal work taking place without a paper trail, which tends to correlate with the shoddiest work.

Better jurisdictions do try to go after unlicensed contractors. Some have launched public awareness campaigns telling home and building owners to check for licenses and insurance, and to tattle on those who solicit work without these accoutrements. I recall one such campaign informing homeowners they were under no obligation to pay contractors who perform licensed work without one. Legalities may vary state by state, but where this passes muster, I can think of no better way to persuade unlicensed contractors either to go legitimate or seek another way to earn a living.

Yet, these programs are far more the exception than the rule. More commonly, it's the license holders who are subjected to bureaucratic indignities, while the cheaters go merrily about their business under the radar of building officials. In many jurisdictions, the most severe penalty for contracting malfeasance is loss of license, but what does that matter to someone who never bothers to get one?

Hiring more inspectors would help, but everyone is strapped for funds. Just as you can't expect a cop on every street corner, there's so much construction work going on in this country, we'd need tens of thousands of additional inspectors to really put some fear in unlicensed operators.

Fortunately, I know where to find them, and at no extra cost. By most estimates, there are around 60,000 licensed plumbing contractors doing business in this country. You folks can go a long way toward filling the inspection gap. Your street smarts give you more knowledge than anyone of work that's taking place on the sly and by people without proper credentials. There's a time and a place for “mind your own business,” but this isn't one of them. Take a deep breath and start blowing that whistle. Your industry, your business and public health and safety will all be better off because of it.