What Is the Plumber’s Ultimate Responsibility in Installing Plumbing Systems?

Recently, the senior plumbing estimator for a local construction manager asked me what I thought was the plumber’s ultimate responsibility. The question was asked to help in the development of a presentation for the firm’s third- and fourth-year project engineers.

The answer to such a question really comes from each person’s perspective. In my case, as a former journeyman and master plumber and now a registered Professional Engineer (PE), I have served as the Engineer of Record (EOR) on many projects over the years.

As a master plumber it was always my position that the plumber had a responsibility to protect public health by providing safe and sanitary systems. This would be accomplished by ensuring code compliance and applying sound means and methods in the installation of those systems. These skilled trades personnel possess an in-depth knowledge of the technical aspects of the plumbing systems they install and service. The slogan for a long time has been Plumbers Protect the Health of the Nation. This is something I grew up with as I learned the plumbing profession, and I took much pride in upholding that slogan.

However, as an EOR my perspective changed as I realized that my obligations under the law added legal and ethical obligations to my responsibilities, so my response to the question became this: the plumber is ultimately charged with applying sound means and methods in the installation of those plumbing systems as designed by the engineer and approved by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). The plumber needs to apply their technical knowledge of means and methods without attempting to change or alter the design. The difference is who holds the legal liability to the public as laid out in the laws that govern both professions.

It is incumbent on both the EOR and the plumber to work together in protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare. This is best accomplished by installing the systems as shown on the approved contract documents while maintaining open communication between the EOR and the plumber. Both bring different levels of knowledge and skills to the table, but legally it is the EOR who signs and seals the documents and holds the liability for the design. While a plumber may have another means or method to accomplish the end result, it is not their design.

When the EOR and the plumber communicate and cooperate, the design and end result may be improved, provided the design intent remains intact, the change is code compliant, and any suggested changes do not impact any future aspects of the project. You must remember that the EOR represents the client and may have additional information that the plumber does not know. At the end of the day, the EOR holds the liability and is legally obligated to hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other interests.

This is not a competition between the professions, but a simple acknowledgement of the differing professional circumstances placed on both the plumber and the engineer by the legislative processes and the statements within the laws. Both of these professionals share the same desire and responsibility to protect the health and safety of the nation. It is part of the plumbing profession’s image and has been engrained into their training on the path to becoming a skilled tradesperson, but it is not enshrined into law. However, the legislation and laws authorizing the registration of Professional Engineers do specifically state that PEs shall hold the public’s health, safety, and welfare above all other interests. At the end of the day, the EOR must have the final say under the law.

Any time there is mutual respect and a willingness to share ideas through open communication with a view to protecting the public, the plumber and the engineer can work effectively to provide a quality project—a project that meets the needs of the client, provides pride to those involved, and serves the public good. As long as one is willing to listen and discuss any issues with a design, that design can be enhanced. No design is perfect, but regardless it remains the EOR’s design and liability. Plumbers should be willing to share their constructive suggestions, but just remember to consider that changes at the field level may have schedule, cost, or design considerations that may not be acceptable to all those involved.

About the Author

David D. Dexter, FNSPE, FASPE, CPD, CPI, LEED BD+C, PE, is a registered Professional Engineer, Certified Plumbing Inspector, and Certified Plans Examiner with more than 40 years of experience in the installation and design of plumbing systems. He specializes in plumbing, fire protection, and HVAC design as well as forensics related to mechanical system failures. Dave serves as Chair of ASPE’s Main Design Standards Committee, Chair of the Bylaws Committee, Co-Chair of the College of Fellows Selection Committee, and Co-Chair of the Professional Engineer Working Group. He also was the 2008–2009 President of the Engineering Foundation of Ohio, 2010–2011 President of the Ohio Society of Professional Engineers, and 2012–2014 Central Region Director for the National Society of Professional Engineers.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not the American Society of Plumbing Engineers.

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