Plumbing plays a key role in the delivery of safe drinking water, as well as the handling and disposal of human and domestic waste. Yet, there are still so many homeowners and businesses that use the services of unqualified plumbers to repair and maintain existing or to install new sanitary and stormwater drainage, as well as potable water systems – despite the many health and safety risks that are associated with substandard plumbing workmanship.
This is according to Brendan Reynolds, Executive Director of the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA), the voice of the plumbing industry. IOPSA provides quick and easy access to skilled and experienced plumbers who are registered with the Plumbing Industry Registration Board (PIRB). These PIRB-registered plumbers are also regularly audited by IOPSA to ensure that they continue providing plumbing services of the highest possible quality.
“In severe circumstances, a poor plumbing installation may even result in a serious injury or death. For example, an incorrectly installed geyser or hot water storage vessel could explode and harm occupants inside a building. A faulty installation could cause severe burns. Bear in mind that hot water of 60°C can result in a serious scald in about five seconds – the reason many burns involving children usually occur in the bathroom. The elderly and other vulnerable people are also at risk of suffering severe whole-body burns in a shower or bath due to substandard plumbing workmanship” says Reynolds.
A well-designed and correctly built plumbing system will also eliminate the risk of cross-connections between drinking water supplies and waste streams. This includes in public, industrial, and commercial properties where factors such as dual water systems, circulating pumps, and toxic waste needs to be carefully managed. Cross-connections are also a potential problem in multi-storey building where booster pumps are used to increase main pressure. They are also a potential risk in unique plumbing systems deployed in hospitals, as well as dental and veterinary surgeries. However, cross-connections can also present a severe health and safety threat to occupants of houses and their neighbours. When the damaging effects of cross-connection are transferred to the mains supply system to which the plumbing is connected, they pose a risk to entire communities.
Supplying services at unsustainably low rates, many unqualified plumbers will also use inferior materials to install, repair and maintain plumbing systems. Lead, cyanide, arsenic, copper, manganese, and zinc can leach from these materials into potable water as it flows through the plumbing system. Consuming this contaminated water can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort and nausea and, in severe circumstances, brain damage and cancer. The use of inferior materials can also result in contaminated return flows from geysers or fixtures entering the water-supply system. They may also interact with other materials used in the plumbing system.
In some instances, inappropriate and poor-quality materials even facilitate microbial growth in drinking water systems. Microbes can also grow in pipes and components of systems, including washers, thermostatic mixing valves and outlets, stagnation, and dead legs, when they are not maintained correctly by a competent plumber. Experienced plumbers will, therefore, also ensure that plumbing systems are always cleaned and disinfected after they have been installed, maintained, and repaired so as not to contaminate drinking water.
Legionella also grows in water that has been allowed to stand for extended periods due to incorrectly configured and maintained plumbing systems. “While this is a real risk in large plumbing systems typically found in commercial and hospitality developments, as well as hospitals, Legionella can also appear in residential plumbing systems. It can grow to significant numbers in warm water, hot water heaters, hot tubs, hot water lines and fixtures, such as shower heads. Legionnaires’ disease has the same symptoms as pneumonia. They include cough, shortness of breath, fever, muscle aches and headaches,” he says.
Pseudomonas aeruginosa microorganisms also grow in piped plumbing and distribution systems and on fittings in the same way. While these microorganisms seldom cause serious illness in healthy individuals, they pose a serious health risk to vulnerable people, especially hospital patients. For example, they can colonize burn and surgical wounds, compromised respiratory tracts and eyes that have been physically damaged. Moreover, they cause skin infections in hot tubs and spas. Cleaning contact lenses with a solution that has been contaminated with Pseudomonas aeruginosa can cause a type of keratitis.
“IOPSA continues to work closely with all relevant stakeholders in the public and private sectors to raise standards in the plumbing industry. IOPSA-registered plumbers are trained to design, install, and maintain plumbing systems that provide a safe water supply and adequate drainage system. This is in addition to sufficient and appropriate fixtures, as well as equipment that do not contaminate water,” Reynolds concludes.