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What Type of Plumbing Work Can Be Performed Without A License?

Contractor Tips , Posted by Nicole Zemaitis on

What Type of Plumbing Work Can Be Performed Without A License?

Plumbing is a complex craft that requires years of education, training, and professional experience. Everyone has a neighbor, uncle, or friend who swears that they can do all the things a licensed plumber can do (and cut you a deal at that). While there are several repair jobs an unlicensed layperson for hire can perform, you’ll want to be very careful when it comes to tinkering with the pipes that bring you the water you drink, bathe in, and use to cook. 

It's best to check your area's guidelines and permit rules, but here’s a good rule of thumb: if you aren’t digging up concrete or messing with pipes that exceed 5 feet, you're free to consider unlicensed work. Beyond that, you should either hire a licensed professional or become one. 

What Are The Dangers of Carrying Out Plumbing Work Without a License?

There are, unfortunately, many dangers that come with unlicensed plumbing work. For the sake of the health and safety of yourself and the loved ones and pets that share your home, it’s best to be honest about them all.

First, your plumbing may not hold up to inspection. Why does that matter? Tiny inconsistencies in routing water and pressurizing can lead to pipes not holding the water pressure, resulting in devastating leaks, or worse, bursts. Aside from the cost, busted plumbing can permanently degrade a property's foundation and pose a threat to your safety. 

Failed inspections don’t just mean costly plumbing repairs. They can incur serious legal and financial penalties. If you’re caught working without a permit in a locality that requires one, you may be subject to fines. On the homeowners’ side, there’s increased financial risk involved in unlicensed work. Language in some homeowner’s agreements can leave you 100% liable for any damage resulting from unlicensed bathroom and kitchen remodeling.

Last, there are health hazards to be considered. Incorrectly installed plumbing could lead to mold and mildew, which can cause asthma and other respiratory infections. Slow leaks can leave dangerously undetectable pools of water on slick floors, which pose a potentially fatal risk to children and the elderly.

Where Can I Get a Plumbing License?

Licensing isn’t a quick or easy process. Plumbing is a highly complex, precision-oriented craft. A professional licensed plumber can make upwards of $200,000 per year, and owners of their plumbing businesses get to call all the shots. But you’ll always need a license to play ball in this league.

Plumbing licenses are generally obtained by following three steps: participating in a journeyman plumber’s apprenticeship, qualifying for your area's plumbing license exam, and passing that test.

The plumber’s apprenticeship is the most laborious segment of your path toward professional licensing. Plumbing apprenticeships are the rare type of skills-for-labor agreements that pay. Apprentice plumbers receive experiential training on actual job sites, where they're given technical instruction, essential tools of the trade, business practices like invoicing and contracting, and topics such as OSHA safety and blueprint reading.

Apprenticeships typically last 4-5 years and can be governed by either a local plumber’s union, a trade school, or a private company.

Licensing requirements for plumbers differ from place to place, so before you even consider a plumbing apprenticeship, make sure you’re following the guidelines of your area. Once you have your proof of plumbing apprenticeship, gather all the other materials you’ll need to qualify for an official plumber’s license exam, such as school transcripts, proof of insurance, and professional character witnesses.

Taking the exam is the last step on the list. States are required to provide certified license examination study guides, such as California’s here. After four years of apprenticing plumbing, you’ll probably know the difference between fuel gas piping and industrial piping like the back of your hand, but make sure to start studying prior to the night before.

When Do I Need a Permit for Plumbing Work?

Permits are distinct from licenses. Licenses certify that a professional contractor is knowledgeable about the craft and can execute repairs safely, and meet state and local codes. Permits are authorizations to perform work needed for each job, issued by Building Codes Divisions or BCD field offices. At most, you’ll have to fill out a form and pay a fee, and you’ll leave with the permit you came to get that day. 

Minor work, replacement of parts to sewers, water services, exterior rain drains, and maintenance to existing fixtures and appliances are the type of work that can be performed without a permit. You won’t find a professional licensed plumber who will tell you work without a permit is ever a good idea, but in truth, it happens all the time. 

Try and avoid any intensive work that requires demolition or excavation of some kind, such as emergency repairs, replacing underground piping, or installing 5+ feet of new water or waste lines.

The Bottom Line

Whether you’re planning to become (or hire) a full-time professional plumber, a journeyman, or it’s a project you want to keep in your back pocket for a rainy day, licensing (and a permit) will be necessary. It is the only way to get those hearty, above-board projects that are the bread and butter of any independent business. 

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