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After Winter Storm, Texas Plumber's Apprentices Can Work Alone To Repair Damage

Jay Farrell uses water from his hot tub to flush his toilet in Houston as people across Texas found themselves without running water.
Jay Farrell uses water from his hot tub to flush his toilet in Houston as people across Texas found themselves without running water after pipes ruptured due to freezing temperatures following an unprecedented winter storm.

Damage from last month's winter storm was so widespread that Gov. Greg Abbott changed the rules to allow plumbing apprentices to tackle broken pipes and water heaters.

The Texas snow melted weeks ago, but the damage from last month’s winter storm and power outages could take a long time to fix. Part of that comes from overwhelming demand for repair workers. Homeowners, in particular, are scrambling to find plumbers to diagnose leaks, re-pipe houses, and fix busted water heaters. But the state has put new rules in place so more qualified people can join the effort.

The scope of damage after the storm was like nothing Randy Hunter’s seen before.

“There are just broken pipes everywhere,” said Hunter, president of the San Antonio chapter of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association. “PVC pipes have failed systematically across the city.”

Homes were no match for the double whammy of freezing temperatures plus scattered electricity to run heaters.

“When the water freezes it simply expands,” Hunter said. “If the material that it’s running through can't manage it… it's going to fail. Physics says it's going to fail. Unfortunately that’s the nature of many of the homes we’ve looked at recently.”

Since the state thawed out, Hunter and plumbers throughout the state have struggled to keep their heads above water, often working overtime and trying to accommodate long lists of clients in need.

In response to the huge demand, Gov. Greg Abbott has waived certain regulations for certain registered and qualified plumbers’ apprentices in Texas. The waivers allow plumbers’ apprentices to temporarily perform plumbing repairs without ‘direct’ supervision by a licensed plumber so long as the qualified apprentice works under the general supervision of a responsible master plumber.

“These waivers will help meet the plumbing needs of Texans who have experienced burst pipes and other related damage from the severe winter weather,” said Gov. Abbott. “By allowing certain registered and qualified Plumber’s Apprentices to perform these repairs, we will be able to expedite the recovery process throughout our communities.”

That’s good news for some in the plumbing industry.

“What it allows is whereas an apprentice might [normally] be doing the work and having a journeyman or a tradesman watching him do the work, he is now able to go by himself to a job,” said Robert Bohmfalk, head of Construction Technology at St. Philip’s College in San Antonio.

Since the storm hit, some of Bohmfalk’s advanced plumbing students have been on the frontlines—solo—for the first time.

“They're really tired,” he said. “Some are working 10, 12 hour days. Parts are real hard to come by still, I mean, they're coming in as fast as they can. But man, they're just coming in and going out real fast, parts are, so they're in lines.”

Many of Bohmfalk’s students working in the field have already accrued most of the hours they need to get a journeyman’s plumbing license. Some are just waiting to take the exam.

“The Texas State Plumbing Board wants to get people taken care of in the state of Texas, and they feel the plumbers in charge that own the businesses know who those people are that they can allow to go out by themselves,” Bohmfalk added.

The apprentices’ work is backed by the licensed master plumber, who carries liability insurance. Governor Abbott’s office has identified about 500 licensed master plumbers around the state to provide oversight.

Bohmfalk said it's a win for students and consumers… apprentices will be taking home far bigger paychecks than usual. And consumers can rely on the work because, as Bohmfalk explained, companies won’t risk their reputations by sending someone out on a job before they’re ready.

Even with the additional help, Bohmfalk said he believes the statewide piping crisis may last a while, and the plumbing industry in Texas is taking things one day at a time.

The state is also giving provisional permits to out-of-state plumbers and waiving some fees and examination requirements for plumbers with expired licenses. As of Feb. 19, more than 320 plumbers had already renewed their licenses. The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners is coordinating with out-of-state plumbing companies to send additional plumbers to Texas.

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Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.