The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, March 25, 2016

State bills threaten mechanical licensing standards

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

LANSING - The folks at Vincent's Plumbing and Heating in Port Huron are pushing to fundamentally change decades of established, effective licensing regulations that govern the state's plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning industries.

Along with leadership at the Michigan Air Conditioning Contractors Association of Michigan, they may be among only a handful of people pushing to change the regulations. Still, they received a hearing March 17 on three pieces of proposed legislation in front of the Michigan House of Representatives' Committee on Workforce Talent and Development.

During the hearing, much of the focus by proponents of the legislation revolved around eliminating licensing rules that affect the installation of residential water heaters. But detractors, among them union leaders and contractor association representatives, said the legislation was less about residential water heater installation, or low-voltage work, and more about weakening licensing regulations for plumbers, electricians and HVAC workers.

If this bill only applied to electrical control systems of HVAC systems "on one- or two-family residential homes, I think that's something where we could work with you," testified Mike Crawford, executive director of the Michigan Chapter, National Electrical Contractors Association. "But this bill addresses 4,160-volt mechanical equipment atop nearby Sparrow Hospital, this applies to institutional electrical control systems. Passage of this bill could be very, very dangerous."

The legislation has the plumbers up in arms, too. Harold Harrington, business manager of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 370 in Flint, told the subcommittee that "given what has happened in Flint, I can't believe anyone would want to weaken the plumbing licensing laws in the State of Michigan. You're talking about the safety and health of the residents of Michigan. It makes no sense."

There are three pieces of legislation that are before the committee, and all have been introduced by Republican lawmakers. According to the House Fiscal Agency, House Bill 5435 would amend Section 15 of the State Plumbing Act, which lists work for which a license is not required. This bill would add to that non-licensed list: "the replacement of a domestic water heater in a one-family or two-family dwelling that requires modification to an existing hot and cold water distribution supply by a mechanical contractor licenses under the Forbes Mechanical Act," as long as permits are obtained and required inspections are performed.

Cynthia Maher, executive director of the Michigan Plumbing and Mechanical Contractors Association, testified that the way the bill is written, the part about "requires modification to an existing hot and cold water distribution supply" could easily lead to non-licensed workers installing pipe as it goes into a house. Furthermore, legally, "you could easily re-pipe an entire house" under this law, she testified, without a state plumbing license.

Similarly, House Bill 5436 would amend Section 7 of the Electrical Administrative Act by revising what classes of work may be performed without a license. Currently, says the House Fiscal Agency, a licensed mechanical contractor may perform maintenance, service, repair, replacement and modifications to control wiring circuits and electrical component parts within existing mechanical systems, including boilers, water heaters, and air conditioning systems. The systems must be on the electrical load side of the unit disconnect, and be located on or immediately adjacent to the equipment.

HB 5436 would also allow licensed mechanical contractors (they are workers who are not necessarily licensed electricians) to perform installation work on control wiring circuits within existing mechanical systems, and eliminate the requirement that the new work be located on or immediately adjacent to the equipment. No mention of residential-only work is included in the bill.

Todd Tennis, a lobbyist for the IBEW, testified that the existing state law has worked for years, where licensed electricians perform the initial installation of control-related work in a residential system, and then mechanical contractors can perform the maintenance and upgrade work. "But if they claim this bill is just about residential low voltage work, that's not how this bill is written," Tennis said.

House Bill 5437 would modify the requirements that must be met before an applicant can take an exam under the Forbes Mechanical Contractors Act. Where current law requires an applicant to have a  minimum of three years of experience in a related field, the bill would allow credit toward those years through evidence of graduation from a related course of study at places like a community college or trade school, or from work in the military.  Two lawmakers questioned why House Bill 5437 - which has to do with application requirements to get a license - was "tie-barred" into the rest of the legislation, which deals with the nuts and bolts of mechanical licensing.

Testifying in support of the trio of bills was Brindley Byrd, executive director of the Michigan Air Conditioning Contractors Association. He told the House subcommittee that there are nine different classifications of Michigan mechanics licenses. "It's complicated," he said, adding that their intent is to streamline laws that affect worker licensing, as well as make it easier for people, like military veterans, to get hired in the industry.

Dan Squires of Vincent's Plumbing and Heating testified that the current law is "protectionist" for different craft jurisdictions. "Do we really need a law that requires two different trades and two different licenses for a water heater replacement?"

But proponents of keeping the existing law testified that it makes sense and has worked well. "Jurisdictional issues go back to the pyramids," Tennis said. "That differentiation has led to a higher standard." He said the current standard is the better standard, especially if the law's reformers aren't willing to fix proposed language that would allow poorly trained workers to work on higher voltage, endangering their lives and others'.

And Maher pointed out that a piping installation by a licensed journeyman plumber vs. an installation by an unlicensed worker employed by a licensed mechanical contractor is a false equivalence in terms of quality and public safety. "That's a big difference," she said.

The committee has yet to vote on the bills.