At the dawn of the twentieth century, much of Alabama considered the outhouse a dependable solution to the sanitation question. Yet, the new century brought new realities, and long before dripping faucets could plague most Alabamians, the state needed to experience significant urbanization, infrastructure development, and legislative investment. As these realities took shape, so did new associated trades like plumbing. While coalescing as its own vocation from similar tradecrafts, plumbing forged lasting alliances with the steam and gas fitting communities during these formative stages.1
In addition to forging alliances, the fledgling plumbing community needed to develop and formalize trade standards. Fortunately, early organizations like the National Association of Master Plumbers of the United States of America (NAMP) excelled in cultivating plumbing trade knowledge. Founded in 1883, NAMP sought to shape the growing craft into a standardized profession by providing the space to present the latest findings and report on the progress of plumbing from all over the country. 2 Plumbing representatives from Alabama became involved with NAMP within five years of the organization’s establishment, and subsequent years would see Alabama NAMP officers actively contributing to those conversations. At the 1907 NAMP National Convention, for instance, William Wilby of Selma, Dallas County, reported that:
There is no law governing plumbing or plumbers in his State as a State law; there is State and county license for plumbing. No examination [is] necessary, and only master plumbers are licensed. Inspection of plumbing work is not provided for, and no new laws are contemplated.3
Wilby’s summation demonstrates that while licensing for plumbers may have existed in Alabama, standardized qualifications for this licensing did not. Yet, even as Mr. Wilby rendered his stark reflection of Alabama’s plumbing standards at the NAMP convention in Kentucky, the political inertia in Montgomery gave way to a steady momentum.
With so many rural Alabamians drawing on wells, the need for waterworks infrastructure remained marginal for most of the nineteenth century. While legislators had faced select water and plumbing challenges as early as the 1890s, they had responded with piecemeal solutions. For instance, in the 1892 session, the Legislature revised the charter for Demopolis, empowering city authorities to supply the city with water and to license plumbers and gas fitters; provided for a Board of Water Works in the city of Cullman, which they explicitly empowered to regulate plumbing therein; and established the Alabama Girls’ Industrial School (a women’s college which later became the University of Montevallo), whose curriculum included, “plumbing, and such other practical industries.”4 Later, in 1900, the Legislature additionally granted the authority to build, maintain, and regulate infrastructure and waterworks to the Cities of Ensley and Bessemer in Jefferson County and the City of Greenville in Butler County.5 These sporadic examples suggest that no consistent infrastructure development approach existed within Alabama beyond the municipal level.
These scattered instances heralded more significant challenges, which became evident as the Legislature increasingly fielded bills about infrastructure at large rather than plumbing specifically. Attempting to expedite infrastructure development, legislators in 1903 incentivized corporations to furnish public utilities. Alabama Act 1903-63 enumerates the substantial rights corporations would enjoy in developing for-profit waterworks, and Act 419 of the same session extended those rights even further for water-related enterprises organized to produce hydroelectric power. These acts provide little mention of how local governments figure into the operation, maintenance, or regulation of these enterprises. This would not remain the case; in time, Alabama would come to assert more control over these private interests.6
The 1907 Code of Alabama afforded significant expansions of authority to municipalities, among them the power:
To prescribe the location and manner in which drainage from private premises may be disposed of, and to prescribe the manner in which plumbing shall be constructed, and to forbid the use of the same while out of order, or defective, and may discontinue or forbid the use of sinks, dry wells, and surface closets, and may regulate and compel the connection of private or public premises with the sewer system of the town or city […]7
Since plumbing generally begins at water mains and stops at sewer connections, this legislation effectively authorized municipalities to compel the hiring of plumbers. What constituted a plumber, aside from usually paying a licensing fee, remained undefined in statewide legislation.
This notwithstanding, lawmakers first needed to enact measures to facilitate access to safe, affordable, and adequate water supplies; only then could Alabama’s leaders turn to face corollary challenges, like inconsistent plumber qualifications. By the conclusion of the 1915 session, the legislature had empowered two key government bodies that would help shape the prevalence of plumbing in Alabama. The Alabama Public Service Commission (formerly the railroad commission of Alabama) would regulate utility operations like water, gas, and electricity. More importantly the State Board of Health would exercise more explicit authority in regulating water quality and sanitation standards.8 In 1920, the “Alabama Public Utility Act” expanded the powers and jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission, and the 1927 “Municipal Public Improvement Act” consolidated and codified the powers of municipalities regarding the construction and maintenance of public improvements and betterments.9 With these acts and oversight bodies advancing infrastructure development, Alabama soon recognized the need to better regulate the trades associated with that growth–trades like plumbing.
While some Alabama municipalities had licensed plumbers as early as the late 1800s, those varying license mandates lacked a common set of expectations. Municipal licensing fees, like their qualification criteria, were also not standardized; if a plumber wished to practice in more than one city, multiple examinations and multiple licensing fees were required. There clearly needed to be a higher oversight authority.
Alabama first attempted to solve these issues via Alabama Act 1931-628, which created the Board of Plumbers Examination and Registration of Alabama. This first board consisted of five members (two master plumbers, two journeyman plumbers, and one state health officer); the Governor chose two of these five members. This legislation charged the Board to “provide for the examination, registration and licensing of master plumbers and of journeyman plumbers engaged, engaging or desiring to engage in the business or handicraft of plumbing within such counties and to fix the fees to be assessed of applicants for examination, registration and licensing.” 10 Interestingly, the Board’s authority extended only to counties with more than 100,000 inhabitants. This restriction placed only two counties (Jefferson and Mobile) under the Board’s oversight; this may account for why Alabama Act 1935-472 was passed four years later, extending the Board’s jurisdiction to counties with populations greater than 80,000 inhabitants.11 It also boasted a larger, nine-member board (four master plumbers, four journeyman plumbers, and one state health officer), all of whom were appointed by the governor.12
The end of World War II in 1945 permitted Alabama to shift focus to the domestic front. Dusting off much of the 1935 board language, legislators enacted Alabama Act 1949-529 to create a Plumbers Examining Board with statewide jurisdiction over examining and licensing plumbers. The Board’s scope remained unchanged until Alabama Act 1987-812 additionally charged the Board to oversee licensing of gas fitters in the state. This coupling made sense owing to plumbing and gas fitting’s longstanding professional association and similar tradecraft.13 The Board—now called the “Plumbers and Gas Fitters Examining Board”—operated under these statutes in conjunction with the original provisions of Alabama Act 1949-529 until 1989 when, per Sunset Committee review, the surviving provisions of Act 1949-529 were repealed and replaced by Alabama Act 1989-406. This new act modified the appointment process for Board members and revised journeyman system terms.14
By 1996, the plumbing and gas fitting trades had witnessed increasing professional specializations. In this context, the Alabama Legislature differentiated general gas fitting from medical gas piping fitting, asserting that the latter warranted additional training and placing the associated testing and certification within the purview of the Plumbers and Gas Fitters Examining Board.15 This diversification meant increased responsibilities for the Board, but a lack of enforcement mechanisms hampered the fulfillment of those obligations. The Board’s principal enforcement mechanism was revoking individuals’ certifications when egregious violations occurred. To refine the Board’s enforcement authority, legislators passed Alabama Act 2015-496, which empowered the Board16 to issue fines of up to $2000 per violation. The authority to issue fines augmented the Board’s spectrum of sanctions, now spanning from modest fines to revocation of a licensee’s certification. 17
In addition to augmenting the disciplinary powers of the Board, Act 2015-496 also codified the roles of principal master plumber/principal master gas fitter and began the practice of entity registrations.18 These two amendments complement one another with the goal of curtailing unprincipled plumbing and/or gas fitting operations. Since such entities often dissipate naturally or in the face of disciplinary threat, so with them dissipates any collective accountability. By requiring plumbing and gas fitting business to register as a legal entity and employ a principal master plumber/principal master gas fitter, the Board could more readily identify illicit plumbing and gas fitting operations.
This same Act granted explicit freedom to the Board to “expend funds for purposes of public awareness of the board and its rules and regulations to include advertising, promotional materials, event exhibiting, and other means approved by the board.”19 It additionally allocates all money remaining at the end of each fiscal year exceeding 25 percent of the Board’s budget to be transferred to the Alabama Home Builders Foundation. While the first clause enables the Board to expend funds on recruiting individuals interested in trade careers, the second empowers the Board to assess the eligibility of plumbing and gas fitting apprenticeship programs applying for such funding.20
As it has done for over seventy years, the Alabama Plumbers and Gas Fitters Examining Board continues to provide the necessary and thorough regulation required to ensure Alabamians enjoy the comfort, sanitation, and reliability afforded by highly skilled plumbers and gas fitters.
- “About Local 52”; Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association, The, “Our Story.”
- Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association, The, “Our Story.”
- Proceedings of the Twenty-Fifth Annual Convention of the National Association of Master Plumbers of the United States of America, 26.
- These Demopolis’ plumbing and gas fitting licenses were set at twenty dollars each – a substantial sum. Alabama Act 1892-140; Alabama Act 1892-444.
- Alabama Act 1900-110; Alabama Act 1900-163; Alabama Act 1900-438.
- Alabama Act 1903-63; Alabama Act 1903-419.
- Code of Alabama 1907 § 19-3267.
- Alabama Act 1915-746; Alabama Act 1915-619.
- Alabama Act 1920-37 “The Alabama Public Utility Act”; Alabama Act 1926-639 “The Municipal Public Improvement Act.”
- Alabama Act 1931-628.
- US Census Bureau, “1930 Census,” 67–68.
- Alabama Act 1935-472.
- Per this act, gas fitting entailed, “the installation, repair or replacement of pipes, fixtures or other apparatus necessary for supplying natural gas for residential or commercial use.” Alabama Act 1987-812.
- Jones, “2015 Report on the Alabama Plumbers and Gas Fitters Examining Board.”
- Alabama Act 1996-795.
- Now styled, “The State of Alabama Plumbers and Gas Fitters Examining Board,” and abbreviated PGFB.
- Considering that the Board could now issue fines up to the bonding sum previously required of master plumbers, this same 2015 legislation also served to displace third-party bonding as the accountability mechanism for plumbers. The legislation was welcomed both by an empowered Board and by plumbers who no longer shouldered onerous bonding fees Alabama Act 2015-496, 24.
- Registration extending beyond the individual apprentices and licensees, to include registration of, “all corporations, professional corporations, limited liability companies, and all other legal entities engaging the business of plumbing and/or gas fitting within the State of Alabama.” Alabama Act 2015-496, 8, 12–13.
- Alabama Act 2015-496, 8.
- Alabama Act 2015-496, 11.