Storm recovery hampered by a shortage of plumbers and supply chain issues

Many Texans want to hire plumbers after the crippling winter storm in February. Part of the problem, however, is that too few Texans want to be plumbers.

Over the past decade, the shortage of skilled workers – plumbers, electricians, and the like – has increased in the state, exacerbating the problems for those seeking help with burst pipes and damaged water heaters.

The long-term shortage stems from the expectation that young people will go to college and a culture of disrespect for the labor industry, said Brad Casebier, owner of Radiant Plumbing in Austin. Chap Thornton, the executive director of UA Plumbers and Pipefitters Local Union 286 in Austin, added that the state’s low minimum wage is keeping plumbers from moving to Texas and preventing young people from getting into the industry.

“Young people are told to go to college and do plumbing, and the jobs are like a fallback career,” said Casebier. “And that’s not okay, and that’s why I think it’s a social problem that we have, a cultural problem.”

As Texans began the long road to recovery from the storm and power outage crisis that caused potentially the greatest damage of a disaster in the state’s history, millions assessed their damaged pipes and called plumbers or went to their local hardware store for plumbing supplies .

Chris Taylor, a field manager for Radiant Plumbing in Austin, said the demand for plumbers far exceeded the number of technicians available. Radiant currently receives three times its normal number of calls per day, and the company has over 2,500 customers waiting for service.

Zachary Shockency searches a house in Austin for a burst pipe that caused flooding during last week’s winter storm.


Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

“It’s really heartbreaking. You have a lot of people, thousands of people who need help, who are desperate, ”said Taylor. “And for a lot of them, you can’t do anything because in reality there aren’t enough people to do the job.”

But even if they can find professionals to hire, parts are in short supply. Many of the companies that make parts, pipes and tools had already stopped production due to the pandemic and were already straining the supply chain before the crisis in Texas.

It could be months before a replacement water heater is available, and residents have reported empty supply shelves in the aisles of Lowe’s and Home Depot. Even people who want to repair their pipes themselves cannot find the right materials. And to make matters worse, consumers need to worry about the types of fraud and price drops that typically occur after a disaster.

During the 2019 legislature, a Sunset Advisory Commission report on the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners identified undue barriers to entry into the plumbing industry, including overregulation and complex approval requirements.

Legislators then decided to abolish the Board of Plumbing Examiner, but Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order that kept the board alive at least until further discussion could take place during the 2021 session. During last week’s storm, Abbott also signed contracts allowing plumbers out of state to obtain temporary licenses to work in Texas and plumbers without current licenses to get back to work immediately.

Licensed plumbers and other experts supported Abbott’s decision, but pointed to increasing disruptions in the supply of plumbing supplies that will cause headaches in the coming weeks.

“I really feel like it could become a real problem for some people if they potentially wait many weeks for the nation’s supplies to be absorbed,” Casebier said. “I am very concerned about the water heater parts and the heaters themselves that there may not be enough.”

Most of the distributors that Casebier uses to source parts and materials also experience delays in delivery and massive demand for products. On Wednesday morning when he was on the phone with a supplier company, Casebier only had 10 minutes to buy 100 water heaters before the dealer moved on to the next customer.

First, Zachary Shockency uses his phone to record a video of a leaking pipe that caused flooding during last week’s winter storm. Finally, Shockency searches the back of his truck for the right tools to fix a burst pipe.


Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

Consumers also need to be on the lookout for possible scams or price cuts by plumbers of bad actors. During a crisis, unlicensed plumbers or casual workers often try to exploit residents for their own financial gain, according to disaster relief expert Sean Scott.

However, people in dire need of running or hot water often don’t have the time to review a plumber’s credentials or prices.

“Everyone was looking for the same thing. We live in a small town and people worked together to provide supplies and help, ”said Christina Guzman, a resident of Odem. “There were a few people who drove down into the valley and stocked up on supplies. They probably overwhelmed people, but we were so desperate we bought them. “

Thornton, Haverlah, and Scott all mentioned that a plumber or electrician who asks for cash or money in advance is a tell-tale sign of wrongdoing. Consumers can also review an individual’s license and credentials on the Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners website. Thornton said licensed plumbers will likely spend the next few years fixing the makeshift repairs amateur plumbers did this week.

“People don’t know how quickly things can go bad without good plumbers,” Thornton said. “This is your drinking water, this is your sanitary disposal of your liquids, it is your natural gas systems, it is your medical gas systems in your hospitals. Regulation of plumbing is critical to protecting the health and safety of state citizens and businesses. “

Zachary Shockency, a technician at Radiant Plumbing, turns on a city Austin water valve in a West Austin home on Fe ...

Zachary Shockency turns off an Austin City water valve in a West Austin home.


Jordan Vonderhaar for the Texas Tribune

Others also pointed out that this particular disaster occurred at the worst possible time imaginable: during a pandemic and a decade of shortages in the plumbing and other trades.

“All businesses in Texas have been under pressure across the board for the past decade, at least in this state,” Haverlah said. “So the recovery will likely take much longer than it did years ago if it had happened in a different period. And I’m not sure how consumers can find relief in the short term. I don’t think there is any short-term means for this. “

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