Codes and Laws – What’s the Difference?

In the plumbing industry there is a dizzying amount of information to be considered when selecting and installing plumbing fixtures. For the showroom this means that our sales staff must know about issues of quality and style but also must be familiar with codes, laws and regulations (national and local) as well as the fundamentals of installation.

 Something that is consistently confusing to both our staff and customers is the difference between a law and a code. When referring to codes we are typically speaking of requirements outlined in the “Uniform Plumbing Code” (UPC), developed by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO). IAPMO is a member based organization that is focused on increasing public health and safety through developing comprehensive plumbing and mechanical systems throughout the world.

The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation

The UPC is written for international use but no one is obliged to follow it unless it has been adopted by the local government. Typically a state will adopt the UPC (or one or two others) and local governments (especially large cities) may then amend the adopted code to meet local requirements. For example San Francisco and Los Angeles code requires certain things based on earthquake safety.

It would be too complicated for me to outline which code is applicable in which area and that isn’t really the purpose of this post. The point is that plumbing codes exist to promote public safety and are not legally binding in the sense that you probably aren’t going to get arrested if you install something that is not “code approved”. This is not to say that codes can be ignored. Building owners who have non-compliant work done on their building may be subject to fines or something more serious if some injury were caused. Code enforcement is generally accomplished through the permit process during which building inspectors will review work and judge that it meets the requirements of the prevailing code.

Something that many homeowners do not understand is that the code is open to a certain amount of interpretation; it is up to the inspector to determine if the requirements of the code are being met and this is not always clear. An example from many years ago happened in San Francisco, where it was required that there be a vacuum breaker used if a hand shower was to be placed on a tub deck (to prevent dirty water being sucked up into the clean water supply). This usually meant a separate vacuum breaker installed on the wall but one plumber we worked with realized that a lift diverter integrated into a tub spout would accomplish the same thing. The inspector did not initially agree but after long explanation and demonstration finally realized the plumber was correct and “passed” the installation (this is one of many reasons why working with experienced building professionals is so important).

California Green Building Standards

2011 has brought us the implementation of “CalGreen” the biggest change to the California code in years. CalGreen involves many different areas of building and is aimed at reducing waste of energy and water. This will affect the plumbing industry by increasing conservation requirements for water, specifically by requiring reduced flow rates in faucets and limiting water output in showers. This will mean no more multi-outlet (carwash) showers in homes affected by CalGreen codes.

The challenge we are facing is that it is not 100% clear yet where (and how) CalGreen will be enforced. We know that it will apply to commercial building and new construction but are not clear how remodeling projects will be affected. Different municipalities and inspectors may interpret CalGreen in various ways and these interpretations may change over time.

Another and lesser known function of IAMPO is product certification. An inspector may require a contractor to provide the “IAMPO listing” for products installed on a job. In order to receive IAPMO approval a product must go through a rigorous process of testing for compliance with IAMPO standards and codes. Having a product that

IAMPO R&T logo

 is “IAMPO Listed” or “UPC Approved” is an indication that it is fit to do the job it is intended for. In this age of Internet sales and importation, IAMPO approval offers consumers one good way to judge product suitability.

Plumbing codes are designed to protect the health and safety of the public by developing comprehensive plumbing systems throughout the world. Codes are important but are not the only regulations that affect the plumbing industry. In my next post I will discuss some local and national laws that influence our industry.

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