Qualified plumbers are navigating a rapidly changing industry that is also fraught with many challenges that, in some instances, are being turned into opportunity, says the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA).
- Material shortages and supply chain disruption
One of the biggest challenges the plumbing industry continues to face is the shortage of plumbing materials due to the disruption of supply chains. Bear in mind that most plumbing materials are imported from other countries with only a small portion of products manufactured locally.
However, in 2022, the operations of South African manufacturers were severely disrupted by industrial action, civil unrest, loadshedding and rapidly declining service infrastructure. This trend is expected to continue this year further disrupting already-volatile supply chains. IOPSA has, therefore, advised its membership to plan very carefully to avoid shortages of materials.
- Declining quality of materials
Sello Mokawane, Vice-President of IOPSA, says that with the increase in imports and lack of control at the ports of entry and by municipalities, there has also been a notable decline in the quality of plumbing materials in the country.
“We are seeing an increase in premature failure of plumbing installations due to substandard materials that do not comply with South African standards. This can result in damage to property and even injury. Therefore, one of IOPSA’s focus areas is to ensure that our members are equipped with the knowledge that they need to make informed purchasing decisions that will enable them to continue delivering excellent workmanship at a fair price.”
- A skills shortage
Another challenge with which the industry continues to grapple is the dire shortage of qualified plumbers who have the skills that are needed to correctly install, maintain and repair modern plumbing systems.
This is not to mention the advanced proficiencies that companies need to service the growing demand for “smart” and “green” plumbing systems. Generally, training institutions have failed to keep pace with the ever-changing skills needs of modern plumbing businesses. This will continue to stifle companies’ ability to respond quickly and efficiently to new opportunities for growth and diversification. IOPSA is, therefore, preparing to take a more central role in training moving forward.
- A growing DIY market
It is important that plumbing companies diversify and find new growth markets. This is considering that the traditional basic domestic maintenance market has been shrinking for many years and, therefore, cannot possibly sustain all of the plumbers operating in the country. As plumbing products become easier to install, consumers have been able to increasingly bypass the services of professional plumbers.
Large retailers are also pushing this agenda and even offer advice and guidance to consumers on how to do it yourself. Considering the financial pressure most South African households are facing, he believes that the DIY plumbing market will continue to grow at the expense of the plumbing profession.
- Sustainable solutions
The specialised eco-friendly and off-grid plumbing solutions market is one area that provides immense growth opportunity for plumbers moving forward. This trend is being driven by severe energy and water-supply interruptions in the country. Technologies in high demand include tankless/instant water heaters, as well as solar water heaters and heat pumps.
This is in addition to water-efficient technologies, counting greywater and rainwater harvesting systems amongst others.
- Back up water solutions
More traditional backup water systems are also increasingly being requested by property owners. These include storage tanks that are connected to the main water supply line and fill automatically when municipal supplies are available. Plumbers will also need to become skilled in providing borehole water supplies to properties.
Supplementing, augmenting and even replacing water supplies in this manner is also a viable source of business for qualified plumbers. In areas where there are protracted water interruptions, IOPSA members are even becoming involved in bulk water deliveries to residences and businesses. It is a profitable field that provides tremendous growth prospects for plumbers.
- Water treatment and filtration
There is also a necessity for plumbers who are skilled in the installation, maintenance and repair of filtration and treatment technologies. This is amid growing concerns around the quality of drinking water in some areas of the country.
Certainly, the global move towards tap water from bottled water for environmental reasons is also a major driver of this trend. The fact that South Africans are becoming increasingly environmentally conscious bodes well for plumbers who have the skills and expertise to cater to this need.
- Smart plumbing technologies
The Internet of Things continues to disrupt the plumbing industry as it is doing to most other sectors throughout the world. Forward-thinking plumbers have already equipped themselves with the skills and knowledge that they need to correctly install sophisticated plumbing technologies, such as touchless toilets, taps and mixers.
These “smart plumbing” technologies cater to the growing demand for convenience, as well as healthy and hygienic living and workspaces. They also help property owners to better manage their water demands; lower the total operating costs of their plumbing installations; and reduce their water footprint.
A case in point is the absolute control over water consumption that smart water meters provide property owners. These systems use wireless technology to enable remote monitoring of water use, providing accurate data around the clock. Meanwhile, “smart” water-management systems facilitate early leak detection and water outages, in addition to their ability to report faults automatically.
Mokawane says that the growth in demand for “smart plumbing” systems, such as touchless technology, is also being driven by a growing elderly population. More people are living longer than ever before. In their senior years, people require plumbing solutions that offer convenience, comfort and safety.
This is over-and-above other plumbing technologies that are also appropriate for frail people, such as thermostatic mixing valves that protect against scalding and simple to use single-lever taps and mixers.
- Specialised plumbing equipment
Meanwhile, plumbing equipment is also becoming more specialised requiring advanced skills and experience to operate. The modern plumber is now expected to know how to work with pipe inspection cameras, in addition to specialised drain cleaning and leak detection equipment.
This is over-and-above various types of pipe location technologies, including infrared, thermal and sonar. Pipe freezing machines, as well as various “no-dig” or “trenchless” solutions are also fast becoming a staple of the plumbing profession. This is considering that they provide a faster; more cost-effective; and less intrusive means of installing, repairing and maintaining plumbing systems.
- New disruptive technologies
“New ‘disruptive’ technologies are being introduced to the global plumbing industry at an unrelenting pace – so much so that laws, regulations, standards, as well as education and training are struggling to keep pace.
Thus, another major focus for IOPSA is to ensure that our members are always at the cutting-edge of industry practice and, therefore, not at risk of being left behind,” Mokawane says.
He explains that among the major driving forces behind the widespread uptake of sophisticated technology in the plumbing industry is the growing demand for professionalism.
Large corporations are increasingly expecting nothing less than excellence from their supply chain partners to mitigate their liability. Similarly, the government is embarking on a drive to significantly raise the quality of services delivered to citizens and other state departments.
A case in point is the push by the Department of Public Works to professionalise contractors in its employ. IOPSA is currently training many plumbers on behalf of this department. This is in addition to the plumbing training that the association is providing to municipal workers as part of the government’s drive to raise the skills of civil servants.
- Millennials demand convenience
Certainly, these technologies are also enabling plumbers to respond to the demand for convenience and service. These are slowly replacing price and quality as the main criteria for buying products or services. This trend is expected to continue indefinitely as more millennials become consumers of plumbing services. Convenience and service are on top of mind for these South Africans aged between 23 and 38 when they buy products and services.
This client-base is also a digitally connected generation that prefers to communicate via apps and social media as opposed to other more traditional methods, such as email and telephone calls. Is the plumbing service provider set up to operate in all the modes of communication?
- A digital presence is essential
Thus, plumbers will also have to ensure that their businesses are able to respond appropriately to these consumers if they intend servicing this growing market. Among others, this includes having a strong digital presence, as well as providing easy and efficient digital payment methods.
- More educated consumers
Considering the wealth of information that is available via the internet, generally most consumers are also more educated than ever before. They are, therefore, not baffled that easily by technical jargon and know exactly what the best solutions are for their needs.
- Standing out from the crowd
In the increasingly cluttered landscape, it is becoming very difficult for plumbers to differentiate themselves from everyone else. It has, therefore, become even more important than ever for reputable plumbing businesses to be part of recognised industry bodies such as IOPSA. This helps plumbers to stand out from the crowd and gives consumers a sense of security in dealing with a legitimate organisation.
“It is vitally important that plumbers adapt and respond quickly to these new opportunities for growth which can be described as a silver lining to an otherwise very challenging time for most businesses. We look forward to continuing to assist existing and new IOPSA members navigate change and the many obstacles that lie ahead of their business journey,” Mokawane concludes.