13 Investigates checks on unlicensed plumbers

13 Investigates called several plumbers to check out a water heater.

13 Investigates went undercover to catch unlicensed plumbers who are breaking state law. We reveal how you could be putting your family at risk if you make the wrong call.

"Channel 13 News asked me for my license number," says Mike Poteet of ACM Electric Plumbing & Heating.

The state is asking for that number, too, because if you work as a plumber, you must pass a test to get a state license - it's the law.

The Indiana Association of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors says using unlicensed and improperly trained people can be dangerous and expensive. So the PHCC asked Channel 13 to help them catch an unlicensed plumber.

We placed two hidden cameras near the hot water heater in the garage and one facing the water heater. PHCC provided Dave Nance, a licensed, bonded and insured plumber for 17 years, to create the problem scenario on a water heater that was working perfectly.

"I've just taken the hose off and let this (water) drip on the floor," Nance said.

The repair, he says, is about $200, including labor, to replace the valve.

But what will our plumbers do?

Our homeowner called random plumbers from the phonebook, Google and some who advertise on Craigslist about a leaking water heater. Five of them answered our calls, including Bob Goodbar.

"You said you needed a price on a new water heater then?" he asks our consumer.

"No," the homeowner replies. "I need to know what the problem is. I don't know if I need a new one or not."

Goodbar's website says he's a licensed and bonded plumber.

"So it's leaking?" he asks.

"Yes," the consumer replies.

"Okay, well the liner of the water heater is leaking," Goodbar says.

He diagnosed the problem without even coming to the home.

"I can just give you an estimate right over the phone," he says.

A check of the state licensing website shows he's working without the proper credentials.

"I mean, there's no repairs you can do to that," he tells the homeowner.

In fact, we just caught him during the city's unlicensed contractor's sting two months ago. He's still coming to people's homes and businesses illegally.

"Okay, you're getting a lot of estimates, right?" Goodbar asks.

"Yeah," says the homeowner.

"Alright," Goodbar says, hanging up the phone on the woman.

Goodbar never showed up, but others did, including John Derring of J & R Heating and Cooling.

"I think you've been blessed," Derring says.

"Is that right?" asks the homeowner.

"Doesn't look like it's busted. I think the water is coming from here," Derring says.

"I'm gonna go get my husband and let you explain it to him, okay?" says the woman.

Instead, Channel 13's cameras go in to hear his explanation.

"Hi. How are you?" says Eyewitness News Anchor Andrea Morehead.

"You're the news lady?" asks Derring.

"I am the news lady. We're working with the state to make sure that people, plumbers, have their proper licenses. Do you have your proper license?" Morehead asks.

"Yeah," Derring says.

"You do? Do you mind showing it to us? And if you do, that's great news," says Morehead.

He does have a license.

"My license number is 582," Derring says.

"For HVAC, right. But not for plumbing," says Morehead.

"I'm not a plumber," Derring replies.

He says repairing a water heater falls under his heating, ventilation and air conditioning skills.

"Let me explain this," Derring says. "This is a hot water heater. You heat water. It's a furnace. This is a furnace that heats air, that heats air. These are the same thing."

"Do you want to take the plumbing test, you think?" asks Morehead.

"I don't do plumbing. But I'm qualified to do it," Derring says. "I troubleshoot hot water heaters."

The troubleshooter's logic defies the law.

"I'm just glad I'm legit. I'm legit," he says, walking away.

But he's not a legitimate, state-licensed plumber.

A second plumber shows up and so do Channel 13 cameras.

"Just checking to make sure that everybody is doing the right thing and you passed the test!" Morehead says.

Like Derring, Dave Andrews was honest about the repair.

"Now, you're a licensed plumber here in the state?" Morehead asks.

"I'm not," he replies.

"Oh, you're not?" Morehead asks. "HVAC licensed?"

"I'm afraid not," answers Andrews.

Andrews, a Craigslist advertiser, calls himself a word-of-mouth handyman who knows his limits.

"If I'm doing something that I feel needs to be (repaired by a) licensed individual, I'm clearly quick and clear to say," says Andrews.

We can't verify that with any of his customers, but as Andrews walks back to his vehicle, which doesn't display the state plumber's license as state law requires, we ask Andrews if he will take the test to become legitimate.

"I did look into it a couple years back and I may," he says.

A third plumber, Mike Poteet, also stopped by during the investigation to check out the water heater.

"Are you a licensed plumber?" Morehead asks.

"Hmm hmm," he affirms.

"Okay, could you show us your license?" asks Morehead.

"I don't carry a license," Poteet says.

But he should have his license available if a customer asks. It's the law.

"So I came all the way out here to check a pop-off value and get a camera shoved in my face?" Poteet asks.

"I don't think we shoved it. We didn't shove it," says Morehead. She asks Poteet, "How long have you been a plumber?"

"Licensed or unlicensed?" he says.

"Well, let's do both," says Morehead.

"I started plumbing when I was six."

"Six years old? Oh, okay. So how old does that make you now?" Morehead asks.

"31 or 32," he says.

Poteet is another Craigslist advertiser who says he has HVAC and electrical licenses. But we checked and he doesn't. According to state records, he doesn't have a plumber's license, either.

The fourth plumber, Ricky Pipkin, understands the rules of the trade.

"Yep, there it is. Congratulations," Morehead says.

"Are you guys checking on people with licenses?" Pipkin asks.

"We are," Morehead replies.

"We are legal," says Pipkin.

He has been a legally licensed plumber for four years.

"I went to plumbing school and I took the test. It took me several times to get it, but I got it," Pipkin says.

"You got the logo, you got the license number, that way if people ever have any questions or problems they know when you drive up in their driveway that they're legitimate," Morehead says.

"When you're 100 percent by the book you have nothing to worry about," says Pipkin.

His parting words for unlicensed plumbers?

"Stop giving the customer an inferior craft. Stop doing inferior work and making us look bad," Pipkin said.

We checked with Goodbar, who admits he is not a licensed plumber and says he sub-contracts with plumbers who are state licensed, but he does plan to look into taking the required state plumbing text next year.

The Indiana Professional Licensing Agency reports there are 3,460 active plumbing contractors and 4,939 licensed active journeymen.

The plumbing category on Angie's List is typically one of the most requested categories year round, nationwide. When a homeowner needs a plumber, it is often in an emergency situation, which can lead to disaster if the homeowner hasn't checked the plumber out before hiring. Choosing the right professional for the job can be the difference between quality work and flushing your money down the toilet.

Angie's List tips for hiring a plumber

Word of mouth - You want to choose a plumber who's reliable and has a great reputation - and there's nobody better to give you a recommendation than a friend or family member. If none of your friends or family knows anyone you can use, do a little research online. Angie's List offers the best of both.

Experience - Choosing a less experienced plumber can result in a lower cost, but saving money doesn't always mean saving money. If the job isn't done properly the first time, you could end up paying someone to come back and fix the problem again later and have an even bigger mess on your hands. Choose a plumber that's been in business at least 5-10 years.

Ask about rates - Plumbers will either charge by the hour or job. Plumbers tell Angie's List that the average hourly service charge ranges from $70-160. For weekend or after hours calls, expect to pay time and a half. Obtain two to three estimates before hiring.

Licensed and Insured? - Plumbers are required to be licensed in the state of Indiana. Check that the license is current and look to see if there are any complaints against the license. Any plumber you hire should have a minimum of $500,000 liability insurance and a current workers' compensation policy.

Once you find a good plumber, keep him/her - In an emergency, it's better to call someone who already knows you. Once you find a plumber you are satisfied with, keep his/her number handy in your cell phone.

While plumbers can be very expensive, Angie's List says there are ways to get the most value for your money:

  • If you discover a leak, it's best to shut the water off while waiting for a plumber to arrive to prevent further damage. Locate your shut-off valve before there is a problem.
  • Make a list of plumbing problems and group plumbing problems together and make one call.
  • Reduce the need to call a plumber by maintaining drains properly.
  • Buy your own plumbing fixtures and have the plumber install them.

Contact information

Indiana Association Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors (317) 575-9292 http://www.iaphcc.com

To find out if a plumber is licensed in Indiana, call (317) 232-5956.

Indiana Professional Licensing Agency
302 West Washington Street, Room E034
Indianapolis, IN 46204-2700
(317) 232-2980
Fax: (317) 233-5559

You can join the conversation on WTHR's Facebook page or Andrea Morehead's fan page on Facebook. You can also contact her at amorehead@wthr.com.