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Uproar over update of plumbing, mechanical codes

Thursday, March 25, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Every four years, the city’s Development Services and Austin Code departments go through a process of updating their technical codes related to plumbing, heating and air-conditioning design, installation and inspection. And with those updates comes a renewal of the battle between proponents of two different codes in each area – the International Plumbing Code vs. the Uniform Plumbing Code, and the International Mechanical Code vs. the Uniform Mechanical Code.

The city’s Mechanical and Plumbing Board will hold a hearing at 9 a.m. Friday to consider comments on adoption of changes proposed by city staffers to the current regulations. Sometime after that, City Council will hold a hearing and make a decision on any changes.

According to plumber Robert “Chap” Thornton, business manager for Local 286 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, the city adopted the Uniform Plumbing Code as early as the mid-1970s. Thornton, who serves as vice chair of the Mechanical and Plumbing Board, told the Austin Monitor that local plumbers prefer the uniform code. He described it as “more prescriptive” and therefore easier to use than the international code. “I can size a proper system all out of that one book,” he said.

When DSD reached out for input on proposed changes to the two codes, many of the responses involved rejection of the Uniform Plumbing Code and adoption of the International Code. Andrew Boyer, spokesperson for the International Code Council, told the Monitor via email, “While it has been recommended by multiple industry stakeholders, including staff from the city of Austin’s Development Department and third-party consultants, for the City Council to approve the adoption of the International Code Council’s International Plumbing Code, Austin has adhered to the Uniform Plumbing Code, which is developed by the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials.”

Austin and Houston still adhere to the uniform code, but the majority of Texas cities have adopted the international code. Boyer argues that adopting the international code will positively impact the affordability of housing in Austin. The Real Estate Council of Austin and the Austin chapter of the Associated General Contractors told DSD in written comments that they supported adopting the international codes and opposed continued use of the uniform codes.

RECA pointed out that Austin uses the International Code Council’s other codes. “The Uniform Plumbing Code and the Uniform Mechanical Code are inefficient and incompatible with other International Codes used by the city of Austin,” the group argued. In addition, “The use of the UPC will unnecessarily increase the costs” of repairs Austinites are having to do as a result of Winter Storm Uri.

Roland Arrisola, president emeritus of the Texas Air Conditioning Contractors Association, disagreed. He wrote to Council to urge the city “to leave the Uniform Mechanical Code in place.” He argued that new construction in Austin already conforms to the International Construction Code. But he said retrofitting existing equipment in an older home is governed by the Uniform Mechanical Code, which is less expensive, and that the cost of conforming to the international code would outweigh the benefit.

“With the consumer’s cost-benefit ratio in mind, TACCA Greater Austin strongly request the City Council to leave in place” the current code. “TACCA Greater Austin says, ‘It ain’t broke.'”

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