By Paul Bergeron
The work continues to flow, just like the water. Demand for plumbing services, well installations and inspections, and water chemistry balancing are important everywhere, including the unique and challenging areas of Wisconsin.
Dedication to Be a Master Plumber
Bernie Friedenfels has been a plumbing professional since 2002. If you want to be a plumber in Wisconsin, there is a defined path that must be followed, after which plumbers are rewarded with the credentials to earn a great income if they adhere to some of the most comprehensive plumbing codes in the country.
After getting hired by a plumbing shop, you must enroll in the state’s apprenticeship program, which requires five years of part-time classroom instruction at an approved technical college and 8,000 hours of documented work on various subjects in the state plumbing code book before taking the state exam.
Those who pass the exam become journeymen plumbers. An additional three years of documenting work hours and another state exam is required to become a master plumber. The entire process typically takes nine to 10 years from the first day as an apprentice to passing the master plumber’s exam.
Wells and pumps are vital elements to water service in Wisconsin. There are an estimated 800,000 wells in the state that provide drinking water to approximately 25 percent of the state’s residents. The remaining residents use municipal water.
To become a pump installer and be able to inspect and discuss or work on water wells, plumbers must pass an exam with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which regulates water wells. Friedenfels said some well construction rules and regulations differ by county.
Well inspections are another common job for Friedenfels. When real estate changes hands, most people opt for well and septic system inspections.
“When someone buys a house, a lot of times they don’t know anything about the well that is on their property, especially people who move to rural areas from a city with municipal water and municipal sewer,” he said. Only master plumbers can perform septic inspections.
“A lot of plumbers don’t enjoy doing service work because of the need to communicate well with the homeowner. I learned long ago you can’t be all things to all people, so I focus on service. I’m an investigator and a problem solver.”
“As a licensed plumber, you may find you have more work than time,” he said.
Married and with a son and daughter who are active in sports, Friedenfels could see the writing on the wall. Working for someone else restricted his ability to call his own hours to be able to attend sporting events. In 2015, he “took the plunge” and founded Bernie’s Well & Water, LLC, in Baileys Harbor, Wisconsin. After he announced the company’s launch on Facebook, the word spread, and the business grew.
“I was off and running; the phone didn’t stop ringing,” Friedenfels said. “I find that if you answer the phone, show up on time, and do good work, customers will keep calling you back when they need a plumber. Some days start at 7 a.m. answering text messages and email, and then you may find yourself doing billing after a long day of working in the field.”
He said initially his plan was to work 24/7—meaning 24 hours a week, seven months a year, Friedenfels joked. “But really, it is like working eight days a week,” he said. “As the sole proprietor of a business, you are always thinking about your company. There’s billing, scheduling, installations, phone calls, email, ordering inventory, and everything else. A workday can vary from six to 10 hours or more. It is always on my mind. But at least I can navigate my way through my schedule to get the family time that I want.”
Satisfied Customers’ Smiles a Motivating Factor
Friedenfels worked in the technology industry as a software sales representative before entering plumbing, where he learned the importance of using technology and effective communication to operate and grow a business. By specializing in plumbing service, he can utilize his communication skills with customers to ensure they are pleased with his work and use him for repeat business and referrals.
“There’s truly a need for service plumbers,” he said. “A lot of plumbers don’t enjoy doing service work because of the need to communicate well with the homeowner. I learned long ago you can’t be all things to all people, so I focus on service. I’m an investigator and a problem solver.”
Friedenfels said a plumber’s “bedside manner” with customers goes a long way. He said the most common fixes he performs are related to replacement or repair of water heaters and dealing with water that is not aesthetically pleasing, fixing leaks, and replacing fixtures.
Friedenfels recalled a time he was called to a home that wasn’t getting good water pressure. The water system was old, the shower was well elevated from the ground floor, the softener was 25 years old, and the home had long-standing galvanized pipes.
“I worked up a price for the customer, and right away she said, ‘Let’s get it done,’” Friedenfels said.
“There’s something to be said for seeing the look on a homeowner’s face who is not happy with their water supply, and once the job is done, the happy and satisfied look is so much better,” he said. “I can’t handle anything less than 100 percent satisfaction, so once I have a customer, I want to have them for life.”
The Art of Proper Water Conditioning
Water conditioning is another important aspect of healthy drinking water. “A lot of one-man shops are afraid to offer water conditioning because of the chemistry involved,” Friedenfels said. “But stop and think about this: You are already in their house providing good plumbing service. Look around and see what else needs to be addressed. It is a natural add-on line of business.”
He added, “You can do your personal observation for smell, taste, and look, but testing the water will give you your answer. When you think about all the litigation going on today, that’s important. You can send a water sample off to a testing company and promptly get a PDF that shows what is in the water so that you can make a proper product recommendation. You might think it’s iron or manganese, but it’s better to know for sure.
“If you want to make water conditioning part of your business plan, work with a high-quality supplier with good technical support,” Friedenfels said. “Those suppliers usually offer training to help you get started.”
According to Friedenfels, besides water conditioning, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection systems are becoming very common. “Once any business, especially a small business, has a number of these systems installed, the annual service required almost becomes like an annuity. As you age and may be less likely to do tough installations, the service work can be carried out for many years.”
There are areas in Wisconsin where well water contains tannins, which are from organic matter. Tannins in groundwater can stain just like iron. Special water treatment is needed to remove them.
Friedenfels said the soil composition and depth of wells vary greatly throughout the state. Some areas have fractured bedrock not too far under the surface, and there can be little topsoil, which allows rain and floodwater to make its way into the groundwater.
“You have to know your geology and what it all means,” he said. “People who live there might think, ‘This is the best-tasting water.’ But really, it could be from an old, nonconforming water well and could be contaminated with bacteria.”
A lot of condominiums have bylaws that require water heaters to be replaced once the warranty expires. “Water heaters don’t last forever,” Friedenfels explained. “As a master plumber, you can offer a complete and comprehensive service and replace well pressure tanks, water heaters, [and] old galvanized water pipes, and solve all a customer’s plumbing needs. You might as well handle their water conditioning, too.”
For new construction, typically, general contractors have an allowance for the plumber on the job to install a water softener. In a lot of cases, a new well may be producing water high in iron or even tannins, and a standard softener isn’t going to get the job done. Most likely part of the bid, the softener ends up needing to be replaced with proper water treatment within as little as six months after a homeowner moves in and problems develop.
Leading the Local Plumbing Association
In 2022, after serving on the board of directors for four years, Friedenfels was named president of the board of directors for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Wisconsin Association. The association promotes the plumbing and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning trades and offers continuing education classes needed to maintain licenses. He said the level of interest in the plumbing profession—and trades in general—fluctuates.
“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of apprentice plumbers,” Friedenfels said. “Four-year degrees are promoted in high school, but that’s not always for everyone. It’s important that we continue to drive interest in the profession because many plumbers are aging out. I see 50,000 to 100,000 nationwide leaving the industry in the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.
Someone will need to answer the call.
About the Author
Paul Bergeron is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.