The way I work: Chris Bennett

The plumber reveals how customers are so desperate for him to fix their loo or boiler during the festive season that he almost expects to sit down to Christmas dinner with them

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It’s about 15 years since I finished my initial training. That involved three years at college and time learning on the job, which I served with a plumber who was constantly shooting off all over the place to do other things. But plumbing is definitely one of those jobs where working at the coalface, as it were, is much more useful than spending days on end listening to theory in a classroom. Of course you need some of that basic grounding and I did come away with a recognised qualification – in my case a City and Guilds Level One and Two NVQ – but you need to be getting stuck in really.

About once a year you’ll get showered in what I’ll tactfully call “waste” from a malfunctioning Saniflo toilet

Formal training wise, the only thing I’ve done since is getting my Gas Safe certification. I did that around seven years ago because I wanted to get out of only doing bathrooms as they are big, long jobs and boilers are where the money is really. Plus working with gas is more involved, more technical and a bit more rewarding. And it’s certainly more rewarding than crawling around a bathroom grouting for days on end, which is never much fun.

Initially your Gas Safe course is about £1,400 and a lot of work, pretty intense. Then once you’ve got that accreditation every five years you need to go sit in a classroom, pay your £450 or whatever it is at the minute, learn about any updates to the regulations and take an exam. You actually need to get 100 per cent to pass but you get three attempts at the paper so it’s not as hardcore as it sounds. On top of that your annual Gas Safe registration fee is getting on for £300 so it’s a bit of a drain but with the extra work you get that’s soon paid off.

Equipment wise, things are pretty straightforward for a plumber. Obviously you need a reliable van, preferably with a pipe rack on the roof. Then it’s just things like power tools – cordless screwdriver, drill, circular saw – and spanners, pipe benders and cutters, a blowlamp for soldering, all fairly basic stuff. And a few buckets. Then your consumables are copper or plastic pipes, solder, grout, clips, fittings and valves. Probably the most hi-tech things I use are flow meters for signing-off gas boilers after installation or a service.

The sense of freedom you get working for yourself is the best thing, and not having a boss breathing down your neck. You get back what you put in really, and it’s you that profits from your hard work rather than someone else who’s sat in an office all day shuffling figures. The obvious problem is you don’t get paid if you’re not grafting and there are a lot of customers who expect you to be waiting behind your front door with your toolbox, ready to run to them as soon as they call. Things always seem to get stressful in the run-up to Christmas too, everyone wanting last minute jobs finishing. There’s been many a time when I’ve thought I’d end up sitting down eating Christmas dinner with a customer! And you can pretty much guarantee that about once a year you’ll get showered in what I’ll tactfully call “waste” from a malfunctioning saniflo toilet, which is about as pleasant as you’d imagine.

I’ve pretty much always worked alone but there have been times, on and off, when I’ve had a plumber’s mate, but they never seem to work out. Get some people to drop an old fashioned lath and plaster ceiling on a hot summer’s day – which is a filthy, horrible job – when you’re doing a bathroom and that’s the last you see of them. For a while now I’ve had an old friend of mine – Kevin, who’s officially retired – help here and there if I’m at a job that needs two people. He helps me with things like feeding pipes through walls and floors, ladder work, jobs where I’m up on a roof, running to the plumber’s merchants for bits and pieces, being the brunt of my jokes. But it is sometimes great to have him there as a sounding board to help when you encounter a problem. Two heads are better than one and all that.

There are two routes to take when someone wants a complete bathroom. The customer can either discuss things with me and I can advise, help them choose units, colours and tiles and we can get our heads together that way and plan things out. The other option is for them to use a professional planning service that some of the bigger bathroom companies offer. I’m happy either way and, luckily, it’s not often you get customers expecting the impossible. Most people are realistic and don’t expect you to fit a gold-plated jacuzzi into a bathroom where there’s not room to swing a cat.

The strangest job I’ve done is plumbing a cat litter tray in. Yes, a cat litter tray. This was a state-of-the-art thing that needed connecting into the waste pipe, all singing and dancing with electrical systems that pumped all the dirty kitty litter around. A bit unnecessary if you ask me. You do encounter a few peculiar things in this game. Once I was half way through doing a bathroom and left the new toilet sitting on the landing while I nipped out for a sandwich. When I got back a three-year-old kid had left me a little present in there. You do occasionally catch people, just men so far, peeing in their kitchen sinks while having a bathroom fitted but I suppose that’s understandable. One man I saw just turned to me and explained it was “just like when you go camping”, which did strike me as a bit odd. And years ago my friend left me a phone message, putting on a voice, saying he wanted an old-fashioned tin bath plumbing in in his back garden because he loved the outdoors. I actually fell for it and rang back to discuss things further but he couldn’t keep his ridiculous accent up for laughing.

There is a trust thing that goes both ways between me and a customer. They trust me to turn up on time and do the job they want and I trust them to pay me. There’s really only been one significant non-payer in the last 15 years and I probably ended up about a £1,000 down. She was just the most awkward customer ever, picking ridiculous faults with everything, pretty much a professional complainer. There are petty means of revenge that you can take with people like that but it still doesn’t get you your money so I’ve never resorted to them. And there are companies out there that help you recover debt and ones that sell you insurance to cover non-payers but I’m not interested in going there. Bad payers are usually the electric gates and ride-on lawnmower brigade.

I do hear a lot of complaints about tradesmen in general being unreliable, just not turning up or giving quotes then vanishing, and I think that’s partly down to there being so much work around that you really can just pick and choose jobs. Personally I pride myself on at least ringing back when I’m busy and telling them just that, turning up when I say I’m going to, doing jobs as well as I can – just things I regard as common courtesy.

Photo: Rebecca Lupton

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