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Clark County commission debating value of water heater permits

Didn't get a permit when you replaced your water heater?

You're not alone. Clark County officials estimate thousands of people don't pay the $54 fee to have a county building inspector come to their home and ensure that the water heater is properly installed.

During the past five years the county has issued 9,000 such permits for replacement heaters, fewer than half of all the replacement water heaters sold locally, officials estimate.

But commissioners last week questioned whether the permits were even needed and are now re-evaluating such "owner builder" permits, which are required for installing water softeners, patio covers and converting garages into living spaces, among other things.

"That's too much government for me," Commissioner Susan Brager said of the water heater permit last week.

She also said the price added a burden for people who already paid hundreds of dollars for a water heater.

"It just really bothers me," Brager said.

Many people don't know that such permits are required. If you go through a plumber or other licensed contractor, chances are they told you of the permit and you passed inspection.

But for those who hire a handyman or choose to install a water heater on their own, they often don't get a permit, county building Director Ron Lynn said.

The reasons vary, he suspects. Many don't know it's required. But for others in this tough economy, $54 is an expense to be avoided.

"I suspect that that is the motivating factor for not spending the extra few bucks for a permit," Lynn said of the price.

The county's building department is self-sufficient, but the department loses money on every home water heater inspection, Lynn said. The cost doesn't cover an inspector going to a home, checking whether the heater is hooked up properly and has the necessary earthquake straps.

If the homeowner doesn't pass inspection, a second visit doesn't cost the person extra.

Commissioners questioned whether the permit, which has been around as long as Lynn can remember, is needed.

Water heaters do pose a fire hazard, but not necessarily because of bad installations, Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski said.

Residents often stack items close to the heater, and those items will catch fire and destroy a garage or home about once a month here, he said.

Firefighters recommend that nothing should be left within 3 feet of a water heater. Lynn said in 1985, a water heater exploded and killed a person here.

For plumbers, the price of an inspection is negligible to customers when a water heater and installation often runs more than $800. Silver Fox Plumbing's John McAnally said the company considered getting out of the water heater business because unlicensed handymen, who aren't insured, can undercut them by hundreds of dollars. And he suspects many of them don't tell homeowners about permits.

"We get a lot of calls and a lot of people choose the handyman route," he said. "Especially with the economy right now, that's the way they're going."

Commissioners could publicly bring up the permit issue as soon as their next meeting, on Sept. 18.

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com.

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