‘Is this even frickin’ legal?’ The plumbing vans some drivers are mistaking for police


Auckland drivers are stunned by a plumbing company whose ‘cheeky’ design links toilets and law enforcement. Alex Casey reports.

As a mother of two, Summer was traveling alone for the first time with a toddler and a newborn in the car when her baby started crying in the back seat. “He kept spitting out his pacifier, so I would stop at every red light, turn around and try to put the pacifier back in his mouth,” she says. She caught a glimpse of what she thought was a police vehicle in the rearview mirror. “I was starting to get a little stressed, I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, but I thought it might look questionable if you couldn’t tell what I was doing.”

As the police car followed her, the fear of being stopped grew more and more uneasy. “I started boldly thinking in my head what my answer would be, ‘There’s no law, I have a newborn, I’m just trying to get the kids home and one of them screams…'” She had her speech prepared for about five minutes when the van finally pulled up next to her at the light. Her gaze matched and it became clear that the iconic yellow and blue stripes weren’t monochromatic stripes at all, but little men sitting on toilets.

“That’s when I realized I was just looking at the Polite Plumbers,” she laughs. “I was worried in vain and they just drove after me very politely.”

Police or Plumber? (Photo: Included)

With a fleet of seven vans, all decked out in the same police-inspired blue and yellow toilet theme, Auckland-based company Polite Plumbers has made a name for itself as the most powerful plumbing hoax on our streets. “Actually, I’m glad you’re doing this story because the number of times I’ve seen those damn vans and thought, ‘Is this even legal?’ is insane,” says Tina, a designer at The Spinoff who has experienced this before several encounters with Polite Plumbers.

Tina recalls seeing a Polite Plumbers van at an intersection in St. Luke, which she describes as “lively.” “You have to pick your openings very wisely, and I wanted to run — safely, of course — into the lane I needed, but then I saw this damn police car speeding down.” She refrained from changing lanes for fear she would could seem reckless. “The cop might think I’m doing an illegal maneuver when it’s perfectly legal … and then I realized it was just a friggin’ plumber.”

The polite plumbers, including Steve, second from right. (Photo: Included)

That reaction is nothing new to Steve Terblanche, owner of Polite Plumbers and thought leader behind the company’s toilet version of law enforcement design. Terblanche arrived from South Africa seven years ago and worked for various plumbing companies while waiting for his residency permit before starting his own business. “I wanted to create something spectacular, a brand that would be remembered,” he explains via Zoom. “You will forget most plumbing brands in three seconds. But we? You won’t forget us.”

He thought about the design and the company name for a few days before he came up with the idea of ​​the police/toilet motif. “I was like, ‘Wouldn’t that be great?'”

Terblanche, who has no formal design or marketing experience, quickly created a prototype on his computer of what he wanted: a “cheeky” version of a police car stripe with a character crouched on the toilet. Now the original concept design is proud of Terblanche’s favorite office mug at Polite Plumbers HQ. “That’s it,” he says, holding it up to the zoom camera. “That’s what I wanted it to look like.”

Of course, Terblanche had to do his research before decorating his vehicles to make sure he wasn’t actually arrested for posing as a police officer. “I read all four laws in their entirety just to make sure we can hit the absolute maximum without getting in trouble,” he says. “As soon as you put a siren there, you will be locked up. As soon as you put up something that looks like a blue light, you get locked up.”

The strict rules also apply to his employees – their uniforms labeled “Polite Plumbers” clearly do not look police and they are subject to strict instructions on how to behave behind the wheel. “Even if we get mad at a driver and point at them and someone takes a picture of us, you can tell that’s an attempt to stop them,” he explains. “My boys are all staying calm. You know the rules. You just have to be polite at all times because everyone is looking at you – you can’t even pick your nose.”

Still, says Terblanche, the first few trips in the van were nerve-wracking. “Even though I did my research and found that I was fine with it, at first I got scared when I saw cops,” he says. Pulling up next to a squad car for the first time, he said the confusion on officers’ faces quickly turned to joy. “As soon as they saw the little men sitting on the toilet, they were completely disarmed,” he laughed. “They could see it for what it was.” Afterwards, Terblanche says, they were stopped next to thousands of police officers and never paid attention.

New Zealand Police were contacted for comment on this story and promptly replied: “Thank you for the opportunity but we have no comment to add.”

A surprising side effect of the design, Terblanche says, is that motorists actually behave better when the Polite Plumbers are around. “We’ve heard people tell their kids in the back seat to get out and buckle their seat belts or slow down when we’re near,” he says. “It’s also a community service, you know?” Tina confirms this effect. “One was behind me and I had to dodge, so I reduced the speed all the way to 50. I could have gone to 55, but no, the polite cop’s plumbers are here.”

Even when the police eventually ask Treblanche to change his design, he has a plan. “Firstly, I’m going to fight it because it’s not just about her and there are only men in toilets. Second, I’m just going to change it to pink. I’m going to change it to beautiful bright pink and yellow.” He’s now glad his distinctive vans are catching the eye of Auckland motorists. “I believe marketing should be an emotional response. Some people laugh at us, which is an emotional reaction. Some people growl at us, which is an emotional reaction. Some are afraid of us, which is an emotional reaction.”

He also thinks long-term. “I’ve always wanted to build a brand for the future,” says Terblanche. “These kids that we’re driving past today and they’re like, ‘Oh, the men in the toilet, the poop in the toilet’ – in 20 years these kids will also have their own houses. And which plumbing company will they remember? Us.”

Tina admits that polite plumbers are unforgettable, even when they cause a stir on the streets. “It puts a smile on your face after the emotional rollercoaster and stress you’ve just been through,” she says.

“I just find it very ironic that someone who works with shit makes you send yourself into shit.”