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By Amy Mullen, Realtor CPA | Agent in Marlborough, MA

10 Things Plumbers Won’t Tell You

1. “There’s an old plumber’s adage: ‘An ounce of prevention could cost me thousands.’”

Water is the single most common cause of household damage, according to Jim Swegle, Vice President Safeco Personal Insurance, a Seattle-based homeowner’s insurance company. Roughly 30% of home water-damage claims results from appliance failure and another 62% from faulty plumbing systems, according to Safeco. The biggest culprits: water heaters and washing machines. And repairs are costly. Swegel says that American households with water damage spend as much as of $5,000 for each episode.

Some easy cautionary measures can lower the risk of water damage and dramatically reduce your reliance on plumbers. First, take stock. Make a checklist of your home’s water-based appliances and equipment — water heaters, washing machines, sump pumps — and note any wear and tear, especially on appliance parts (washing machine hoses, for example). Water heaters have a life expectancy that is hard to predict, so check yours monthly for puddling and follow all maintenance guidelines precisely. There might not be an immediately visible problem, but tanks can rust on the inside, leading to a rupture.

Hot water tanks should be replaced every ten to twelve years, says Swegel. Energy efficiency has come a long way – replacing your tank with a more modern one will result in energy savings, he says.

2. “I’m not really a plumber.”

A big chunk of the plumbing industry is made up of handymen, guys with tools and a little plumbing know-how. Although some of these Mr. Fix-Its are competent, many are not. The best way to minimize your risk is to hire a licensed plumber or at least one with a lot of experience. Licensed plumbers are required to abide by state regulations governing how the work is done and to follow local safety and building codes; they’re also more likely to carry liability and worker’s comp insurance. In states without licensed plumbers, your next-best bet is a licensed plumbing contractor, or at least someone who belongs to a plumbing trade organization.

“I can’t just go out and say I’m a plumber — just like I can’t click my heels and say I can put in irrigation” says plumber Roy Dillard, who works with certifications at the American Backflow Prevention Association. It’s important to leave the plumbing to plumbers, because they are technically protecting the public. “You don’t want just anybody plugging into the water supply,” he says.

Operating without a license or permit carries a lot of liability, but it happens. For instance, Dillard’s neighbor recently had her water heater go out, and was charged more than $1000 for a $200 hot water heater. She filed a complaint. “Come to find out he’d had his license suspended before for price gouging,” he says.

3. “My less-experienced underling will be over in a minute.”

Risa Hoag, a public relations firm owner, was surprised when much of the work in a new upstairs bathroom in her Nanuet, N.Y., home was done by people other than the plumber who gave her the initial estimate. That plumber, who was hired by Hoag’s contractor, visited the home and assessed the job, but was assisted by an apprentice. The assistant neglected to cap a radiator line, which eventually flooded and ruined the ceiling of the kitchen below. “No one checked his work, and we had to rip out a new ceiling,” Hoag says.

It’s common for plumbers to bring apprentices on a job; in fact, it’s a required part of the licensing process for trainees. However, although many states require a licensed plumber to supervise an apprentice, that doesn’t always happen. The best way to protect yourself is to negotiate personnel at the outset. Most plumbing companies, whether individually run or larger operations, have multiple jobs going at once, so it’s common practice to send employees or even trainees along with (or instead of) the guy whose name is on the side of the truck. But you can insist that a licensed plumber or plumbing contractor be present on the job, either to work or, at the very least, to supervise.

4. “I don’t do cleanup.”

Plumbers will often rip up a wall to look for the source of a leak. Some will alert you to this ahead of time; others won’t. Many plumbing problems are hidden, requiring walls, tiles and floor boards to be removed. And while a little demolition is hard to avoid, many plumbers won’t repair the damage they’ve made, arguing that if the plumbing has been fixed, their work is done. “You should always consider whether the job includes the repair of the house structure and cleanup,” says Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, who specializes in home plumbing engineering.

If your plumbing job is part of a renovation, chances are your general contractor will be responsible for repairing anything that was altered for access. To be certain, draw up a contract for any job (assuming it’s not an emergency) stipulating that the plumber will provide a damage estimate.

When possible, hire a neatnik over a chaos machine. After the disaster in their home, Risa Hoag and her husband found a new plumber whose “truck was meticulous,” Hoag says. “He showed up with his own drop cloths and covered everything: rugs, hardwood floors. He kept the holes he made to a minimum, and he was immaculate.”

5. “Your favorite home-improvement store is making things more difficult.”

The truck of a well-prepared service plumber should have enough basics to handle most common emergencies: copper tubing, faucet parts, replacement hoses, rubber washers, fittings and standard tools. “You want to solve as many problems as you can in the one visit, so the more-well stocked you are, the better your chances,” says Billy Silk, a licensed plumber and owner of Silver Spring, Md.-based Master Plumbing & Mechanical.

Plumbers will get a feel for what products are available in their area, so they typically stock the parts for those products. However, the increase in options to homeowners has resulted in more custom and unusual parts, says Silk. “But with home and design centers, there are a lot of particular things that are out there, so a lot of times we don’t have those,” he says. When a customer has an odd type – or a non-brand name – faucet, for instance, Silk will try to locate parts for them and then do a return visit.

A good plumber should ask questions when you call the problem in, so he’ll know what to bring in the first place. Requirements can change dramatically if the job is more than just a service call — part of a renovation, for example, or at an older home. In some cases, a plumber may ask the client to obtain specialized fixtures or aesthetic items beforehand. “If the client knows what he wants and likes, or if a designer has gotten something before, he probably can get it faster than I can,” Silk says.

6.” You get a say on parts.”

In the event a plumber has to order a part, you can be part of the process. Master Plumbing & Mechanical’s Silk says he will shop online alongside a customer, to find the right products – and things that they like. They will shop together, so that there’s no mistakes with model numbers, or if it’s not available online, he’ll send a picture to a parts specialist and track it down. He’ll then give the customer a price to purchase or install the item.

7. “This looked so much easier in the diagram.”

Hiring a licensed plumber assures a customer of a basic level of experience. But it doesn’t guarantee that he or she can handle absolutely anything that comes up. Several years ago, a client hired Harvey Kreitenberg, a Los Angeles-based licensed plumber, to install new fixtures made by a German manufacturer. “I wasn’t familiar with the products, so I asked him to give me one of each of the various fixtures to play around with,” Kreitenberg says. The client agreed, and Kreitenberg spent a few days testing the fixtures before starting the job. “I admitted my ignorance, and they appreciated it,” he says.

Be aware that even the best-intentioned plumber can be flummoxed; it doesn’t always mean that he or she isn’t qualified. Recently, there have been a number of innovations and changes in water heaters, for example, and there are many more toilet varieties than there once were, with different kinds of flushing mechanisms. If you have a special problem, or have fixtures or plumbing that is somehow out of the ordinary, say so up front. That way, the plumber will know if he needs to bring another expert to the job or needs a little extra time to brush up.

8. “Emergency? You’re tenth in line.”

Although an unresponsive plumber might seem like a sign of a shoddy operation, it can also be the sign of someone in demand. Because so many plumbers are mediocre, good ones tend to be consistently booked. If you find someone you like, it may be worth sticking out the wait, especially if your home is old or complicated. Tell the plumber you don’t mind waiting for a house call but that you’d like your phone calls returned promptly. He may be busy, but he’ll appreciate the loyalty and will want to keep your business.

How long it takes a plumber to respond could depend on the size and traditional focus of the company. For instance, if you call someone who specializes in new construction to do a household repair, it will take them a little while, says Dillard, the plumber. Some plumbing companies now rate the urgency of their customers’ calls. If a customer wants an “emergency response,” it will cost more money, sometimes twice as much, to come within a couple of hours, versus being able to schedule something for the next day, Dillard says.

9. “Move your sink? Let’s not.”

A plumber may tell you that moving certain fixtures — transferring a sink to a new spot in the bathroom, for example — can’t be done. But despite a few exceptions, such as moving a toilet, which is admittedly complicated, in most cases it’s doable, says Beaufort, S.C.-based architect Jane Frederick. It just requires some extra parts and a willingness to spend a little more time and money on a job.

When faced with a reluctant plumber, spend a few more minutes asking him to explain why your wishes aren’t possible; ask specifically about special parts that might be required. If, for example, the reason he cites against moving a bathtub is the distance between the tub’s drain and a pipe, the problem may be fixed by rerouting the piping or relocating a fixture, Frederick says. If your plumber says specialized parts are necessary, offer to find and pick them up yourself, and offer to reschedule the appointment. A demonstrated willingness on your part to help out a plumber with a more involved task gives him the incentive to tackle the job; so will your willingness to pay a little extra for the additional steps required.

A general rule of thumb: If the room you’re changing is on the first floor or in the basement, moving any appliance will likely be easier. First floors tend to have a crawl space underneath, offering easy access to the plumbing, and in basements pipes are often exposed, making work easier.

10. “I could’ve walked you through this repair over the phone. But, hey, there’s no money in free advice.”

There are many plumbing emergencies a homeowner can handle on his own, especially with a little advice from a pro. Silk, the Maryland plumber, says a good plumber should be willing to talk through a problem with a customer on the phone. Local plumbing-supply shops can also offer guidance and tips for simple repairs such as a leaky faucet or a shower-head replacement, he says.

Ken Alligood, a sales associate at R&D Plumbing Supplies near Seattle, says many customers come in to ask how to fix something themselves. Alligood says staff members do their best to help customers and, if necessary, refer them to a plumber.

Updated and adapted from the book “1,001 Things They Won’t Tell You: An Insider’s Guide to Spending, Saving, and Living Wisely,” by Jonathan Dahl and the editors of SmartMoney.


By David & Samuel Rifkin,  Tue Feb 5 2013, 06:24
Thank you very much for this great information.
By David & Samuel Rifkin,  Tue Mar 26 2013, 11:33
Thank you for this great information.

Samuel Rifkin
The Rifkin Team
By Voices Member,  Wed Oct 2 2013, 18:00
This is all very true and important. Very handy for me considering I was thinking about hiring a plumber but now I am looking for plumbing supplies in Red Deer to fix things myself. http://www.thegentlemenplumbersreddeer.com/red_deer_plumbing_supplies.html

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