10 Things Your Plumber Won’t Tell You

This is an Article I read from the Smartmoney magazine and thought it had a lot of good advise, because I am sure we have all had some good and bad experiences with plumbers.

1. “There’s an old plumber’s adage: ‘An ounce of prevention could cost me 5K.'”
Water is the single most common cause of household damage, according to a nationwide analysis by Safeco Insurance, a Seattle-based homeowner’s insurance company. From 2002 to 2004, 30% of home water-damage claims resulted from appliance failure and another 62% from faulty plumbing systems. The biggest culprits: water heaters and washing machines. And repairs are costly. Safeco found that American households with water damage spent an average of $5,000 for each episode in that same period.

Some easy cautionary measures, however, can lessen 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 to a T. There might not be an immediately visible problem, but tanks can rust on the inside, leading to a rupture.

2. I’m not really a plumber.“
Al Booker, a college administrator in Newark, N.J., decided to hire a handyman on a referral from a friend when he needed to install kitchen plumbing. “He came in and said he could do everything,” Booker says. While laying pipes, the worker damaged the kitchen floor and compromised the safety of the structure by cutting into the joists. Booker ended up hiring an experienced plumber to finish the job, paying twice.

A wide swath of the plumbing industry is made up of handymen, guys with tools and a little plumbing know-how. While some of these Mr. Fix-its are competent, many, as Booker learned, are not. The best way to minimize your risk is to hire an experienced plumber. Ideally, that means licensed, meaning he or she has demonstrated basic competency in written and hands-on exams and, in many states, assisted on a minimum number of jobs. 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.

3. “My less experienced underling will be over in a minute.”
Risa Hoag, a PR 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 one of the young men who showed up to do the work along with him was an apprentice who 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. But while in many states a licensed plumber is supposed to supervise, 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 working 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. But 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. “With a truck this size, you’d think I’d be well stocked. Think again.”
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. But it’s common for plumbers to reschedule an appointment because they’re missing a part.

A good plumber should ask questions when you call the problem in so he’ll know what to bring in the first place. If he doesn’t, ask him what he’ll need and whether he has it. 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. Then it’s even more critical that the plumber be up on specific requirements or special parts needed. 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. 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 get 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.

7. “Emergency? You’re tenth in line.”
Robert Pedersen and his wife arrived at their summer home in East Marion, N.Y., one weekend several years ago to find a large puddle of water in front of their hot water heater. It took several weeks, numerous voice mail messages and a rising tideline in the basement before their plumber visited the house. But Pedersen, a retired pharmaceutical executive, was reluctant to call anyone else. The home, built around 1910, has intricate plumbing and piping issues, and “he knows the house really well,” Pedersen says.

While an unresponsive plumber might seem 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 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.

8. “Move your sink? Let’s not and say we did.”
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 making changes to 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.

9. “Job’s all done, and you’re good to go — theoretically speaking.” Last winter TV writer-producer James Percel wanted to convert the attic in his suburban New York home into an office. Since there were two pipes jutting up from the floorboards, he thought he’d be able to heat the room by attaching a radiator and tapping into his home’s steam heating system. The owner of a plumbing company recommended by his real estate broker agreed and sent one of his employees to do the job. It was only after the rest of the room was finished that Percel discovered the heating system didn’t work. It turns out the pipes weren’t the right type for steam heat, but the plumber had never tested them to find out. “I’d just presumed he’d tested the pipes and checked for steam,” Percel says. “That seems so basic that I wouldn’t even think to ask.”

But that’s exactly what you have to do. It may seem illogical — you’ve hired an expert to handle the problem, right? — but many plumbers assume it’s the client’s responsibility to double-check that existing parts work before making changes. Another lesson here: Ask who’s doing the work. Percel’s plumber was not the owner of the company, whom he’d spoken to and whom he thought he was hiring.

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, he says, can also offer guidance and tips for simple repairs such as a leaky faucet or a shower-head replacement.

John Rendahl, a sales associate at R&D Plumbing Supplies near Seattle, says many customers visit the store solely to ask how to fix something themselves. “We’ll coach our customers on how to repair a faucet or even a toilet,” Rendahl says. He recalls one customer who recently came in wondering about a problem with a 35-year-old Kohler low-boy toilet that wouldn’t stop running. Rendahl opened up a parts book, looked up the valve for that particular toilet and, based on the problem the customer described, recommended that he replace the tank ball. The customer bought the ball and went home to make the repair himself.



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12 responses to “10 Things Your Plumber Won’t Tell You

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