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Plumbers (From CHECKBOOK, Fall 2012/Winter 2013)
 
Go to Updated Ratings of 144 Bay Area Plumbers

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At the time of our last full, published article, 39 of the 136 plumbing outfits evaluated on our Ratings Tables were rated “superior” overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. But for other companies, we hear too many customer comments that include words like “overcharged,” “unprofessional,” “incompetent,” “rude,” “messy,” “no-show,” and “dishonest.” Some companies were rated “superior” by fewer than half of their surveyed customers. 

The companies vary not only in quality of service, but also in price. When we shopped for exactly the same, routine jobs, some companies charged more than twice as much as others. For example, to supply and install a garbage disposer, prices quoted by area companies ranged from $195 to $595. And to install a customer-supplied toilet, prices ranged from $96 to $600. 

Fortunately, you can hire a lower priced plumber who provides top-quality service—there is no relationship between price and quality. The ratings of plumbing outfits on our Ratings Tables will steer you to plumbers who do fantastic work but won’t drain your wallet. 

If you need repairs, explain on the phone exactly what’s wrong, and ask the company how it figures its charges. If possible, obtain a price quote over the phone. Confirm this information with the plumber upon arrival. 

For installation and remodeling jobs, be sure to get multiple bids. On a job where the first quote you receive is $5,000, you are likely to save at least $500—and possibly several thousands of dollars—by getting a few more quotes. Get a fixed-price contract that specifies— 

  • Exactly what will be done 
  • Makes and model numbers of all fixtures and appliances the plumber supplies 
  • What kind of pipe will be used 
  • Where fixtures are to be located and where pipes are to run 
  • Who will break up the floor, cut holes in the wall, patch floor and walls, hang the sink, perform the carpentry, and haul away the debris 
  • What permits the company will secure 
  • When work is to begin and approximately how long it will take 
  • How much of the contract price you can retain until the job is completed 
  • Any warranties 

You crossed your fingers, closed your eyes, and made vows to the plumbing gods—to no avail. The clog-busting gunk you bought didn’t do the trick. The garbage disposer still won’t run. The water stain on the ceiling below your master bath keeps expanding. An overflowing toilet has turned your basement into a B-movie set. And after you spent the better part of a Saturday tinkering, the faucet still goes drip-drip-drip. 

Whether it’s routine or an emergency, sometimes you need a good plumber. Fortunately, as the ratings shown on our Ratings Tables reveal, we’ve found many excellent plumbing outfits in the area, including many that not only rate best for quality work, but also are among the lowest in price. But, as you’d expect, not all plumbers are created equal: Some companies only contribute to their customers’ plumbing woes, rather than solve them. 

Plumbers by the Numbers 

Our evaluation of area plumbing outfits can help you find a plumber that will serve you well for a reasonable price. Here’s a rundown of the information reported on our Ratings Tables

Ratings from Customers 

Our Ratings Tables report ratings from area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) for plumbing companies that received 10 or more ratings on our surveys. The table shows what percent of each company’s surveyed customers rated it “superior” (as opposed to “adequate” or “inferior”) on several questions: “overall performance,” “doing work properly,” “starting and completing work promptly,” and “letting you know cost early.” Our Ratings Tables also report the percent of surveyed customers who rated each company “adequate” or “superior” (as opposed to “inferior”) for “overall performance.” (Click here for further description of our customer survey and other research methods.) 

Many of the companies received high percentages of favorable ratings. For example, at the time of our last full, published article, 39 were rated “superior” overall by 90 percent or more of their surveyed customers. But other companies were rated “superior” by fewer than half of their surveyed customers. For these companies, customer comments frequently include words like “overcharged,” “unprofessional,” “incompetent,” “rude,” “messy,” “no-show,” and “dishonest.” 

Complaint Records 

In addition to ratings from plumbing customers, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our Ratings Tables show tallies of complaints we gathered from local Better Business Bureaus (BBB) for a recent three-year period. Where we were able to, we have also reported on our Ratings Tables complaint rates, calculated by dividing the number of complaints by our measure of the number of full-time-equivalent plumbers performing residential work for the companies. The complaint rates take into account volume of work and the fact that companies that do more work are exposed to a greater risk of incurring complaints. 

You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting www.bbb.org or calling the BBB that serves the area where the company is located (click here for contact information). You can check current customer survey ratings by clicking on the company’s name on our Ratings Tables and, in the details under our listing for the company, click a link to go directly to the BBB’s most up-to-date report on the company. 

When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. Also be aware that some companies are at greater risk of incurring complaints than others because of the specific types of work they do. And remember that the measure of business volume we use in calculating complaint rates (the number of full-time-equivalent plumbers performing residential work) is at best a very rough indicator. 

How Much They Charge 

After you have identified high-quality, reliable companies, you need to consider price. To compare companies’ prices, for firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our researchers (without revealing their affiliation with CHECKBOOK) called the companies listed on our Ratings Tables and requested price quotes for four plumbing jobs; the ranges of prices quoted are shown on Table 1. We used those prices to calculate a price index score for each company, shown on our Ratings Tables. The scores, which are adjusted so that the average for all companies equals $100, tell you how each company’s quotes compare to the average price for all companies quoting on the same jobs. Thus, a score of $110 means a company’s quotes average 10 percent above the all-company average; a score of $90 means 10 percent below average. 

As you can see from Table 1, prices varied dramatically for the same work. Prices to supply and install a specific garbage disposer model ranged from $195 to $595—a difference of 300 percent. To install a customer-supplied toilet, prices ranged from $96 to $600—a difference of 600 percent. 

Table 1—Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Plumbers for Illustrative Installation Jobs

Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Plumbers for Illustrative Installation Jobs
Description of jobLow priceAverage priceHigh price
Supply and install an InsinkErator Badger 5 garbage disposer$195$304$595
Supply and install a Delta bathroom faucet, model LAHARA2538LF$195$315$583
Install a customer-supplied American Standard Champion “Right Height” elongated toilet$96$181$600
Replace seal between floor and base of toilet$87$159$336

1 The descriptions of the jobs are summaries; shops were given additional detailed specifications for each job.

These large price differences are reflected in the price index scores, which range from $59 to $186. 

For medium-size or large jobs, don’t rely exclusively on our price index scores. Taking the time to get several bids is likely to produce substantial savings. We estimate that getting three bids for typical installation jobs saves, on average, about 15 percent, as compared to getting one bid. Saving $750 to $1,000 on a remodeling job is well worth making a few extra appointments to get estimates. 

For a large remodeling job—a new kitchen or bathroom, for instance—getting several bids is especially critical. Not only is a large amount of money at stake, but the percentage variation in prices on such major jobs is larger than the variation on smaller installation jobs. For the plumbing work involved in a modest bathroom remodeling job, for example, you might get bids ranging from less than $5,000 to more than $10,000. Even a fraction of that difference is well worth spending a few hours to get multiple bids. (Remember that saving $1,000 is better than earning $1,000 because you don’t pay taxes on what you save.) 

If a job is large (and especially if you are unsure about whether you need it or how it should be done), let the bidders serve as your consultants. 

When comparing prices, make sure companies supply quotes on exactly the same job, using the same fixture models. If you need to consult with several companies before you can decide exactly what you want done, give each company a chance to bid on your final job specifications. 

Even for small jobs, it makes sense to get multiple quotes—as long as you can do so easily by phone, as you can for many jobs. 

Getting plumbers to come to your home to bid isn’t easy, and companies don’t always show up when promised. We suggest that you set up more visits than you need. Then, when you have enough quotes, cancel the remaining appointments. 

Our Ratings Tables also report each company’s “minimum charge for a service call,” and indicates in parentheses whether the charge covers a complete diagnosis or a specified amount of time. These charges are particularly useful if you need to hire a company for repair work that can’t be priced until the plumber has examined your problem. Some companies don’t charge for coming to your home, diagnosing the problem, and providing an estimate; others charge $80 or more to diagnose a repair problem and provide an estimate. 

Dealing with Your Plumber 

Whatever company you choose, dealing wisely with the plumber can get you better work and save you money. 

Whether you need a remodeling job or repairs, if at all possible get a written price quote before work begins. Among plumbing customers we surveyed, about half received written estimates (rather than oral estimates or no estimate) in advance. Respondents who received written estimates were much more often satisfied with their companies’ performance than customers who did not get written estimates. 

Remodeling Jobs 

  • Get a fixed-price contract. On small jobs, this may be difficult, because it’s not always easy to estimate by phone and a company may not want to incur the cost of sending a plumber out for an estimate. But give it a try. Even on larger jobs, companies may argue that they have to bid high to protect themselves, and that you might get a break if you pay by the hour and the job goes quickly. We don’t buy that argument. If a company knows you’re getting several bids, it can’t take the chance of bidding high, and a fixed-price contract will spare you surprises later. With a fixed-price contract, you don’t have to monitor the company’s efficiency—although you do have to make sure it doesn’t take inappropriate shortcuts. 
  • Specify exactly what you want done. Your contract should contain full specifications. If the work is to be done on a time-and-materials basis, write up what you want, give a copy to the plumber, and keep a copy for yourself. Then explain what you want orally as well. The specifications should include: 
  • Makes and model numbers of all fixtures and appliances. Since nearly identical-looking fixtures sometimes vary in price by 100 percent, unless you are specific the company may substitute second-rate products. 
  • What kind of pipe will be used. Copper pipe—which can be used for water supply lines, drainage lines, and vent lines—is extremely long-lasting but expensive. Cast-iron pipe—which can be used only for drain lines—is also extremely long-lasting but difficult to work with. If you want these materials, specify that beforehand. Otherwise, your plumber might use cheaper steel or plastic pipe. 
  • Where fixtures will be located and where pipes will run. Sometimes a few inches can make a big difference in the difficulty of a plumbing job. If you have not spelled out what you want (ideally, in a sketch or plan), you may meet a lot of resistance when you want them to put your sink just a little to the left to make room for a wastebasket. 
  • Who breaks up the floor, cuts holes in the wall, patches floor and walls, hangs the sink, does the carpentry, hauls away debris. Do not assume any of these jobs is included if they’re not mentioned in your agreement. Some companies include them; others won’t. 
  • Choose fixtures with an eye to the availability of replacement parts. Fixing your faucet in a few years will cost less than a new one. 
  • Shop around to see if you can save money by buying parts and fixtures on your own. Some plumbers won’t install customer-provided fixtures; others insist that customers provide them. A company that offers you the option of supplying parts and fixtures enables you to shop for the lowest prices for them. If you have a large installation or remodeling job, ask suppliers for a volume discount. 
  • If you supply your own fixtures, make sure the plumber doesn’t charge more for labor. But be aware that the plumber won’t be responsible for the labor cost of replacing defective fixtures that you’ve supplied. 
  • Specify what permits you want the company to secure. Some homeowners do not insist on permits for several reasons: to avoid alerting the tax assessor to improvements; to save the cost of the permits and the plumber’s time securing them; or to use a cheaper unlicensed moonlighter, who may simply be unable to get a permit. But there are strong reasons for getting a permit: It is often legally required; it buys an impartial government inspection of the finished job; and it protects you and a subsequent owner of your home from the obligation to correct code deficiencies later discovered during an inspection of other work. We’ve even heard of gas explosion cases in which insurance claims were denied because installations had not been inspected as required by the applicable codes. 
  • Specify when work is to begin and approximately how long it is to take. 
  • Negotiate for the best possible warranty. On any remodeling job, obtain at least a one-year written warranty on materials and workmanship. (You might even be able to get one for a repair job if you explain that other companies offer them.) 
  • Find out how much of the contract price you can withhold until the job is completed. Companies that let you withhold a substantial portion of the price of an installation job until completion indicate that they are confident they can satisfy you. And you also get leverage to prod the company to do the job right if you are dissatisfied. Such a payment arrangement also cushions the blow if the company goes under before completing the work. 
  • If you can’t get a contract, get a detailed receipt describing the job before you pay. If you must have work corrected later, this will avoid any dispute as to what the company was responsible for. 
  • If possible, pay by credit card. If you are dissatisfied with the work or a fixture, you can dispute the charge under the Fair Credit Billing Act. 

Repair Jobs 

  • Before summoning a plumber for a service call, explain exactly what the problem is. This helps the plumber bring the needed tools and parts, and thus avoids extra trips. 
  • When you call, ask the company to explain how it figures its labor rates—minimum charge and what it includes, time unit used to calculate charges (10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes), cost per unit, etc. 
  • Let the plumber know that you are aware of the rates. This may enhance timekeeping accuracy. 
  • If you want to know exactly when a plumber will arrive, request the first service call of the day. 
  • Clear the area. You don’t want to pay a plumber $125 an hour to clean out junk from underneath your sink. 
  • Don’t let conversations with the plumber interfere with the work. While it is important to understand what the plumber is doing, there is a reasonable limit. Remember that the plumber is on the clock until he or she writes up the ticket. 
  • Make sure you’re home for the appointment. A missed appointment may not cost anything at the time, but these foul-ups increase plumbers’ costs and eventually raise prices for everyone. 

Plumbing Do’s and Don’ts 

Following these rules will help reduce the seriousness and frequency of plumbing problems— 

  • Make sure that everyone living in your home knows the locations of water shutoff valves and how to use them. If you’re unsure of valve locations, ask a plumber to give you a tour; then label each valve with a description of its function and instructions for turning it off. Shutoff valves cut the flow of water to a single fixture, a branch of the water supply system, or the entire house. If a pipe bursts, quickly stopping the flow of leaking water can prevent extensive damage. If you have a problem with a single fixture, turning off its shutoff valve lets you continue to use fixtures throughout the rest of your home and schedule a plumber’s visit during normal hours. 
  • Once or twice a year make sure that the main water shutoff valve to your home is working properly. 
  • Periodically check shutoff valves, exposed pipes, faucets, and your hot water heater for leaks. Regularly inspect ceilings and walls for signs of water damage. If you find a leak, have it repaired as soon as possible. 
  • If you have a septic-tank system, have it inspected regularly by a licensed professional. 
  • Install smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors near your water heater and furnace. 
  • Keep all flammable and combustible materials away from your hot water heater. 
  • To reduce the risks of fire or health hazards, have a plumber or heating and air-conditioning service check your water heater’s venting for proper draft and that the room is properly ventilated. 
  • Dispose of grease or rendered-down fat in the trash; never pour it down a drain. 
  • Cover bathtub and shower drains with a screen to prevent hair from clogging up their pipes. 
  • Chemical drain cleaners are extremely dangerous products—pay close attention to package directions and warning labels. When pouring a drain cleaner into a drain, avert your face and keep it as far away as possible from the bottle and the drain. 
  • If a drain is completely clogged, do not use a drain cleaner—it will likely produce a large pool of highly caustic water. Also, using a drain cleaner on completely clogged drains is unlikely to solve the problem, and may simply enlarge the blockage. 
  • Don’t flush anything down the toilet that doesn’t belong there. Paper towels, feminine products, disposable diapers, cat litter, hair, and other items can clog up the works. 
  • Use care when operating your garbage disposer. Make sure that its on-off switch is not located in an area where it can be accidentally turned on. If you have children, consider buying a batch-feed model that won’t operate without a stopper. 
  • Heed warnings in your garbage disposer’s operating manual. Many models can become clogged if you try to dispose of coffee grounds, uncooked rice, etc. Always run a steady stream of water into your garbage disposer when in use. 
  • Before operating your dishwasher, run your garbage disposer for a few moments. 
  • Periodically check the temperature setting of your hot water heater—most models should be set between 120° and 140°. Running the burner at lower temperatures saves energy costs and extends the life of both the burner and the water tank. 

Extra Advice :
Common Plumbing Problems 

Although most plumbing work is performed correctly, mistakes do occur. Here are a few of the problems inspectors find most often. 

  • Drainpipes lack sufficient grade. As a result, waste does not flow with sufficient momentum and clogs occur. 
  • Pipes not properly supported. This can produce “hammering” in water supply pipes and clogs in drainpipes. 
  • Water heater or furnace flue connection has not been checked for proper draft. If a chimney is partially clogged, dangerous combustion products may accumulate inside the house. 
  • Insufficient ventilation in the room where the water heater or furnace is installed. Again, this prevents a proper draft and causes dangerous combustion products to accumulate. 
  • Water heater flue is dangerously close to combustible materials. A fire-resistant shield must be installed. 
  • Gas or water shutoff valve has not been installed for a water heater, furnace, dishwasher, or other appliance. This means the home’s total gas or water supply will have to be shut down if the appliance needs repairs. 
  • Electrical grounding has been eliminated. Water supply pipes serve as the ground for a home’s electrical system and as a ground in case of lightning. If plastic pipe has replaced disintegrated steel water supply pipes from the outside meter, this ground is eliminated and a substitute grounding system must be installed. 
  • Fixture trap leaks where improperly tightened. 
  • Toilet, sink, or other fixture not tightly secured. 
  • Hole through a wall where a pipe leaves house not properly sealed against moisture.
     

Extra Advice :
Top 10 Plumber Complaints 

Some plumbing outfits make a lot of their customers unhappy. Below are the 10 most common types of complaints we found in the reviews for plumbers from surveyed CHECKBOOK subscribers. 

  1. Price—Company charged too much. Mentioned in 42 percent of complaints.
  2. Poor customer service—Office staff or workers were rude or disorganized, or communication was poor. Mentioned in 34 percent of complaints.
  3. Subpar work—Work was not completed correctly on the first attempt. Mentioned in 20 percent of complaints.
  4. Worker incompetence—Plumber did not know how to complete the work, suggested unnecessary or incorrect solutions, or did not correctly diagnose problem.Mentioned in 13 percent of complaints.
  5. Promptness—Company missed appointments or took too long to complete work.Mentioned in 10 percent of complaints.
  6. Attempt to overcharge—Company tried to charge more than originally agreed, added previously undisclosed fees, or unreasonably charged extra labor or trip fees to acquire parts. Mentioned in nine percent of complaints.
  7. Workers caused damage to customer’s home or belongings. Mentioned in five percent of complaints.
  8. Unreasonable trip or estimate charges. Mentioned in six percent of complaints.
  9. Workers left a mess. Mentioned in four percent of complaints.
  10. Reliability issues—Company did not fulfill promises, promptly address problems raised by customer, or work with customer to satisfy billing disputes.Mentioned in two percent of complaints.

Where to Complain

California Department of Consumer Affairs
1625 N. Market Boulevard, #N112
Sacremento, CA 95834
800-952-5210
www.dca.ca.gov

Better Business Bureaus

Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties
1112 S. Bascom Avenue
San Jose, CA 95128
408-278-7400
http://sanjose.bbb.org

All Other Bay Area Counties
1000 Broadway, #625
Oakland, CA 94607
510-844-2000
www.goldengate.bbb.org



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