Which Should You Choose—Big box store or Plumbing Wholesale Supplier? Old School or New School Plumber? Brand Name or Off Brand Fixtures—BYHYU 056
Because our home’s plumbing is used every day, several times a day, you want to make sure that you get quality products and materials and that those materials are installed by a reliable plumber.
This week’s mini lesson will help give you a basic overview of your home’s plumbing system and it will give you some advice on what type of plumber and plumbing fixtures you should choose for your new home— whether brand name fixtures really are better than off-brand ones and whether it’s ok get your plumbing supplies from a big box store.
Before we get to mini lesson and quiz, let’s go over 2 plumbing Pro Terms:
Potable water and Shut Off Valves
1. Potable water— drinkable water; water that you can go into a pot for consumption.
2. Shutoff Valves – The main shutoff valve controls your entire potable water supply, and other valves throughout your home control individual fixtures. During installations, maintenance or repairs, you or your plumber will turn these valves off. Shutoff valves completely shut off the flow of water so that you can work on the pipes without soaking the area with water.
It’s common practice for shut-off valves to be installed in obscure, hard to reach places, such as a crawl space. But you can ask your plumber to place the main shut off valve in a more user-friendly, easy to reach place. So, in case of emergency, like a ruptured pipe, you can quickly locate and shut off the valve to the main water line. This could eliminate lots of water damage and costly repairs.
Alright, up next is this week’s mini lesson. Let’s start with a very basic overview of a home’s plumbing system.
There are actually only two systems in your home that control all of your water needs. One system is known as the supply system. It’s sometimes called the potable water supply system and it supplies your home with fresh water.
The other system is called the drainage or waste system, and it drains water and waste from fixtures like sinks and toilets.
The two pipe systems never intersect, so that there is no risk of contaminating your clean water supply with waste water.
Clean water enters the house under pressure. The supply pipes are attached to either a city or county water supply system, or a well, and the supply pipes extend into the home.
The supply system is divided into hot and cold water lines. The hot water line comes from your water heater, and the cold water line comes directly from the county water supply, or a well.
Supply pipes can be iron, copper, or one of numerous varieties of plastic. Copper and plastic pipes are usually used today. In general, copper is more durable and expensive, while plastic cheaper and easier to install. With copper, the joints of the pipes are soldered together and with plastic, pipes are bonded together with a solvent cement (more on this next week). Ok, so that’s the supply system.
The second system is the waste pipe system. The waste system is not pressurized like the supply system is, so the waste system depends on gravity to function. Dirty water is pulled down through drainpipes, toward the sewer or septic tank.
The waste system must be vented, which means that the plumbing system will have a pipe that extends upward to vent outdoors, usually through the roof. If there were no vent, the waste system would drain slowly, or not at all. Vent pipes also allow septic odors from waste escape.
So, that’s a very basic overview of the supply system and the waste system. Now let’s talk a little about fixtures.
The fixtures are the pretty and practical parts of the whole plumbing picture— the parts that you see and use everyday—the sinks, tubs, toilets, and faucets.
Every plumbing fixture must have its own trap. A trap is that a U-shaped pipe that you see on the underside of your sinks (see the diagram above). The trap remains filled with water at all times, and it acts as a barrier to sewer gases. Without the trap, those sewer odors from the drainage system would rise up through the pipes and enter the living spaces of the house.
So, there’s the supply system, the waste system and the fixtures. Now let’s move on to the plumbing rough-in.
The plumber usually installs the waste system first. The waste system pipes are large and it’s easier to work the smaller supply pipes around the waste pipes than vice versa.
In areas where the fixtures will eventually go, the plumber installs pipes for those fixtures and caps the ends of the supply lines. Plumbers are often working along side electricians.
Once the rough-in has been completed, the plumbing will be inspected by the building inspector. He’ll check to see that pipe sizes meet code and that the plumbing lines are well supported with clamps, or hangers.
If you're going to have a slab foundation, a lot of the plumbing rough-in will be complete before the slab is poured. Some of the rough-in plumbing will be buried under the slab. Take pictures of the plumbing for your records before the slab is poured.
Rough plumbing not only involves installing all of the water lines and sewer lines, but also the bathtubs. Tubs are normally installed early because one-piece shower-and-tub units are large and it’s difficult to maneuver them into place later in the construction.
Plus, a tub full of water is heavy. Therefore, the tub is installed and filled with water so that the frame can settle before walls and tile is installed. This step prevents cracked walls and tile the first time someone uses the tub.
Since the tubs are installed so early, they are prone to damage. Make sure that your request that your plumber protect the tub with scratch protection strippable film, then ask him to cover the tub with scrap sheathing, like OSB.
So, that’s the rough-in. Next, let’s go over some common questions that come up about buying plumbing products and plumbers.
1. Is it ok to use off brand, low cost plumbing fixtures?
The short answer is no. No, if you want leak free, long lasting fixtures. Your plumbing fixtures will used often, so this is not the line item that you want to cheap out on. You want fixtures that are well made. Ask every plumber that you meet, or that’s bidding on your project what brand of fixtures he would use in his own house. Take note of the brands that are most often mentioned.
In general, with plumbing fixtures, you get what you pay for. The price of the fixture directly relates to its quality and longevity. Quality, brand name fixtures will cost more, but will more likely last for many years without problems. Off-brand fixtures are often poorly made, and it can be difficult to get parts for them if they need to be repaired. Less expensive off-brands, I’ve read, seem to have issues within 10 years of installation. Look for clearance items, or last year's models to save on brand names.
2. Are more expensive brass fittings and shut off valves worth the extra money?
The answer is yes. Shut off valves are those small oval shaped handles that you often see behind the toilet or under your sinks. They cut off the flow of water to the fixture. Quality valves made of brass by companies like Brasscraft will last for decades. Quality valves run about $11-15 each. Cheap, plastic valves cost $3-5, but they often fail within 15 years.
If you don’t specify these higher quality brass valves and fittings, and you take the lowest bid on your plumbing, you’re probably going to get those cheap plastic shut off valves that run about $3-5 each. So, make sure that you specify quality brass fittings.
3. Should get plumbing fixtures from big box stores or wholesale plumbing supply companies?
The answer is preferably a wholesale plumbing supply company, but it depends.
Fixtures and fitting are sold at hardware stores, lumberyards, and big box home centers. Plumbing wholesale supply companies are another source to consider. This is where many plumbing companies get their products and equipment.
A reputable plumbing wholesaler can give you accurate information about the products you won't find on the packaging. For example, wholesalers can tell you whether a fitting is brass or brass-plated. They know the manufacturers and how well they stand behind their products. They also know what local contractors are buying, which is a good indication of what works for local codes and water conditions. Best of all, a wholesaler can often give you the best price. Don’t forget to ask for the builders discount, if you are acting as your own general contractor.
Let me read to you what I read on a home building forum from someone who works internally at one of the top plumbing fixture companies in the US.
“I can tell you that toilets and bath tubs sold at big box stores and plumbing supply stores are the same. As another member mentioned, as long as the model numbers match between retailers, it is the same product. Plumbing supply stores certainly offer more high-end products, but the big-box stores actually tend to get the newer/higher-tech offerings first. As long as you see the specs you want (tub materials, flush type, etc.) I wouldn't worry about where I'm purchasing these products. And no one sells "factory-seconds" to a big-box store. The risk is far too great, as all of the companies in this field make around 75% of their money from these big-box stores. The buyers at the big-box stores are extremely picky (rightfully so) and would throw us out if we started sending them "seconds".
He goes on to say “Faucets are a slightly different story. Suppliers are squeezed pretty hard to offer the lowest cost products to the big box stores, so they tend to have lower quality,plastic internal parts. Plumbing supply stores generally stick to the brass internals, but offer them at a higher price. Keep in mind, these are DIFFERENT products. For the most part, the big box stores want exclusive products, so you more than likely won't find the same products (sold in-store at Lowe's/HD) at plumbing supply houses. Don't be afraid, however, to order something off the Lowe's or HD websites, as they'll typically carry those all-metal, higher quality parts to sell online vs their value-focused in-store products."
Now remember, you have to compare the SKU #, not just the model # to get actual product comparisons.
Bottom line is, in a big box store, you’ll have to wade through cheap, low quality fixtures to get to the high quality fixtures, and at wholesale plumbing supply stores, there is less low quality stuff to sort through. Wherever you get your fixtures, choose higher quality products with brass fittings versus plastic fittings and products with longer warranties.
Last question…Should you choose a seasoned, experienced plumber or a young, freshly educated plumber?
There are times when choosing a freshly educated tradesperson is way to go, but not with plumbing.
From what I’ve read, there are many subtleties and nuances that seasoned plumbers know and new plumbers don’t. By the way, the same is supposed to be true for electricians.
Choose a licensed, insured plumber with many years of experience. And choose one that has lots of experience with new construction. Take a look around new construction job sites and note what plumbing company’s name you see repeatedly. That’s often a sign that the company does reliable work.
Check references of any plumbers you’re considering. Check not only with people the plumbers have worked for recently, but ask for references that had work done several years prior so you can see how the plumbing has held up over time.
Many plumbing companies will send three different crews to a new build at three different stages of construction. This can lead to big problems and lack of accountablity. It’s best for the crew who pipes and roughs the house in to be the same crew who will ultimately installs the fixtures. You really want the same guys on for the the entire job. Make this request during the bidding process.
Finally, get the plumbers involved from the very beginning—during the planning stages. A plumber can help you with the placement of bathrooms to help you cut costs. For example, a plumber may be able to suggest alterations to your house plan so that bathrooms can be located near each other, allowing them to share plumbing, which requires fewer materials and less labor.
Next week, we’ll talk more about plumbing. Among other things, I’ll tell you about what you can request that will help ensure that your plumbing is quiet— so you don’t hear the upstairs toilet flush when you’re sitting downstairs.
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Alright, ready for your quiz?
1. What is potable water?
Potable water— drinkable water; water that you can go into a pot for consumption.
2. True or False? Off brand plumbing fixtures have the same quality and reliability as brand name fixtures, so there’s no reason to be a label snob.
That’s false. In general, with plumbing fixtures, you get what you pay for. The price of the fixture directly relates to its quality and longevity. Quality, brand name fixtures will cost more, but will more likely last for many years, without problems. Off-brand fixtures are often poorly made, and it can be difficult to get parts for them if they need to be repaired.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete, it’s subject to change and it may not apply to your project. In addition, Building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.
Thank you for joining me this week. I hope you learned as much as I did. Let’s do it again next week. Join me for the next edition of BYHYU.