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Predatory Plumbing

My take on ethical business practices.

I recently stumbled across an article that I found very interesting. It addresses the questionable (and often unethical) sales tactics of some larger plumbing companies, something I’ve had an issue with for quite some time now.

The article can be found here, and it’s worth a read:

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Taken from the article: Karl Baer, 86, stands next to the newly installed sewer line outside of the Baer residence on Orchard Parkway on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016, in Morganville, N.J. Baer was sold on an $11,000 plus job to replace a sewer line that didn’t need replacing. “I haven’t been able to use my shower or toilet for almost four days because of this”, Baer noted. (Tom Brenner | For NJ Advance Media)

Unfortunately, stories like Karl’s are not all that uncommon. Some large plumbing outfits pressure their employees into up-selling and taking advantage of customers who don’t know any better, and for a long time, I held my tongue. One of my customers claims that she had a nightmarish experience with one of these so-called plumbing giants. The employee, who she would later find out was not a plumber at all, but instead, a salesman, entered her home and immediately got to work exploring her home’s plumbing. She had only called to get a quote on replacing the garbage disposal, but the plumber insisted he inspect other parts of her home for potential plumbing red flags. Long story short, the plumber ended up recommending thousands of dollars of work that was unnecessary, and the icing on the cake? Insisted that the $1,300.00 he quoted her for a new disposal was a fair price.

Needless to say, she never called them back.

This kind of approach to plumbing is, in my opinion, deceitful and shameful. It shines a poor light on “the rest of us,” the honest tradesmen of the world. It capitalizes on the unaware customer.

Let me tell you a story.

I spent the first part of my career working for an honest, outstanding plumber. We worked on an hourly rate, and I was not paid commission. I only recommended parts and services which were necessary, or if asked by the customer, would give my honest professional opinion on their plumbing’s status. People considered us quite fair and I have adhered to those standards now, in running my own small business.

When I started my company in 2015, I took a fellow plumber out to dinner to pick his brain on the industry, and to get some insight into how to help build and grow my business. This plumber, let’s call him Jimmy McFinkles, (that is not his real name, and it’s a poor attempt at a fake name, and if there are any Jimmy McFinkles out there, I sincerely apologize), asked me what my hourly rate was. I told him. He laughed a little, and asked me if I knew what the local plumbing giant was charging per hour.

“$200?” I asked.


“$250?” I attempted another guess.

He laughed. “No.”

“How much?” I asked.

“$530” he said, with a small grin. He was not endorsing or condoning the hourly rate, he was simply telling me a fact which he could clearly tell I found absolutely stunning, based on the reaction I had: my jaw, dropping to the floor.

Jimmy McFinkles gave me a run-down of how these companies get away with it. For starters, if you call them and ask them what their hourly rate is, or what they’d charge to do x-y-z, you will not get an answer. They will insist that they send someone out to look at the job. This visit may even incur a diagnostic charge, and that charge may or may not be applied to the final invoice.

They send someone out, who typically is not even a plumbing technician but rather a salesperson working on commission, and they will look at your problem. For the example of this story, let’s say that you originally called for a clogged toilet.

The salesperson might spend a half an hour walking around your home, inspecting the toilet, other home plumbing, maybe even check out the main sewer line. They will come back to you with his iPad and show you a price list. This is called “flat rate,” and I will get into that later. They might say something along the lines of, “Okay, your toilet is clogged because you have roots growing through your pipes. For $10,000, we can replace entire sewer line. For $3,000, we can dig up only the portion which is clogged and replace it. Or, we can snake your toilet for $800.”

At this point, the customer is weighing the options: $10,000, $3,000, or $800. You probably want use of your toilet again, and since he’s already there, sure: “please snake the toilet.”

The salesperson leaves, and a technician comes back later that day, spends an hour or so snaking your toilet, and you’re now in the hole for $800. That was an hour and a half of that companies’ time, which comes out to $533.333(continued) per hour.

What I am getting at is this: that is totally fine if a company wants to charge you $530 an hour. But you should know up-front, in a clearly stated manner, what their hourly rate is. You should be able to call a company, or several companies, over the phone and get an hourly rate. In my opinion, that is.

The flat-rate business model is this: there is a set price for services rendered, be it replacing a main sewer line (as exampled in the article linked above), replacing a garbage disposal (remember my client from earlier in this story?), fixing a faucet, replacing a toilet… you get the idea.

The problem with flat-rate plumbing is that the rate is generally very steep and in my opinion, often quite unfair. It feels like greed.

In closing, I have a few recommendations.

  • Take care of routine plumbing issues before they become an emergency. A mom and pop shop might be booked several days, or weeks in advance, and if you have a true plumbing emergency, you might be at the mercy of one of these plumbing giants.
  • If the company is unwilling to give you an hourly rate, or at least a very, very rough estimate over the phone – be wary.
  • Don’t be afraid to collect several bids and estimates.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into agreeing to a work contract in-person, while the salesperson is standing in your kitchen. You wouldn’t get a life-threatening medical operation without getting the second opinion of a doctor, would you?

Thanks for reading, and may the plumbing gods be on your side.