Q & A with Eco-Plumber

Questions answered in a recent interview for Resource Edge Publishers:

What are some questions that a homeowner should ask a plumber before hiring them?

I believe the most important part of the homeowner/tradesperson relationship is trust. Thus I think the most important factor in deciding who to hire is simply: "go with your gut." Only hire someone who you feel is trustworthy and who demonstrates that they are willing and able to communicate. On larger projects/remodels, it may be prudent to take multiple bids and to ask for references or examples of previous work.

What should a homeowner be cautious of when hiring a plumber?

It may be tempting to go with the cheapest bid, or rate, but just remember in doing so that you tend to get what you pay for. Sometimes cheap up front is expensive in the end, and vice versa. It is best to avoid Craigslist and similar sites.

What types of licensing and insurance should a plumber have and how can a homeowner verify that a plumber has these things?

Insurance and bond is guaranteed for those contractors who are licensed through the state. In Oregon, this organization is called the CCB, or Contractors Construction Board, and businesses can be verified on their website. Plumbers should also have a plumbing license, which is an ID card similar to a driver's license.

How can a plumber help a homeowner increase or preserve the value of their home?

Well, I think first of all we might want to distinguish between the "monetary" value of the home and the "living" value of your home. The monetary value of a home is its selling value, or its specific market price per se (based primarily on square footage and location), whereas the living value of the home is a more generic measure, and has to do with the functionality, efficiency, and even emotional/spiritual value of the home. The two values are related, but not identical. Most construction and remodeling projects do not increase the monetary value of a home, even though they may increase the living value. Some notable exceptions to this are the addition of a bathroom, the addition of an ADU (accessory dwelling unit), and sometimes the addition of a bedroom and/or living space. Other types of remodels will typically improve the living value, and often sell-ability, of your home, rather than its price tag. For instance, making your home more efficient by adding insulation, upgrading your heating system, upgrading your domestic hot-water system, or adding solar or water recycling increases the functionality, and therefore, living value of your home. In addition to improved month-to-month affordability, making a building more efficient often increases the homeowner or resident's satisfaction with their particular living environment, and may also have the increased benefit of improving their feelings of connection both to the home and the neighboring community.

What are the different options that a homeowner can choose from, when selecting a new plumbing system? What are the pros and cons of these different options?

The most common type of new piping used in new homes today is PEX, or cross-linked polyethylene, which is a flexible plastic pipe. Usually PEX is used in a hybrid system with some type of rigid piping, such as copper, which is used to make transitions through walls and provide fixed points for fixture valves. I highly recommend using a rigid material such as copper or brass for penetrations, since this definitely increases durability. PEX is affordable, easy to install, and may be safer to drink from than some other types of plastic, such as PVC or CPVC, which are joined with adhesives and commonly contain dioxin, stabilizers such as lead, cadmium, and organotins, as well as other phthalate plasticizers. PEX does however contain some VOCs at relatively low levels, most notably MTBE and 2,4-di-tert-butyl phenol. Copper pipe is generally VOC free, although most commonly available soldering fluxes are not. The only VOC and DOC free pipe that I know of, and the only pipe that I am confident is 100% safe is PPR-80, or polypropylene, typically manufactured by a German company called Aquatherm. Generally, I would recommend PEX for its economy, and copper or Aquatherm for safety and long-term durability. Avoid PVC products altogether if possible.

Will plumbers typically install items that a homeowner has already purchased?

I have no problem with installing homeowner purchased items, generally, unless they are of low quality or are unusually difficult to install.

Can a homeowner save money on plumbing materials and supplies if they purchase it through the plumber who installs it?

Typically yes. On many materials, plumbers will receive a significant discount from wholesale suppliers, and will pass some of this savings on to the homeowner. However, I often encourage homeowners to purchase or at least to research and select their own fixtures, as this is the best way to ensure that you end up with the product that you want.

What are some of the common mistakes that people make when it comes to the plumbing in their homes?

Doing DIY projects with plumbing is questionable, unless you are a skilled tradesperson in some regard or otherwise experienced in construction work. Small projects, like a leaky drain under the kitchen sink, are generally doable for individuals with less experience. Other mistakes that people make are paying for repairs over and over again on a system rather than bite the bullet and upgrade the whole thing. For instance, if you've called a plumber more than once or twice to fix a leaky faucet or shower and the problem was rust plugging up the fixtures, then it's probably time to go ahead and replace those old steel pipes. Also, don't ever remodel and then wall the old plumbing back in. If you open up a wall, replace as much of the old plumbing and electrical as possible.

Do plumbers generally provide estimates? If so, how does this typically work and does the homeowner usually pay for an estimate?

You should always get at least a ballpark estimate for any job, or at least know the hourly rate up front. Our company, and most reputable contractors, provide free estimates for most residential work.

If a homeowner is having their entire plumbing system replaced, how long does a job like this typically last?

A full water-pipe replacement for most houses will usually take anywhere from 20-30 hours of labor, or 3-4 days for one person, 1-2 days with two or more. I usually try to run as much of the new piping as possible prior to taking the system out of commission, so that customers are not out of water for more than a day. Water service replacements from the street to the house are generally a 1-2 day affair, with system down time usually less than 6 hours. Drain cleaning and replacements are most commonly tackled individually as a problem arises, and are frequently done in a day.

Why is it better to hire a professional, licensed plumber, as opposed to a homeowner attempting to do a job themselves?

A reputable professional will have the tools and the know-how to do the job right, and will be more likely to foresee and understand where problems may arise in the future. That said, I encourage at least some homeowner involvement for individuals who are handy. Getting your hands dirty creates an involvement with your project and your home that money can't buy. However, you have to realize that you're working at your own risk and you have to know your limits enough to be a good steward of your own safety. Moreover, don't expect huge discounts for your labor. Unless you're an experienced construction hand, the time a professional takes to train you to do a job frequently outweighs the labor savings from your work.

What types of guarantees and warranties are standard on completed plumbing work?

The standard warranty for workmanship for most types of construction is 1 year. There is generally little recourse after that time. This is why it's so crucial to hire a reputable, trustworthy professional up front.

What types of plumbing products can help homeowners save money on their monthly bills?

Water conserving devices, such as low-flow faucet aerators and shower-heads are the place to start. Almost anyone can replace these. Next, consider using a dual-flush conversion kit for your toilet. This is DIY feasible for some. If your toilet is older or doesn't function/flush well to begin with, consider hiring a plumber to change it out for a dual-flush or low-flush High Efficiency Toilet. High-efficiency water heaters, solar water heaters, and, in some cases, hot water recirculation systems can save you money. Another approach is to use rainwater for irrigation, flushing toilets, and/or laundry, and graywater for irrigation or toilets.

Is it true that homeowners can get a tax rebate on new plumbing products and installations? If so, how does this work?

Sometimes, solar installations and some high-efficiency water heaters may be eligible for federal or state credits or rebates. Usually this requires permitting and documenting a job, and then the homeowner submits to the appropriate governing authority. Also, grants are sometimes available for water recycling projects with rainwater and graywater. Usually, the entity offering the grant will provide an application for the homeowner/applicant to fill out.