Working with Plumbing Subcontractors: Doing Your Homework

by Tim Carter

Defining Reasonable Expectations

The plumbing subcontractor should take charge of every aspect of plumbing installations. Here's a list of the key areas of responsibility.

The plumbing sub should provide all materials and labor.
Expect the plumbing contractor to supply all labor and materials for the job. He should make sure that all items will be on-site when needed. The best plumbers supply the builder with copies of special orders. You should be in the loop and totally aware of when that custom pedestal sink or faucet will show up.

Quality plumbing installations start with quality materials. An abundance of informative seminars are available at regional and national building shows and conventions. Furthermore, there are numerous television shows, radio talk shows, and Internet Web sites about home building and remodeling. Make it a part of your business to stay informed. Invest this time and you will be able to identify a plumbing professional who is in touch with the latest products the industry has to offer.

The fit and finish of plumbing materials and fixtures are important. In many installations certain portions of the plumbing system are exposed. Imagine the subliminal impression that is made when your customer captures an image of brilliant copper water supply lines with wiped solder joints attached professionally to floor joists.

Insist on the highest-quality materials. Take it a step further: Think what a potential client thinks about when they see flexible water lines that appear like spaghetti stapled in place. The choice of materials in your houses communicates a significant message to your clients. Make the right choice and you will make the right impression.

The plumbing sub should perform all work in accordance with your specifications and local codes.
Responsible plumbing subs take the time to study plans and specifications carefully. If they prefer doing their work in ways that differ from the plans and specifications, or if they wish to substitute materials or fixtures with items other than those specified, they should inform you beforehand and obtain your permission. And if the plumbing sub finds conflicts between the plans and specifications and the local codes, he must bring them to your attention.

The plumbing sub should assume responsibility for all plumbing permits, septic, sewer and water taps and arrange for all plumbing inspections.
The best plumbing subcontractors know the local building department officials as well as you do, and are familiar with the acceptable practices for the area. Good plumbing subs also know how to navigate through the local bureaucracy to get permits and approvals without unnecessary delays.

The plumbing sub should work in accordance with established schedules.
Building a house on time and on budget requires the cooperation of all of the subcontractors involved. Your plumbing subcontractor can cause significant delays if he does not perform his different tasks on time. If he doesn't show up for the below-rough installation, or he fails an inspection, you may miss an opportunity to pour the slab on time.

Ensure the plumber understands where he fits into the overall construction process, and make every effort to keep the workflow moving forward. That means coordinating with the masons, carpenters, electricians and other tradespeople to assure that each plumbing phase is completed within an orderly sequence so that nobody holds up anybody else and nobody gets in anybody else's way.

Develop specific time frames for each phase of work the plumber will perform. Be sure to discuss when work can be covered up. Don't allow your concrete subs to cover below-rough plumbing work before the inspection. If a job schedule is tight, ask your plumber to give you a call once the inspection is complete.

Make sure that your plumber backfills trenches beneath driveways or sidewalks with compactable fill like bank-run gravel or similar material. Uncompacted soil in sewer or water line trenches can become traps for heavy concrete trucks or crane stabilizer pads.

The plumbing sub should be an effective problem-solver and take responsibility for making sure that all aspects of the system work properly.
He should ensure that the water pressure throughout the house is consistent and that the water heater is the right size for the house. Above all, he should be there to support you after the move-in date. Problems crop up, and you want the best plumber on your team when they occur. This plumber will be ready, willing and able to run toward, not away from these problems.

The plumbing sub should be willing and able to meet with buyers.
He should make himself available, if needed, to answer specific questions and to listen to their special requests. If and when your plumber meets with your customers, he should be smartly dressed and treat your buyers with the utmost respect.

The plumbing sub should provide all necessary documentation before asking for payment.
It is important for you to develop simple written guidelines that you and the plumber follow when submitting invoices. These guidelines should state what you need before you will issue payment. They should include but not be limited to:

  • A dated invoice
  • Copies of material invoices
  • Inspection tags or certificates
  • A signed, notarized affidavit or release of lien from your plumber
    (Affidavits are the legal receipts that allow you to prove that the plumber has indeed been paid for specific services up to and including specific dates. You need an affidavit, release of lien or a similar document for each check that you write.)
  • Materialmen's certificates from suppliers

Communicate your desires, work standards and your scheduling timetable to your plumber so that he performs according to your expectations.
Don't depend upon extrasensory perception-most people in the building industry have yet to master this power.

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Evaluating Your Current Plumber

Is your current plumbing subcontractor working up to professional standards?
Ask yourself these questions, then decide:

  1. Have you received more than two customer complaints in the past six months regarding your current plumber?
  2. Has your current plumber caused delays of any type?
  3. Did a job suffer a delay because a fixture did not arrive on time or an inspection failed?
  4. Did your current plumber damage any surfaces or leave a mess of any type during the past six months?
  5. Does your plumber fail to use dropcloths when working on finished floors?
  6. Do you have to make repeated calls to get attention?
  7. Does your plumber fail to show up at a client's house within 24 hours of a service or warranty call?
  8. Does your plumber fail to test ALL fixtures for trouble-free and leak-free installation before the move-in date on your jobs?

If the answer to two or more of the above questions is "yes," you are working with the wrong plumber.

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Finding a Good Plumbing Subcontractor

If you want to locate a great plumber, you need to go to where plumbers buy their products. Go to specialty warehouses that stock plumbing supplies-not to big-box-style home centers. Find the owner or general manager and ask for the names of three plumbers that meet the following criteria:

  1. They have been in business at least 15 years. Experienced plumbers know what can and does go wrong on jobs. They usually will provide room in their quotes to compensate for surprises. Any plumbing business that has survived 12 or more years in the construction industry deserves a serious look.
  2. They purchase, on a routine basis, the highest quality materials. First-class plumbers care about their work and their customers. They want referrals and repeat business. A respectable plumber doesn't want his reputation tarnished. Those who buy high-quality materials are simply making an investment in the future.
  3. They pay their bills on time. You want a plumber who is a competent business person. You also want one that is financially strong. Plumbers that have adequate working capital don't live hand-to-mouth each month. They can easily pay their bills on time.

Bonus Criterion
Ask for a plumber that routinely takes advantage of the 1- or 2-percent discount by paying their material bill by the 10th of the following month. Operating in this way indicates an extra level of competency and a shrewd business person.

Qualifying Candidates

In the business world beyond home building, people who apply for jobs have to submit and pass job interviews. In almost all cases they have to fill out an application. This is not a practical way to assess the qualifications for a plumbing subcontractor in the home building industry. A face-to-face meeting where you ask some basic questions is a great idea. If the plumber refuses to do this or is too busy, that's a helpful piece of information-it tells you immediately that you have the wrong person.

Professional employee screeners and interviewers will tell you that the absolute best source of information about a person is actually the person. What follows is a list of some things I would ask a plumber I was considering taking on as a subcontractor. Just introduce the questions in a relaxed conversation, and listen carefully to the answers. You'll be surprised at what you can learn in this way.

  • Are you licensed in the city/county where my jobs are located?
    Will you please provide me a copy of your current license?
  • Are you bonded? If so, will you provide me a copy of your bond as well as the contact name at the bonding company?
  • Do you have Workmen's Compensation coverage?
    Will you supply me a copy of your current certificate?
  • Do you have general liability insurance?
    Will you provide me a copy of this?
  • Are you an active member in any plumbing associations?
  • How many people (direct employees) work for your plumbing company?
  • How many plumbers and/or helpers usually show up on each job?
  • Can all of your plumbers and helpers with at least one year's experience solder copper tubing?
  • How many jobs on average do you have going on at any one time?
  • Do you have a showroom? If so, when was it last updated?
  • Does it take you more than 24 hours to respond to a warranty/callback claim?
  • What was your worst experience when working with a builder?
    What went wrong?
  • What qualities do you look for in a builder?
    In other words, what can a builder do for you to make your job easier?
  • What are your business ambitions?

Evaluating the Answers

Clearly, affirmative answers to questions about licensing, bonding and insurance coverage indicate the minimum acceptable level of professionalism that builders should require. Willingness to submit current copies of documents related to these areas indicates forthrightness and good organizational skills. Active membership in a trade organization suggests a high level of professional commitment. A candidate's answers to questions about the size of their crews and their showrooms will indicate whether the subcontractor can fulfill your needs as a builder. Answers to your questions about the candidate's preferences, working experiences and ambitions will tell you whether he's likely to be a good fit with your team.

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Writing Specifications and Contracts

You are directly responsible for the houses you build. Your clients depend upon you to supply them with high quality. You do this by writing simple material specifications. I know it is a competitive market out there. You try to shave every dollar where possible. But did you know your clients might be willing to upgrade-if you just give them the choice?

For example, your plumbers may tell you that copper plumbing is expensive. Well, it does cost a little more, but your customers just may want it! Give them a choice. Write all specifications so that you have good, better and best options on all materials. It can be a simple checklist form that you fill out with your client and then pass on to your plumber.

The best plumbing installations will incorporate no-hub cast iron or copper drain and waste lines for whisper-quiet performance. You can still use PVC for air venting to minimize job costs. A 1-inch diameter water service line helps reduce problems associated when there is demand for water at more than one fixture at a time. Three-quarter-inch hot- and cold-water lines to each fixture group maintain this pressure. The larger supply lines will also reduce water hammer or noisy pipes.

Many inexpensive materials regularly pass code requirements, but they may be a sore spot down the road with your homeowner customer. Noisy PVC drain lines and the least expensive water heater require the same labor and skill to install as high-quality plumbing components. Write your specifications so you and your clients can depend on the results. If a customer can afford only the lower-level products, then explain what may happen once he or she begins to use the plumbing.

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About the Author

Tim Carter Tim Carter is an award-winning builder, remodeler and a licensed master plumber. He built custom homes for more than 20 years and is a syndicated newspaper columnist. His popular column, "Ask the Builder," appears weekly in newspapers nationwide. Tim also maintains a Web site,, which is updated on a daily basis.

The advice presented in this article reflects the personal views and professional opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the Copper Development Association. CDA believes that Tim Carter's independent viewpoint will be helpful.