Plumbing has been around since ancient times, with Romans building aqueducts, marble baths and bronze pipe systems to keep their toga-clad bodies clean and their water drinkable. Flush toilets came into the world in 1596, when a godson of Queen Elizabeth I invented a primitively constructed water closet he nicknamed “Ajax.” In modern times, we can luxuriate in jetted tubs, sit on toilets with heated seats and cook spaghetti in pots filled by special pasta faucets.

Still, even our marvelous modern pipes and appliances often spring leaks, back up or just stop working. That’s where a good plumber can get you out of hot (or cold) water.

Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook’s surveys of local consumers turned up some excellent plumbing outfits in the area. Some companies evaluated by Checkbook were rated “superior” overall by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers. Fortunately, many of the service providers that rate best for the quality of their work also are among the lowest in price.

But, as you’d expect, Checkbook also found there are many plumbing outfits out there that will soak you: For these, more than half of their surveyed customers rated them poorly overall, with reviews that frequently include words like “overcharged,” “unprofessional,” “incompetent,” “rude,” “messy,” “no-show” and “dishonest.”

Tips for hiring a plumber

After you have identified high-quality, reliable companies, you need to consider price. To rate firms on the prices they offer, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers called the companies and requested price quotes for specific plumbing jobs. Prices varied dramatically for the same work.

For example, to supply and install an InsinkErator Pro Series 750 garbage disposer, prices ranged from $300 to $875. And to supply and install a Bradford-White RG250T6N 50-gallon gas water heater, prices ranged from $898 to $1,800.

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If you have 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. Checkbook’s undercover shoppers recently obtained bids for a complete remodel of a large master bath and received price quotes ranging from $26,000 to $61,000.

The message is clear: Even for small jobs, it’s worth your time to shop around.

How to get accurate quotes

Unfortunately, although it’s fairly straightforward to get price quotes for plumbing installation or remodeling work, it’s often difficult to get accurate pricing for repairs in advance. Your best bet is to call a few companies — start with those that rate highly at Checkbook.org for quality and price. Then:

  • Provide an exact description of your problem.
  • Ask each company how it computes its labor rates (minimum charge and what it includes, price per hour after the minimum, etc.).
  • Try to get an estimate of how long it usually takes to do your job.
  • When the plumber arrives, review the labor rates you were provided. This will eliminate misunderstandings and may enhance timekeeping accuracy.
  • Clear the area. You don’t want to pay a plumber $150 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.

For remodeling jobs, get a contract that includes:

  • A fixed price for all work.
  • Exactly what you want done, including makes and model numbers of all fixtures. Plus specifics on who breaks up the floor, cuts holes in the wall, patches floor and walls, hangs the sink, performs the carpentry, hauls away debris, etc.
  • Location of fixtures 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 your sink installed just a little to the left to make room for a wastebasket.
  • That the contractor will secure required permits and inspections.
  • When work is to begin and approximately how long it is to take.
  • Warranty information. For remodeling work, materials and workmanship should be warrantied for at least one year.
  • Arbitration clause. While this request might put off some companies, a company accustomed to doing sizable jobs will see it as a possible cost-saver for both parties should a dispute arise.
  • Payment schedule. Companies that let you withhold a substantial portion of the price of an installation job until completion to 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.

Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. See ratings of area plumbers free through Aug. 10 at Checkbook.org/SeattleTimes/plumbers.