How Cheap Alternative Materials Pervaded the Plumbing Industry

The desire for cheap materials began with the customer. Plumbers can stop the detrimental effects with some education.

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Cheap alternative material is a detriment to our industry. It has wreaked havoc among manufacturers. It has undercut the profits of wholesalers. It has undermined the quality workmanship of the plumbing trades, and it has led to unnecessary repair costs for homeowners. It is a complete injustice to all parties involved.


Some manufacturers make high-quality materials that last a lifetime. Manufacturers have always been in competition with other cheaper-alternative manufacturers. This is nothing new. A few decades ago, plumbers demanded high-quality materials to install in their customers’ homes because they knew that is what the customer expected. People were focused on what would last, not what was the cheapest. Customers couldn’t afford to buy cheap alternatives that wouldn’t last. The expectation of the customer led to the prosperity of the top-quality manufacturers. Manufacturers were able to do the honorable thing and make high-quality goods that they could be proud of and at the same time provide health and well-being for the end consumer.

When customers’ expectations went from a “must have quality” mentality to an “I want the cheapest of the cheap” mentality, manufacturers cut their losses. This led to the shift from high-quality goods to many cheap alternatives. It wasn’t so much a shift from, say, copper to plastic or cast iron to PVC. It was a shift even within those individual manufacturers. Plastic pipe manufacturers began to make even cheaper grade plastics. Copper and brass manufacturers were forced to make cheap grade brass fixtures. The supply had to adapt to the demand.


Wholesalers are the next group of people who have been negatively affected by the cheap alternatives. Have you been into one of your supply houses recently? The aisles are full of push-on, click-on, snap-on, easy-to-install plastic items. Is this the fault of the wholesaler? Not really. Wholesalers used to stock good-quality materials. So what happened?

The business of selling high-quality, high-yield fixtures and supplies changed dramatically. The wholesale business is focused only on high-turnover items. The days of your wholesaler stocking hard-to-find items for emergencies are gone. Wholesalers are opening to the public in order to compete with big box stores, and the public doesn’t need 2-inch brass unions and 6-inch spool pieces. The public needs the material to be cheap and easy to install. Not only do homeowners install cheap materials, they also install the cheap end of the cheap materials. This leads to the degradation of plumbing systems around the country en masse.


“Good enough” materials are being installed in homes all around the United States. How does the plumber benefit from installing cheap alternatives? In making a few more dollars? What about the times that you have to return to the same house to repair that cheap material you installed? Aren’t all faucets and fixtures the same? What about tankless water heaters — they are all identical in quality, right? The oversimplification of the products we install hurts us as a whole.

What about your reputation in the community? Does honor in your community mean nothing anymore? Is it all about how cheaply you can provide cheap materials using cheap labor? Who benefits from that?

Copper and certain types of PEX last forever, while their cheap alternatives have proven to be a revolving door of bankruptcies and lawsuits.

Maybe we should ask ourselves: What is the difference between us and our substandard competition? Skill? How much skill does it really take to install the cheapest plastic piping systems? What do these cheap alternatives do to advance and benefit the trades? Did the manufacturers think about the positive impact on the plumbing trades that their new fast and cheap alternatives would command? I think not.

The argument for cheap alternatives comes from some business owners and technicians who claim that they make a living fixing the problems that result from those cheap alternatives — that if homeowners want cheap, then that’s what they should get. When a doctor says you need surgery, do you request that they use old syringes during the procedure to save you money? Does the doctor say to her staff, “He wants cheap, so let’s use the dull scalpels.” No. The doctor knows what is best for you, and you don’t. Just like the plumber knows what is best for a plumbing system when others don’t.

The argument for cheap alternative materials comes from a position of submission. We need to do a better job of explaining the differences between cheap “good enough” material and quality material. The mentality of customers lies on our shoulders.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 22 years' experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 


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