Managing Customer Expectations About Hard-To-Locate Plumbing Parts

The universality of repair parts is becoming increasingly rare as everything becomes more brand-specific. To keep yourself from wasting precious time tracking down a part, it’s important to educate customers so that they are fully aware of everything that may be required to repair their fixture of choice.

Managing Customer Expectations About Hard-To-Locate Plumbing Parts

Anthony Pacilla

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Plumbing products of the past were made with the professional plumber in mind. Faucets, hose bibbs, taps and shower valves were all made so that an experienced professional with a handful of brass seats and washers could make a lasting repair without having to replace the entire fixture.

Manufacturers made their products so that a plumber could show up and fix nearly any tap with only a handful of bibb screws, seats and washers. A plumber would carry a ratchet threader with dies, a solder box, and their bibb repair assortments, and he would be able to get through nearly any repair without having to order anything, run for parts, or keep a ton of material in the truck.

If you happen to be a nonplumber reading this, next time you see a licensed plumber ask what size washer fits in a six-handle antique shower valve. The response will likely be, “Usually a 1/2-inch washer.” Now take a picture of the trim in your modern shower that you bought from Ikea and ask what size washer is behind it. The response will be, “It needs to come apart for me to know for sure.” 

The other day I was looking through a stem book that was over 800 pages long. And that was only for the modern type of taps for the more popular and well-known manufacturers. Stores similar to Ikea, imports from Europe, faucets sold exclusively online, and faucets from the hundreds of designer stores where fancy people buy stuff become a logistical nightmare. What happened was manufacturers were becoming somewhat of a one-and-done business. Once a manufacturer sold a faucet to a homeowner, they, in essence, were out of the after-sale market. They were hurting themselves by not making brand-specific repair parts.

As a result, manufacturers started coming out with a variety of faucets, with a wide range of stems, cartridges, seats, springs, O-rings, bonnets, inserts, cams, balls, pivots, retainers, retainer clips, etc. Due to this parts explosion, plumbers were required to order a specific part from a particular manufacturer.

Around the same time that began to grow in popularity, so did the explosion of faucet manufacturers. Not only were big manufacturers coming out with more types of faucets with different parts, but they were also making off-brands both up and down the price ladder.

The issue continues to grow. A percentage of customers still buys Delta, Moen, and American Standard — repair parts you stock in your van — but more people are beginning to swap those out with either cheap off-brand faucets or super fancy imports. Looking through a cartridge book, many of the off-brand faucets have almost identical parts, but they are not close to being universal.

A customer saying, “Hey, come fix my faucet, it should only need new guts,” used to be a cheap and easy service call for a plumber. Not so in modern times. When emailing wholesalers photos of the parts with whatever information you can scrape together, sometimes they find it and sometimes they don’t. In the meantime, you are scrolling through your stem finder app and catalogs on your iPad, trying to see what kind it is while you wait for the supply house to return your call. You can't find it; they can't find it. No one seems to know. Now the hunt begins. This is why it has become a habit to just throw fixtures away and replace them. But sometimes customers are looking for something very specific. 

There are three options to offer them: Repair and wait for parts for a certain amount of money. Replace immediately with a warranty faucet you have on hand. Or pay for your time that day, acquire their own faucet, and have you return to install it with no warranty on the customer-supplied materials. 

The time has come where a plumber can’t simply show up to fix the faucet and continue with the day. We must now give customers a thorough explanation of options and tell them which of those options we think is the wisest investment for their specific situation. Be sure to give customers a realistic idea of how long it takes to find unusual parts, and how much it typically costs to track the parts down and reschedule a repair that may or may not work when all is said and done. After all, we aren't just here to repair plumbing; we are here to make a profit while doing so. Spending days playing phone and email tag while tracking down a hard-to-locate part is a direct loss and should be avoided.

About the Author

Anthony Pacilla is a registered master plumber for McVehil Plumbing in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has 23 years' experience in the plumbing and HVAC trades, and has a bachelor’s in business and economics from Thiel College. 


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