Plumbing has been around since ancient times, with Romans building aqueducts, marble baths, and bronze pipe systems to keep their toga-ed 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 modern pipes and appliances spring leaks, back up, or just stop working. That’s where a good plumber can get you out of hot [or cold] water.

Delaware Valley’s 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% 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.

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But, as you’d expect, Checkbook also found 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.”

Here are some tips for hiring a plumber. For detailed advice, including ratings of local plumbing outfits for quality and price, visit Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Plumbers. Until Aug. 5, Checkbook is giving Inquirer readers free access to its ratings of area plumbers.

After you have identified high-quality, reliable companies, you need to consider price. To rate companies for the prices they offer, our undercover shoppers requested prices for five plumbing jobs. Prices varied dramatically for the same work.

For example, to supply and install an InSinkErator Badger 5 garbage disposer, costs ranged from $210 to $595. And to supply and install a Bradford White model RG250T6N 50-gallon water heater, prices ranged from $995 to $2,318.

If you have a medium or large job, it’s especially important to collect bids from multiple companies. We find that getting three bids for a typical installation job (installing a water heater, say) saves, on average, about $250 compared with getting one price quote. For larger jobs, such as bathroom remodels, you’ll likely save thousands of dollars by getting just a handful of prices. Although it’s a pain to meet with three or four contractors, it’s worth it to save $1,000 or more.

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 or email 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 who breaks up the floor, cuts holes in the wall, patches floor and walls, hangs the sink, performs the carpentry, and hauls away debris.

  • 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 about how long it will take.

  • Warranty. For remodeling work, materials and workmanship should be warrantied for at least one year.

  • Arbitration clause. While this request might put off some companies, those accustomed to doing sizable jobs will see it as a possible cost-saver for both parties, should a dispute arise.

  • Payment schedule. Arrange to pay as little as possible until all work is completed to your satisfaction. A company that lets you withhold a substantial portion of the price gives you leverage to require it to redo unsatisfactory work. You’ll also be protected if the company abandons your job. If possible, make all payments by credit card. If you are dissatisfied, you can dispute the charge.

Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates.