Don’t Get Ripped Off

How to Keep From Being SchnookeredHow to Keep From Being Schnookered

A handy guide for keeping your plumber honest

A man I met last week was telling me about his recent plumber experience. From what I could determine, the plumber used a combination of scare tactics and a questionable legal maneuver to lock the man into a contract where he had no control over charges and little legal recourse to do anything about it. As a result he had no choice to pay the outlandish bill that was later presented to him. Bamboozled, fleeced, taken for a ride–whatever you want to call it, this man was ripped off by a plumber.

As a plumber, it greatly bothers me to see or hear about someone getting taken advantage of by another plumber or contractor.

What follows is a guide for consumers (and companies) who wish to protect themselves from possible nefarious plumber practices, whether an individual contractor or large plumbing company.

Our plumbing business services the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area. However, what happens here also happens in your city or town: a small percentage of bad plumbers giving the rest of us black eyes. We hope this article helps you to spot them before it’s too late.

“Book Pricing”

What is referred to in the plumbing industry as “book pricing” is nothing more than a sophisticated effort to legitimize plumbing overcharges to unsuspecting consumers.

Here’s how it works.

Book pricingA plumber, let’s call him Pat, pays big money to go through training, a sales boot camp for plumbers. There Pat learns all the nuances of high-pressure sales designed to get high-profit jobs. He’s drilled on tactics to achieve volume sales. He’s taught how to deal with the elderly (“don’t worry about them, they have more money than younger people do”), how to not leave a sales call without the husband on the phone, etc. They’re trained how to survey a situation–referred to in the bank robbing industry as “casing the joint”–in order to “find more things wrong” that increases the profits on that particular job.

After, Pat gets his fancy “certificate of training” and the right to put the organizational logo on his marketing materials. Now he appears legit, evidenced by his inclusion in this “trade organization.” But it’s the Magical Book (re: “book pricing”) that’s the real prize for Pat. He is shown how to use The Book with great efficiency, and it is the weapon he’ll use to negotiate pricing with you.

Pat marches off and resumes his business, but now armed with The Book. He holds it up as if it’s the Holy Grail of the plumbing industry. Augmented with his high-pressure sales training, when providing pricing he presents The Book and declares that this job is worth this amount of money. The Book says so. If the customer balks at the price, Pat simply shrugs and refers back to the Infallible Book.

How do I know this? I went through this training program. And over the years I’ve witnessed many, many shady deals where The Book was used as artillery. “Book pricing” is nothing more than a sophisticated and widespread con, and one I found I could not participate in.

I don’t mention any organizational names because I do not want sued and buried in court costs over this. It’s enough for me to point out that book pricing is a scam. Bottom line, “book pricing” is a method of extracting more money from you than a plumbing job is worth. If your plumbing contractor uses “book pricing” and touts it as the industry pricing guide, either tell him to throw away the book and try again, or find another plumber who doesn’t use book pricing.

But there’s a few more things to concern yourself with.

Jagoffs!The Drywall Mask Jagoff

A standard drywall mask–the kind painters and carpenters use–filters air down to 1.0 micron and helps protect against dust, pollen, mold spores, pet hair & dander, bacterial allergens, and airborne effluents that can contain cold and flu germs.

However, drywall masks are gas-permeable and no protection whatsoever against natural gas that may be leaking. And plumbers–who sometimes work in volatile situations where an explosion isn’t out of the realm of possibilities–certainly know this.

So during or after an evaluation of your home for leaks, if you see a concerned-looking plumber put on a standard drywall mask, know that this is for show, a prop in the sales process. If he then tries to scare you about a gas leak, know that he is likely a charlatan and certainly doesn’t have your best interests in mind. These masks do not stop gas from going through them–they are 100% ineffective and the plumber knows it. He doesn’t want to get blown up, and certainly knows what gear is necessary for a real gas leak.

If a plumber puts on a sophisticated mask on you and rushes you out of the house for your safety, you might have a real issue. For your own safety, follow his directions. But whatever you do, bearing in mind that this is a rather stressful event for you, do NOT sign an Emergency Waiver he may put in front of you.

The Emergency Waiver

According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, “You have the right to rescind your home improvement contract without penalty within three business days of the signing date, except as provided under law for emergency situations.” The loophole there: “except as provided under law for emergency situations.”

Say you have a home or business plumbing or gas situation and are standing there with a plumber discussing options. He may present and ask you to sign what is called an “Emergency Waiver.” Just know that with this Emergency Waiver, you are signing away most of your of consumer rights and will be stuck responsible for whatever they dig into you for. And dig they will, because there’s nothing you’ll be able to do about it. They’re covered; you’re screwed.

How this happens is that by signing by the emergency waiver form, you voluntarily (and legally) give up your three-day rescission clause. Otherwise you’d have 72 hours–three days and nights–to make a rescission of any contract you get just signed. <href=”http:”” secure=”” data=”” 052=”” chapter54=”” s54.5.html”=”” target=”_blank”>See what your rescission rights are here. Perhaps you realize after a day on the job, these plumbers are wrong for the job or you suspect you’re getting screwed. If you signed an emergency waiver, however, there won’t be a thing you can do about it.

There have been several recent court cases in Pennsylvania concerning plumbers coercing customers to sign emergency waivers. In fact, they are not supposed to be doing this at all–but some still do. But many consumers simply don’t check on the legitimacy of the contracts they enter into with contractors. From the PA Code § 54.5. Disclosure statement for residential and small business customers:

  • (d) Customers shall be provided a 3-day right of rescission period following receipt of the disclosure statement.
  • (1) The 3-day right of rescission is 3 business days.
  • (2) The 3-day right of rescission begins when the customer receives the written disclosure.
  • (3) The customer may cancel in writing, orally or electronically, if available.
  • (4) Waivers of the 3-day right of rescission are not permitted.

Signing an “emergency waiver” is a very easy way to get screwed, folks.

Resources for Consumers

The State Attorney General’s Office states that “all contractors must display their official registration number on all contracts, estimates, proposals, and advertisements distributed within the Commonwealth.” To verify a contractor’s registration number, click here or call them toll free 1-888-520-6680.

On July 1, 2009, the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (Senate Bill 100) took effect. This law requires most home improvement contractors (including plumbers) to register with the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. Additionally, these contractors must maintain minimum insurance coverage and utilize contracts that comply with a number of consumer protection requirements specified in this law. The Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection is responsible for enforcement of these requirements.

If you want to file a complaint, in Pennsylvania go to The Pennsylvania Office of General Attorney. They have forms and plenty of other information for consumers.

Here’s another scam to look out for.

The Magic Reappearing SCSD Disk

Plumbers of today utilize cool ultra micro camera technology to often find problems quickly and without having to dig.

Problem is, a minority but nevertheless mentionable of plumbers will show the same badly-blocked sewer line over and over, to different customers. After all, what kind of money is there to make on a clear line? Plenty–if the homeowner thinks the video is real, their line that appears all backed up. It’s easy to avoid this trap. Simply tell the plumber, “I want to see a live line video feed.” If he pretends he doesn’t understand what you’re asking, he’s taking you for a dupe. Insist on it or find someone else.

Jason PalermoJourneyman, Apprentice or Master Plumber?

Plumbers fall into these categories, designations based on education, experience and other criteria. When a plumber is doing work for you, ask for their health department license (pictured right). This license will display if they are an apprentice, journeyman (four years of plumbing school) or a master plumber (six years as journeyman). Then you can see if you’re paying master or journeyman rates for apprentice work. All apprentices must work under a master or journeyman plumber.

The N-S-E-W Plumbing Companies

This has always irked me, plumbing companies who advertise numbers for their north, south, east and west offices. With some exceptions, they don’t have offices in all these locations. This is merely an guise to make you believe that these guys are everywhere, that certainly can help you quickly because they’re in your neck of the woods.

Shamed to say, I worked for an outfit early in my career that indeed proudly listed four offices–N,S,E & W–only that all the calls got routed to a single number in the downtown area–one office made to look like five.

It’s misrepresentation like this that begs the question: what else are these guys up to?


There’s still room for honesty and integrity in the plumbing industry. When you have your own company, you get to choose the culture, the rhythm, the values of your enterprise. That’s one of the reasons I love co-running Precision Plumbing of Pittsburgh. Jason and I can be ourselves and not have to look over our shoulders or need any help to sleep soundly.

I hope this little article is helpful to you. Please feel free to share it. And to anyone who might be offended, ask yourself honestly why you are upset. You understand that this is a customer and referral-driven business. If you’re spending tens of thousands on advertising every month, you need to recoup that large investment. Nothing wrong with doing it honestly. Or if you’re small, you likely truly appreciate the hard work it takes to get ahead and wouldn’t think of taking advantage of someone else in their struggle to make ends meet. If you’re doing it fair and square and succeeding, God Bless America. Good, honest plumbers will be glad we’re educating consumers. The rotten ones? They’ll bitch about us giving out “industry secrets.”

Send us some feedback. We’d love to hear of your experiences and any consumer protection suggestions you have.

And thank you for taking the time to read this.

–Bob Shamonsky