There is no question that a consumer can save money by replacing a toilet flapper or fixing a ballcock, but there are many other plumbing repairs that will require the skills and knowledge of a professional plumber.

During my years of teaching consumers to fix faucets and toilets as part of a water conservation program, I heard more than my share of horror stories about plumbers … some were credible (there are bad apples in every trade), but I suspected at the time that many were really unreasonable expectations about what it costs to have a professional plumber come to your home and do work for you.

A number of years ago, the opening paragraph in a report on Washington, DC area plumbing firms by The Washington Consumers’ Checkbook said, “It’s not easy to pick a plumbing firm that does bad work. Our raters found that you are much more likely to have a job done well than not.” The Winter/Spring 2006 issue of the same magazine returned to the topic with another review of plumbers in the Washington, D.C. area. This time around the editors were a little more guarded in their overall appraisal of plumbers. They say, “…we’ve found dozens of excellent plumbing firms in the area, and many of the firms that rate best for the quality of their work also are among the lowest in price.

For major plumbing jobs such as remodeling an entire bathroom, you’ll want to interview several plumbing firms and get detailed estimates from each one. Rates for contract renovation work are generally higher than fees for new construction per hour and per square foot. But for the run-of-the-mill plumbing repairs, it can be tough to compare hourly rates because they all have their ways of pricing their time.

Travel time is a factor that must be considered. Plumbers spend a good part of their day driving from job to job. In addition, they may have to make a trip to a supply shop for special parts. They need to be compensated for their time. In addition to travel time, a plumbing firm must factor in the costs of licenses, permits, insurance (vehicle, fire, liability, employee health, etc.), tools, trucks, gasoline, rents, utilities, etc.

Some companies charge a set fee for a visit, then have flat-rate charges for each task performed, such as unclogging a storm drain or replacing a sink. Others may charge an additional fee just for showing up. These are differences to clear up before making your decision.

There is no standard hourly rate for all plumbers everywhere, but most will pay attention to local economics. However, no matter where you live to remember you will pay extra over and above the regular rates for emergency plumbing calls after regular business hours, over weekends and during holidays.

In the end, it should come down to the company with the best reputation for quality and service, not just the lowest bidder.