Plumbing Pitfalls for Bathroom Remodels
Beginning contractors often make the mistake of pumping up a customer's
early expectations, only to discover unresolved issues and problems later that
cause the cost of the job to change, most often in a northerly direction. This
is especially true of bathroom remodels, where much of the work is hidden
behind walls and under floors, and where the number and variety of product
choices is overwhelming.
To avoid problems, it's important that during the initial site visit
you work through a of the common problems that typically plague bathroom
remodels, especially when it comes to investigating existing piping and
fixtures. Until you're comfortable with this kind of detective work, ask
your plumbing sub to visit the site with you. You'll look like a hero to
your client if you underpromise and overdeliver, and your plumber will be a lot
happier if, before saying "No problem, my plumber can do that," you actually
talk to your plumber about "that."
This article deals with those bathroom remodeling pitfalls that, if
overlooked at the outset, are most likely to rear their ugly heads before the
job is finished.
Delay Pricing Discussions
In the desire to get the work, many contractors will readily quote a
price or price range for a bathroom remodel without knowing any of the details.
In most cases, the homeowner envisions a Ferrari while the contractor is
pricing a Fiat, and once these unrealistic expectations are set, they are hard
to undo. As negotiations grow more serious and the job specs begin to take
shape, contractors start backpedaling with excuses about "hidden conditions" or
expensive fixture "upgrades." Alternatively, they wait until the job has
started and try to make up the shortfall by overcharging for change orders. In
the worst cases, the contractor simply walks away from the work. All of these
options leave the homeowner with a low regard for contractors all
To avoid being lumped in with "all contractors," never provide a quote or
give an estimate of any sort unless you are sure that you can and will do the
work for that amount. Save your ballpark estimates until after you have
thoroughly inspected the job and you know all of the specifics.
Old Pipes Never Die
The age of the existing plumbing will greatly affect the cost of the
upgrade work. Many cast-iron drain systems are on their last legs, but because
cast iron comes in varying grades, its deteriorated condition may not be
obvious. Cast iron rots from the inside out, so it may look okay but actually
have very thin walls that could fail at any time. Tap the pipe somewhere other
than the hubs with a steel wrench or heavy screwdriver: A change in tone
frequently indicates either a buildup of solids within the pipe or thin walls
caused by corrosion. In either case, the pipe may need to be repaired or
Galvanized pipes are usually ready for replacement when the bathroom is
ready for updating. Plan on replacing the entire pipe run, because old threaded
galvanized pipe joints are usually frozen tight from corrosion and can't
be disassembled without breaking. If the customer insists on tying into the old
galvanized pipe, strongly consider passing up the job: The potential problems
can far outweigh the benefits of saving the pipe.
Copper supply lines can also fool you. In some areas of the country, mineral
deposits from hard water will cause copper lines to corrode from the inside
out, much like cast iron and galvanized pipe. This is especially true if
thin-wall (type-M) copper tubing was used. Corrosion may, however, be visible
at soldered joints.
Plastic water-supply pipe presents different problems. Polybutylene pipe has
been banned for years in most areas of the country, but you may find existing
installations that are still in use. In this case, your plumber will know
whether code requires this piping to be replaced. Newer systems plumbed with
cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) should pass muster, but make sure your plumber
has the tools and expertise needed to work with this relatively new
Liability. Regardless of the kind of
piping you discover, keep in mind your potential liabilities. Obviously, when
you replace the entire system, you are responsible for any leaks in the pipe.
But when you tie into an existing plumbing system, your potential liability
escalates substantially. Heating joints and twisting fittings may well cause
problems upstream or downstream, problems which may not be readily apparent and
that could cause leaks to turn up long after you've left the job. If any
of those leaks cause damage, you'll be the first one the homeowner turns
to for compensation.
Pressure-testing new piping will provide you with some peace of mind, but
testing is far from foolproof, especially when new plumbing ties into old. When
you've got doubts about the condition of the existing plumbing, the best
solution is not to do the work. Since that may not always be possible, include
a clause in your contract that generally limits your liability for damage
resulting from a leak or other piping problem not immediately adjacent to your
work. You should also prepare and have your client sign a separate document
clearly stating that, where you are tying into existing work at the request of
the customer and you have advised against such action, you will not be liable
for any leaks or damage not occurring at your work points. Hire a lawyer to
draft these provisions for you; not every state allows for such clauses, nor
does every state allow you to limit your damages without some other restrictive
or informative language. A good lawyer can advise you on the proper course of
action, and the cost will be less than the cost of defending a lawsuit.
Remember, though, that all the paper in the world will not enhance your
professional reputation or endear you to an unhappy customer when a fixture
leaks or a joint fails. You need to be clear with customers about the risks of
using old pipes. Seeing is believing: The most convincing argument is to show
them the built-up corrosion and sediment from a section of corroded pipe that
you've removed from a home similar to theirs.
If a tub unit is to be replaced, the major trouble spots will be access
to the drain and supply lines; the tub itself shouldn't present many
problems. Remember, though, that a cast-iron tub is very heavy. Breaking it up
may be the only practical way to get the old tub out of the bathroom.
Fiberglass and steel tubs can often be removed in one piece, unless they are
Occasionally, the homeowner wants to save the tub, either because of its
antique value, or because cousin Bob wants it for his own remodeling project.
Even if the tub can be moved in one piece, make sure it will fit through the
doorway and down the hall and stairs. It's not unusual for tubs,
particularly modern whirlpool units, to have been surrounded by framing after
the tub was set; sometimes tubs are lifted into place with a crane or boom
along with upper-story framing materials. Where this has happened, be sure that
the customer accepts the risk that the tub may have to be destroyed to be
Getting the old tub out is one thing; getting the new tub in means making
sure it will fit into the existing space and that it will clear all obstacles.
The only way to know is to have your client decide on the specific tub before
you agree to the work. In fact, you should have the correct measurements for
the tub they want in hand as you make your initial site review. If you have to
remove the door trim and frame to gain necessary inches, it could get
expensive, and somebody (preferably the homeowner) has to pay for the work.
Sinks and vanities. Removing existing
sinks and vanities is generally straightforward. You may run into problems with
pipe sizes and corroded fittings that require different or extra fittings than
are called for "by the book." You may also find that the necessary vent is
missing, a problem when the original scope of work does not involve gutting the
Another problem to look out for is a sink, either purchased or specced by
the homeowner, that might not fit into an existing cabinet. This can happen
whether the sink comes from a home improvement center or a specialty shop.
Whether the solution is a different sink or a new cabinet, the cost should be
included in your estimate.
Also inspect the supply tubes and fittings under the sink. Often, the
shutoffs are frozen open, making replacement more difficult, especially if
there is no primary shutoff for the whole fixture group. Again, remember that
disturbing old and corroded fittings can cause problems down the line. When in
doubt, plan on replacing the supplies.
Color match. One nice thing about white
fixtures is that you can always match the color. Designer colors, on the other
hand, seem to change about every five years or so, and matching a five-year-old
color may be difficult at best and impossible at worst. Be sure that customers
who are concerned about consistent fixture color are willing to replace all of
the fixtures. If you can't be sure of the need or desire to replace the
fixtures before the job starts, use a fixture allowance and explain that the
final cost will be determined by the fixture selection.
The biggest problem here is subsurface water damage. Leaking shower
valves and pans can cause tremendous damage to the structure, almost all of
which may be hidden until the fixture is removed. You need to be clear with
your customer about the potential for extra costs in the event structural
repairs are needed.
If the shower is going to be rebuilt, be sure that the homeowner has
selected the finish material for the shower floor and walls. This is especially
important with tile, because variations in thickness will affect rough openings
and the stub-outs for faucets and diverters.
Finally, if the shower plumbing is being replaced, don't make the
mistake of assuming your customers will be happy with "standard" rough-in
heights. Instead, have them stand in the tub or shower space and tell you at
what height they want the shower valve and head located. This is especially
useful with taller people, or with couples who differ greatly in height. Be
sure that they are standing at the floor level of the tub or shower, not
directly on the subfloor, since the difference can be 3 or 4 inches.
Failing to inspect the crawlspace can lead to significant problems and
additional expense. Most crawlspaces are dark and damp, and are accessible only
Headroom. While most codes require a
minimum of 18 inches of crawlspace headroom, in practice many crawlspaces are
much smaller. You may be willing to put up with this if you have to work only
at one corner of a building, but if you have to run lines from one end of the
building to the other, you may have to increase your working room with shallow
trenches. Hand-digging a crawlspace is hard work, so you need to be sure that
the customer understands that the prep work is part of the bill.
Access. While you are inspecting the
crawlspace, also determine if you can gain access to each of the areas where
you need to work. In many cases, grade beams, retaining walls, and retrofitted
support walls impede or close off large areas of a crawlspace, and you will
have to cut access holes in the floor to reach these areas. Include the cost of
this work in your price, and be sure to specify who will repair the floor once
you are done with your work.
Water and light. A damp crawlspace is
an uncomfortable place to work. You may need to lay down plastic sheeting or
even build wooden catwalks to keep yourself and your materials and tools dry.
More than one plumber, working a very dark crawlspace, has found himself 80
feet from the entrance when he tugged on his work light and disconnected it.
Some plumbers find it useful to install "string lights" or other types of
temporary lighting when they plan to work in a crawlspace for more than a few
A limiting factor in any remodeling project is the joist depth of upper
floors. Many older buildings have relatively shallow floor joists into which
pipe, many times old lead pipes, have been tightly stuffed. These "creative"
configurations may be difficult to disassemble. Moreover, getting new drain
lines into the same cramped space may be difficult or impossible. To complicate
the problem, modern codes not to mention good sense may restrict
your ability to cut away or modify joists sufficiently to allow for easy
Similarly, concealed supply and drain lines can be counted on to throw a
wrench into the works, directly affecting the budget. You need to look at
places where notching and drilling may be necessary to determine what is in the
way and how you can perform your work with minimal waste and damage. You might
consider purchasing one of the new electronic testers to locate concealed
piping and wiring. These devices are readily available and are now reasonably
priced; if you do a lot of remodeling, they are a worthwhile investment.
Walls and Floors
Vent sizing requirements may have changed since the structure was
built, or the vents may have to be upgraded due to the addition of new fixtures
and appliances. Similarly, code restrictions against cutting top and bottom
plates may make it impossible to run a 3-inch stack in a 3-1/2-inch wall, and
furring out the wall may not be feasible.
Also, remember that while it may be easier to run supply lines straight up
an exterior wall cavity, the presence of existing insulation or the need for
added insulation may preclude using that route. This is more of a problem in
the northern states and other areas where energy conservation is paramount.
Be sure to verify the floor joist spacing. If a tile floor is being
considered, include the expense of having to add joists to strengthen the
floor. If it appears necessary to build up the subfloor, figure out how you
will handle the threshold, which can be both ugly and dangerous if it's
Thanks to plumber Randy Teets and builder Carl Hagstrom, both of
Montrose, Pa., for help with this article.
This article has been provided by www.jlconline.com. JLC-Online is produced by the editors and publishers of The Journal of Light Construction, a monthly magazine serving residential and light-commercial builders, remodelers, designers, and other trade professionals.