Making a Splash: You Can’t Afford Cheap Faucets

Asian-accented bathroom from the gallery at http://www.us.kohler.com (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

When I attended the real estate open house for the flat where I now live, the master bath elicited gasps of appreciation from would-be buyers. The fittings looked strikingly high-end. The wide white sink contrasted handsomely with the modern, expresso-colored vanity and the rubbed bronze fittings. It was almost as pretty as the Kohler-designed bathroom at the right.

Was.

As I contemplated the wear patterns on that same rubbed bronze faucet this morning – the faucet shown right below – I realized that it offered both an object lesson and a subject for a blog post about why you can’t afford to buy cheap faucets and plumbing fixtures.

Don’t Mention the Holes in the Ceiling

Three years after buying my house, my bathroom still looks pretty good – if you don’t look too close. (You can see a photo of it at the very bottom of this post.)

Here's my tap: See how the bronze has worn off of the handle?

The (replacement) light in my office. The leak was caused by cheap plumbing fixtures upstairs. The circles show where I lanced the ceiling to let the water out.

The drain looks even worse; the silver chrome underneath the brown finish is showing through. This fitting started to lose its bronzing a week after I moved in!

And you probably wouldn’t even notice the little holes punched around the ceiling medallion in the office if I didn’t mention them.

But if you really looked closely at my bathroom, at my friend Alexei’s bathroom (one floor up), and at the holes in my office ceiling, you would see an illustrated object lesson about cheap, designer-knock-off faucets. One of those cheap knock-offs failed in Alexei’s bathroom, flooding it, dripping down into my ceiling, and creating a swelling water blister that threatened to burst if not quickly lanced.

The cheapest single-hole faucets I can find on the internet now are about $89, and I imagine that’s what Darla (or her contractor) paid for the faucets in my house. But if you add price to that the cost of replacing the tap in a couple years with another one of similar quality, the price becomes $178, plus a plumbers fee, plus fixing and painting the ceiling, it’s going to total more than $500, bringing the cost right in line with buying a decent quality tap in the first place!

By the way, I have never bought cheap faucets willingly.  I have encountered them in the process of buying and renovating whole houses, which come as a package deal.  (Hence,  I often tell prospective clients that one of the best reasons for hiring me to plan and design a remodeling project is that I have “an advanced degree from the school of hard knocks.”  I not only know what to do, I also know what not to do. Like buying that darn tap.)

Darla’s Water Torture

At left is a current photo of the matching drain for my tap. The trim ring was originally manufactured in that popular “rubbed bronze” finish. But as you can see, it’s becoming mostly “rubbed-off bronze” — or perhaps I should call it “ripped off bronze.”

In hindsight, however, this pinto/piebald paint job is one of the least annoying plumbing problems that Darla, the previous owner of my house, bequeathed to its new owners when she “flipped” the property.

Cool Water Bath by Kohler. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Detail of Kohler sink from image above. It has the same wide, gracious curves as my sink, but it has been modeled with a side area that gives you a safe place to put your contacts.

Here's a Delta 551-RB Dryden Single Handle Centerset in rubbed bronze that's similar to the style that was chosen for my bathroom. You can get it from FaucetsDirect.com on the internet for around $200. (Photo courtesy of Delta.)

More serious were the leaking pipes under the kitchen sink. The plumbing there had only been “staged” – which meant that the pipes were just pushed together without actually being firmly attached.

More seriously annoying was the sump pump that failed and flooded the basement with a pool of poo.

Most serious of all was that drip-drip-drip that I heard on the evening of July 4th of 2007 – a sound that was caused by a tendril of water staking down the chandelier in the office, and then pattering softly onto the hardwood floor.

Don’t Try This at Home

Picture this. I am balancing atop a rickety wooden ladder with a cellphone in one hand and a shish-kebab skewer in the other. I’m using the skewer to lance holes in the ceiling around the chandelier, allowing the water behind it to escape so that the weight of it doesn’t destroy the ceiling.

I’m standing well above the spot that says “don’t stand above this line, you could lose your balance and fall.” But I’m only 5’1″ tall, and I have to stretch up quite a bit to get the skewer close to the ceiling. I’m trying to breathe deeply and remain calm because the ladder is shaky, and now that it’s after dark, booms from the fireworks at Chrissy Field are rattling the windows.

I’m trying not to get rattled, even though my plight seems desperate. The water appears to be coming from Alexei’s upstairs unit, and I’m the only one of the four owners of this building who’s home. My husband is in the hospital having spinal surgery, and Blake and Alexei, having just closed escrow, haven’t moved in yet.

But I can’t leave my post until I relieve the pressure on the ceiling! I know that ceilings do collapse; I have seen it happen elsewhere, when a roof leaked in another building that I remodeled a decade earlier. So my cellphone is a lifeline.

Or is it? It suddenly occurs to me that the growing waterfall might interact badly with the electricity in my cellphone…oh yeah, and that chandelier is attached to live electric wires too!

You Can’t Get a Plumber on the 4th of July!

The author. Nicolette is not afraid of heights or of climbing on ladders.

Alexei has been frantically phoning plumbers – but they are all out watching the fireworks, of course! No matter what you’re prepared to pay, you can’t get a plumber on the night of the 4th of July.

To make a long story short, we coped. After I repeatedly lanced the boil, I went upstairs and discovered that a lake had formed and overflowed in Alexei’s bathtub. It had overflowed onto the floor and through my ceiling. Water was spurting copiously from tap in her shower, and even with help from Alexei’s friend Robin, there was no shutting it off.

We staved off disaster by shutting off the water to the entire building and draining the lines that led to our two flats. Alexei kindly brought me half a dozen juice jars refilled with water to see me through the night.

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish

This story illustrates why you simply can’t afford to buy cheap faucets. Altogether, cheap plumbing jobs in our two bathrooms have resulted not only in having to repair Alexei’s shower and replace the shower head, but also in having to tear open and repair the marble tile on her bathroom wall, since it turned out that the main leak occurred behind the wall.

The Forté Tall, single-control lavatory faucet from Kohler would be my pick to replace the piebald. It lists for around $370 - less than the old one plus the price of an equally cheap replacement. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Add to that the repair and repainting of my ceiling. Plus the staged kitchen sink. Plus the sump pump. Plus the two clogs from my badly maintained bathtub drains…

Oh, yeah. And then there’s the ugly piebald tap that I can’t afford to replace right now…

You get the picture. My English friends had saying that sums it up nicely: “Penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The only good thing in all of this was that we did save some money. Our realtor, the late Kari Varland, bought us a one-year home repair insurance policy as a house-warming gift, and that did pay for most of the plumbing problems.

Choosing Bathroom Fixtures

When you choose a bathroom faucet, you should not only think about the finishes, you should also think about what’s inside. There are pros and cons to every choice, of course.

Pros and Cons of Finishes

With regard to finishes, you should consider both the design of your bathroom and your lifestyle. A person who likes a weathered look may not mind the fact that even good-quality rubbed bronze finishes are meant to patina so that they are not even. (But the silver underneath should never show through as it does on my drain.)

Student photo of Nicolette at School of Hard Knocks. This contractor quit the business in the middle of the job - without telling his clients! - and joined the Fire Department. We got the remodel finished and still own the house.

A brass finish may scratch, tarnish or corrode. On the other hand, chrome shows water spots. Enamel-coated finishes can chip and fade. Gold, stainless steel and nickel are durable, but are more expensive.

I would avoid PVC fixtures on grounds of both durability and environmental concerns. The initials stand for Polyvinyl Chloride, a kind of plastic, that is made from petroleum compounds.

Quality on the Inside

For quality inside, look for solid brass construction. It will give you durability and reliability. For safety’s sake, I would also recommend a tap that includes a high-temperature limit stop that will control how hot the water comes out to eliminate scalding.

Taps come with different kinds of valves inside. Compression valves contain washers that can wear out over time, and when they do, the tap will drip. While that’s annoying and wastes water, the washers are cheap and easy to replace.

A ball valve uses a slotted metal ball to control water flow, but they can’t be used in the kind of faucets that have separate taps for hot and cold water. A cartridge valve, on the other hand, is a durable choice that can be used by either a single- or double-handled tap, and it too is easy to repair.

The best solution is a ceramic valve. It’s the most expensive choice, but it needs no maintenance. Ceramic disc valves are extremely durable and can exceed industry longevity standards twice over. They can be used with both single- and double-handled faucets and will come with extended warranties.

Resource Links

Here's the sink and vanity that elicited admiring glances at the realtor's open house. It still looks good from a distance in low light.

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7 thoughts on “Making a Splash: You Can’t Afford Cheap Faucets

  1. Sometimes “Asian accented” means minimalist, restrained design. That in turn sometimes means flat sinks and/or no real counters. And that’s when there’s too much splashing, and the sinks are hard to keep clean. My friends have become very conscious about human factors in design, and recently, one of them came back from a luxury hotel steaming – all that marble and all that design, and there was no place to put her contacts or makeup! I find that’s a frequent failing with very design-conscious bathrooms. Pedestal sinks frequently have that problem.

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  3. I have a kitchen faucet in my (rented) apartment that dribbled a little from month 1 around the shoulder. It’s an expensive-looking hi-arch, gooseneck, coil-wrapped design, one-whole, one tap, etc. This week it suddenly sent a spray of water from the shoulder across the carpet. Had I just turned it on and tended the stove, it could have put a sinks-worth of water on the carpet.

    After looking everywhere, there is just no name anywhere on the assembly. Do Kohler, Moen, etc. always have an accessible name on them? Apparently, the inside jacket that holds the neck inside the shoulder was able to unscrew itself by some kind of slip-stick ratcheting action as the neck is swivelled left-right, left-right, over the space of a year, and suddenly REALLY unscrewed a piece. (I never swivel it full 360 degree turns–no reason to).

    I opened it up and re-tightened it, but it’s still back to dribbling. If I really tighten it, I suspect it will hardly swivel at all.

    Do name-brands always have the name somewhere or other?

  4. Good question. In my experience, good quality brands do put their name somewhere. It’s not always the same place. But I’d love to hear from plumbers who are reading this blog. They see more faucets than I do.

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