Plumbing is seldom exciting. It works fine for years, filling, flowing, and flushing. But when you get a clog, or a pipe leaks through your ceiling just before your holiday guests arrive, the excitement may become unbearable. Even if you're stressed, don't dial a number from a radio jingle — ad budgets don't indicate great service. Instead, take a few minutes to find a plumber who will get the job done right for a fair price.

Here are some tips for hiring a plumber. For detailed advice, including ratings of local plumbing outfits for quality and price, visit www.checkbook.org/inquirer/plumbers. For the next month, Checkbook is giving readers of the Inquirer free access to its ratings of area plumbers.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook's surveys of local consumers turned up dozens of excellent plumbing outfits. Several  companies were rated "superior" overall by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers. But not all plumbers are up to snuff: Checkbook found that some companies compound — rather than solve — their customers' woes. For these companies, more than half of their surveyed customers rated them poorly overall, with reviews that include words like  overcharged,  unprofessional, incompetent, rude, messy, no-show, and dishonest.

After you have identified high-quality, reliable companies, you should consider price. To help, Checkbook's undercover shoppers called the companies and requested price quotes for eight plumbing jobs. Prices varied dramatically for the same work. Prices to supply and install an InsinkErator Premier Badger 5 garbage disposer ranged from $342 to $797 — a difference of $455. To supply and install a Bradford-White RG250T6N 50-gallon water heater, prices ranged from $798 to $2,520 — a difference of $1,722.

If you have a large remodeling job — a new kitchen or bathroom, say — getting several bids is critical. Not only is a large amount of money at stake, but the percentage variation in prices on such major jobs is larger than on smaller jobs. Checkbook's undercover shoppers obtained bids from local companies for a complete remodeling of a large master bath and received quotes ranging from $26,000 to $61,000.

The message is clear: Even for small jobs, it pays to shop around.

You don't have to pay more to get good work. Checkbook found that many companies that rate best for quality are among the cheapest.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to get accurate pricing for repairs in advance. Your best bet is to call 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 provided. This will eliminate misunderstandings and may enhance timeliness.
  • Clear the area. You don't want to pay a plumber $125 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, remember that they are on the clock until they write 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, 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 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.
  • For remodeling, materials and workmanship should be warrantied for at least one year.
  • Arbitration clause. While this request might put off some companies, a company accustomed to doing sizable jobs will see it as a possible cost-saver for both parties should a dispute arise.
  • Payment schedule. Companies that let you withhold a substantial portion of the price of an installation job until completion show they are confident they can satisfy you. And you also get leverage to prod the company to do the job right if you are dissatisfied.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit that helps consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from service providers we evaluate. You can access Checkbook's ratings of area plumbers free until Jan. 10, 2018, at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/plumbers.