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The Secret to Picking Plumbing Stuff That’s Best For You

Pick the Best Kitchen Faucets, Best Toilet, Best Whatever for YOU:
​3 Simple Steps for Selecting Any Plumbing Fixture

Picking the best toilet, kitchen faucet or even a simple showerhead can be nothing short of daunting with all the choices out there. Even if I typed toilet reviews non-stop for a month, I would barely scratch the surface of the plethora of toilets available. And that is just one type of fixture! At that rate, it will be years before I make my goal for GirlWithWrench to be the most truly useful site of it's kind on the web. Argh! So to get a jumpstart on helping you make a choice that is right for you, right now, this is the first in a series of general selection guidlelines.

This is the big key which applies nearly universally to selecting any type of plumbing fixture. It's really a modification of the “contractors triangle” (which I'll discuss another time.)

Pick Two: Function, Form, Price

 

That's right, at the end of the day, you will really only get two. So you need to take a good, hard look at what is a “physical must” in your situation, and which qualities are the most important to YOU, and take it from there. It's really not too complicated if you break it down like this:

Always start with FUNCTION.

Step 1: Determine your Function “musts.” If you are replacing an item, there will be a number of physical requirements which must be met to do it without having to change piping or other plumbing fixtures as well. For example, my Toilet Basics covers this for toilets: your rough-in is non-negotiable unless you are willing to move piping, re-tile floors, etc. Below is a quick reference chart of what you need to know before you begin for common fixtures. Determining this will help narrow down the field significantly, assuming you choose to stay within those parameters.

 

Fixture Type

“Musts” to determine

Toilet

Rough-in dimension; if space is limited: also distance from wall to front of bowl (see Toilet Basics for full info)

Bathroom Faucet

Faucet center: 8” centers (3 holes set 4” apart); 4” centers (3 holes set 2” apart; also called “centerset”); Single Hole

Bathroom Sink

Mounting type (drop in, undermount, top with integral bowl); Faucet centers (See bathroom faucet)

Bathroom Tub/Shower Faucet

Manufacturer and type of valve(s); Shower only or Tub/Shower

Roman Tub Faucet

Manufacturer and type of valve; number of holes (1, 3 or 4)

Bathtub

Size (length, width, height); Hand (left or right); skirted (built in front) or drop in

Shower Pan/Stall

Size (length, width, height); Drain location (center, left, right); standard or above floor rough in; Stall only: one piece or “remodeler” (several pieces. Note: a one piece usually won't fit through a doorway when remodeling)

Kitchen Faucet

Faucet center (see bathroom faucet); Number of holes (1-4 typically. You can cover extra holes in a sink, but don't get a faucet that needs more holes than your sink or countertop has)

Kitchen Sink

Mounting type (drop in or undermount); Size (Usually designated by cabinet size; drop in standard size is 24” x 36” and fits in a 36” cabinet; undermounts have very specific counter cutouts—must replace with same make & model if reusing same counter in most cases); Faucet center and number of holes (see kitchen faucet)

 

Now of course you can go outside the parameters determined for any of these, but that will involve additional work, bringing up the Price. See how this works?

Step 2: Determine your Personal “musts”: These could fall into any of the 3 categories. Do you have a concrete price limit? Does it need to be handicap accessible? A particular color/finish/material? Easy for kids to use? Water conserving? Does it need to be able to take a beating? How long does it have to last? The fewer your “musts,” the greater your choices.

Step 3: Finally, your “wants” get some attention. Think about the one you are replacing—why did it fail? What did you love about it? Dislike? You know what is important to you—go ahead and narrow your field. Start with looking at the price ranges of your fixture. Let's say the cheapest you find is about $50 and the biggest majority fall between $100 and $250. While it looks good now, it's a pretty sure bet that the $50 one is not going to last looking good for years. You get Price and Form, which may be fine if you are giving your house a facelift because it is on the market. But if you are fixing up your bathroom for yourself, do yourself a favor and go with function so you are not doing this again in a few years. If you have to keep it at $50, look for a basic commercial unit—might not be the height of fashion, but it'll still look and work the same in 5 years (Price and Function). If it's your dream master bath, you already know you want Function and Form, so now it's just a matter of finding your best Price.

Some useful notes on each side of the triangle:

FUNCTION

Besides the physical prerequisites as discussed, this really is about quality—how well it functions from day 1 combined with how long it stays functioning that way. Here are a couple of general guidelines I can offer about making that determination:

  1. Manufacturer matters. When you buy a brand name plumbing fixture, it is actually made by that company. They are in control of it from the drawing board on, and they are the ones who will help you (or not) if there is problem—now or twenty years from now. It's not like appliances where dozens of brands are all made by a small handful of manufacturers. If you buy a good brand, you will generally get a good product within it's price range. If there is a problem within the warranty coverage, they will stand behind their product and make it right. If there is a problem after warranty, they have knowledgeable humans available to help you figure out exactly what you need, and where to get it. It saves a lot of time and aggravation, really.

  2. How do you know which are good brands? As a general rule, a manufacturer carried by several plumbing wholesalers or kitchen and bath showrooms is going to be a good one. When you put in plumbing fixtures for a living, you have no patience for wasting time and money to go back and deal with problems caused by poor quality fixtures. Why do I say carried by several? Some showrooms have their own “house” brands which they contract out to various independent factories. In my experience, they are overpriced and riddled with problems which are difficult to resolve because the showroom has only limited control over the process. I avoid them. Likewise, “house” brands carried by home centers and some national wholesalers are not good bets either—they flip flop their manufacturing based on whoever is giving the best price this week or whatever, and this leads to very real fluctuations in quality and sometimes great difficulty tracking down parts.

  3. Take online user reviews with a grain of salt. I recently went through a bunch of them when doing my own Top 5 Toilet picks and have a couple of observations. First, the majority of negative reviews I saw were due to things which had nothing to do with the actual product. The “problems” noted were clearly due to either selecting the wrong toilet (“too tall for my kids”—they selected an ADA height when they should have put in standard height) or poor installation (“the tank rocks”—then it needs to be tightened, simple as that.) The other caveat is on the positive review side: they are almost all reviewed a few months after installation. While it is good to get a take on how happy customers are when they first put it in, this really doesn't help get a sense of how long it will work well. So while they are definitely a good resource, it's not a good idea to just take the star rating at face value and use it as your sole guide to selection.

  4. Look at the warranty. Most of the better brands also have the best warranties. Most good brands warranty the big stuff for life—finishes on faucets, china against defects. No one covers cartridges and moving parts subject to water forever—water and minerals take their toll and things wear out. But they should offer at very minimum one year on everything, and many go much further than that. For faucetry, you really should get a lifetime finish guarantee. Fiberglass tubs and showers, 5 years on finish. Acrylic tubs and showers should be longer—look for 10 years. This is a guideline, not hard and fast rule. Kohler only warrants their shower bases for one year but they are excellent products that look as good 10 years later as the day they were put in.

 

FORM

Ah, form. Tastes are as varied as people, and there are fixtures made for every one of them. A few pointers:

  1. White fixtures and chrome faucets are always standard. This not only makes them lowest in price, but also the easiest to match. While Brushed Nickel is popular enough that there are affordable options out there, the finish varies a lot from one manufacturer to another. So unless you already have Brushed Nickel in your bathroom by the same manufacturer, or you are replacing everything at once, you will have mixed finishes if you step outside of chrome. Some people are fine with this; others not so much.

  2. If you get something with a lot of style, or an upgraded finish/color, at a bargain basement price, assume function has suffered. Some things this really doesn't matter much—there are no moving parts on a bathroom sink, for example. If it has no visible flaws and doesn't leak when you put it in, not much can really happen. A faucet is another thing entirely. Things I've seen straight out of the box: couldn't tighten to countertop without stripping studs; leaking from inside spout. In a few months: finish corroded off; handles drifting; cartridges leaking internally. Be careful with stylish products at rock bottom prices.

  3. If you want style and price, many of the major manufacturers have an entry level option in each décor style: modern, traditional and transitional. While they are not usually at the very lowest price point, they are still in the affordable range and will serve you well for years. Examples: Kohler's Devonshire Suite (traditional); Moen's Eva line (transitional); Grohe's Eurosmart line (contemporary).

  4. Trendy colors/finishes: If you want Mexican Sand fixtures and Brushed Bronze faucets in your dream master bath, go for it. But do so knowing that it may really look outdated in 10 years, despite the big bucks you laid out for it, if design trends take a big left curve. And if it goes out of style, they will stop making it. So if you need a new tub spout down the line, you may end up changing the whole tub/shower trim package if you want it to match. Despite the industry's best efforts, Brushed Nickel will remain as timeless as Chrome in the foreseeable future, and Oil Rubbed Bronze is holding strong too. The others out there: if you love it, get it while you can.

  5. Oil Rubbed Bronze finishes: there are two kinds of these—PVD (permanent) and “Living” finishes. A lot of the higher end brands use a “living” Oil Rubbed Bronze finish, which means just like the original Bronze it imitates, it changes over time. It will patina like Bronze, and the areas that are touched regularly will rub off to a shine. Personally, I think that's cool. But if you want it to stay looking just like it does when you install it, get one with a PVD finish.

 

PRICE

This pretty much speaks for itself—but I will make a couple notes here too. 

  1. When comparing pricing, look for the manufacturer's model number to insure you're comparing apples to apples. Things that look the same outside are not necessarily the same inside. Toilets can be different rough-ins of the same model; faucets can be different versions—one all brass, one with lots of plastic. Note at right the default search I put in for this Kohler faucet returns two different model numbers K-596 and KR596. The KR model is made for home centers only and is packaged with a matching soap dispenser.

  2. The majority of fixtures sold in home center chains are not the same, even those by major manufacturers. Most are special models manufactured specifically for that market. Home centers order by the trainload, and have very competitive price requirements. So often the “skin” of a faucet will look the same, but what's underneath is not. Sometimes just the packaging seems to be different (as shown at right) but far more plastic parts, hollow spouts, even plastic cartridges are common. I have seen a lot more defective china than I ever have from standard fixtures. The alloys used in stainless sinks are often lower quality, meaning they will pit or rust eventually. While this is not necessarily the end of the world, if you are looking for something that will hold up beautifully for years to come, make sure you are getting the “full line”—especially in faucets. To do this, either purchase from a plumbing wholesaler/showroom, or look up the model number on the manufacturer's website and make sure the model numbers match when you purchase online or at a home center. Note: Any links I provide on my site will be to the full line versions of products unless specifically noted.

 

 

GO FORTH AND SHOP, MY LITTLE WRENCHLINGS

So armed with all my good advice, you are ready to make some choices, right? Drop me a line to let me know how it goes!

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