Flushing Money Down the Drain
June 18, 2021 9:15 AM   Subscribe

Is there actually a difference in quality if you buy, say, a plumbing fixture (faucet, showerhead, etc.) through a specialty showroom instead of a Home Depot or Lowe's? Even if it's supposedly the same, i.e. "Kohler "Venice" kitchen faucet in brushed nickel" at both?

So I strongly suspect the answer is "there's no appreciable difference and the people involved are just protecting their sales commissions/kickbacks" but wanted to ask anyways.

We are building a house. When it came time to pick plumbing fixtures, there was a kerfuffle between the builder and his plumber. Previously the builder had just sent his clients to Home Depot or Lowe's or wherever to pick out what they wanted and the plumber would install it. Now the plumber says he will only install fixtures if they come from a particular plumbing Fancy Showroom. I know he's almost certainly getting some kind of referral kickback from the showroom, BUT - he claims "the stuff from Home Depot or Lowe's might look the same but the model numbers are different and it's all cheap plastic on the inside and it won't last nearly as long, that's why now I'll only install stuff from [Fancy Showroom company]."

Then we tried to select fixtures through Fancy Showroom's e-commerce website but the salesperson flipped out and said those were "consumer grade" and not the same quality at all as what could be had through the showroom directly, and she and the plumber both said we couldn't pick stuff from the e-commerce site unless the showroom also carried it.

So is this...an actual thing? Has anyone done comparisons between Home Depot's "Delta brand faucet A" and Fancy Showroom "Delta brand faucet A" and found the Home Depot line is actually poorer quality? I can kind of understand if it's a warranty thing, but both the plumber and the salesperson mentioned quality/durability instead of a warranty. Also I don't mean Amazon, I know sometimes Amazon sells cheap imposters for legit brands.

Just to head it off: I am not looking for advice on whether or not we should purchase from the showroom/where to get better cheaper stuff, that ship has sailed - this is just idle curiosity!
posted by castlebravo to Home & Garden (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This thread on fine homebuilding from home owners seems to back up what your plumber is telling you about Kohler in particular.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 9:31 AM on June 18, 2021 [5 favorites]

In some products yes, this is an actual thing. For example, Hunter-Douglas blinds that you buy at Home Depot are cheaper (by that I mean crummier) than the ones you buy at a blind specialist. I cannot speak to all plumbing products, but this is something that definitely happens.

...Terry Love has in the past reported finding that "identical" parts weigh substantially less at HD/Lowes than would have been expected, indicating different production practices (less brass), so I would not be even slightly surprised to find that the various internal parts were also crappier.

When I did my renovation, the plumbing folks offered to install HD/Lowes stuff with one key difference: no warranty, so any repairs would be billed for time & materials. They offered a warranty for the plumbing-supply house items.
posted by aramaic at 9:37 AM on June 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

Last year the drain in one of my sinks failed. The plumber went through various steps to see about a fix, etc., but replacement wound up the only answer. He said the same thing about the quality difference, and showed me the old and new for comparison. There was a difference.

What aramaic said was quite true — different weights between the crummy old one vs. the shiny new one. He didn’t detail the composition of the old one, but he said the new one was chrome and might reasonably work without a problem for 25 years.
posted by cupcakeninja at 9:40 AM on June 18, 2021

Best answer: This is a thing in many industries not just plumbing. I worked in electronic products for a few years. So let's say, for example, a TV might have a model, let's call it VZ10. They sell this VZ10 at, let's just say, Best Buy, for $500.

Wal-Mart's buyers are offered the same VZ-10 from this company but Wal-Mart is a notorious wheeler & dealer, to get those "low prices" everyone is so enamored of. So they want the "same" TV but for $400.

Well the manufacturer still has to make a certain margin. So let's say they can eat 10% of that extra $100 but the rest of it has to come out of manufacturing. So they are using chip X, which is however fast, but if they use chip y, the tv will be slightly slower but it's $15 cheaper to put in the unit. Etc and etc on down the line til you get to a TV with the part number "VZ10-1" that for all intents and purposes looks like the first TV, but is ever so slightly not as good.

Almost the only vendor we worked with who was insistent on quality and not price only was CostCo, FWIW.
posted by Medieval Maven at 9:58 AM on June 18, 2021 [21 favorites]

Best answer: If you see cheaper versions of anything a quality brand in a big name store, the cheaper versions are made cheaper for the stores, the big stores will squeeze brands for the absolute most rock bottom prices, so the only way the brands can make a profit is to make the products cheaper. This is true be it clothing, electronics and yes even plumbing.

Now that quality difference might not matter to you and you're OK with the Home Depot Kohler Version, I was fine with it as it was a step up from my Walmart no name versions when I was replacing faucets, but you do get what you pay for, and the guts of the product, where most people won't notice, will most likely be cheaper. While sure maybe the plumber is getting a kick back from the store, maybe not, but I suspect it has more to do with the plumber wanting the quality parts so he doesn't keep getting called out to repair damaged plumbing or blamed when it breaks.

Not a plumber, but my husband works for a company that installs plumbing fixtures and fittings in a huge range of types and quality levels at the rate of thousands of units a day, it's always the cheap ones that end up having to be replaced or repaired under warranty.
posted by wwax at 9:59 AM on June 18, 2021 [6 favorites]

My contractor uncle says that Home Depot practices are criminal, in that, for example, their gas pipes are too thin and could cause more houses to blow up.
posted by Melismata at 10:19 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

So is this...an actual thing? Has anyone done comparisons between Home Depot's "Delta brand faucet A" and Fancy Showroom "Delta brand faucet A" and found the Home Depot line is actually poorer quality?

Well, yes. Definitely. Above posters have talked about TVs and pipes, and both are true. It's also very true with Lawnmowers, Snowblowers, and, yes, faucets specifically.

First, the faucets available at home depot/lowes are usually different lines of faucets (like, kohler clear instead of kohler supreme) and will start with slightly different qualities. But I have seen faucets within the same line lower quality at hardware stores too.

Buuuuut depending on what part of the shower / sink it is, I still buy the cheap ones. If it's a showerhead, it's literally replaceable in seconds by the homeowner. Sinks take a bit longer, but changing a faucet is very quick and easy. For more complicated / harder to access parts (valves) I often splurge / get parts from a plumbing supply store to be sure that they are higher quality.

So, I'd say the plumber is a little bit of column A (getting a kickback, but it's probably smaller than you'd think) and a little bit of column B (Knows the quality is better or at least not shit, and knows that if it breaks you'll hold him accountable, so would rather put higher quality materials into the build than otherwise.)

The e-commerce thing is weird. It's annoying they won't let you select online. But again, I wouldn't lose much sleep over it unless the whole shower set is over $600 or so, and sink fixtures over $200 or so (maybe more depending on configuration)... but again, I use the cheap ones for $200 for the shower and $40 for the sinks.

Hope that perspective helps!
posted by bbqturtle at 10:29 AM on June 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

This is no different than clothing companies producing items specifically for their outlet stores to sell at a lower price. Same brand and tag, but made to a lower quality standard. Think of HD or LOW as the plumbing maker's outlet store.
posted by AugustWest at 10:37 AM on June 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Just to add another example - all the door locks at Home Depot and Lowes are rubbish and most are trivial to defeat. In general residential= shiny outside garbage inside.
posted by zenon at 10:43 AM on June 18, 2021

BUT - he claims "the stuff from Home Depot or Lowe's might look the same but the model numbers are different and it's all cheap plastic on the inside

Your plumber is not wrong. However, that doesn't mean the "good" stuff won't break. We built our house about ten years ago and already one of our expensive, fancy showroom fixtures broke. So when I went to find a replacement part I had to pay a whole lot of money and wait six weeks for it to show up. Meanwhile we were down a sink.

Given this experience I think i would prefer to be able to pick up a new fixture at Home Depot and install it the same day. I do stuff like this myself though, it might not be the same if you have to hire a plumber to do it.

I don't blame your plumber for wanting higher quality fixtures. Perhaps you can come to some agreement that you won't hold them responsible for any problems after a month or two.
posted by bondcliff at 10:45 AM on June 18, 2021

Your trades may have discounts with various suppliers so you'll get stuff at a lower price if you go through them then if you just walked in off the street. That ought to reduce some of the price difference between the HD stuff and what they're offering.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Former big-box home improvement store employee who dealt with this process directly, can confirm that our branded items were (are) both less-expensive and lower-quality than the same brand things available to the trade. And yes, both the stores and the brands themselves make every effort not to publicize the difference.

But, as many people have pointed out, that doesn't mean that big box products are NO GOOD. You just have to be aware of what you're getting and adjust your expectations. And it doesn't mean that the expensive versions are flawless, either. IN GENERAL, the pricier, professional versions are made with higher-grade materials and to better specs, and will last longer and work better. In general.

We sell things for DIY ... it's reasonable that a professional would want to work with a higher quality of tools and supplies. The tradesperson doesn't want to install something inferior and have its early demise reflect on his or her job quality/skills.

Edited to fix my own grammar because I'm like that. :)
posted by mccxxiii at 11:10 AM on June 18, 2021 [4 favorites]

Like @bbqturtle, I take the approach of spending for hopefully longer life on the parts that will be more work or hassle to replace. For me essentially all plumbing qualifies as a pain, YMMV!

(In appliances I've seen at least three graded submodels -- the discount grade for big box stores, the contractor or builder grade, and the, I don't know the name, sold by pricey appliance specialists. Can't speak to the actual quality differentiation there. Is this in plumbing fixtures too?)
posted by away for regrooving at 11:36 AM on June 18, 2021

So is this...an actual thing? Has anyone done comparisons between Home Depot's "Delta brand faucet A" and Fancy Showroom "Delta brand faucet A" and found the Home Depot line is actually poorer quality?

I honestly think its BS, but my inlaws had a Delta bath faucet spout fail, and Delta (this brand specifically) generally have lifetime warranties, and my wife called them up and they replaced it with more or less the same model for free.

Just because some plastic parts on the inside are different quality, that certainly doesn't mean the part is going to last longer or less long. It just doesn't work like that.

It's also kind of dumb from a product perspective, because how many people are going to go with a fancy plumbing store part when the warranty/quality is essentially unknowable and people will see the same exterior and a lesser price, and some showroom salesman (literally the slimiest sales people ever - specialty stores are legit terrible places to even browse) is going to convey quality differences? Yeah right.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:46 AM on June 18, 2021

Not only that, nearly every plumbing part in a bathroom is screw on/screw off in less than 30 minutes of work, so it's an odd room to pay extra for immense quality. Replacing them more often is actually a good thing, because it keeps like the interior brass or whatever fittings fresh and able to be removed without actual plumbing work, like sweating corroded brass fittings.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2021

I put a kitchen faucet in from a big box store. It looks nice and is fine, but it has dissimilar metals in contact and the brass cartridges are slowly disintegrating into green slime. The mounting method is clever and doesn't work, so when you push the spout to one side the base rotates, taking the taps with it, and it's leaking into the cupboards underneath.
Another faucet was cheap and worked, but now the taps drip, and new washers only work for a few months.
Cheap plumbing is not a wise idea. I spend half my life patching stuff. The stuff I've replaced with top quality fixtures is an amazing luxury and I doubt I'll have to replace it during my lifetime.
I won't buy anything offshored, cheap, or dubious looking. That's bitter experience and way too much time spent screwing with cheap, crappy and archaic plumbing.
I admired a set of $2200 taps to fit my 1910 cast-iron tub, years back. I'm not so rich that I can afford that, but I wish I'd bought them anyway. I'd far rather have good plumbing than a new car or a better cell phone.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 2:28 PM on June 18, 2021 [1 favorite]

I suspect it has more to do with the plumber wanting the quality parts so he doesn't keep getting called out to repair damaged plumbing or blamed when it breaks.

Besides the possible money and call back motivations trade quality stuff is plain easier to install. Eg an electrical fixture you pay twice as much for is going to have thicker metal so it doesn't deform when mounting. Is going to have Robertson screws instead of flat. It'll use standard sae thread sizes instead of whatever. And it'll be available for several years so if one fails under warranty you can get a matching replacement. Plus because it has been available for a while you installed several already and so the install goes faster.
posted by Mitheral at 10:12 AM on June 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

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