The problem with poor-quality foreign parts
Remember the term “Made in the U.S.A.”? It wasn’t that long ago that the phrase was often used by manufactures to instill confidence in the product they were promoting. By-and-large, American manufacturers have produced good-quality parts and materials. In my 25+ years in the trades, I can only recall a couple of incidents where we received a part or component made in the U.S. of such poor quality that it failed immediately after being installed.
This past week, perhaps to remind us of the “global economy” in which we now live, my company experienced three part failures in the span of about two working hours—all on the same job. The products in question weren’t made in the U.S., or any other country known for its ability to turn out finely-crafted components. They were all made in Asia. Now, neither myself (who spec’d the tub faucet drain, which leaked immediately) nor the plumber (who supplied two copper fittings of suspect quality) set out to buy these inferior products—on the contrary, both parties attempted to purchase and install good-quality materials. But fate, and the seeming demise of manufacturing in this country, created what I can only describe as an enraging situation.
The house we were working on was just shy of its 100th birthday. The owners, wishing to maintain the feel of its vintage bathroom, had hired my company to recreate the feel of the room using new materials.
The original plumbing fixtures were still in service when we began the project—a testimony that they no longer make them like they used to. To be sure, they’d seen better days; the lavatory faucet had a slow drip, the enamel on the tub was worn, and the toilet was inefficient by today’s standards.
But aside from adding some modern conveniences such as a shower and a medicine cabinet to the space, the owner wanted to maintain the feel of her vintage water closet.
The homeowner who had been living in, and restoring, the house for the past 25 years had dreamed of some day renovating the bathroom. But she was determined not to renovate it unless the original character could be maintained. To that end, she selected period fixtures that would allow the plan to be realized, never being overly concerned about cost. After all, she reasoned, she’d waited 25 years to do it the right way—so what if some of the materials and products cost a few bucks more than similar ones that didn’t have the right “feel?”
My company designed the project with the goal that when it was done, one would be hard-pressed to tell whether the space was vintage-1910, kept in immaculate condition, or a sympathetic renovation with an eye towards the past.
Progress was steady, and by the end of the first week, we’d managed to remove the old, worn-out (after 100 years!) fixtures, the imitation beadboard paneling, and the old trim. We’d repaired the walls, milled and installed new trim and a wainscot frieze, built a period medicine cabinet, and installed subway tile on the walls from baseboard to picture rail. The plumber had been busy as well, re-plumbing the room by installing new copper supply lines to all the fixtures and a new waste line for the tub.
Everything was going along great as he was hooking up the tub—a beautiful reproduction of a claw-foot model complete with silver feet. Unfortunately, the exposed drain assembly that had been provided as part of a kit, along with the tub faucet and shower D-ring, was presenting a challenge.
After a couple hours of wrestling with it, he gave up and abandoned the piece. Since the part was proprietary to the tub kit, there were no replacement parts readily available. In its place, he was forced to install a piece of PVC pipe. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, as the PVC is typically hidden from view, but in this case, we were left with an unattractive PVC coupling sticking up a couple inches above the vintage mosaic floor (see photo, right).
Thinking that the worst was behind him, he completed the trim on the other fixtures, turned the water on to those, and left for the day. Early the next morning, the homeowner called our office with a report that the new plumbing had sprung a leak.
|Our plumber immediately drove to the job from his shop. Upon arriving, he determined that a copper coupling he’d installed during the re-rough was the culprit.|
Fortunately, we’d left the closet ceiling immediately below the bathroom open, so he still had access to the pipe. He was able to remove the offending coupling and replace it with a new one from a supply he carries his truck.After sweating the piece into place and turning the water back on, he checked for leaks. Satisfied that everything was now as it should be, he informed us that everything was now fine, apologized for the inconvenience, and left.
The repair lasted a couple of hours, at best. Once again, water started working its way into the closet. I don’t know who was more frustrated, the homeowner, my office, or the plumber. He went back, and determined that the very coupling he’d replaced just a few hours earlier was the source of the problem.
Then it dawned on him that both of the defective parts had come from the same bag of fittings in his truck. He also identified that they’d been manufactured in Asia and were not likely up to the standards used in this country. While digging through the bag, he found several other fittings that were bad as well. Fortunately, he was able to find a coupling in his truck that was NOT from the questionable supply he’d purchased—this one was emblazoned with the “U.S.A.” stamp. He installed it and it’s held like a champ.
All worked well for a few more days; but then the tub faucet decided it wasn’t going to co-operate either, and it began leaking the next week. By this time, everyone had had enough. We contacted the plumbing supply house and informed them that we would be removing the offending assembly on their dime and replacing it with one of better quality. To their credit, they understood our frustration and agreed to locate a replacement faucet from a different manufacturer which would fit the tub.
The homeowners were inconvenienced (again) by not having a working tub, but about a week later a wonderfully-crafted faucet and drain assembly arrived from California. Our plumber immediately returned to remove the problem-parts and install the new components. While packing up his tools, he told us he’d be happy never to set foot in the house again. That was over a month ago and to date he hasn’t had to.
Made in America
So what’s the lesson in all this? My company is still struggling with that question. Although we recognize the fact we’ll be limiting the number of products available to us, we’ve adopted a zero-tolerance policy regarding the use of “suspicious” plumbing parts. We will simply no longer allow the installation of a faucet or valve made in a facility that may not be held to the same standards U.S. or European plants are held to. In addition, we’ve started demanding from all of our suppliers that they identify where the products they sell us are manufactured. Armed with this information, we can then make informed purchasing decisions.
Is this an extreme approach? Perhaps. But considering the cost to all parties involved, the bad blood that poor quality products can engender between customer and contractor, and the sheer aggravation in dealing with such situations, we feel it’s a necessary one. We also recognize the impact that buying poor quality imported products has on our economy (not to mention the environmental implications), and have decided we don’t want to be part of the problem. We call it “voting with our wallets,” and I suspect that if more people did the same, there would be far less demand for imported junk.