How to Spot the Most Common Plumbing Scams

Tips & Tricks / Article
January 5, 2024

We here at Brandenburg Plumbing like to focus on the positive. But, we are also absolutely committed to helping homeowners as much as we humanely can, so today we’d like to talk about an all too common problem: plumbing scams.

Most, if not all, plumbing scams are centered around unnecessary replacements, especially sewer lines and water heaters.

Main sewer line replacements

The most common scam is using drain cleaning to sell unnecessary main sewer line replacements, from anywhere from $4,000-$15,000. They scam typically goes like this:

  1. The company advertises a very low price for the drain cleaning, often $99 or less, along with 24 hour service. This gets the plumber/salesman in the door.
  2. A technician runs a snake down a sewer line and encounters a blockage. Sometimes, to ensure the blockage seems severe, the plumber will use no blades on the sewer machine, or sometimes they use smaller blades that can’t clear the blockage. The technician will then use this inability to clear the line to sell a full line replacement. If your sewer line is made from schedule 40 PVC, and most are, there are very few instances where a full replacement would be warranted.
  3. Some plumbers use the camera to justify the enormous replacement cost. They may find a small belly — a dip in the line where grease and other clogging elements might accumulate, or roots and insist this means that the entire line must be replaced. The most grievous example of the camera scam is when the plumber sends a video of an entirely different sewer line, pretending it’s yours, in order to sell the replacement.
  4. Finally, they may poke a small hole in the clog, which will fully reform within a couple of days as more grease and other debris attaches to the clog. Then, when they return a few days later to address the clog again, the plumber will claim that to truly fix the problem they must replace the whole line. It could be all the line needed was a hydro jetter instead of a snake.

Now, we aren’t claiming that it’s never the case that sewer lines need replacing.  Especially around older homes, or where roots are extremely prevalent, that may be the best course of action. But, be wary of plumbers who jump immediately to the most expensive option. Roots can often be mitigated with annual drain clearing and root killer, though a repair of the spot with roots growing in is definitely the best option so the chance of sewer backing up into your home is mitigated. Bellies in the line can be big issues or minor. It takes an experienced plumber with your best interests at heart to know the difference.

Note: we do not recommend renting a sewer machine and trying to do it yourself. They are dangerous pieces of equipment that can easily take off a finger or worse, and should only be used by licensed plumbers. We always err on the side of caution when telling customers what they may be capable of handling themselves because while there are truly capable people out there, there are some that struggle to operate a toaster without the instructions, and there is no way for us to discern the level of capability of any individual.

Water Heater Replacements

This scam is a little simpler. It may be a simple heating element is out, or a thermostat needs to be replaced. Sometimes the problem is with the electrical system, like a breaker is failing and is not sending the correct voltage to the water heater. These are all testable conditions and whether it is from a lack of knowledge or a thirst for the larger sale it ends with the same result for the customer, more money out of pocket for an unnecessary upgrade.

This one comes with a large caveat though: the warranties. If your warranty on your water heater has run out, and you are experiencing leaks or lack of hot water, it’s often less expensive, not to mention safer, over the long run to replace the water heater. Again, a licensed professional who you trust can explain their reasoning here thoroughly and simply.

Why do plumbers scam?

The obvious reason is money, but it’s a bit more complex. One, replacements often mean that the plumber won’t need to worry about their proposed solution not working. A brand new sewer line or water heater likely won’t present further issues and additional costs down the line. Replacement can at times be a legitimately less risky offer, especially for the less experienced that do not know how to test and diagnose a specific issue. So, a replacement will guarantee all of their bases are covered

But, the main issue is commission pay. If a plumber makes more by selling more, they will almost inevitably bend the truth to make more money. Many are so heavily commission based that the  technicians have little choice but to recommend unnecessary work. If they don’t, their pay plummets and they can no longer sustain themselves and their families.

How do I avoid being scammed?

First, think local. The national chains often grew to the size they are by pushing the commission based model, which inevitably leads to some less than scrupulous practices.

Second, ask for referrals. Oftentimes the plumber that helped your friend or family will be far more honest and fair than national companies with big advertising campaigns focused only on maximizing the short-term dollar from their customers.

Finally, if a bid seems off to you, get another one! We’d be happy to provide a free competitive quote with a licensed plumber.


We aren’t saying that sewer lines or water heaters never need replacing — they often do. Large amounts of scale from hard water making a fix impossible or a fixture or appliance nearing the end of its life could easily mean a replacement is warranted. But many times a less costly repair would work just as well. Finding a trustworthy plumber who will be honest and explain their reasoning is an essential part of owning a home or business.