Imitation is a form of flattery we could do without when it comes to faucets.

Make something good enough, or valuable enough, and someone will come along and try to copy it. That holds true for paper currency, Rolex watches, Cuban cigars and, believe it or not, faucets.

It's certainly no secret to a company such as Moen that knockoffs of our faucets continually appear on store shelves. Like most companies that sink millions into research, development and engineering, Moen works hard to protect the designs and technologies that make our faucets popular with the public and easy for contractors to service and install - and, therefore, worth copying to begin with. In one instance, we found more than 20 small, foreign manufacturers copying one design alone. In a case where we took particularly strong action, we were successful in winning a case in front of the International Trade Commission that has resulted in U.S. Customs agents turning identifiable copies of our product away at the border.

But most consumers, and even many plumbing contractors, probably are not aware the problem's extent or the negative effects that knockoff faucets have - not only for manufacturers, but builders, plumbers and, ultimately, many consumers themselves.

It doesn't take much sleuthing to see how prevalent look-alikes have become in the industry. The shelves of big-box stores are crowded with look-alikes. The faucets of major U.S. manufacturers compete for space with competitors, often foreign, who offer what appears to be the same design.

Often, it seems the no-name discounters are selling the exact same product at substantially lower costs. That's a tempting prospect for budget-minded consumers or even margin-minded plumbers trying to cut costs. But obviously there must be reasons for the difference in prices, and those reasons aren't likely to be highlighted on the boxes of the cheaper faucets.

The truth of the matter is that lower quality materials, less modern and precise production methods, and less expensive pools of unprotected labor enable some manufacturers to make a product that looks the same as a more expensive name-brand counterpart, which is really different in numerous ways.

Foreign imitations can vary widely in terms of quality, consistency and their ability to be matched to other components of the same design. Sometimes quality even varies significantly within the same product line or model.

Frustrated Buyers

For the consumer, faucets that don't fit or work properly - or for very long - mean another trip to the store for a replacement, at best, or a search for a manufacturer's representative to back up the warranty, if there is one, at worst.

For the plumber, dealing with knockoffs can potentially mean another callback and having to spend time and money reinstalling a replacement without generating any further revenue or, most likely, much customer loyalty. In the meantime, time and money on another waiting job may have been lost forever. Worse, customers who don't call back may simply be resigned to living with a hard-to-turn faucet or one with a chipped and peeling finish, but wondering if their plumber isn't really to blame for the problem.

Even on new construction, plumbers may face problems with knockoffs. On many permitted jobs today, inspectors are looking for third-party certification of faucets and other fixtures. Generally, products made by major U.S. manufacturers carry these necessary certifications. Often, foreign copies do not meet these qualifications, and therefore, are unacceptable to inspectors on certain jobs.

Another problem to watch out for in the knockoff market is the issue of compatibility, both in terms of internal components, such as replacement cartridges, and with other fixtures that could be replaced later when a consistent look is desired.

When it comes to replacement cartridges, the issue is a two-edged sword because many times, both the faucets and the cartridges of major manufacturers are being copied, and not necessarily by the same manufacturer or to the same spec. That means what looks like a Moen faucet, but isn't, won't necessarily work with a genuine Moen replacement cartridge. Likewise, what looks like a Moen replacement cartridge, but isn't, won't necessarily work or fit in a genuine Moen faucet.

As for continuity of design, many times copycat manufacturers take only the most popular design from a major manufacturer into production, never producing the matching components offered by the genuine manufacturer.

For instance, we find may copycats of Moen sink faucets in certain designs, but when it comes to the matching showerheads and tub faucet fixtures that match them, the copycat manufacturers don't bother to make them because demand is not as high for these parts. So consumers who buy a sink faucet because it was a great deal later may find they can't match the components when they redo their shower or tub. They may blame the retailer, or they may blame the contractor for not warning them of the potential problem.

What To Do

Fortunately, there are ways for plumbing contractors to shield themselves from the problems they may encounter as a result of the influx of copycat faucets. In the case of a customer asking for a cheaper copy, or questioning the worth of a more expensive brand-name faucet, the contractor can point to many reasons that make it worth investing in the known brand. Not only can they confidently assure the consumer that the brand-name product will perform properly and for a long period of time, they can also point to the availability of parts and the value of a major manufacturer's guarantee.

When working permitted jobs, plumbing contractors should check the third-party certifications on faucets and other fixtures before taking delivery and before dealing with the potential problems that could delay scheduling on a job. Ideally, such things should be taken into consideration before a job is actually bid, assuming the cost of faucets is part of the initial estimate.

Lastly, plumbers accepting installation jobs with consumers who have already purchased a faucet or other fixture from a big box or other store should discuss with the consumer the brand of faucet in question and its likely quality. Plumbers fearful of installing poor quality faucets should explain to the consumer that reinstallation or replacements due to product failure are not the fault of the plumber and can't be done without additional charges.

As for manufacturers such as Moen, we'll no doubt keep trying to protect our products from illegal copies whenever possible and continue to provide quality products that not only reinforce our good reputation, but the reputations of the contractors who trust in us.