Plumbing is seldom exciting. It works fine for years, faithfully filling, flowing and flushing. But when you get a clog or a pipe leaks water through your ceiling a few days before your holiday guests arrive (or, worse, after they arrive), the excitement may become more than you can stand.

Even if you’re stressed, don’t panic and dial a number you remember from a radio jingle — big ad budgets don’t indicate great service. Instead, take a few minutes now to learn what you can do to avoid that last-minute crisis. While you’re at it, this is also a good time to find a plumber who — when you do need professional help — will get the job done right for a fair price.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to get your plumbing house in order:

●Make sure that everyone living in your home knows the locations of water shut-off valves and how to use them. Its’ a good idea to label each valve with a description of its function and instructions for turning it off. Shut-off valves can cut the flow of water to a single fixture, a branch of the water supply system, or the entire house. If you have a problem with a single fixture, turning off its shut-off valve lets you continue to use other fixtures in your home and schedule a plumber’s visit during normal hours.

●Once or twice a year, check to see that the main water shut-off valve to your home is working properly.

●Periodically check shut-off valves, exposed pipes, faucets and your water heater for leaks. Regularly inspect ceilings and walls for signs of water damage. If you find a leak, have it repaired as soon as possible.

●If you have a septic system, have it inspected regularly by a licensed professional.

●Install smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors near your water heater and furnace.

●Keep all flammable and combustible materials away from your water heater.

●Have a plumber or heating and air-conditioning service check your water heater’s venting for proper draft and to make sure the room where it’s located is properly ventilated.

●Dispose of grease or rendered-down fat in the trash; never pour it down a drain.

●Cover bathtub and shower drains with screens to prevent hair from clogging up their pipes.

●Pay close attention to package directions on drain cleaners, and avert your face when using them.

●If a drain is completely clogged, do not use a drain cleaner — it probably will produce a large pool of highly caustic water. Call a plumber.

●To prevent water pipes from freezing — and possibly bursting — cover pipes that run through an attic, crawl space, exterior walls, or unheated basement with insulation. If a certain section of pipe is highly susceptible to freezing, use electric heat tape to keep the pipe warm.

●During winter, use shut-off valves inside your home to turn off the water supply to outside spigots, remove hoses, and turn on the spigots to drain any remaining water from the pipes.

●If you will be away from home during winter, set your thermostat to 55 degrees.

●Don’t flush paper towels, feminine products, disposable diapers, cat litter, hair, and other items can clog up your pipes.

●Heed warnings in your garbage disposer’s operating manual. Many models can’t handle coffee grounds, uncooked rice, etc. Always run a steady stream of water into your garbage disposer when in use.

●Set your water heater between 120 and 140 degrees, and check it periodically.

Finding a plumber

About 40 of the more than 200 plumbing companies evaluated by Washington Consumers’ Checkbook were rated “superior” overall by at least 90 percent of their surveyed customers. But Checkbook found that many others fell short, with reviews that included words like “overcharged,” “unprofessional,” “incompetent,” “rude,” “messy,” “no-show” and “dishonest.”

After you have identified high-quality, reliable companies, you need to consider price. Checkbook’s mystery shoppers called companies and requested price quotes for eight plumbing jobs, and found that prices varied dramatically for the same work. For example, prices to supply and install an InsinkErator Premier Badger 5 garbage disposer ranged from $175 to $700. To install a Bradford White model M4 5036 water heater, prices ranged from $1,110 to $2,410.

For a large remodeling job — a new kitchen or bathroom, for instance — getting several bids is especially critical. Checkbook recently obtained bids from local companies for a complete remodel of a large master bath and received price quotes ranging from $26,000 to $61,000.

You don’t have to pay more to get good work. Checkbook found that many of the companies that rate best for the quality of their work also are among the lowest in price.

Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to get accurate pricing for repairs in advance. Your best bet is to call a few companies — start with those that rate highly at Checkbook.org for quality and price. Then:

●Provide an exact description of your problem.

●Ask each company how it computes its labor rates (minimum charge and what it includes, price per hour after the minimum, etc.).

●Try to get an estimate of how long it usually takes to do your job.

●When the plumber arrives, review the labor rates you were provided. This will eliminate misunderstandings and may enhance timekeeping accuracy.

●Clear the area. You don’t want to pay a plumber $125 an hour to clean out junk from underneath your sink.

●Don’t let conversations with the plumber interfere with the work. Remember that the plumber is on the clock until he or she writes up the ticket.

Find Washington Consumers’ Checkbook’s ratings of area plumbers at www.checkbook.org/washingtonpost/plumbers.