Living the High Life

Working in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Snowbridge Inc. builds a solid year-round business by adding pipe and hydroexcavation services to its septic pumping and installation specialty.

Living the High Life

Snowbridge’s Vactor combination truck does double duty potholing and daylighting for excavating contractors.

Imagine you’re a pumper in a territory with long winters and a short work season, a small permanent population that limits the year-round volume of work and a base of septic system users being eroded by expanding municipal sewer systems.

Bill Tatro III and Chris Tatro faced that scenario with their onsite service business around home base in Breckenridge, Colorado. Their answer: diversify. Their company, Snowbridge Inc., maintains a strong septic system service and repair business but also performs sewer lateral construction, pipe cleaning and maintenance, pipe inspection, cured-in-place pipe lining and hydroexcavation.

Their pipe services touch the residential, commercial and industrial sectors. Their two Roto-Rooter franchises serve five counties around Breckenridge. They do it all with an experienced 16-member team, which they retain with competitive pay and a complete benefit package.

“In the main counties we serve, the septic business is shrinking, and over time it’s going to shrink even more,” Bill Tatro says. “In the town where most of the septic systems are, the local sanitation district has been aggressive in extending sewer services. So we’re really trying to grow other areas of our business. We see a definite growth path in municipal and industrial services, and we want to expand our trenchless repair business as well.”

DIVERSITY SPELLS SUCCESS

Snowbridge provides many services beyond hydroexcavation, including drain cleaning; septic tank pumping; septic system installations, repairs and inspections; grease trap cleaning; and trenchless pipe repair. Drain cleaning and trenchless pipe repairs account for about 70 percent of the company’s annual gross revenue; septic and grease trap pumping account for the remaining 30 percent. 

To understand why Snowbridge is so diversified, simply consider the company’s location in Breckenridge, a ski resort community nestled in the Rocky Mountains, about 80 miles west of Denver. Breckenridge is a remote community with a small year-round population that swells when tourists arrive during the skiing season. As a result, Snowbridge must go farther afield for business, catering to customers as far as 75 miles outside of Breckenridge, and offer them a multitude of services to sustain business volume and avoid the bane of contractors: expensive equipment that sits idle. 

“We don’t have a lot of any one kind of work to do, so to stay busy year-round, we have to offer a lot of different services,” Tatro says. “We couldn’t survive just pumping septic tanks or doing inspections. Sometimes it feels like we do way too many things, and other times it feels like we don’t do enough.” 

Offering diverse services provides other benefits, too. First of all, customers prefer a contractor that offers one-stop shopping because they don’t have to call multiple companies to get work done. Second, it gives the company better control over scheduling because crews don’t have to wait for, say, a tardy excavation subcontractor to arrive for a septic system installation. And third, it creates independent revenue streams that can help offset slow times in other service segments and minimize the need for subcontractors. 

“We like to be the only company a customer needs to call,” Tatro says. “What starts off as a drainline problem might turn out to be a broken sewer pipe, which we can fix for the customer and keep that revenue in-house. … Some of our best jobs come from service calls. Many times, service diversity keeps your customers from looking around and hiring somebody else because you can do the job and do it fast.”

A LONG HISTORY

Snowbridge traces its history back to 1976, when Bill Tatro Jr. and wife, Cheryl, bought a vacuum truck with a Cusco tank on a Ford chassis and started a septic tank pumping business. “My dad was kicking around ideas to start a business,” Bill Tatro III says. “When the old guy who was pumping septic tanks here retired, my dad decided to do that.

“I started working for my dad during the summers when I was 13, in 1986. I worked for him in summer through high school and part of college.” He took a break from college for a couple of years and worked full time in the business in 1994-95. Then he went back to finish a degree with an agriculture major in animal science at Colorado State University.

He came back to the family business for two years after that, left for four years to work in heavy-equipment rental, and then came back for good in 2004. He and Chris Tatro, eight years younger, bought the business in January 2009. By that time, the septic service business was thriving and the Roto-Rooter franchises were well-established.  

CASTING A WIDE NET

Snowbridge owners determined long ago that onsite treatment services alone did not make a sound business model. Tatro’s parents established the two Roto-Rooter franchise 30 years ago. The Roto-Rooter business and the Snowbridge septic services feed business to each other. “We may go out to a septic system for a drain call, and the tank might end up needing to be pumped,” Tatro says.

Other diversification happened gradually, by evolution. The company bought its first box-truck-mounted water jetter (Harben) in 1986 and served mainly commercial customers, often thawing frozen sewer pipes.

Today the company owns a truck-mounted 4,000 psi/25 gpm Rockstar jetter (US Jetting), a van-mounted, propane-fueled 4,000 psi/9 gpm Brute unit (Jetters Northwest) and a trailer-mounted Harben 4,000 psi/10 gpm jetter. For effective jetting, the Tatros prefer Warthog rotating nozzles made by StoneAge.

Over time, the company started doing sewer line repairs after finding broken pipes on jobs. Next came CIPP lining in 2005; the company uses an LMK Technologies lining system.

In addition, Snowbridge owns a 40-ton pipe bursting machine made by Pipe Genie and a PipePatch line repair system made by Source One Environmental.

For sewer lateral inspection, technicians use SeeSnake push cameras (RIDGID), often in tandem with that company’s NaviTrack locators. As work expanded to the municipal side and into larger pipes, “We had to increase the size of our equipment,” Tatro says. “So we bought a Rovver crawler camera (Envirosight) in 2014. The whole system is relatively small and mobile. We mounted it in a small cargo trailer, which we built to accommodate additional video screens, audio and other equipment. 

“Shortly after that, we saw that we couldn’t adequately clean the larger pipes with our jetters, so we bought a used Vactor combination truck. Now we can work on pipes from 1 inch all the way up to 36- and 48-inch culverts.”

The company’s Vactor combination truck does double duty potholing and daylighting for excavating contractors. “We also do projects of our own where we repair or install sewer lines and have to daylight for utilities,” Tatro says.

The vacuum truck fleet includes two units built by House of Imports, including a 2006 International 8600 with 3,300-gallon waste and 400-gallon freshwater tanks and 520 cfm National Vacuum Equipment Challenger pump and a 2006 Freightliner M2 with 2,200-gallon and 200-gallon freshwater tanks and 363 cfm National Vacuum Equipment Defender pump.

For excavation, Snowbridge uses a 2006 Cat 305 mini-excavator. “For the past five years or so, we have also leased a larger machine during the excavation season,” Tatro says.   

Home base for all services is an 8,000-square-foot shop and office in Breckenridge, built in 2003. It has a heated garage for the vacuum trucks, jetters and other large equipment, along with six offices. Most equipment maintenance is handled in-house.

WEATHERING THE CONDITIONS

Every contractor faces obstacles of one kind or another on a daily basis. But employees at Snowbridge encounter some unusually challenging situations based on the area’s topography and geography. 

Take the brutally cold winters, for instance. Breckenridge and surrounding service areas sit an average of 9,500 to 10,000 feet above sea level, and temperatures often dip to 10 or 20 degrees below zero. That creates steady work thawing frozen pipelines in winter. Toughest job ever? Clearing out about 1,200 feet of a sanitation district’s frozen 4-inch force main that runs between a treatment plant and a lift station. That job took about four days, doing 400- and 500-foot runs with a water jetter mounted inside a heated and insulated jetter truck built by US Jetting. 

Frequent snowfalls also make winter driving a risky proposition, especially in high mountain passes. But environmentally, the hardest thing to deal with is the cold weather, says Tatro. “All our equipment is designed to suck water into it or shoot water out of it, so when hoses freeze, it makes things difficult.” 

The high altitude creates operational problems, too, because the thin air robs power from truck engines, pumps and the like. “In general, everything we use has to be a little bit bigger and possess a little bit more horsepower than what you’d run at lower elevations,” Tatro says, noting that Snowbridge’s vacuum trucks are equipped with 400 cfm pumps. “Diesel engines must be turbocharged or they don’t work well.” 

A vacuum-truck blower that pulls 27 inches Hg at sea level pulls only about 16 or 17 inches at high elevations, and a traditional vane pump generates about 30 to 40 percent less vacuum power, explains Chris Tatro, vice president and co-owner. That makes some pumping operations pretty interesting. 

To counteract the reduction in vacuum power created by longer, uphill hose runs, crews use a pressure-lift device called the Power Booster, made by Pressure Lift Corp. Typically placed at the end of the hose, in the material to be moved, it acts like an air pump, generally adding supplemental vacuum power of about 20 cfm at 90 psi.

DELIVERING QUALITY

Snowbridge builds its reputation on an excellent team led by Bill Tatro, managing the onsite side; Chris Tatro overseeing project work including municipal service and trenchless repairs; and Sam Dayton supervising the field crews.

The other field team members are Ever Leon, project supervisor focused on municipal service; John Beyer, senior service technician, drain cleaning specialist and trainer; service technicians Mike Streicher, Todd Franzen, Phil Gudlewski, Danny Spiecher and Derrick Floyd.  

Back at headquarters, Katie Tatro is office manager, Jan Losh handles administration and human resources, and Noah Gauss is director of business development, sales and estimating.

Team members receive uniforms, health and dental insurance, a retirement plan, and paid vacations. “We have a good crew that has been in place for quite a few years now,” Bill Tatro says. “We’ve worked really hard to retain the people we have.”

Recruiting new team members has been challenging in a locality with a strong economy and abundant jobs in the construction and service sectors. Tatro rarely finds applicants with direct pumping or drain cleaning experience, so he looks for people with mechanical skills. Failing that, he’s willing to take on people who have an interest in learning.

“Last year we hired Danny Spiecher, who had been a cook and didn’t have any experience in the mechanical world. We gave him a shot, and he has become a good drain technician. We sent him to the National Association of Wastewater Technicians Operation and Maintenance class, and he’s going to be our O&M technician for ATUs. He has really taken to it. He liked the change, and he’s doing well.”

ON A GROWTH TRACK

Meanwhile, Snowbridge is adapting to a market in which the septic service business is on a downward trend. “A few years ago, when the sanitation district started moving its services farther out, we made a conscious decision to start doing more repair work and excavating,” Tatro says. “If we’re going to lose the septic systems, then we’d like the chance to put the sewer lateral in. We install sewer lines to the municipal main where they’re replacing septic systems. We do about 10 sewer lines a summer, along with tank and system replacements.

“We’ve had to diversify all along the way because our area is pretty small. It’s resort-community-based, so we don’t have a large population of full-time residents. We have an oversized infrastructure to support the people who come and visit — the skiers and the mountain vacationers. But there has never been a lot of any one kind of work that we can do to make enough money year-round to keep the doors open. We’ve had to do a number of different things to stay busy.”

It’s a formula that certainly seems to be working.


Serving industry

As part of its diversification, Snowbridge Inc. is expanding into the industrial market. That includes pipe cleaning and maintenance at mines in its Rocky Mountain territory.

“We have some active molybdenum mines in the area,” says company co-owner Bill Tatro III. “We often go on site to clean their water transport and water reclamation pipes. One of the mines we serve is no longer active. It’s a huge reclamation property now and is treating water that is pumped out of the mine. The long transport pipes that carry water from the mine to the wastewater treatment plant become calcified over time from hard minerals in the water. We do a lot of cleaning of those pipes.”

Hydroexcavation is a growth area; the company’s Vactor combination truck does double duty potholing and daylighting for excavating contractors. “We also do projects of our own where we repair or install sewer lines and have to daylight for utilities,” Tatro says.

“We’ve got a budding hydroexcavation business. We don’t have any local competition for that work. Some contractors come up from Denver and compete with us, but there are none based nearby. We do a decent amount of hydroexcavation for municipalities and some of the bigger contractors. We will probably have to purchase a true hydrovac truck this year.”



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.