Affordable Trenchless Focuses On Pipeline Cleaning And Inspection

Sewer and drain contractor branches out and takes a two-pronged approach to business growth.
Affordable Trenchless Focuses On Pipeline Cleaning And Inspection
Foreman Craig Kintz uses the CUES control board to maneuver the tractor and camera through the pipe during a municipal mainline inspection.

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Duane Johnson joined Affordable Drain Service Inc. in 2000. He and owner Craig Post saw the opportunity to grow the business by adding CCTV to the menu of services, so they created Affordable Pipeline Services as a separate entity to build on the emerging opportunities in the municipal market.

Post had been in business for a number of years, and Johnson had a background in CCTV as well as connections with engineering firms looking for this technology.

“I knew there was a tremendous amount of work available,” Johnson says. “There was business going out in the City of San Diego – huge contracts –  and I had good relationships with key engineering firms at the time with tremendous support. That helped us in the beginning.

“Craig mortgaged his house to buy that first TV van. Having the camera allowed us to inspect and clean the larger-diameter pipes.”

The vision was to sustain the residential drain cleaning side as a means to develop the more sophisticated new division, which required a substantial investment in equipment. The partners determined it would be best to specialize in cleaning and inspection and focus on their home market in the San Diego area.

“He had been doing a very steady business with the residential drain cleaning, but as we made these decisions together we saw that we fit together and had the same goals – heading in the same direction,” Johnson says. “We did not want to be the biggest company, traveling all over the place.”

A good balance

After 14 years, the company’s staff has grown from three employees to a substantial 29, with 12 technicians and 10 service vans on the residential/commercial side, and nine technicians and four CCTV vans on the pipeline side, plus two combination trucks and five trailer jetters.

The two divisions have a very different clientele, but they complement each other in many ways.

“The drain side is a much more steady, constant flow of rather common work,” he says. “You are going to X amount of jobs a day, and as you get better and the name gets out there it increases in almost a planned manner. You start growing and you add a guy and a truck. You continue growing and it is a steady income and steady growth.

“With pipeline you have an opportunity to bring in the bigger clients, bigger customers. It is much more of a roller coaster. It’s like any other contracting situation, where you get a big contract, but when the contract is over you fight to get the next one. The stability of the drain side helped the pipeline side weather through some of the beginning storms. Larger projects and larger income helped facilitate growth on the drain side, allowing us to buy more equipment, enhance services and add technicians.”

The two divisions have dedicated staff and operate on a different pay schedule, with residential/commercial technicians working on commission, while the pipeline people are paid hourly.

“Technicians are trained and are skilled for the specific division,” Johnson says. “They handle different equipment. The only time there would be a crossover is with a large city contract where the pipeline division is working on major pipelines, but also dealing with office buildings, fire stations, things of that nature, and we bring in the residential side and add a small piece to the contract. That is fairly rare, but it is best if we don’t have to bring in another subcontractor.”

A fertile field

San Diego County has a population of approximately 1,307,000 across 18 incorporated cities and 65 small towns, so sewer and drain cleaning opportunities abound. There are also several military bases in San Diego, including Camp Pendleton. These bases have residential housing as well, and Affordable has been involved in both the residential side and large pipeline inspections. They are equipped to handle everything from 2 1/2-inch household drains up to 114-inch municipal lines.

“With the larger pipes we’re not looking so much for roots, as we would in residential lines, but for debris, major breaks and corrosion of the pipe.”

Johnson says their focus on working with engineering firms rather than direct- and low-bid contracts has helped build relationships. Affordable has been included by these firms in bids, so whoever wins, they are part of the team.

“With one of these contracts, we inspected residential lines for the entire City of El Cajon for an engineering company that had the contract for the master plan and all projects for the city,” Johnson says.

Affordable Pipeline Services does a tremendous amount of preventive maintenance for the City of Solana Beach, essentially serving as the maintenance staff for the small city, which has no TV equipment or cleaning capability. In the City of Carlsbad, Affordable Pipeline is often brought in on capital improvement projects that do not fit into the city cleaning crew’s work schedule. They also support the cleaning operation for San Diego County.

Networking

While there are a large number of customers on the drain side who have been with the company since 1992, Affordable Pipeline had to build a strong base, which it now has.

“Our reputation is so important,” Johnson says. “In pipeline it is word of mouth. Every city manager talks to other city managers. It is a much smaller environment than it appears to be.”

Johnson says they bought the first combination truck because as the inspection market evolved, more contracts included cleaning work. Now they have two Aquatech B10 jet/vac trucks (Hi-Vac Corporation) on International chassis. They also have five trailer jetters, including a 1998 Harben (12 gpm/4,000 psi) and four units from US Jetting, each producing 18 gpm/4,000 psi.

“We needed to make sure we had the ability to continue the TV inspection projects that also require cleaning,” he says. “We see more projects where we go out to do cleaning support and less of the TV work at times. It is fluid in certain time periods.”

The four CCTV inspection trucks are outfitted with cameras and equipment from CUES and Pearpoint, and PipeLogix software. Technicians also use RIDGID SeeSnake cameras — seven full-size and four minis — on residential and commercial jobs.

When it comes to support from manufacturers, Johnson pulls no punches. The bottom line is he’s looking for great service.

“To us, downtime is the only huge expense,” he says. “Repair costs do not compare to downtimes. I’m losing $1,500 to $2,000 a day if a truck is not out in the field. I have manufacturers trying to save $300 on a part, but I say the phone call is costing me $300. I need my truck, my equipment, out in the field working. I’m not worrying about saving $300 on a part.”

Challenges to face

“One of the nightmares we deal with in San Diego involves disposal,” Johnson says. “We outsource all disposal. While some cities we work for will allow us to take debris to their treatment plant, quite a few, particularly the smaller ones, don’t have a means of disposal, so we have to hire an outside company to bring in roll-off bins. All debris goes in the bins, and they are then hauled to Los Angeles for disposal — about a 100-mile drive. I will not take my cleaning truck through the scales when I need it here.”

Regulations are another matter in California, but this works both ways for a pipeline inspection company. California has the Waste Water Discharge Requirement, which calls for inspections for every privately or municipally owned sewer system that exceeds 1 mile in length.

“All the cities and jurisdictions have to submit a plan to clean their entire system. Then they have to meet the plan,” Johnson says. “If they fail to meet the goal they have set, their potential fines will be higher if they have a spill. The people who get hurt by regulations are the clients, the end payer. Fifteen years ago you could dispose of stuff – bring a cleaning truck in, clean a storm drain, pull mud out and take it to the dump and be done with it. Now that same situation where you have a small contract at maybe a $500 to $1,000 disposal cost in the past – that same project can be a $10,000 disposal cost today.”

Aim higher

Both divisions of Affordable set the bar very high when it comes to their technicians’ training and performance.

“On the pipeline side there is a stringent training program,” Johnson says. “I won’t put a guy into a CCTV chair until he has been with us over a year. Our training is extensive.

“I can teach a guy how to use a TV truck in a couple weeks. But to teach the knowledge necessary to do top-notch inspection takes a tremendous amount of time as so much is involved in making the million-dollar decisions they make in the field. And our reputation is based on those decisions being right every time. This is an environment where every decision made is recorded for all time. Those decisions have to be right. TV inspection and cleaning truck errors can have drastic consequences. Miss a defect in a pipe when you fall asleep, and a pipe collapses. There is a record that you missed it. Lawsuits are coming.

“This is why we put a newly hired guy in the back of the CCTV van as a helper for a period of time,” Johnson says. “We want that person to advance. We prefer to train ourselves, and often with experienced TV operators they do things differently, have habits I would not accept. It is easier to train from the base up. We give our guys the opportunity to rise up if they so choose. If someone does not advance from the back of the TV van, we might as well cut him loose.”

On the residential/commercial drain cleaning side, they have technicians at different levels or stages. One technician will have only cable machines. Another will have cables and push cameras, and a trailer jetter. The more senior people will have more advanced equipment. They work on commission, so the extra equipment gives them an opportunity to earn more money. “They can earn our trust by taking care of that equipment,” Johnson says.  

Safety is another important matter. There are always emergency calls to be answered, but all staff members attend a safety meeting every Monday morning.

“We briefly cover everything, including confined-space entry,” Johnson says. “Over the years I’ve seen it all. A guy gets a nozzle stuck out in the field and the first thing he does is slide down the jetter hose to the bottom of the manhole to try to work on it. I will not allow it. We will send a confined-space truck out there no matter what. We don’t cross any of those bridges.”

Everyone in the company is made aware of regulations and procedures, particularly in management, where everyone plays a role in making sure everything is done properly.

“Our operations manager on the residential side is Dan Wooten, and for pipeline, Corey Charfauros. Our office manager, Sheree Henson, oversees both divisions and is another key employee. The company would not function without these people.”

Johnson’s main responsibilities are with the pipeline division, handling human resources, employment and employee relations, bidding and client searches. Post oversees primarily the residential side and financials for both sides.

“I can speak for both of us as far as what we most enjoy with Affordable on a regular basis, and that is when we have an opportunity to be out in the field,” Johnson says. “Craig carries push camera equipment in his vehicle and he occasionally has a chance to use it. We both came from the field. Grew into this – both our hearts are in it. We like being part of the activity.”

More Information

CUES - 800/327-7791 - www.cuesinc.com

Harben, Inc. - 800/327-5387 - www.harben.com

Hi-Vac Corporation/Aquatech - 800/800-1016 - www.hi-vac.com

Pearpoint/SPX - 800/688-8094 - www.radiodetection.com

PipeLogix, Inc. - 866/299-3150 - www.pipelogix.com

RIDGID - 800/769-7743 - www.ridgid.com

US Jetting, LLC - 800/538-8464 - www.usjetting.com



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