Equip yourself properly and the world's leaks can be your oyster.

photo courtesy of Subsurface Leak Detection

When a single pinhole leak under 40 pounds of pressure can lose more than 2,000 gallons of water a day, companies that perform radio leak detection can seem like heroes to home and business owners. The ability to locate -- and repair -- concealed leaks with minimal demolition or "hit-and-miss" searches puts clients at ease, and offers plumbers a chance to add to their services list, and profits.

But whether you decide to make radio leak detection a niche business, or an add-on service to your existing company, proper equipment and training is key to making it work.

Why Go It Alone?

For those interested in a start-up leak detection company, California-based American Leak Detection offers a unique franchising opportunity.

Founded in 1974 by Richard Rennick, ALD has grown to expand to more than 150 franchises in 38 states and several other countries. Its franchises specialize in locating hidden water, drain waste, sewer and gas leaks in residences, apartment complexes, pools, spas and commercial buildings. As the company says, "Where there's water, there's opportunity."

Typical initial franchise fees are around $49,500, with estimated total investment ranging from $68,000 to $160,000. (The company recommends franchisees work from their homes, so no real estate costs are included.)

An intensive six- to 10-week training program in Palm Springs, Calif., offers classroom instruction, as well as field and tools training using the company's proprietary electronic leak detection equipment.

By being part of the franchise, an owner is given an established brand identity, and on-going support from ALD. Additional training and updated equipment is offered, and while the company doesn't take a hands-on approach to advertising, it does make a public relations firm available to owners at no cost.

Niche Success

But not everyone needs a parent corporation to succeed at leak detection. After 10 years experience in the leak location business,Pipe Pros Inc.owner Randy Agnetti knows what it takes to make his company profitable. With his team of five technicians and the same number of service vehicles, Agnetti has learned that proper field training and reliable equipment is key to delivering on the job.

"You learn leak location by doing it, by being in the field," Agnetti says. But he acknowledges that listening for the series of sounds of a system -- the "whoosh" and "hiss" of subsurface leaks -- is not easy. "It takes practice and a certain level of skill and technique."

The northern California-based company has located everything from run-of-the-mill home leaks, to a leak at the dolphin tank at Six Flags Marine World. Pipe Pros works mostly in conjunction with area plumbing companies who refer customers to their services, as well as insurance companies.

"We don't do repairs to the systems, we just locate the leaks," explains Agnetti. "Plumbers know their business, and we know ours. By referring customers to us, the client isn't forced into a decision to go with just one company. Each company stays in control of his own expertise."

While Pipe Pros' main business is radio leak detection (75 percent), it also offers utility line location, sewer and pipe cleaning/inspection and smoke detection (see "Blowin' Smoke, Page74).

Four of his five technicians perform leak location, and each were put through a rigorous eight to 12 weeks of training.

"We start the new guys off slow. We have them work with other seasoned techs on residential projects before moving up to apartments and commercial jobs," says Agnetti, who is a board member of the Underground Utility Location & Leak Association (UULLA), as well as president of the East Bay Claims Association (an insurance adjusters group).

In order to perform their job accurately, Pipe Pros technicians need to be properly equipped. For Agnetti, that means a Subsurface Leak Detection Inc. LD-12 radio leak detector on every truck.

"They're built well and are easy to maintain," offers Agnetti, who says he's "seen and used them all" in the industry. "The LD-12s, in my opinion, offer superior service and the performance is excellent. It gives excellent quality sound."

The Subsurface LD-12 -- a recent upgrade to the manufacturer's LD-10 -- features high sensitivity, and includes adjustment filters and high amplification of leak sounds. It can hear in 6-8 ft. of soil. For a modest investment of roughly $2,800 per unit, Agnetti's team boasts one for each vehicle.

"My guys each have their own equipment," he says. "They've tailored them to their unique listening techniques; they can't use each others' machines."

When asked to offer advice to others looking to enter the market, Agnetti had this to say:

"The leak location business has been a profitable one for me," says Agnetti, a single parent with a son currently serving in the military, and a daughter soon to be graduating college. "The major things to remember for success is to have good technicians and good equipment." Agnetti also encourages companies to join an association; no need to go it alone. "And get your techs trained -- both in the field and through courses available."

For further franchise information about American Leak Detection, visit www.americanleakdetection.com.

Blowin' Smoke

Another, more individualized aspect of Randy Agnetti's Pipe Pros business is the use of smoke testing to locate the cause of sewer odors in vent lines.

"It's the smallest portion of our business," says Agnetti, "but it goes hand in hand with keeping costs down for repairs for our clients."

Smoke testing systems are available through manufacturers like Hurco[tm] Technologies Inc. (www.hurcotech.com), which was founded in 1979 by president Lyndon J. Hurley. Hurco's unique LiquiSmokeT and RipCord SmokerT products are manufactured to exact specifications for performance accuracy.

Smoke-filled air is forced through a sewer or plumbing system, and problem areas are detected when the smoke is released through the leak.

Using smoke-testing technology, Pipe Pros recently discovered a broken vent line in a grocery store, which previously had been a restaurant. The company also found the source of foul-smelling sewer gas in a heath spa. When smoke was introduced into the system, the leak was discovered behind a restroom mirror. A joint hadn't been sealed, and the odor was escaping.

"Using smoke to find leaks saves time and money. It's a pretty adaptable system, and very accurate," Agnetti says.