Tips from drain cleaning pros -- just like you!

“Look neat, right down to the hat and shoes,” advises Donald “Mac” MacDonald, owner and founder of Rooter Man, Billerica, Mass. “If you don't look the part, who is going to trust you? If you were a chef at a fancy restaurant but you wore a dirty sweatshirt, nobody would eat there. People expect professionalism.”

MacDonald started his drain cleaning business in 1970 and became so successful that he started to franchise it in 1981. Mac, along with his son Brian, now have 72 Rooter Man locations in the United States and Canada, and Fortune magazine has named Rooter Man one of the top 500 franchises and No.1 in the plumbing industry two years in a row.

“Talk to the customer first,” suggests Mike Suehr, Gangbuster Sewer and Drain Cleaning, Pittsburgh, Pa. Suehr started working with his father in 1967, and has been on his own since 1976. He advertises in the Penny Saver and phone book, but he says 90 percent of his business comes from direct referrals from other customers. “I get referrals from other plumbers because they can't get the line open.”

    Tip: To be a good contractor, you must communicate with people, keep your promises, and explain the job fully. The little things are what make the big things happen. Focus on the little things.

We asked these two to share some of their best tips learned in the drain cleaning business:

“Ask the right questions,” Suehr says. “Is it a chronic problem? In what conditions does it clog up? Does it clog in heavy rain? Maybe the storm sewer and sanitary are combined.”

Suehr analyzes the situation first. “What's the first thing you look for? The manhole. Does it come out the front or back of the building? Next look for the vent pipe or clean out - front or back. Going into the basement is the biggest mistake. If you go through the floor trap, your snake has to go through the house trap as well. That creates a double trap situation that causes more cable friction, more wear and tear, and you can't feel the 'T' or stoppage.”

    Tip: Is the clog inside or outside? Carry a furring strip in the truck to run down the clean out or vent pipe to measure the water level in the trap. If there is high water in the outside house trap, the clog is outside. If the water is low in the outside house trap, the clog is inside.
“If you don't have a water jet, your camera is often useless,” Suehr says. “To effectively use a camera you have to see what's going on. Your customer is very interested in what's going on inside the pipe. You should see a round pipe through to the end. It's not rocket science. You're able to see the sidewalls of the pipe and the cracks. The clay is dark and cracks are light. Soap residue coats the pipe white and unless you jet the line clean, you can't see the cracks. If you don't jet the line, the camera will bulldoze the sludge until you have a dam that leaves a layer of water in the bottom of the pipe.”

MacDonald agrees: “Cameras and jetters work in conjunction with each other. You have to jet it before the camera goes down the line. It scours the pipe to prepare it for a proper video. Traditional cable cleaning will not clean the pipe sufficiently. Lines with sludge and grease are like glue; it will smear the lens of the camera so it's not viewable. It's like having dirty glasses. You can't see through dirty water.”

    Tip: When using a jet, water flow is more important than pressure. Pressure cuts the stoppage off the walls of the pipe but water flow washes it away.

    Tip: Use a drop of Rain-X® on the camera lens to help keep the picture clear of water and debris.

“I've pulled bricks out of the line,” Suehr says. “Don't put your camera down the drain before you clean the trap.

“Don't just get in and get out. Be methodical. Get it open and get it running. First the jet, then the camera. Most sewers don't have an obvious problem. Until you've jetted it, you can't see what you're doing. Run the camera, and sell a better job.”

    Tip: Clear the trap with a vacuum before running the camera through. The camera lens could be damaged by rocks and debris.
“You need a backup camera,” Suehr says. “Things break, they're mechanical. You're putting that camera in the worst environment known to man. Everything goes into that pipe. Those pipes are old, so be ready for surprises. If the sewers weren't in bad shape you wouldn't need a camera. If your camera breaks and you leave, the next guy is going to get the job. If you're using your camera every day, 12 times a day, you need a back-up.”
    Tip: Don't use your camera as a battering ram. If you see a blockage, clear it with a snake or a jet. Or else make sure you've got a back-up camera.
“Why do I need a camera?” MacDonald asks. “Why do I need a fax machine? If you have a dispute between a tenant and landlord, a video can resolve who's responsible. Resolve disputes. Just like the Internet, it's opened up a whole new level of communication. When customers are skeptical of the contractor, it adds credibility - condos, property management, municipalities. Specialists have to be committed to having the latest technology available to be competitive.”
    Tip: Put your name on the tape to promote for the next job. Customers show them to their neighbors. A picture could be worth thousands - dollars, not words.
“Jetting starts on a small scale at 1,500 psi at 2 gpm to clear 1 1/2- to 3-inch lines,” MacDonald says. “It's OK for very small lines inside, but for larger lines outside you need more flow and pressure. Move up with gas jets to clear 4-, 6- and 8-inch sewers and mains.”

The size of the pipe determines the size of the jet. “If you have a large line under a shopping center parking lot, or if you don't have a water source, the trailer becomes very versatile,” MacDonald says. “A trailer can deliver more water to the pump than you can from a hose. You need more water flow to clear larger and longer lines. The pressure breaks up the material, but you need water to get it to flow out of the pipe. The higher the water flow, the larger diameter the hose you'll need. Select the right size for the right job. If it's too small, it will knot up in the pipe.”

    Tip: A leader at the end of the hose keeps the hose from coming back at you in larger diameter lines. Use a short length of pipe and then your nozzle so you've got enough length and it can't turn around in the pipe.
Here are a few more tips both shared:
    Tip: Avoid going through a trap to clear a 4-inch line by pulling the toilet bowl. It's easier to get through the line because there is no trap and it's easier to get to and clear the stack.

    Tip: When using a locator, start by finding the position of the camera within 5-to-10 feet of the drain opening. Then locate it every 10- to-20 feet until you've reached the stoppage. Not only will the camera be much easier to locate, you will have traced the drain line in the process.

Finally, Steve Ludlow, sales manager for Fisher Research Labs, offered the following tips for camera and pipe location:
    Tip: Verify camera location by moving the camera back and forth 3 feet while the locator remains in position above the signal. If the signal drops off as you move the camera back, then returns as you move the camera forward again, you've located the right spot.

    Tip: You can determine the direction of the pipe line by turning the blade of the locator. The signal will be at its maximum when the blade is in line with the pipe and will drop off when the blade of the locator rotates perpendicular to the drain line.

    Tip: To verify the location when using a transmitter to locate a metal pipe, after you think you've located the line, disconnect the ground wire. The signal should disappear from the locator when the ground wire is removed, and return when reattached.