Pat Grogan, owner of Topeka, Kan.-based Pat the Plumber, entered an online contest from drain-cleaning equipment manufacturer RIDGID and won a prize pack that included four different-sized sewer and small drain cameras.
Little did Grogan know one of the cameras would be put to immediate use in his own home.
Grogan laughs. “It’s interesting. You win a camera and the next day your 2-year-old son flushes a spoon down the toilet! The camera went through the trapway and you could see the spoon right there. It was a big help.”
Technological advancements such as the continued evolution of camera systems is one key factor that has helped keep the drain-cleaning service side of the plumbing business moving forward in recent years.
Drains clogWhile the recent deterioration of the economy has dealt a blow to the plumbing industry in general, drain cleaning is one service that typically is able to sidestep any financial malaise.
“Traditionally, our industry does benefit from the recession,” General Pipe Cleaners’ Vice President of Marketing Marty Silverman notes. “Drains clog no matter what shape the economy is in and no matter what the season is. Drain cleaning doesn’t have a season.”
With new home construction slowed significantly, RIDGID Vice President of Strategic Planning Jay Gatz has seen contractors steeped in that type of plumbing work shift their focus to service work such as drain cleaning.
“Through this last cycle guys that had built up a lot of capacity in new construction turned to service to keep their labor busy and maintain revenues,” Gatz says.
Electric Eel Vice President of Sales Mark Speranza sees some contractors being more cautious about investing in new equipment in the current economy. He also notes the recent economic tumult has changed the thought process of some homeowners when it comes to drain-cleaning work.
“We’re seeing some people either putting that off or renting a drain-cleaning machine and trying to do the job themselves,” he says.
Increasing the paceBelt-tightening aside, advancements in diagnostic equipment such as high-tech camera systems with the ability to take images from a camera and use them in various digital media have helped contractors not only better troubleshoot problems, but also provide customers with definitive solutions.
“It's all about speed these days,”Grogan says. “Labor is everything. The new technology out there makes everything precise. You work smartly and you work efficiently instead of working broadly.”
Controlling labor rates means more profitability; reducing billable hours means more time to service more customers and more overall business.
“The less time contractors spend solving a problem, the more jobs they can take on,” says Roger Mavrides, vice president of engineering at General Tools and Instruments. “Word of mouth will get out they get the job done better and quicker than the competition. Efficiency is very important and ultimately results in more profit.”
Vince Centracchio, of Mount Prospect, Ill.-based VJ Centracchio & Son, has been using General Pipe Cleaners’ drain-cleaning tools since the 1970s. Sewer repairs, he says, were a lot tougher back then.
Equipment evolution over the years has dramatically lessened Centracchio’s potential headaches in the field.
“All of these innovations with locating equipment and all of these new hand tools and cutting tools make it a lot quicker and a lot safer,” he says. “Everything complements the other. It pays to have the newest equipment.”
Go to the videoOne of the major pluses for contractors who do drain-cleaning work is the ability to better deliver diagnostic information to customers thanks to these new equipment innovations.
“Where people are most interested in technology is still the cameras,” Silverman says. “Drain cleaning is fairly low-tech except for that. Instead of using a camera system to just see what is going on, contractors want to tie it into a laptop. A VCR used to be the dominating recording device. Now you have DVDs, CDs, flash drives and SD cards. It means contractors have to be a little more computer savvy, and have to keep up on technology. You’re still recording a picture and showing it to the customer, but now it’s a matter of what form it arrives in.”
Grogan frequently uses the RIDGIDConnect online remote access service to upload data from his drain inspection/cleaning jobs.
“If I’m doing a real-estate inspection, I can upload everything digitally to that site and the buyer and the seller can both see it,” he explains. “Back in the old days, you’d have to run a DVD over to people.”
Digital advancements now allow a contractor to disseminate information through multiple communication platforms.
“Our equipment has the capability to display an image on the screen and then send it via Skype,” Mavrides notes. “The contractor can send live, streaming video to a central office or to the customer. He can use voice annotation to explain the problem and request help from a local or central station.”
Customer careContractors are interested in durable and efficient drain-cleaning equipment, that’s a given. But features oriented toward greater safety and customer service are just as important.
“Anytime you are in a house in, say, a finished basement area, the contractor is going to want to use a closed drum machine where cables aren’t exposed and water and dirt aren’t whipping all over the place,” Speranza states. “One thing we’ve seen gain in popularity is the auto-cable feeder machines. It’s also a safety advantage for the operator because the hands are not directly on a rotating cable.”
Grogan likes the fact he can present a customer with a definitive solution to a drain problem, thus lowering the probability of a return service call.
“We’re able to fix a lot more drain pipes than we did in the past,” he says. “If you have a washer drain with recurring problems, it’s probably getting augered once a year. Now we can get a camera down there, see what the problem is and show the customers. You can tell them you can correct the problem so they don’t have to worry about it anymore. That’s a good option they will definitely consider if they can swing it.”
Having electronic drain-cleaning data can benefit other facets of a contractor’s business.
“You’ve got before and after imagery: ‘Here’s what I did to open it up,’” Gatz says. “You’re validating the work you’ve done. Longer term, now you have that information so when the customer calls again, you can pull the data up and see he had his line snaked and replaced three years ago. It’s hard to do that with only a customer list or a billing file. You can put in things such as don’t park in the driveway, beware of dogs behind the fence or to look by the shrub for the general location of the cleanout. That stuff becomes tribal knowledge in the company. You’re enhancing efficiency and creating extra revenue by having digital data.”
Having digital records of jobs readily at one’s fingertips also can foster better quality control in a company.
“It’s a great way for a company owner to see how the technicians are doing,” Gatz adds. “You can use that data to critique performance and enhance capabilities and skill sets.”
A look into the crystal ballContractors and manufacturers believe the future of drain cleaning will continue to provide tools and technology that champion efficiency, durability and profitability.
“As technology advances, the equipment will advance to match,” Silverman says. “The end-user is looking for equipment that is durable, can handle the abuse and can make the most money.”
And the more comprehensive and professional drain-cleaning service the contractor can provide to his customers, the better the long-term results will be.
“Everybody needs drain cleaning,” Centracchio says. "This is an unforeseen business where a customer relies on you to tell him what is going on. If you are legit, know what you are doing, and can provide good service and preventative maintenance, you will have these customers for life.”
Down the drainA quick look at some new drain-cleaning products and services.
Auto cable feed: Electric Eel drain-cleaning machines with auto cable feed advance and retrieve cable with the push of a lever, making work faster and easier. The cable guides help keep the work area clean while keeping hands off rotating cable for added safety. Available in four different models that clean lines from 50 to 100 feet.