If you’re a plumbing contractor in Atlanta, Miami or Washington, you’ve probably seen or heard ads for Plumbers 911 that offer a range of services to homeowners. The ads — and Plumbers 911 — will arrive later this year in Fresno and Modesto, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle.

“Plumbers 911 is a nationwide company which works with highly qualified local plumbing contractors to provide timely and reliable plumbing services to our customers,” according to www.Plumbers911.com. “Our technicians are carefully screened to ensure that all of them are competent and trustworthy.”

All techs are licensed and insured, drug-tested and background-checked; have taken more than 10,000 hours of training; and continue their education, the website says. They’re also members of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada.

“I compare Plumbers 911 to Roto-Rooter and Ben Franklin Plumbing,” says Tom Bigley, the UA’s director of plumbing services. “Plumbing and HVAC service is a billion-dollar industry and it’s time to go after it. We’re looking for young, ambitious personalities who are superior people to work for Plumbers 911. These are our signatory Plumbers 911 contractors. They will provide 24-hour service and do it right.”

So far, 24 contractors have joined Plumbers 911 in the three cities where the referral program is established. Before contractors in other metropolitan areas can affiliate themselves with Plumbers 911, the UA local business manager must approve the program due to the large investment in training and marketing, Bigley says.

The program has the support of the Mechanical Service Contractors of America and the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors – National Association through its Union Affiliated Contractors group.


Service roots

Around the turn of the 20th century, plumbing contractors who employed UA members were mostly mom-and-pop service shops, Bigley says. At least that was the case in Pittsburgh where he is based.

“I looked at the archives. We had 60 contractors, which were three- and four-man shops,” Bigley says. “Now we’re down to 49 commercial contractors, and just a handful of the residential service jobs.”

As the industrial base grew in Pittsburgh and other cities where the UA was strong, many union plumbing contractors abandoned residential service in favor of bigger-ticket commercial construction projects, he says. In fact, one of the challenges that Plumbers 911 faces today is getting large commercial contractors to get back to their roots.

 “That’s where everyone started, with one truck and a pipe rack on it,” Bigley says. “Some of our contractors have a hard time going back to that. We’re really starting to recruit new contractors.”

In early 2009, the recession became motivation enough for the UA to take another look at residential service to create work for its members. The idea was to develop a nationwide “franchise” program for union plumbing contractors.

The program got off the ground in January 2012 in Atlanta. George Head, the business manager of UA Local 72 at the time, came up with the name Plumbers 911.

“I thought the name was brilliant,” Bigley says. “I decided I want to run with this.”

Bob Melko, owner of Bishop Plumbing in Des Plaines, Ill., has been instrumental in getting Plumbers 911 off the ground. Bishop is a union shop that’s been doing plumbing service successfully in Chicago’s northwest suburbs for decades.

“The UA is going after a market they neglected,” he says. “Banking got so tight, and without banking there’s no new construction. So, it was time to go after service.”


Training and marketing

An advantage union plumbing shops bring to the residential service arena is the superior technical skills of their technicians who have gone through UA training programs, Melko says. That being said, the UA local business units participating in Plumbers 911 must equip their training centers with products specific to plumbing service such as power jetters.

The training centers also must purchase a series of professionally produced videos that address the nontechnical aspects of a service call.

“The videos contain 13 vignettes and last 2 1/2 hours,” Bigley says. “The videos show what can happen when a service tech arrives on a service call. They show him what to do in certain situations and they show what not to do.”

The UA’s main training center in Ann Arbor, Mich., has developed a 10-hour service class that starts with the basics of how to interact with homeowners during a call, Bigley says. The class incorporates the videos as well.

“While we’re strong on the technical side, our training has ignored the people skills,” Melko says. “We need to focus on communication, salesmanship and other people skills.”

Melko has been crisscrossing the country with Bigley to conduct three-hour training classes for both contractors and technicians. “Serious about Service” talks about the opportunities in the service arena for contractors, the UA and UA members, he says.

“Superior Service Training” is a class for technicians and uses role-playing to teach the people skills Melko mentioned earlier. Contractors are encouraged to join the class to learn what their techs are being taught.

“I like to say that we need to train our technicians to be the Navy Seals of the service arena,” Melko says. “They need to be the best in the industry in both technical and people skills.”

 “Knowing Your Cost and Building Your Price” is a class Melko aims specifically at contractors. Bigley says the UA cannot tell contractors what to charge for their service or whether they should use flat-rate pricing or another system.

“The pricing is up to them,” he says. “They can be very competitive with other service companies.”

The UA has given marketing grants to the locals participating in Plumbers 911, Bigley says. The locals have to contribute to a marketing fund based on the number of hours worked by their members. The advertising has included radio and TV spots on ABC-affiliated stations.

 “We’re going after the homeowner and the housewife specifically,” Bigley says. “The commercials target females 21 to 45 years old. We’re doing everything we can in our marketing to get the Plumbers 911 name out there.”