The addition of high-powered waterjetting systems helps Skeen Plumbing establish an elite reputation around Jackson, Miss.
Operating Skeen Plumbing & Gas Inc. for 27 years in Ridgeland, Miss., Ricky Skeen has seen many shifts in the industry, and changes in his own business, too.
There were times when he had 30 service vans, and when he scaled down to three. Today, with 12 service vans, 20 employees, and two distinct divisions in the company, Skeen likes his situation.
Skeen added TV inspection in 1995, and the addition of waterjetting in 2000 helped him further please his customers, about 60 percent of them residential. His first jetter was a cart-mounted model that he used to pick up some school and restaurant accounts. Then the jetter was stolen and, reluctant to invest in another larger jetter, Skeen worked with cable machines until 2007. At that point he began adding the jetting equipment for which the company is now known.
Jetting, along with line locating, pipe bursting, and CIPP lining, have helped make Skeen Plumbing the “go to” source in the greater Jackson area. The company motto is: “Don’t scream, call Skeen.”
When one of Skeen’s Chevrolet 4500 service vans pulls up to a job site, pulling a 38-foot enclosed CIPP lining trailer, it is a 68-foot-long rolling billboard. The unit generally goes out to the bigger projects at multi-story apartment buildings, commercial properties or restaurants. “We get a lot of attention when we pull up with that one,” says Skeen.
Hooked on toys
Skeen Plumbing operates out of a 7,500 square-foot facility. The plumbing division has nine service vans and related equipment, and the drain cleaning, inspection and repair division has five service vans. The divisions mostly run separately. Long-time employee Richard Parker supervises the plumbing side, and Jason Vanlandingham oversees drain cleaning.
“I’m all over the place,” says Skeen. “I would rather be in the truck working, but that doesn’t always pan out.”
Skeen saw the potential for jetting at the 2004 Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International, where he recalls feeling like “the kid in the candy shop.” He bought a trailer jetter from US Jetting, and within 12 months he had two more – another trailer unit and a truck-based system in a Chevrolet 4500 four-door fully enclosed van.
The trailer jetters deliver 4,000 psi/18 gpm and carry 300-gallon water tanks. The truck-mounted unit delivers the same flow and pressure but carries a 600-gallon tank, as well as a removable 400-gallon tank. It has a curbside power-pullout reel.
With that equipment on board, Skeen set about training his team to use it productively and safely. US Jetting conducted a two-day training class at its headquarters and visited for on site training. New jetting technicians are thoroughly trained, attending classes and riding along with experienced technicians before running the equipment themselves.
Doing it better
“I really enjoy the jetting process,” says Skeen. “I guess it’s because I like equipment.” He also appreciates the chance to offer a better service and expand his customer base, revenue and profit.
“The customer can call us, and the woman who takes the call will determine if it’s a call for the plumbing division or the drain side,” says Skeen. “If it’s a drain call, one of our trucks will go out and diagnose the problem. Jet it out, camera it. After jetting, we can see cracks, misalignments and other problems in the pipe. I like that we can describe the problem. We let the customer look at the screen in the van, send an e-mail to whoever might want to review the tape, or burn a DVD, all from the vehicle.”
The technician typically offers the customer up to three options and then suggests the one that will do the most good: Line the pipe, make a spot repair, pipe burst or dig it up.
“You have to see what you are looking at,” says Skeen. “If you just run a cable, you are punching a hole. You don’t have clean sides of the pipe and you don’t know what you have. Jetting it out cleans it out. Then the picture takes all the guesswork out of it.”
The company typically cleans 2- and 4-inch residential lines and up to 10-inch lines for commercial, industrial and municipal customers. Technicians see concrete, terra cotta and Orangeburg pipes, as well as some PVC lines that are broken or cracked and need spot repair or more aggressive measures. The soils in the area are subject to settling, and that has caused some building foundations to shift.
Training and duty
The paradigm at Skeen is to specialize. Plumbing technicians have vehicles fully outfitted with the tools they need, and it’s the same on the drain side. If a plumber finds a situation beyond his expertise, a drain technician is called in.
Inspection vehicles are outfitted to Skeen’s high standards, with air conditioning, a stove and microwave oven for the technician and assistant, 32-inch monitors, computers, printers and seating for customers who want to view the images.
Cameras on the inspection vans are from RIDGID and Pearpoint. The plumbing vans carry Gen-Eye cameras from General Pipe Cleaners as well as push cameras from Spartan Tool. Locating equipment is from Radiodetection.
Trenchless technologies include the UnderTaker pipe bursting system from Spartan, the Nu Flow Technologies lining system for mainlines, and lateral lining technologies from Flow-Liner Systems Ltd. and Global Pipeline Systems.
Technicians are responsible for their service vehicles and equipment. Skeen does a visual inspection once a week and inventories the equipment monthly. Plumbing service vans carry up to $60,000 in equipment and supplies and drain cleaning vans as much as $120,000. Technicians are accountable for anything broken or lost unless they have a reasonable explanation.
At the end of the day, the two supervisors take their vans home, and so does the one plumbing technician on duty for off hours. All other vans are returned to the shop overnight.
Skeen employees enjoy excellent benefits, including health insurance with dental and eye coverage. They also have many opportunities to earn bonuses and win contests. “They make good money as well,” Skeen says. Contest rewards include four-day vacations at the beach, maid service and large-screen TV sets.
When it comes to equipment, Skeen advises contractors considering jetting not to scrimp on the purchase price. “On a machine that can run from $40,000 to $70,000, don’t look to save $1,000. Always be sure to buy quality equipment,” he says. “You get what you pay for. And do the proper training. You can get hurt with this equipment if you don’t train and learn safety measures. Take the appropriate classes.”
Skeen takes the jetters to many small cities and villages in his territory, sometimes traveling as far as 150 miles to develop more business and keep the equipment busy.
“We’re not anywhere near where I would like to be with that business,” Skeen says. “I’m pushing that right now, putting together information to go out to different entities. A lot of small communities have lift stations and pumping stations. There is always maintenance on those pumps. We’re always working to get the phone to ring. That never stops, or it never should.”
Ultimately, Skeen wants to provide full value for his customers. “It’s never good enough unless you have done everything, used every tool, offered a workable solution, and solved the problem,” he says. “And never, ever short-change your customer.”