The Next Big Thing

Environmental Drain & Plumbing adopts emerging technology to offer the best of new services to residential and commercial customers

Chasing new technology can help a cleaning contractor keep one step ahead of competitors. John Maxwell, owner of Environmental Drain & Plumbing Inc. of Johnson City, Tenn., looks to emerging technologies to find new customers and to up-sell existing customers on new services.

The company, based about 100 miles east of Knoxville (where it also has an office), recently expanded its service lineup to offer potable water pipe lining, a new technology that promises to attract new customers and boost the bottom line.

Back in 1991, Maxwell was selling industrial goods – mostly pipe fittings and valves – when he ran into a roommate from college. “Sales weren’t exciting me any more and he showed me a concept strange enough to enjoy,” says Maxwell. “He represented a product that used bacteria to clean grease out of pipes. It appealed to me because it was so solution-oriented.”

Maxwell quickly established a company specializing in bio-remediation. “Right from the start, I was looking for ways to expand,” he says. “If I was cleaning grease for a restaurant through the grease trap, I would tell the city what I was doing, so that when they saw improvements in the municipal lines in the vicinity of the restaurant, they would think of me. There are many opportunities to promote a business that people overlook.”

Pushing the limits

Within a year, Maxwell was looking for new technology that could expand his offering. “One mistake some contractors make is to let new technology lead the business,” says Maxwell. “What you need to do instead is ask yourself: ‘What business do I want to be in?’ Answer that before you invest in expensive technology that will take your business in a direction you’re not really enthusiastic about.”

While exhibiting at a trade show in 1992, Maxwell noticed a booth marketing an early incarnation of what is now the SeeSnake inspection camera by RIDGID. “Back then, only big cities could afford cameras, but this was something for small contractors to operate,” he says. “I messed around with it and said, ‘Wow, I need this!’”

Expanding into CCTV

That year, Maxwell purchased a cable machine and a jetter and used the new inspection camera to drum up significant business, starting with companies that were already clients. Restaurants and food service clients topped the list for CCTV inspections, and municipalities and hospitals followed.

“Having the cameras allowed me to see exactly what was wrong with those lines,” says Maxwell. “One of my cardinal business rules is that I will not present a problem to a client unless I can also provide a solution.”

Reminding clients of what is available to them is crucial. Four years ago, a local real estate agent had hired a plumbing company to fix a 4-inch sewer pipe. “He couldn’t find the pipe at all,” says Maxwell. “Even with such well-established technology, the client didn’t know that you could send a camera down there, instead of tearing apart the front lawn so it looks like the aftermath of an atomic bomb fight.”

Ahead of the curve in his market, Maxwell wondered why other contractors didn’t buy the same equipment to compete with him.

Early adoption

“If you’re a guy who digs with a shovel for a living, do you get mad and throw your shovel at the backhoe, or buy a backhoe?” he asks. “I realized that some of them simply look at the investment in technology as a cost, not an opportunity, particularly smaller outfits. Five or ten thousand dollars is a lot of money for a camera.

“They’re getting by with their current clients. Maybe they’re afraid of extending themselves into areas they’re not familiar with. At some point, as prices fall, they get in because of the convenience factor, but the benefit from adopting early has already passed. They now need the technology to keep themselves in the same place. They’re like a frog sitting on the stove in a pan of hot water, and they don’t jump until it’s already boiling.”

Even contractors who adopted CCTV technology seemed to ignore the digital revolution, preferring analog VHS recordings as that technology was fading. “They’d tell me that the client didn’t need that level of technology,” says Maxwell. “I said, ‘I want the ability to record these digitally to DVD now.’ The market was changing, but some contractors, and even the manufacturers, weren’t responding.”

A trenchless niche

Maxwell was a little more careful about entering the field of trenchless technology. He worked out a niche market for cured-in-place pipe lining before investing $20,000 to launch a sister company, Trenchless Technology of Tennessee, in 2004.

He was convinced when he undertook a contract involving CCTV work on a Johnson City hospital with a drain line issue. “I took 45 minutes of inspection footage and turned it into a sales presentation, showing them what we found, and the solution, which was CIPP,” he says. The hospital became a regular client.

“We saw our most competitive niche in pipes 8 inches and under, and in jobs that took less than a week to complete. That means most municipal jobs are off the table, but we quote on the smaller and medium-sized jobs that make the most sense for us.” The company primarily uses the epoxy lining system offered by Nu Flow Technologies Inc.

Between his two companies, Maxwell has access to three Cam Spray trailer jetters (2,500 psi/11 gpm), five Speedrooter 90 drain machines from General Pipe Cleaners, and SeeSnake cameras and locators from RIDGID.

Sharing the expertise

Rather than keep the technology to himself, Maxwell is quick to assist even competitors with the technology he has adopted. “When cameras were the new rage, I always answered questions from other contractors,” he says. “You don’t want a bunch of goofballs with cameras ruining market confidence in the technology. Maybe one day they’ll be in a position where they can’t afford some new technology I’ve already got, and bring the job to me, so we’ll both make money.”

Maxwell works hard to keep up with new technology through trade magazines, trade shows and personal visits to product suppliers. “If I buy into a product, I want to go right to the factory to see who I’m getting into business with,” he says.

Maxwell’s next big thing is potable pipe lining. “The technology allows us to clean and coat the interior of potable water systems, fire-protection systems, recirculation systems, and many other applications,” he says.

He selected an epoxy barrier coating system from Nu Flow that allows him to repair water lines from 1/2 inch up to 10 inches. Larger diameters are possible but require special equipment. The repair, suitable for potable water systems in any application, begins with mapping out the client’s water system and then making a few repairs to structurally damaged pipes and joints if necessary.

“We send some hot compressed air down the pipe to dry it out, followed by a bit of abrasive sand to knock out rust and corrosion until you get the interior of the pipe clean,” Maxwell says.

Wider is easier

The abrading agent is collected at the end of the line, and another air pressure leak test is performed. Valves and fittings are removed, and conditioned air is then introduced to the pipe to distribute the epoxy coating to each pipe segment. The process seems to defy the law of inverse proportion: the larger the pipe diameter, the longer the length that can be treated in one application.

“It took me awhile to change my thinking on that,” says Maxwell. “For a pipe 1 inch in diameter, you can go 100 feet at a time, but for an 8-inch pipe you can go 800 feet. Of course, you’re limited by the type of fixtures on the line. For example, you might only be able to do a 5-foot section from a sink to a toilet and another 10 feet from the toilet to the shower.”

An application of conditioned air cures the epoxy lining. Once cured, valves and fittings are reinstalled, and the system is commissioned. Nu Flow estimates that the repair material can last up to 100 years. While the technology is designed primarily for metal lines, Maxwell is experimenting on plastic as well.

Selling to existing clients

Existing clients again provide an important market for the new process. Maxwell was recently called to repair a hospital’s broken water main. “They mentioned that they were replacing the plumbing because they had leaks throughout the system,” he says. “We sold them on potable relining, something they had never heard of.”

On a recent client call, Maxwell arrived 20 minutes early and decided to walk into the property management office of a nearby older apartment complex, rather than wait in his car. “I showed the manager a sample of lined pipe, and he was amazed that he’d never heard of the process,” says Maxwell. “He said he’d spent a million dollars the previous year on potable pipe repairs and was likely to spend another million this year. I told him he could easily cut those bills in half with potable pipe lining.”

The company also recently completed a church project in Nashville and is making presentations to an engineering firm that may deliver a large institutional potable relining project in the Nashville area. “I love the chance to meet with these guys and introduce the new stuff,” says Maxwell. “Potable is going to be the next big thing. Hopefully I’ll soon be their new favorite person.”


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