Bursting Through the Clutter

Pipe bursting gives an Illinois company a brand-new identity and a unique competitive position in a crowded market
Bursting Through the Clutter

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After working for years in various phases of construction in and around Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Jesse Stephens established Stephens Excavating & Concrete, taking care of sewer lines for residential customers.


With a service area population of 150,000, and competing with possibly 100 other providers, Stephens and wife Tina saw that they needed to make the company stand out from the pack. As they checked out opportunities, pipe bursting seemed to be just the ticket. It would require a substantial investment, but after reviewing the technology and seeing that few others in the area offered the service, they took the plunge in 2007.


Trained and equipped with an X30 lateral pipe burster from TRIC Tools, Stephens cranked up an advertising campaign to promote Stephens Excavating as well as a new division, Stephens Pipe Bursting. Radio and television touted the entire company, but the major expense was a nine-month billboard push for Stephens Pipe Bursting. The billboards showed a beautiful green yard, and across the face in big letters: “New Pipes. No Mess. Trenchless Pipe Replaced.”


While the promotion strategy left Stephens disappointed in the results, it all soon turned around, and the division now performs pipe bursting throughout Illinois and adjoining states. The technology has made Stephens the “go-to guys” for sewer lateral issues.


“People call us and say, ‘We have a problem. You guys are the only ones around with this process,’” Stephens says. “It has taken a couple of years, but now we get the feedback. Our workload has increased by 20 percent since we bought that machine. We are doing 75 percent residential and 25 percent light commercial and other avenues.”


The company plan

The company also offers excavation and 24-hour sewer, water and drain tile repair and installation. They subcontract video inspection, root control and jetting. Jesse and Tina also own Septic Services of Illinois. The corporate business office is in Farmer City, and the shop is on a leased parcel in nearby Urbana.


The business community was skeptical when Stephens started promoting pipe bursting. “We thought we would buy the system and take the world by storm,” Stephens says. “It didn’t quite work that way.”


Along with the promotions, Stephens became a speaker on the subject and appeared before plumbing inspectors at the Illinois Plumbing Education Association with a PowerPoint presentation he developed with his wife and business advisor Brandon Kinney.


“The inspectors want to be aware of new technology,” he says. “A lot of times homeowners will ask an inspector how to take care of a problem, and that has been helpful.”


Stephens also does a demonstration using a cast-iron pipe and illustrating the fusing process for the plastic replacement pipe.


For bursting projects, crews use 20-foot lengths of HDPE pipe fused together. An average line replacement runs 100 feet, and the longest job to date is 200 feet. The bursting system handles 3/4- to 6-inch pipe.


Separate division

When they decided to go with pipe bursting, the couple chose to offer the service through a separate division. “We thought the new service would increase the volume of work, and thus add to our profit,” Stephens says. “We would be offering a high-quality product at a cheaper rate. We didn’t necessarily want to make more money per job, but with the volume. As we now operate, we can offer our customers more options and save them significant money.


“With pipe bursting we can do a full line replacement, and there is one hole at the beginning of the line and another at the end. We can also do as small as a 20-foot repair.” The company continues to do excavation in some instances, such as where there is no landscaping or concrete to disrupt, or where the customer simply prefers conventional methods.


One project involved a 20-foot pipe burst to save a tree. Another job involved a house with a slab floor. “A plumbing company hired us to pull 20 feet of pipe under the home,” says Stephens. “This was a 2-inch cast-iron line that had rusted out. We cut a 30-inch-square hole in the concrete floor of a closet. We removed a kitchen cabinet and saw-cut a 12-inch-square hole.


“We drilled a hole through the footings wall to feed the pipe through. Then we set the machine up in the closet. We fed the pipe from outside the house through a hole we drilled in the foundation wall. Our machine pipe-burst all the way through to the 12-inch-square hole in the kitchen. We probably saved that homeowner $5,000 to $7,000. It all went very well.”


All the right points

Stephens says pipe bursting is “easier on the environment, easier on Mother Earth.”


But it’s also an intricate process that requires training to perform correctly. “It is powerful equipment,” he says. “You have to follow the steps perfectly, otherwise the fused pipe will not hold. You must respect the equipment.”


The system uses a steel burst head to pull the flexible HDPE pipe, through the old lateral. The head bursts the old pipe and pushes it into the surrounding soil while pulling the new pipe into place. Stephens surmised that other contractors might shy away from pipe bursting because they prefer the old ways.


“It’s a funny thing here in Illinois, as we are a big flat land, and everybody digs,” Stephens says. “Only people who do directional boring, commercial companies, do not dig. It’s just the way it is. People ask me if we use pipe bursting every day. We use the machine once every two or three weeks. Sometimes more frequently.”


There are four men in the field including Stephens, and they are all trained in the process. “I believe that five years down the road, I will have two employees with Stephens Pipe Bursting who do no other work, and they will travel around Illinois and surrounding states and they will be on the road all the time,” he says. “We are getting calls now from other areas, and this will continue. This has been a great complimentary service for our company. I could not envision my excavation company without pipe bursting. It has become a huge part of our company.”


Mining for the prize

Stephens operates with an enclosed trailer that carries all the bursting tools. The fleet also includes a 2008 Bobcat 430 Excavator, a 2005 Kubota KX41-3V excavator, a 2003 New Holland skid-steer, a 2005 GMC 15-foot box truck, a 2005 Chevrolet quad-cab diesel truck, and a variety of trailers and dump trucks.


In the company’s service area, the infrastructure is deteriorating. About 85 percent of the laterals are 4-inch or 6-inch clay pipes, and the balance are Orangeburg. Roots make up about half of the problems.


“The minute we added pipe bursting we made ourselves special,” says Stephens. “We were not just one of 100. We began to pop out on everybody’s radar. The brand recognition has been amazing. We have everybody talking and asking questions and we’re getting the jobs, setting the standard. We’re excited about the future.”


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