Adapting to Change

California contractor maintains success by keeping a finger on the pulse of technology and new services
Adapting to Change
Stupi, left and Ed Fagalde unreel hose from the US Jetting jetter and feed it into a grease trap outside the commercial kitchen at Magnolia of Millbrae retirement home.

It’s been 48 years since Frank O’Halloran established Southwood Plumbing & Heating in San Bruno, Calif., serving primarily residential and public entities, but also industrial and commercial customers in nearby communities including South San Francisco.

Denis O’Halloran, son of the founder and current company president, notes that over the years they have seen some significant changes in their market area, not only with development and population growth but in the character of the residential market. He also points out that advances in technology and services have changed the industry.

“Our area has evolved in many ways,” says O’Halloran, who has been sole owner since 1981. “A lot of people have moved out and have rented their homes, and we also have apartments, most all of this is handled by rental management companies. So we see our basic services in residential often coming from these associations, as well as those who still own their homes.”

While Southwood continues to offer all the basic plumbing services, their menu has expanded to include drain cleaning, jetting, camera inspection and pipe bursting. O’Halloran notes that when they categorize and break down percentages of services during the billing process, the results are often shocking.

“We will often be called out to take care of a stopped-up sink, but that can lead to other problems. We have seen 60 percent of the work coming from drain cleaning, hydrojetting and camera work. Pipe bursting, which we added in 2005, is bringing in 10 percent, HVAC 10 percent, and basic plumbing 20 percent, including backflow testing, an extremely important service because we are located right on the San Francisco Bay. Those testing results often lead to problems that have to be corrected and thus lead to further remedies.”

 

Well equipped

In rating equipment and technology important to the operation, O’Halloran says he would have to put jetting and camera inspection at number one.

“Our first camera was an investment of $18,000, and you have to wonder at first. You have this big expenditure and it’s ‘Oh my Gosh, will I ever be able to use this and pay for this?’ But it’s been that way with a lot of stuff. We now have four cameras. It’s the same with other equipment. With the jetter, we bought one and it was $6,000 and we thought, ‘Will we ever pay for this?’ We had the cart jetter, and then our current trailer jetter. I don’t like to say which is most important, but having the trailer jetter and camera has helped, especially in getting commercial accounts. You go out and you have a nice piece of equipment and it gets the job done.”

When shopping for new equipment, O’Halloran says being able to get proper training is at the top of his priority list.

“That is the key for us. Training is big. When shopping for our current jetter we used US Jetting, and they had training classes provided locally. That was a huge factor in our choice. They let us know where we could get repairs here in California.”

The stable of equipment that allows Southwood to serve their densely populated area of Northern California includes: US Jetting 4018-300 trailer jetter, 4,000 psi/18 gpm; two MyTana MV80 3,000 psi/8 gpm cart jetters; two RIDGID standard SeeSnake pipe inspection cameras; RIDGID Mini-SeeSnake Plus pipe inspection camera; General Pipe Cleaners Gen-Eye Spectra color pipe inspection camera; RIDGID NaviTrack 11 locator; General Pipe Cleaners Gen-Eye GL-3 digital pipe locator; Goldak model 5600-SI pipe and cable locator/leak detector; Pipe Genie 40-ton pipe bursting system; and eight sewer machines from Gorlitz Sewer & Drain and Spartan Tool. Crews move from job to job in five Ford and Chevy service vans.

“When we arrive at a job, we are there to do the job, to take care of a problem,” says O’Halloran. “We want to be equipped. We get a lot of emergency work in our area, which is densely populated. We are often called in when other plumbing contractors don’t have the equipment, and we do get calls from many companies who simply do not have our capability. Sometimes they won’t have a jetter hose of 500 feet. Maybe they will not have a camera, or pipe bursting equipment.”

He says they do not go in as a subcontractor, as all of their trucks are clearly Southwood labeled. The customer knows who is doing the heavy-duty work.

While relining has not been in high demand, O’Halloran sees a growing interest in pipe bursting. He says adding a bursting system was an important step for the company.

“With pipe bursting we deal with a lot of short lines in the residential jobs. Sometimes only 20 to 25 feet. This is challenging in that it is not as cost-effective as the longer lines. With church properties we see typically 50- to 100-foot lines. With school properties we will see lines as long as 500 feet. We have completed 150-foot-long pipe bursting jobs on some school properties. Schools have lots of sewers and they are long, average about 200 to 300 feet.”

For a typical pipe bursting job he says there will be four people involved over three days. They do hand excavating for the two 4x4-foot holes, and use appropriate shoring equipment. Lines are typically 3 1/2 to 6 feet deep, but he says they also see some 10 to 12 feet deep.

“In San Francisco we have really tight spaces and you can find utility lines going in four different directions. For safety we will hand dig to avoid problems.”

 

Niche marketing

Back in the early 1980s, Southwood Plumbing & Heating developed an important relationship with many area school districts. It was while backflow testing that these opportunities opened up. This included installation of sewer systems where schools were putting in portable trailers for extra classroom space due to the population explosion. Generally, 6-inch clay pipe was used on grounds, and under the buildings it was 3- and 4-inch cast iron. While the company is no longer doing any installation work, they do have an ongoing relationship with these school districts, offering camera inspection and jetting and frequently pipe bursting to deal with older pipe. Some of these installations go back to the 1960s, with typical problems involving cracked and crushed pipe and root intrusion.

“It’s strange in California, where the school districts can get money to put in these trailers, but not to build schools,” O’Halloran says. “It’s a lot of politics. We have not done installations for a long time.”

O’Halloran notes that there have been some exceptions as far as building, and one district rebuilt several schools. Southwood provided camera service on the sewers before construction started, and they maintain records so they can review and find solutions if problems occur.

A similar relationship has developed with many of the larger churches in the seven cities served by Southwood. These are older churches on large properties, and they have typical problems such as stopped up toilets and burnt out water heaters, but also issues with sewer lines that need to be inspected, cleaned and repaired or replaced.

In the residential section of their business they deal with a lot of older clay sewers and the concern is infiltration in the sewage treatment plants.

“As we are on the bay, when we have a large rain storm there is so much infiltration into the sewer system, sewage treatment plants can be flooded,” O’Halloran says. “And if this overflows into the bay you have a problem. There are huge fines for dumping sewage into the bay, and a lot of cities have been going through inspecting and even doing grants for homeowners to upgrade their sewers. One community had a $2,500 grant for homeowners towards replacement of sewers with infiltration problems between the house and main. In order to qualify, homeowners were required to get three bids. We did some pipe bursting through that program since we had the equipment. We also do jetting and camera work where required.”

 

Model for success

Southwood employs six people, and when it’s time to add or replace a member of the team, O’Halloran says he likes to bring in ethical, experienced people and instill the Southwood standards that have been established over the years. He also says he tries to make sure the job and the schedule are workable for his employees. This is a number one priority when he walks into his office each morning – to check the schedule and make sure they have all the materials they need.

While the current economy has presented challenges, he says Southwood’s diversity of services and quality equipment has carried the day for the operation.

“We have been blessed and I can’t complain,” O’Halloran says.



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