Double Down On Diversity

Colorado contractor expands into pipe bursting and provides additional services to meet customer needs in a high-end market.
Double Down On Diversity
PSI Vice President Aidan Kelly, left, and President Jim Harper in front of a 2012 Chevy 3500 service van built out by Hackney.

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Providing a diverse menu of services is an important part of the business philosophy at PSI Plumbing Systems, Inc. "We want to have the flexibility in our grasp to do any type of job that comes our way," says owner Jim Harper.

Harper's company initially concentrated on new construction in the custom home market, but in the early part of the last decade, the focus shifted to providing a variety of services, including drain cleaning to residential, light commercial and municipal customers. Today, as a full-service operation with 10 technicians, 35 percent of business involves drain cleaning, jetting and pipe bursting, with the balance in plumbing, remodel work and HVAC. Their varied capabilities give them a strong advantage in the marketplace as they are the only local company with a full-size truck-mounted jetter, and the only company currently offering pipe bursting services.

In 2010, expansion took a new course. Harper and Aidan Kelly, PSI's vice president, opened a second company, PSI Environmental Services, providing pumping services to their customers. This allows them to deliver solutions to residential customers on septic systems, and to hotels and restaurants for grease collection.

Kelly, an Irish immigrant, has worked in the industry since he came to the United States in 1990 and brought both managerial and hands-on experience. He has been with PSI since 2007.

Building the tool kit

Harper and Kelly attended the 2008 Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo in search of more jetting power. After talking to a number of manufacturers, they decided on a US Jetting 4025 (4,000 psi/25 gpm) jetter in an insulated box mounted and enclosed on a 2008 GMC Topkick 5500 diesel. It includes a 600-gallon water tank and dual pull-out reels with a 78 hp DEUTZ Corporation engine to power the jetter. The truck carries 500 feet of 5/8-inch hose and 1,000 feet of 3/8-inch.

"The reason I thought it important to add a larger jetter was to better serve our commercial customers," Harper says, noting the equipment goes out on six out of 10 calls. He had been using a small cart jetter.

"Ultimately, jetting is repetitive business for us. That is, business that never goes away, as we go into hotels, restaurants, and even serve residential customers on a yearly contract basis. Restaurants have to be taken care of. So we do have a lot of contract jetting. We also serve apartment buildings. This service makes everyone feel more secure. Jetting has been a huge advantage for us. In fact, our business with jetting and pipe bursting has helped us grow exponentially."

PSI crew members also went through confined-space entry training in 2008. The training allowed the company to meet its own needs as well as those of local municipalities and other plumbing companies not equipped for the task, and that has opened additional doors. They are frequently called on to repair water meters in vaults. Confined-space entry is also required when jetting culverts for the Colorado Department of Transportation, and when dealing with sewage lift stations.

All PSI technicians receive extensive confined-space entry training and rely on equipment from French Creek Production. The company frequently gets calls from other plumbing companies – as well as light commercial and municipal clients – needing this service.

Bursting with opportunity

By 2010, Harper and Kelly were intent on adding pipe bursting to their menu of services. They believed it would provide solutions for problems they were seeing, and could help them avoid destruction of driveways, landscapes and large trees in their market area. That year, they attended the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo to find the right equipment. Their most important consideration was the level of support they could expect from the manufacturer should questions or problems arise. Eventually, they settled on a Pipe Genie Manufacturing 40-ton unit with a 3/4-inch chain and Honda PowerPak.

"We wanted to make sure someone would be available to offer the advice and counsel we might need," Harper says. "We talked with the owner of Pipe Genie and were assured that he would always be available by telephone and would come to our location if we needed him. This was a huge factor for us, and he has always been quick to respond if we have any issues."

Harper says their very first project was, in fact, a brutal job, providing a very fast learning curve and a true test of the support they would receive from Pipe Genie.

The 400-foot bursting job involved three different buildings connected to one lateral. The lines ran under a driveway, shrubbery and trees. Access holes were dug at each building, along with three more in the driveway. In one section, they ran into a transition from cast iron to ductile pipe, which presented some issues. Ductile iron is difficult to burst because it is thick and solid and will sometimes split rather than shatter, but it can still be accomplished. Support from Pipe Genie got them through, and the crew got a fine education.

Another early pipe bursting job Harper notes as particularly interesting took place on Vail Mountain where an old house was being demolished. The damaged clay and cast iron lateral line had totally failed. This line ran from south to north and was all downhill and under the patio and hot tub of a prominent property. This was a 130-foot job between the house and the downstream manhole, and pipe bursting greatly limited surface disruption.

A more recent project involved a 6-inch line that had been compromised. It was broken in many places, with extensive root penetration. They pulled 130 feet of 6-inch HDPE pipe through the existing cast iron waste line without incident.

Harper says his pipe bursting technicians are totally fired up and excited about this new technology. Typically they work with two technicians on a job and will call in for additional help on larger projects. Technicians are specifically trained for this as well as other disciplines.

"Once you understand how the equipment works, it is pretty straightforward," says Harper. "The key is knowing what to look for. You learn it fast. We all enjoy doing that kind of work. For us, it was an easy fit."

He says their customers, once they understand the process, are open to the concept and particularly like the 100-year warranty on the pipe.

Full house

Sixty percent of PSI's business is residential, with the balance in light commercial and municipal work and some subcontracting with other plumbers. Their market area is a 100-mile radius and includes the towns of Vail, Edwards, Aspen, Gypsum and Silverthorne, and they operate out of two facilities in Edwards and Gypsum with a combined 7,100 square feet of office, warehouse and yard space.

Performing at high altitudes and in harsh winter conditions requires a stable of capable vehicles, including four Hackney-bodied Dodge and Chevrolet trucks and vans, along with several other heavy-duty service vehicles outfitted for PSI's needs. PSI Environmental Services depends on a 2001 Kenworth T800 powered by 525 hp Caterpillar diesel engine, with a Progress aluminum tank and a vacuum system by KeeVac Industries.

Many of the systems they service in their 24/7 operation go back to 1962 when Vail was founded. A lot of infrastructure has deteriorated, and they frequently see root infiltration from aspens seeking a water source. Pipes are typically clay and ductile iron, along with some SDR plastic.

Inspection is handled primarily with Pearpoint and RIDGID camera systems, along with the GVision 2000 system from EPL Solutions. RIDGID SR-20 locators and cable machines from RIDGID and Spartan Tool round out the equipment inventory.

Tying it all together

For Harper, the most satisfying element of operating his business is working with the great people on his team.

"We are a team working together as we encounter situations and problems that need to be solved – coming up with a game plan – and getting the job done," he says.

Harper commends not only the technicians in the field, but the office staff as well. "We have found the right people, and the office runs very smoothly.

"My philosophy is that we look for experience, and right at the top is also attitude," he says. "The number one thing is getting the right people on the bus, otherwise you will not go anywhere. People should not be afraid to pay good money, because if you do, you get the right people, and the business will grow itself."

Harper says providing a wide menu of services offers a distinct advantage: "There are always going to be downtimes for one or the other type of equipment. Drain cleaning is not always busy, but there might be a pipe bursting job. The same thing with jetting or other types of work.

"In the final analysis, it's our diversity that always pulls us through."


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