Built for the Territory

Roto-Rooter franchise relies on heavy equipment, diverse services and the emergence of pipe bursting to meet customer demands.
Built for the Territory

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John Mott benefited greatly from the notoriety of national advertising, along with a proven name and reputation, when he established his Roto-Rooter franchise in 1972. Forty years later, those attributes continue to sustain and benefit the plumbing company in Sciotoville, Ohio.

Over the years, Mott and his son, John Mott II, have tailored the business to suit their three-county service region, sometimes referred to as the Little Smokies because of the heavily wooded and rolling hillsides with clusters of residential and commercial enclaves in the valleys.

The younger Mott worked for his late father while growing up. He became president of the company in 1998, two years after it was established as a corporation. Today, their staff includes three technicians and a helper, one portable restroom operator and one septic truck operator. Mott says the company has been largely successful because of a willingness to diversify and take advantage of new technology, along with a solid understanding of their market's needs.

The company's service area includes Ohio's Scioto and Pike counties and Louis County, Ky., with a total population around 120,000, and they frequently work on older systems with clay, Orangeburg and Cuyahoga pipes in need of repair or replacement. Systems are typically 8 feet or deeper, and because of the terrain, the preferred and most economical solution for the customer on 75 percent of replacement jobs, even today, is to dig and replace.

More heft

In 1987, services were enhanced to include portable restrooms and septic service (Mott's Potts Portable Toilets with 150 units), and in 2001, Mott began offering pipe bursting in order to preserve driveways and landscaping in situations where lines require extensive repair or replacement.

"We were interested in pipe bursting as opposed to relining because of the capability of increasing the size of the line significantly," Mott says. "We can go from a 4-inch line and increase to a 6-inch line with pipe bursting. We have that capability with TRIC Tools, Inc., the system we selected. In some cases a customer may want to, for example, change an apartment building to a restaurant, and might need more capacity. We can do that with less expense with pipe bursting."

Mott says they researched several manufacturers at the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo and eventually traveled to California to visit the TRIC Tools facility before deciding on their 30-ton unit.

"We liked the size of the equipment. It felt good to handle and could fit easily into a lot of tight places. We don't need a special trailer, and it can be hauled in a van, pickup or dump truck," Mott says. "We also could network with other Roto-Rooter franchise owners who use the system. Another Roto-Rooter advantage."

Mott, as far as he knows, was the first in the area to offer pipe bursting as an alternative, and he has had to educate the market on the advantages of the process.

"Our customers have been open to the concept, once they fully understand the process," he says. "We will take a sample piece of pipe that shows the fused area and demonstrate that it is seamless. Customers also like the 100-year guarantee from the manufacturer."

Mott says the local inspectors weren't fully up to speed on the pipe bursting process either, but they have been cooperative and supportive of the work.

A typical pipe bursting job in their area is 80 feet, but their longest was 145 feet. Mott keeps about 500 feet of 4- and 6-inch pipe in stock at his shop, in lengths of 40 to 50 feet. He says the length makes for interesting transport, with the sticks strapped on either a flatbed or a dump truck with a rack system. The pipe is flexible and will bend in transport, but it has a memory and will go back to its original shape. The pipe was developed in earthquake-prone California and is designed to retain its form.

Pipe bursting projects are generally completed in one day, but longer lines sometimes take a bit longer. Mott has three technicians who handle this equipment, and several helpers.

Jobs typically start at the clean-out in the house. They will jet the line they are replacing and run the camera and mark the tie-ins so they can be reinstated when the job is finished. This prep work takes about two hours. If the pipe runs through a footer or concrete and the new pipe will not fit, they dig and chisel out the obstacle. Mott says the camera will not show these problems, but it is rarely an issue.

Roto-Rooter now has a local pipe bursting competitor, but Mott says he has an advantage in that his system leaves a smaller working footprint. "Our system is more efficient, and physically will fit into tighter places," he says.

The company's extensive inventory of excavation equipment is also beneficial for digging entry and exit pits on pipe bursting projects, and they always have one of their excavators on site or available for any other need that arises, whether on a traditional dig or a pipe bursting project.

Pulling the weight

The local terrain and the prevalence of dig-and-replace jobs requiring heavy equipment necessitates a fleet of heavy-duty service vehicles. With only eight employees, the company has more vehicles than people, but rough and varied terrain requires an assortment of trucks to efficiently meet the team's needs. Service calls are primarily handled with Ford and Chevrolet vans and trucks. Most of the company's 18 vehicles, including dump trucks and a flatbed, are diesel-powered in order to muscle heavy equipment over hill and dale.

The company's extensive stable of excavation equipment includes a 1990 Ditch Witch 5010 trencher, Kubota excavators, a Caterpillar 216 Skid Steer and 416 Backhoe, and bulldozers from Case and Komatsu.

All vehicles and equipment are kept on a 1 1/2-acre site with a 5,000-square-foot garage. Mott says it's important to keep equipment in good condition at all times. "That helps to keep the doors open and the phone ringing," he says.

The company handles basic maintenance such as oil changes and brakes, but they turn to local mechanic shops for more extensive repairs. With other equipment, they depend on the manufacturers and look for a quick turnaround whenever possible. Their extensive fleet and stable of equipment ensures they can respond to any call any time.

Jetting toward success

Mott has two Harben 4016 trailer jetters. One is a 1988 model year recently added to the inventory as a backup, and the other a 2007 (both provide 4,000 psi/16 gpm).

"We brought in our first jetter in 1986. They are the workhorses in our operation," Mott says. "We try to determine or diagnose in the initial phone call if we will be taking out the jetter on the call. We always get the customer's approval first, because we charge more if we take out and use the jetter. We know that if the cable machine does not do the job, the jetter will. If we get to the job and the cable machine does work, we don't add on the charge for the jetter. Only if we use it."

He says that while the cable machines remain the tool of choice, the jetter will do a more complete job with significant stoppages and issues like grease.

"We will carry 110 feet of cable in the van and have backup cable as well, but with the jetter we will have another 500 feet," Mott says.

When the call comes in, the office reviews past issues with the particular line. The cable machine will likely suffice if roots are the problem.

"If there is a hard spot in the line, and if it has stopped up repeatedly, then we will suggest to the customer there is probably something more serious in the pipe. The size of the line determines if we will use a camera. If it is a 4-inch line and we get it open with the cable, then we go right to the camera. We have to be sure the line is open before using the camera."

Mott's crew uses cameras and locators from RIDGID and Radiodetection. He says they generally do not carry a camera on the truck, but they bring it along if there is a specific call for it. Locators, however, are always on the service vans.

"Because of our equipment, including the cameras and jetters, and our heavy vehicles, including excavators, and our ability to perform a wide range of services, including line replacement, our customers have tended to return and stick with us through the tough times," Mott says.

Timing it right

"Sometimes it's difficult to make a decision to add new equipment or services, as we do live in a small area," Mott says. "However, if you want to grow and hold your customers, you have to be able to do different things."

Over the years, the company has worked through economic highs and lows, and the challenge in the lows has been maintaining and holding the line while striving for some profit. Mott has also learned to look for opportunities to buy equipment at a lower price.

"In the up cycle, that is when you want to take advantage, take a look at new technology," he says.

Fit and ready

Mott says even though they are in a limited market, he has not had difficulty finding talented technicians for his service crew.

He says he conducts roughly 15 interviews before selecting a new employee to represent the company. "Then that person would ride with a technician for a while to understand our methods and procedures.

"I think the most important thing is honesty and dependability, and a plus would be a candidate who is mechanically inclined," Mott says. "We find everything else can be taught through training and hands-on experience."



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