Doing the Job Right

Hands-on policy helps Tight Seal Plumbing establish a solid reputation while steadily growing its customer base.
Doing the Job Right
Daniel Baker and his wife, Brooke, stand near a Tight Seal service vehicle on location as Daniel and his crew prepare for their next job. A RIDGID JK 3100 Drain Jet and other drain cleaning tools are at the ready in the truck.

Interested in Business?

Get Business articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Business + Get Alerts

In 2004, master plumber Daniel Baker opened Tight Seal Plumbing in Chattanooga, Tenn., intent on providing high quality plumbing repair and service, but he soon learned there were a myriad of management responsibilities that demanded his attention.

For assistance Baker sought professional help, including a CPA firm to manage accounting, bookkeeping and payroll. There were other growing pains in those first years as well, and Baker hired a licensed master plumber and several plumbing technicians to handle the workload.

“I soon found my strength was not in management, but in serving and interacting with my customers,” Baker says. “This means being personally on the job, being present and working on the job. I am able to establish relationships with my customers and ensure they are provided with high quality service and attention to detail.”

Currently he works with one full-time employee, an apprentice. He is considering adding more personnel in the future, but for the time being he has quality people available who help on the larger projects. His wife, Brooke, who is co-owner and equal partner, provides regular counsel on the business, and most important, care for their 27-month-old son, Jude Patrick Baker.

As a small operator, Baker adheres to a schedule that provides time for networking with the accountant, checking inventory and returning phone calls, and he’s always available for solving problems. He credits much of his success to a mentor, Terry Turner, a licensed master plumber who is available as a consultant, as well as Edward Combs, Ph.D, his father-in-law, who acts as safety manager in some instances. Combs is also highly skilled with computer technology.

Catching the big break

Tight Seal was moving along successfully, contracting out (Baker supervising) whenever a customer required a CCTV inspection, when along came an opportunity in 2011 to take on a major project that would basically pay for advanced CCTV and software equipment. That’s when Baker began the research that would steer his small operation in an entirely different direction.

“In 2010 I received a telephone call from CTI Engineers, Inc., a Chattanooga firm,” Baker says. “I was referred by the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

I had previously worked on a project for them. It was an inspection where I had an outside company come in and do the video survey as I did not have the proper equipment, but I managed the job, told them how I wanted it handled. The work made a good impression, and thus the referral.

“In those early instances when I brought in another company to do video inspection, I had a chance to view a skilled technician running the camera, and I learned quite a bit,” Baker says. “I knew what I wanted to accomplish for my own business. I had owned a camera for a while but it had shut down on me in 2009. It was obsolete and it made no sense to have it repaired. So I had to depend on others to service my customers.”

The job CTI was dealing with, Boynton Terrace, was a community of four buildings that provided housing for low-income seniors. There were three 10-story buildings and a two-story community center, all built in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The cast iron plumbing was in rough shape.

“They were having consistent problems with sewer backups,” Baker notes. “We were going to figure out what was going on and what was needed. They wanted to do a significant upgrade to all four buildings and needed something concrete to work with when putting their numbers together in order to plan accordingly. The housing authority needed to renovate and/or remodel and needed to know what the cost would be and how to budget for it. They required a lot of detail. That was where I came in, to help assess the needs.”

Learning the system

The project provided Baker the opportunity to upgrade his own equipment and have it paid off as soon as the job was done. But before he made any decisions, he consulted with Turner. More important, he did his own research.

Baker purchased RIDGID SeeSnake HQ software, a SeeSnake Plus 325-foot Color Reel and continued to learn the many facets of the system, finding it more powerful than he imagined, even as the project was underway.

“My wife Brooke was at the time working toward her master’s in occupational therapy, and going to Nashville frequently on the weekend to study and I would go with her,” Baker says. “While there I would use my computer to do research on the system. I would take care of my service business and the project during the week, and spend my time there editing and learning about the software, plus reviewing the videos taken the previous week.

“I was able to do much more and in greater detail than we had agreed to in the contract,” Baker continues. “Working with their engineer was an experience. We were learning as we were feeling our way through the process of the project. It was exciting to see what [the software] would do and we wanted to push it to the max.”

Baker also added a RIDGID KJ-3100 gas-powered cart jetter (3,000 psi/5.5 gpm) to clean the drains on this project.

“Having the jetter I found is almost always the best way to clean the pipe,” he says. “You can get PVC pipe pristine – like a brand new drain. It is amazing. With the older cast iron or clay pipe you can only do so much, but you can get a better idea as to what is going on. You run the camera first, send in the jetter, then run the camera again.”

They had one month to complete the survey for CHA, but time-wise it took about two weeks, working with Turner and Combs (who basically helped muscle equipment for him) and his apprentice, Danzel Owen.

Baker says the finished product provided detailed plans showing location of the lines, condition in certain areas, and problem spots that needed the most attention. They started out with very rough drawings, all the housing authority had on hand. They finished with a full set of detailed plans, and the project went forward with appropriate contractors.

Another opportunity

When CTI once again had a project with low-income housing in Chattanooga, Baker got the nod and put his equipment to work. The project was Dogwood Manor, an 18-story building also built in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

This project offered an entirely different scenario, as the majority of the work was done from the rooftop of the building going down the vent and full stacks. The customer was looking for a general assessment in nine different cast iron stacks, highlighting problems they found and the level of urgency. The 4-inch cast iron pipes on the rooftop transition at the sixth floor and get larger as other services tie in. By the time they are underneath the building and running to the exterior they are 12 to 15 inches and carry both sewage and stormwater.

Baker says they spent five days meeting with housing authority supervisors and the building’s maintenance people and completing the initial inspection. They spent one more day jetting and providing additional assessments to get an idea about the viability of the existing pipes, as well as if and how they should be replaced. Owen and Combs were both on hand for the project.

The value advantage

Baker admits that he is still working through a learning curve with the software and discovering new applications. “My interaction with the computer still does not feel 100 percent natural to me. I use it because it is a critical tool that empowers me and allows me to do more in less time. I still use my iPad as much as possible for exterior photos, but the software does not run on the iPad.

“The more I use the new equipment the more comfortable I get with it,” he says.

Currently his customer base is 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial/industrial, but he hopes that with the added capabilities this may shift eventually toward a 50/50 ratio.

“With commercial and industrial, the work sells itself,” Baker says. “There is little involved in sales. They call. I show up and do the job. I don’t have to talk it up. I’m getting referrals. That is how it goes.”

He continues to value the residential customer, but those relationships can be much more personal and emotional. “I can appreciate their concerns. We are working on their home. It is a different experience. Plus the residential work is much more physical. Basically though I enjoy the commercial/industrial – it is often more mentally challenging.”

Properly equipped

Tight Seal operates with a 2005 Chevrolet 3500 box van, which is their workhorse, and a light duty 2006 Chevrolet 2500 Express Van for estimating and small service jobs.

For locating, Baker turns to his Spartan Tool locating wand. He also relies on his time-tested RIDGID K-60 sectional drain cleaning machine in many situations.

The cart jetter has benefitted far beyond expectation, and Baker has no hesitation in presenting this option to his residential customers as well as the commercial and industrial. He doesn’t sell the idea of using the jetter, which does increase costs, but instead explains the problem and what needs to be done. There is a certain comfort level and rapport with customers because most come as referrals.

“I’m going to do whatever needs to be done to correct the situation,” Baker explains. “I’m going to give the best I possibly can. The customer has entrusted me to do that. We need to strive in the industry for that excellence.”

For every job, he encourages video inspections before and after drain cleaning to identify the nature of the problem and confirm the success of the cleaning, and if necessary to identify the need for additional work.

Turning it around

“Having the SeeSnake HQ capability has enhanced my response time, which is essential for a small company,” Baker says. “I had a phone call recently from a restaurant late in the day. They needed an assessment as they had a problem. I get to the job, and the drain is collapsed. I sent the camera in to inspect, found the problem, came home, edited the video and sent three 10-second clips to the client showing three different problem areas, plus some videos of the locating results. By the time I was done that evening they had everything they needed pertaining to the work and what needed to be done. I did not have to meet with them to hand them a disc. The next morning we had an intelligent and full conversation about the project. With new technology and the right software you can do that.”

With the addition of the new software and capabilities, and opportunities for even a small company to advance into lofty fields, Baker has realized the significance and benefit of providing highly specialized technology. He also sees the value it has added to his business.

“These tools have created a new niche in the sewer inspection market,” Baker says. “I’ve learned I can set myself apart from the competition with the depth of detail the customer needs. I’ve also found ways to better utilize my God-given ability to think critically, problem solve, investigate and trouble shoot.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.