First Responders

Brother-and-sister team establish company as go-to service providers in residential and commercial plumbing emergencies.
First Responders
Mr. Plumber employee Martin Salazar uses a Ditch Witch 750 Tracker Locater on a job site.

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Ted Curtis first stepped into the industry as a plumber with his uncle’s company. When he was ready to strike out on his own, he partnered with another family member, sister Tammy Owens. Together they formed “Emergency” Mr. Plumber, and they’ve been putting out fires ever since.

Curtis initially handled all the fieldwork, with Owens overseeing the office and marketing efforts. The business has grown from one truck to a fleet of 10 vehicles and a prominent position within the 30-mile radius they serve around Toledo, Ohio. By the tenth year in business, Curtis had segued from standard residential plumbing to a broader range of services, including CCTV, locating, jetting, drain cleaning, and sewer repair and replacement with the requisite equipment, including excavators and dump trucks.

The current customer base is 85 percent residential and 15 percent commercial. “Emergency” Mr. Plumber serves Northwest Ohio and parts of Eastern Michigan, operating out of a one-acre facility with 3,000 square feet of shop and office space in Toledo.

Defining position

Directional boring was becoming a popular solution to replacing residential sewer, water and conduit lines in the late 1990s, and after hiring a subcontractor to take on a specialized job for a customer, Curtis decided the service was something that would benefit their growing customer base. He added directional boring to the mix, and his Ditch Witch boring equipment quickly became one of the most useful items in his toolbox.

“For the private residences this is a good solution as they don’t want to tear up the yard or driveway to put in a new or replacement line,” he says. “With our equipment we can pull a line as small as 1/2 inch up to 12 inches. With directional boring we simply go around or bypass the old pipe. We have pulled up to 200 feet but typically it would be 100 feet or less. We recently bored a 6-inch storm drain to a parking lot manhole, a distance of 30 feet. We set up in a grassy area, and bored under the parking lot to the manhole with SDR 35 PVC. At the manhole we drilled a hole and connected the pipe. Then we cemented it in place.”

With the Ditch Witch equipment they are able to bore down to the depth they want and then the rod runs parallel to the prepared exit. In a residence that has a basement or crawl space, the equipment is set up at the curb and the bore goes across the yard and beneath the house. The new pipe is pulled from inside the home to the outside location. In most cases a residential project will be completed in one day with two technicians on site. For replacement lines they use both copper and plastic.

There are two pieces of equipment from Ditch Witch: the JT920 is for larger projects on 4- to 12-inch lines, and the JT520 goes out more frequently for lines 4 inches and smaller. This machine is smaller and is much easier to handle in tight quarters common on residential jobs.

The company promotes its directional boring services through print and word-of-mouth advertising. Customers include homeowners as well as electrical and other plumbing companies, for whom “Emergency” acts as a subcontractor. Curtis says they get calls for the service three to four times in any given week, and he has a crew of specially trained technicians to operate the technical boring equipment.

Curtis says their inspection and locating equipment goes out on an as-needed basis and is not regularly carried on the service vans, but they are frequently in use.

“We have been using Electric Eel Mfg. for a variety of their equipment, and this has been a plus for us as they are located in Springfield, Ohio,” Curtis says. “Their sales rep travels through often and if we have a problem with equipment he will pick it up and take it in for repair. That has been a big benefit for us, and it saves on shipping costs.”

The Electric Eel equipment includes an eCAM inspection camera, and Model C and Model N sectional drain cleaning machines. A Radiodetection locator and nozzles from Aqua Mole Technologies round out the list.

“When it comes to equipment, there is always the need to accumulate more as money becomes available and there is a demand,” Curtis says. “Just like with the camera, it was a big expense up front, but we need it and we utilize it frequently.”

The playing field has changed

Curtis, reflecting on the industry and his own company, believes the company might not even still be in business today had they not ventured into a wider selection of services. A solid 50 percent of the business is now generated from work they didn’t perform at the outset.

“We will be installing a water heater one day, and the next televising and jetting a drain or preparing to do a directional bore to install a new sewer line,” he says. “These days it is all about diversification.”

Curtis says there is so much emphasis on the “do it yourself” culture, and with the big box stores offering classes, the industry has changed significantly. In his operation, both aspects of service are essential. “One hand feeds the other,” he says.

Clay and tile pipe are typical in the company’s service region, along with some cast iron that has been in the ground 30 to 60 years. Lines are up to 8 feet deep. Root intrusion is a common problem, and they regularly deal with toilets clogged by baby wipes and feminine products. Electric Eel drain cleaning tools fit the bill for these frequent situations.

Accessing residential clean-outs is another common problem. They’re frequently located in basements and require the plumber to drag heavy and sometimes dirty equipment through the house. Curtis often encourages the homeowner to solve the problem and facilitate proper cleaning of the line by having a 6-inch clean-out installed outside the home.

“This is a simple enough procedure and not that costly when you consider there will be easier access to the line. The new clean-out provides access to the 3-inch clean-out into the basement, and to the larger outside line as well.”

Curtis says their five service vans each carry an inventory of around $3,000, and the most essential tool is still a good old-fashioned pipe wrench from RIDGID. “We always have one on hand,” he says.

Service vans include a 2005 Ford E350 SD, 2001 and 2005 GMC Isuzu box trucks, a 2006 GMC Savana with box, and a 2011 GMC Terrain. A 1991 Chevrolet Kodiak van — a big ambulance they call the tank — is used for the bore machine. They have two Takeuchi mini excavators, a trailer jetter, which Curtis built, and a number of other pieces of equipment.

Sizing up essentials

In today’s marketplace, with the importance of customer satisfaction and the competitiveness of the industry, Curtis likes to recommend people get three opinions as to the solution for major projects.

“We run into situations time and time again where a contractor is cabling the sewer and finds a break and makes recommendations and the customer is concerned that the cost will be great,” he says. “It’s always good to get another opinion. We don’t like to see companies trying to upsell when there is a less invasive solution. This hurts the industry, as do the many regulations we have to deal with as a small business.”

Curtis praises his office manager, Diane Brackett, for her outstanding service and attention to detail. “She has been a rock for us. She babysits all of us, and represents us very professionally.”

Technicians, all plumbers, have a lengthy tenure with the company, but what concerns Curtis is the younger people who show an interest in the profession.

“The problem is the younger guys seem to want everything handed to them,” he says. “They don’t understand they need to start at the bottom and work their way up through the trenches. It is sad and it is a problem. An example, the last young fellow we had on the crew a couple years ago refused to go out on a job because he said the weather was too cold. That was his last day with us.

“We actually rarely see anyone coming in the door looking for work, yet Toledo is not a very thriving area. People need jobs.”

From the top

Curtis gives credit for much of the success of “Emergency” Mr. Plumber to his sister. “People tell me all the time that if it wasn’t for Tammy we might not be here today. We see so many companies with a husband and wife at the helm. My sister is the person who has proven that one guy cannot do it all. It’s good to have a woman providing input. Many will identify with that I am sure.”

Together they have focused on company growth and maintaining customers, and they have a database of almost 20,000 clients. However, they are evaluating current technology with the intent to take a more active approach to interaction and contact.

“The most satisfying element of my daily job is when I go out to a customer to give an estimate, and I know the customer likes me as much as I like him or her, and I am awarded the opportunity to do the job – especially when I’m chosen over my competitors,” Curtis says. “I feel they have given me a compliment and an opportunity to meet their expectations.”


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