An Education in Pipe Cleaning and Rehabilitation

A Canadian family steps into the cleaning arena and finds an entirely different work environment and a new set of challenges.
An Education in Pipe Cleaning and Rehabilitation
Carmelo Intile and his daughter, Rosa Hawkes, own and operate ABC Pipe Cleaning Services in Surrey, British Columbia.

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ABC Pipe Cleaning Services has served the Vancouver area of British Columbia since 1972. In 1991, Carmelo Intile, who had worked in the construction industry, purchased the company with his daughter, Rosa Hawkes, and sons, George, Joe and Robert. Although sewer cleaning was a new game for the family, the new owners brought a diverse skill set to the company.

“We brought our construction experience with us,” says Hawkes. “My dad and I knew how to estimate and do job costing — things like that. My brothers had Class 1 driver’s licenses and were able to drive the trucks. But they had to learn how to use the trucks. When we purchased the company, ABC had a vacuum truck, combination truck, straight-flush truck and video van.

“My brothers had to learn how to do grouting and run the video inspection equipment,” continues Hawkes. “That was at a time — actually the beginning of so much new technology — when we were using black and white screens, and a laptop was very expensive at up to $3,000. In those days, we were still pulling cameras through with a string. Then we advanced to where we attached the camera to skids and pulled it through by hand. Now of course we have the cameras on tracks with wheels. We don’t use string any longer. For us it was all a very steep learning curve.”

After 24 years in the drain cleaning business, the Intile family has indeed learned a few lessons, including things they would have
done differently.

“The previous owner had leased everything,” Hawkes says. “We crunched the numbers and found the total cost increased by 30 percent over the sticker price. For smaller items, that was wasting money. Since then, whenever we buy something I talk with our accountant and decide which way is best. Personally, I do not like leasing. When we do lease, the agreement is made to benefit us, and I use a financial company that is responsive to our needs.”

Focus on old and new

Video inspection is the heart of the operation, but before an inspection can take place, sewer pipes must be thoroughly cleaned
and flushed.

“The asbestos cement put in in the ’50s still looks pretty good after a thorough cleaning,” Hawkes says. “We have roots … lots of roots. They are everywhere, and infiltration is a big issue for us. We do not offer relining or pipe bursting. We have done some manhole-to-manhole liners in the past, but now we focus on the short liners. Where there might be a crack or small issue in a 400-foot line, we will do a repair using liners from Formadrain.”

ABC sometimes encounters PVC pipe that has become oval-shaped and requires re-rounding. PVC loses flexibility when it becomes ovalized, and local code requires contractors to address pipes that are 5 percent or more oval. By re-rounding the pipe, ABC can avoid digging and replacing it. The crew uses tools from Advanced Construction Products and Hurco Technologies that vibrate within the pipe to make it round again. The pipe diameter and specific material dictate which tool will work best.

About 80 percent of ABC Pipe Cleaning Services’ jobs come from municipalities, which include mainlines and laterals that are typically cast iron and clay.

The company usually works as the prime contractor but sometimes serves as a subcontractor, cleaning and televising pipe from 6 inches up. Lateral lines are generally 4- to 6-inch pipe.

ABC inspects newly installed sewer systems for construction companies that deal with compliance requirements. This includes a video inspection upon completion, followed by a 12-month maintenance period. Many contractors want to have the lines televised in the 11th month to verify everything is proper, which protects the contractor.

ABC’s services include cleaning, degreasing and root cutting as well as chlorination of water mains before they go into use.

“We have put our cameras down wells to inspect and down chimneys in apartment complexes when required,” Hawkes says. “And we do smoke testing (using Hurco Technologies products), which I really like. You put the smoke into the manhole and then watch to see where the smoke appears. You will see it coming out of the catch basins, and then you know the sewer line and storm sewer are cross-connected. If it comes out of the roof leader, you know the storm sewer is connected to the sanitary sewer, and all the rain flowing down is going into the gutters and then into the sanitary line. When it does that, the city is treating a lot of extra water, which costs them a lot more money.”

Stay the course

Hawkes says the company does very little residential work, and what it does primarily involves grouting the lines.

“There is usually just one line from the building to the street,” she says. “Not much work there.”

On a typical workday, ABC tackles one or two jobs, with each project running from a half day to two or three days and occasionally a week. Work is typically planned, and the company rarely encounters emergency situations.

“We will have a big flush truck on a job along with the television van, and an air-test truck for pressure testing. This is the same for new pipes. Three trucks on the site.

“Our big trucks are used whenever we video a line because we prefer the lines clean and that is what they do; they are like big pressure washers,” she says. “This way the camera can get from Point A to Point B. It’s just common sense. You can’t send the camera over dirt and rock. That debris gets so high you cannot travel through it. If the grease is too thick, you can’t get through it, so it is simpler for the flush truck to clean before the camera goes through.

“As to the roots, you can drive a camera through even when it looks impossible. The roots are sometimes like a curtain. They will move apart, unless it’s like a big ball. To get rid of the roots, our operators use our nozzles, root cutters, blades and chains. It really depends on the situation.”

The video inspection fleet includes three vans fully outfitted with Pearpoint/SPX camera equipment and a fourth CUES-equipped van with a lateral launch system. ABC also has push cameras from UEMSI and Ratech Electronics.

ABC’s two Aquatech B10s (Hi-Vac Corporation) each have three tanks. If only flushing is required, then all three tanks are filled with water. If vacuuming is required, then only the two outer tanks are filled with water and the center tank becomes a debris tank. The hose and reel are at the back of these trucks. The company’s 2002 Vactor 2100 features a front-mounted reel. Each truck has either 600 or 800 feet of 1-inch hose. These trucks can all be used for flushing, vacuuming or hydroexcavation.

Several additional support trucks are used for grouting, relining and general service.

Staffing up

Finding good, qualified technicians is a challenge in the industry, and it’s no different for ABC.

“We’re all looking for competent people,” Hawkes says. “In this job, you work in the sewer and you have to go down the manhole and touch the stuff before you can send the camera down there. That just turns many people off. I find a lot of the young people coming through think they are entitled to big bucks and no work. Their expectations are too much doing too little. I remember one candidate who wanted to know about being a video operator. I told him he knows how to turn the equipment on, and that is about all he would know to begin with. I wouldn’t dare let this person alone after a week of instruction. I usually require three to six months training before letting the person go alone.

“I like to start everybody off learning the back end of the truck — how to set the equipment up, put the wheels on and take them off, how to lower the camera down the manhole, how to pull it out, and how to take care of the area. Even learning how to properly pull the roots off the wheels. We want a candidate to learn the back of the truck and then move into the operator’s chair. This way, he (or she) knows what is going on in the back.”

She says there are many safety issues. “There are some simple things you have to get across to the guys. For instance, I caution, never smoke over a live manhole. If you take the lid off to put the camera in, you do not want to have a cigarette in your mouth. Some smokers don’t quite get this, but there is a 1 percent chance of a problem, so you just don’t do it.”

Having the right attitude and being compatible is also a consideration in the final hiring process.

“There is a lot of detail involved,” she says. “When we hire someone, that person is a paid employee during the training process.”

Jumping in with both feet

“My family, my dad and brothers and I like technology, so when we bought the company we liked learning about the equipment, and as stuff came along we were ready to jump on it,” Hawkes says. “But another part of it was the cities were saying to us, ‘We want this, we want that.’ We had
to respond.”

Although Joe and Robert Intile are no longer active in the business, Carmelo Intile, 87, still does air testing, chlorination and estimating. George is a jet/vac and grout truck operator.

Now, 24 years after the family took over ABC Pipe Cleaning Services, the next generation — Scott Intile and Devlin Hawkes — has stepped in, and the future looks bright.

China is just a call away

People say the Yellow Pages are dead, but they did the trick back in 2000 when ABC Pipe Cleaning Services was contacted to take on a job in Shanghai, China.

ABC is a family-owned company serving the Vancouver, British Columbia, area. When a local engineering firm contacted the Intile family, owners of ABC, looking for a company to provide video inspection in Shanghai, they jumped on it.

“We were able to modify our equipment to go portable,” says ABC co-owner Rosa Hawkes. “Our guys built a sturdy wooden box and stuffed it full of equipment, including spare parts, repair tools, manhole hooks — everything we could think of that might be needed.

“I remember the guys fighting to see who would get to go to Shanghai. In the end, it was two of my brothers, Joe and Robert, who were both working in the company at the time.

“It took weeks for customs to clear our equipment. The site was at a commercial company. They were experiencing trouble with blockages in their sewer outside the building. There was no flush truck to clean the pipes, so they recruited help and used rags and a rope to clean the 6-inch pipe, which was about 200 feet long.

They used push cameras to televise the line.”

She says the project should have only taken one day but it stretched out over four days because the pipe wasn’t clean enough to see through.

“Pulling rags through the pipe in virtually 100 percent humidity and over 100-degree weather was tough, and Robert suffered heat stroke twice,” Hawkes says.

“We were successful and found the problem. A fence post had punctured the sewer line.”


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