A Lateral Improvement

Trenchless sewer rehab system opens up a pipeline to more revenue for Pennsylvania drain cleaner.
A Lateral Improvement
Licensed plumbing apprentice Dylan Belfiore, an employee of Matt Mertz Plumbing, runs a Perma-Liner Stinger mini steam unit during the installation of a lateral liner at a home in Wexford, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Interested in Relining/Rehab?

Get Relining/Rehab articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Relining/Rehab + Get Alerts

As a plumber and drain cleaner who’s grown his business from one truck to 34 employees and 32 service vehicles in the last 12 years, Matt Mertz is the kind of businessman who knows an opportunity when he spots one. So it was a no-brainer for his company, Matt Mertz Plumbing in Pittsburgh, to expand into pipe lining services.

Why? For starters, his company — established in 2004 — was already repairing and replacing residential lateral lines. Secondly, the master plumber was literally handing money to other local companies by hiring them as subcontractors to do trenchless repairs he wasn’t equipped to perform.

“We were giving away a few hundred thousand dollars a year,” says Mertz, noting that he had five crews that were digging up laterals every day. “It was painful to give up that kind of revenue.

“Because I was subbing out pipe lining work, I could see there was a lot of money to be made there,” he continues. “Plus, it gave me another service to offer to customers — something different that not a lot of other companies offered. And I could leverage my existing customer base to obtain business. We were already doing a considerable amount of sewer repair, so it just made sense to be able to offer customers an upsell.”

Mertz decided to invest in a lining system made by Perma-Liner Industries. The primary components are an 18-foot wet-out trailer (made by Express Trailers), where the liner is impregnated with resin prior to the actual lining process; a Viper air compressor (80 cfm), made by Vanair Manufacturing and used to inflate the liner; and a Stinger boiler, made by Perma-Liner for steam-curing the liner after it’s installed. A Ford 5500 dually pickup truck, which tows the trailer, rounds out the system. To clean laterals prior to liner installations, Mertz relies on two Spartan Tool trailer-mounted water jetters and jetter nozzles from StoneAge and NozzTeq.

The investment was significant — about $150,000 — but Mertz, a fourth-generation plumber, says the unit has easily paid for itself. In fact, the pipe lining system now contributes more than $1 million a year in gross revenue, which is a substantial contribution to the company’s total annual sales.

Mertz decided to go with Perma-Liner for several reasons. First of all, the subcontractors he had been hiring used Perma-Liner, so he felt familiar with the system. Second, Perma-Liner took the time to get its liners certified for use in Mertz’s service area, which ensures they will pass inspections by local municipal officials. Thirdly, he says the tech support is top-notch, with customer service reps available for consultation even after business hours — including weekends. Moreover, Mertz says that the company’s liners stretch the same amount every time, which is an important consideration in a process that leaves little margin for error.

“I’ve found that Perma-Liner’s 6-inch liners stretch about a 1/2 inch every 10 feet,” he explains. “When we insert a liner, we have to get it into the wye (connection with the mainline sewer), but it can’t protrude into the main. There’s only about a 4-inch-long ‘landing spot’ for the end of the liner, so there’s not a lot of room for error. If it stretches too far and protrudes into the main, you have to trim it off, which is difficult and expensive to do because it’s hard to access.”

The optional Stinger boiler, which produces steam heat that helps cure liners faster than letting them harden in ambient temperatures, has been a great productivity and profitability enhancer — especially since some municipalities won’t allow ambient curing. While he cautions that steam curing isn’t suitable for every job, using it can lop off up to four hours per job.

That’s a significant savings that frees up invaluable time for his crews to perform more jobs annually, Mertz says.

“I do it by feel,” Mertz says of steam curing. “It takes an average of about five minutes to cure every 10 feet of a 6-inch liner. But there’s definitely a learning curve to it. Unfortunately, you have to learn by messing up an installation, which you hopefully can salvage by reinflating the liner. I would suggest that guys start out by using ambient curing and work their way up to steam curing.”

Selling customers on a pipe lining job is typically fairly easy because it’s usually cheaper than digging up a customer’s yard to replace a lateral. It doesn’t make as much sense for spot repairs of small sections of pipe, Mertz notes. But in some situations, it’s clearly a better option than digging up a driveway or sidewalk, for instance, or removing a tree or tearing out expensive landscaping to replace a lateral.

“I’m going to see someone today with a sewer (lateral) that goes under a concrete driveway, then through the neighbor’s yard and under a state highway,” he says. “Now that’s a perfect situation for pipe lining.”

Mertz says contractors who are thinking about expanding into pipe lining, but feel a bit intimidated, should embrace the technology and take the time to thoroughly learn it. “I used to practice shooting liners in my shop — glue pipes together with fittings to see how much liner is used for each bend in the pipes.

“If someone is mechanically inclined, they can pick it up pretty quickly if they just put the initial time into it,” he continues. “But they need to be confident in their skills, because it’s very expensive to fix an incorrectly installed liner.” Furthermore, pipe lining requires a crew of at least three workers — even more for longer runs — so it’s not suited for small companies, he notes.

“But we did more than $1 million in liners last year alone, and it definitely gave us a good 10 percent jump in revenue the first year we started doing lining. It was a very worthwhile investment.”


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.