Taking Aim at Sewer Roots

Southern California plumbing firm finds a solid niche in root control for residential customers and other plumbing shops.

Taking Aim at Sewer Roots

Plumber Sergio Orozco (left) helps NoRoots owner/operator Robert Waddell measure the exact placement of a pipe patch at a residential property near Huntington Beach, California.

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Robert Waddell doesn’t like roots. They make him foam.

A licensed California plumber and owner of Robert’s Plumbing & Rooter Service, Waddell had developed a comfortable place in residential plumbing services over 24 years of business in the city of Buena Park, a short distance from Long Beach, amid the sprawling housing developments of Southern California’s Orange County. Over time, however, his focus began to shift.

Waddell realized there was a need for better root control options for lateral lines in his service area, and began taking a greater interest in those challenges. In the process, he discovered his own pleasure in working in the sewer and drain side of his business. Plus, he’s found that the money is better and the jobs easier to execute.

As he got more serious about root control options, he rebranded the sewer and drain side of the business as NoRoots.

Shifting gears

He had already brought RIDGID inspection cameras into the mix and had seen their value grow, so he began to research trailer jetters. Eventually, in 2013, he purchased a Mongoose 184 jetter. It has since become a key weapon in his battle against roots in the primarily clay and cast iron lateral lines he cleans on a daily basis.

“Over the years I had experienced how difficult it is to clean blockages because of roots, and that they would regularly come back and continue to cause problems,” Waddell says. “I wanted more permanent solutions, and that included adding jetting, which has proven to be a very effective way to deal with the situation.”

The jetter was a big step, but it wasn’t a complete solution. Waddell had used chemicals in the past, and while effective, they couldn’t always get the job done.

“The issue is getting it to the problem that may be 50 feet or more down the line,” he says. “Then I discovered Vaporooter, sold by Douglas Products, with a foamer machine that pushes the product down the line so you can reach these more inaccessible regions.

“In order for me to be authorized by the state of California through the Department of Pesticide Regulation, I took a weekend course on treating roots in sewers. I had to learn how to use the product safely and learn the laws and regulations required in order to even purchase the product. I obtained a qualified applicator license.”

Staying lean

Waddell says he’s comfortable with a small and manageable business model — just himself, plumber Sergio Orozco and a helper. Sadly, the crew recently lost 20-year veteran plumber John Routh to cancer.

The company operates out of Waddell’s home, with a garage for equipment storage. His primary work vehicle is a 2016 Ford F-550 Turbo Diesel box truck that houses the Mongoose 184 jetter. He also has a 2002 Chevrolet Express 1-ton cargo van fully outfitted for plumbing work, most of which is handled by Orozco.       

The team uses RIDGID cameras and a RIDGID SeekTech SR-20 Locator. When they find damaged pipes, they regularly turn to the PipePatch from Source One Environmental, which can handle repairs up to 4 feet in length. If they need a longer fix, they can do two 4-foot patches.

“Source One Environmental has been amazing. Their salesman came out and trained me, and he is always available on the telephone if I have questions. The salesman with Vaporooter has also been awesome,” he says, noting he’s also extremely appreciative of the service he’s received from Mongoose and RIDGID.

The crew also uses Duracable rooter equipment and toolboxes from Extreme Tools.

Getting stronger

The battle over roots has become Waddell’s obsession, and as he’s refined his approach, his success has grown.

“Before I had my jetter, I had a customer who had a sewer infested with roots in the backyard,” he says. “I would treat it and would be able to finally get a small blade through, and I would treat it again, and eventually on the third try I could get a full blade through. But I would be going back again and again.”

The house was at the top of a hill, and the line ran deep under a telephone pole and a neighbor’s fence. Excavation and repair would have been very expensive.

“Now, with the jetter and Vaporooter I can take care of a 125-foot drain for a customer and treat it once a year after I jet it back to like-new status, and all is good to go.

“All the root needs is a microscopic opening to start its infiltration. The object is to kill the root before it starts splitting open the joints.”

More opportunity

As the company focus changed, Waddell realized offering his NoRoots solutions to other plumbing firms could provide new opportunities, but he had no idea it would result in such a significant upturn in that area of the business. It also led to a pretty dramatic turn in his business model. His goal is to ultimately concentrate on NoRoots, and eventually franchise the model.

Prior to the shift, he was doing about 5 percent of his sewer business with other plumbing firms, offering them a discounted price. Subcontracted work has grown to about 20 percent of his business, and he expects it to continue growing. It has led to an upturn in profits as well.

Residential plumbing and drain cleaning now represents 80 percent of the company’s work, which includes some small commercial clients, and apartment and condominium complexes.

Waddell sees even more opportunities before him because of his location in a sprawling urban area with a much larger potential customer base, including many more plumbing firms.

Over the past four years he has established a reputation that has positioned the company well with others in the business.

“We recently did a job on a 3,500-square-foot house,” Waddell says. “I walked around and checked it out, went on the roof and found a vent, and put the jetter hose in and cleared it all up. The other guy’s customer had a big grin on his face and two toilets that had been clogged up for a couple days were clear.

“Sometimes a plumber will be on a difficult job, stuck on a job, and he is fighting a blockage,” he says. “If he has somebody to call on, someone he can rely on, that may save him four hours of work. He can kick it over to me, the guy with the jetter. That is happening now.”

On a recent busy day, Waddell had several jobs on the docket. Three called for the jetter, two for his cameras, and four were drain jobs for other plumbers.

“I really didn’t think it would take off to this degree. My gosh, I’m doing so much work for other plumbers it is hard to believe. How did this happen?”

Selling it

Waddell describes how he promotes his NoRoots process to a residential customer.

“I point out that if they trim their hedges and bushes they will grow back. Then I explain that if you just cut the roots in the sewer, they will just keep growing back thicker and stronger, but if we can treat the roots in the sewer with the root killer, they will not be allowed to creep back into any crevices in the pipe or the joints. The root killer will not harm the trees or bushes on the surface. I can tell them that their sewers should last forever if we treat them properly and sufficiently using the tools we have available.

A new focus and a new brand

Robert Waddell has been a plumber for 28 years, but he’s been taking a more aggressive stance on root control in his market over the past few years. He is in the process of changing the company name from Robert’s Plumbing & Rooter Service to NoRoots, with a new website and new approach to winning the battle for the residential clients and plumbing contractors he serves.

The shift in focus initially began when Waddell added jetting to the menu of services. His trailer jetter is mounted on a track inside his 2016 Ford F-550 Turbo Diesel so it can be extended out the back of the 18-foot box truck and doesn’t have to be towed.

“EPL Solutions in Orange County was the outfit that designed and installed the hydraulic rail system to extend the jetter out the back of my truck, and they also designed and manufactured the monitor that I use with my three RIDGID cameras.”

Waddell doesn’t plan on giving up the plumbing aspect of his company, but he will take the business as it comes and adapt to whatever the market demands. But he’s serious about NoRoots.

“It may come to a point where I just won’t have time for basic plumbing — that I won’t have time for anything but drain cleaning and sewers. It is my dream to do nothing but sewers.”


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