New Technology Transforms TLC Plumbing & Utility

Continuous investment in new services spurs rapid growth for a multifaceted New Mexico contractor

New Technology Transforms TLC Plumbing & Utility

A TLC Plumbing crew pulls a new section of Thermoform pipe into place during part of a three-month-long project replacing deteriorated sewer main for the Albuquerque (New Mexico) Water Utility Authority.

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It’s hard to imagine that TLC Plumbing & Utility — with nearly 560 employees, hundreds of service vehicles and a sprawling fleet of equipment — began in 1987 with just one worker: founder Dale Armstrong.

The company’s dramatic transformation into a multimillion-dollar-a-year company underscores the power of investing heavily in new technology, building a customer- and employee-centric culture, and meeting customer needs by continually expanding services, including trenchless pipeline rehabilitation.

“Embracing new technology has been a big contributor to our success,” says Brian Baughman, who manages the recently formed trenchless department at the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based company. “Newer machines and equipment allow us to work faster and more efficiently and do projects that other companies can’t do. We really pride ourselves on being able to figure out how to do the jobs that others turn down.”

A good example is a project TLC recently completed for the Albuquerque Water Utility Authority. During the roughly three-month-long, $1 million-dollar job, crews replaced approximately 5,600 feet of deteriorated 8-inch-diameter sewer main, most of it concrete pipe. TLC used Thermoform PVC pipe lining technology from Warrior Trenchless Solutions to restore the pipes.

“The host pipes were eroded to the point that the sidewalls were gone or on the verge of collapse, plus there was a lot of heavy root intrusions and built-up silt and debris,” Baughman explains. “In some cases, the lines were basically nothing more than holes in the ground.”

TLC crews also rehabbed about 30 manholes within the work zones, which were scattered around the city — approximately seven work sites in all. That included regrouting the manholes with a calcium aluminate mortar product called Alumaliner, made by Quadex (part of Vortex), replacing ring covers and pouring new concrete pads around them.

The project also showcased the company’s reputation for innovation. Because the pipes were so badly deteriorated, crews couldn’t use jetters to clean out the debris in preparation for lining. “That would’ve only made things worse,” Baughman says.

So the company fabricated a shovellike device out of a section of steel pipe, then attached it to a robotic cutter manufactured by Schwalm USA. “It was not a fast process,” Baughman says. “The robot would scoop up debris, then travel back to a manhole where a vac truck would suck up the debris.

“But we got the pipes into a state where they could accept the Thermoform PVC pipe, which is able to bridge gaps where there is no host pipe, which is one of the system’s advantages. It all speaks to our ability to think outside the box and innovate.”

Embracing innovation

The company formed a trenchless department in September 2018, a move that reflects the growing importance of this specialty service. The goal: A more intense and dedicated emphasis on trenchless pipeline rehab, a market with big growth potential due to aging underground infrastructure.

“Trenchless employees used to be part of a construction and small-site utilities group, and after we’d finish a trenchless job, the guys would go back to civil construction work,” Baughman explains. “Now we can focus solely on trenchless work and groom our employees to become specialists in this technology … and gain more market share.”

The company’s initial foray into trenchless technology centered on pipe bursting, using systems made by Pow-R Mole Trenchless Solutions for smaller-diameter pipes (6 inches or less) and TT Technologies for larger pipes (from 6 to 18 inches in diameter).

But Thermoform fold-and-form PVC pipe is playing an increasingly larger role in the company’s trenchless rehab efforts. Baughman cites lower startup costs for equipment, less-expensive materials, and an easier installation process than CIPP systems, many of which require wetting out felt liners — a time-consuming process. In addition, he says, the PVC system is more eco-friendly than some lining systems.

The move into Thermoform technology has been fruitful; Baughman notes that TLC has installed about 20,000 feet of PVC liner in the last year, mostly rehabbing 8-inch-diameter host pipes. And that number will increase to about 30,000 feet by spring, based on the company’s current backlog of work.

Smooth progression

Armstrong founded TLC as a plumbing outfit that did mostly residential service and new construction work. But that focus gradually broadened to include small-site utility work, with the company serving as a subcontractor installing residential storm and sewer drains, waterlines, fire-protection systems, gas lines, and the like.

“Dale started this business by himself 31 years ago with a vision of a diverse company,” Baughman says. “Dale trusted employees to take off and run with things, and that is one of the main things that spurred our growth.”

Armstrong also wanted to provide clients with great customer service, which often led to providing more services. Consider the small-site utility work, for instance, which eventually led TLC into underground street utility work. That, in turn, required TLC to hire subcontractors to do asphalt and concrete work, Baughman notes.

“To increase efficiency, we decided to provide paving services as well. And that naturally led into civil concrete work — pouring curbs and gutters, sidewalks, and so forth.”

That one-stop-shop mentality eventually bred even more services, such as replacement of sewer lateral lines, then rehabbing main water and sewers lines via trenchless technology. “That’s when we started doing pipe bursting,” Baughman says. “We felt that this technology best fit the applications we were doing at the time. We were among the first companies in our region to get into pipe bursting.”

Investing in equipment

To support such a diverse array of services, TLC developed a large fleet of equipment and vehicles, including 208 trucks (a mix of Ford, Dodge and GMC pickup and crew trucks); 138 service vehicles (mostly Isuzu NPR EFI box vans, with bodies made by Morgan with Todco doors, and Ford Transit KUVs); 23 push cameras made by Spartan Tool and Hathorn; 25 Spartan Tool drain cleaning machines; three Envirosight robotic pipeline-inspection cameras; and three HDPE pipe fusion machines made by McElroy.

In addition, the company owns three trailer jetters built by Spartan Tool; five pipe bursting systems from Pow-R Mole and TT Technologies, four robotic cutters manufactured by Schwalm USA and TRY TEK Machine Works, and eight bypass pumps made by Griffin Pump & Equipment and Godwin Pumps, a Xylem brand.

To clean sewers, TLC also owns a Vactor 2100 combination vacuum truck built on a 1998 Freightliner FL8 chassis with an 8-cubic-yard debris tank, a 1,000-gallon water tank, a 4,500 cfm blower and a water pump that generates 80 gpm at 2,500 psi. The company also owns 34 John Deere excavators and 29 backhoe loaders made by Case Construction Equipment.

“Dale always likes to consider new technology,” Baughman says of the company’s large investment in equipment. “He’s not afraid to invest in new technology.”

Looking ahead, Baughman envisions continued growth for the company’s trenchless pipe-rehab services. It’s currently expanding into CIPP pipe lining for commercial, industrial and residential customers, using a system made by Perma-Liner Industries. “We just did our first application of CIPP at a General Mills factory here in town,” he says.

“I want to do whatever it takes to ensure we’re the local front-runner on trenchless technology … and to continue to provide specialty services to our customers,” he adds. “If it’s pipe, we want to rehab it. We feel like the sky’s the limit.”

A competitive edge
A willingness to invest in profitable and productivity-enhancing technology has spurred dramatic growth at TLC Plumbing & Utility in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As an example, consider the company’s use of Thermoform fold-and-form PVC pipe lining technology from Warrior Trenchless Solutions to rehab failing pipelines, says Brian Baughman, manager of the company’s trenchless department.

In essence, here’s how the Warrior Trenchless Solutions system works: The PVC pipe comes in rolls, with the pipe shaped into a flattened “C” or “H” shape to allow for easier insertion into the host pipes. (The pipe is available in diameters ranging from 4 to 36 inches, as well as varying wall widths.) Prior to installation, crews heat up a roll up by encapsulating it with tarps, then using a steam generator made by Sioux to inject heat through the middle of the spool upon which the pipe is wound, Baughman says.

“We heat the pipe to 195 degrees F,” he explains. “At that point, it’s malleable enough to pull it off the spool with a high-speed winch.” The PVC pipe is pulled into the host pipe from manhole to manhole, leaving enough extra pipe on each end to stick out of each manhole; that allows workers to install a rubber bypass plug on each end, he says.

Then steam as well as compressed air is injected through the plugs, which “inflates” the pipe from its “C” or “H” shape, forcing it to conform to the shape of the host pipe. While maintaining pressure, crews then cool the pipe down by pumping in chilled air, which converts the pipe back into its normal hardened state.

“The most critical part of the process is maintaining both the proper air pressure and temperature as the pipe is processing,” Baughman says. “We use pressure and temperature gauges on both ends. A typical processing time is about 40 minutes. We’re not really curing it, just cooling it back down to its normal PVC state.”

The final steps involve trimming the pipe to fit and reinstating any lateral lines with robotic cutters manufactured by Schwalm USA and TRY TEK Machine Works. Including equipment setup and breakdown, it typically takes a day to complete one manhole-to-manhole installation, Baughman says.


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