H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning Faces Business Changes Head On

A new name and new services have completely revamped this contractor’s company

H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning Faces Business Changes Head On

Raphael Escobar checks that the grouting rig and camera is properly set up before launching. 

Horacio Franco is not afraid of change. The founder of H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning in El Sobrante, California, simply reacts instinctively to change and keeps forging ahead.

Franco got into plumbing quite accidentally, but then started a plumbing company of his own. A decade along, he arbitrarily refocused the entire thrust of his work to preserve it during the national economic recession. Today, the changes are still coming.

Franco’s ability to adapt has made his career into another example of the rise of a businessman from humble beginnings on the strength of hard work, determination, courage — and a willingness to try new things.

Born in the Guadalajara area of Mexico, Franco moved to California at age 16. In 2001, he graduated from California State University, East Bay (in Hayward), earning a criminal justice degree. His goal was to become a policeman. In a classic example of how circumstances can alter the course of a life, before he could launch his law enforcement career, he lost an interim job at an inopportune moment.

“I got into plumbing by accident. I had lost a job, losing my income and insurance, and I had a 1-year-old child and a pregnant wife,” he says. “I started doing plumbing work for a company, a lower-level plumber helping more experienced plumbers, and started learning the trade. It was fun, but I had envisioned a different career. Doing all this sewer stuff was not my plan.”

At age 35, he not only decided to keep “doing all this sewer stuff,” he went all in and opened his own company, H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning. The “H” is for Horacio, and the “R” represents a family name, Ramon. He operated his company out of the home he lived in with his wife, Alejandra, and their son and daughter. Franco steadily built up his business and eventually moved to an office 5 miles from the family home, a half-acre lot with a 1,100-square-foot warehouse.

A different direction

Today, 15 years after the plumbing company’s founding, H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning is well on its way to becoming an entirely different company. “We started as a 100% plumbing business,” Franco says, “but now plumbing is about 10%. Underground work is the other 90%, mainly with municipalities.”

He never envisioned such a major transition from one line of service to another; Franco admits it was mostly serendipity. “All the underground stuff — I didn’t know that existed,” he says. “I actually didn’t have a clue. I started in plumbing and was excited to do it, then I got into laterals. I basically thought I would do residential plumbing forever.”

That all changed in 2009 when he decided to attend the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo (now the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show) because the financial crisis and recession had begun to take its toll on small companies and Franco was looking for something extra to offer his customers.

At the exhibition, he discovered a whole new range of underground services. The trenchless pipe repair and replacement solutions and manhole rehab systems he encountered at the expo captured his imagination. He promptly bought a 7-year-old Vactor hydroexcavation truck with a 2,500 psi/40 gpm pump, a 500-gallon water tank and 3-yard debris tank. He also purchased a 30-ton TRIC Tools pipe bursting system and installed it in a 10-foot trailer. He previously had subbed out pipe bursting work. Now it was part of his portfolio of services.

Franco also geared up with Madewell Products manhole rehabilitation equipment and materials. He tested the manhole repair system on a demonstration project in another East Bay community near El Sobrante and won a contract. His company’s transition to underground work was well underway. The changeover continued a couple of years later when Franco invested in Perma-Liner Industries CIPP equipment. Within a few months, H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning was relining pipe virtually every business day.

Adapt and thrive

This amalgam of services — aboveground plumbing and belowground infrastructure repair and replacement — kept the company afloat when the full force of the recession swamped small business. And the company did more than just survive. It thrived. “It helped us to get through the recession,” Franco says. “We kept growing steadily during the recession, actually. Our business volume kept going up every year.”

Clearly, the company had developed a formula for success. It comprised a diverse range of services, from more traditional residential plumbing work by skilled plumbers to municipal infrastructure repair and replacement projects using heavy industrial equipment. It was a balanced assortment of services that promised to produce revenue in any economic environment.

Then Franco changed focus again, trying out some new services.

“By design, we have slowed down our pipe bursting,” he says. “We’re not doing much pipe bursting any more. We’re not doing much CIP lining anymore either.” However, the company still has the equipment to pipe burst and to insert or pull in pipe liners. It still has skilled plumbers on staff. “They are tools in our toolbox,” Franco says. “We want to offer customers full service.”

But the focus of the company’s work today is manhole rehabilitation and chemical grouting of sewer lines. The two services are occupying most of the company’s man-hours in 2019. “Every day, we have crews who go out and stay where they need to stay to do the job.” Projects can take them far from home, as the company’s service area has expanded to cover the state of California. The manhole rehab crew goes out daily, typically rehabbing four to eight manholes a day ranging in depth from 5 feet to 12 feet.

A recent two-month project involved groundwater and infiltration reduction for a Sacramento area sewer district. H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning was tasked with grouting every connection point between lateral lines and the sewer main. In all, some 15,000 linear feet of 6-, 8- and 10-inch lines were rehabbed using Avanti International grout pumped by Aries Industries grouting equipment to Logiball injection packers.

The process involves cleaning out a pipe using a Vactor hydrovac unit followed by a visual inspection with an Aries Industries Pathfinder robotic camera. The grout is then pumped and chemically cured. Typically, the company grouts 10 to 20 lateral connections a day, depending on the location of the connections and how difficult they are to reach. Each lateral takes 1/2 to 5 gallons of AV-100 grout.

Keeping with its intent to offer customers a full range of services, H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning also has dirt-moving equipment for old-fashioned dig-up-and-replace work. It trenches with a 2017 Caterpillar 304E2 mini-excavator and does everything else with a 2018 Cat 272D2 skid-steer. “We don’t necessarily use them every week,” Franco says. “Sometimes it’s every month. Sometimes we’ll go two or three months without using them to dig up and replace a section of pipe or install a new manhole.”

H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning is the main contractor on the Sacramento project, but often it is a subcontractor. Franco says the company will continue to lead some projects and subcontract others as needed. Little of the work is new construction.


As the name suggests, H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning is a family business, with Franco the on-site leader and Alejandra managing the office. “She has been a great support to me in the decisions I have made. She’s been in business with me since we started.”

To reflect the changes that led the company to what Franco says is its niche — specialized grouting service — H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning is set to become H&R Underground as soon as logos are reworked on trucks and lawyers complete the legalities. That said, the company founder is keeping his service options open, still employing “some of the best plumbers I know” to service home systems and still maintaining equipment to burst or reline pipe or dig up and replace a collapsed line.

“I am enjoying every aspect of the work; every single portion of the work has challenges and rewards. When I am in manholes or when I’m grouting, I get a lot of satisfaction doing what others can’t do and knowing we can stop a leak and get a system back to work. That’s satisfaction.”

The company has found a groove with its new line of work, but Franco never rules out changes. “Right now, I am focused on underground work, on grouting and manholes. I am going to keep doing what I’m doing,” he says. “But I’m still seeking knowledge. I’m still willing to try new things.” 

A path to success

Horacio Franco is a successful businessman who never planned to be one. Law enforcement was his dream career, but circumstances led him to the trades. Franco probably would have been a good cop, but he also clearly has what it takes to be successful business owner.

All of the trades are facing difficulties in luring new generations of workers, and the founder of San Francisco-area H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning wishes young people would think more about that type of work.

Engineers work with theories and abstract principles, he says, “but in the trades, you are there putting it all into practice. I say to the next generation: Underground work is something to consider. To a lot of people, it is out of sight and out of mind, but we continue to educate young people, including my kids, about the industry.”

The family’s two children have grown up in the business. While his daughter plans to become a doctor, his son is headed to college to earn an engineering degree and plans to work with Franco at H&R Plumbing and Drain Cleaning. “That’s his goal.”

Franco’s success in the industry is undeniable. He says having an open mind to opportunity helped him achieve this, but character and work ethic make a difference too. “I want to be the best that I can be. To give the best result I can to a customer. I’m willing to try new products and new things that are good for the customer and for the environment.”


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