Longtime Plumber Starts His Own Drain Cleaning Business and Finds His Calling

Felix Delgadillo started Drain Guys Chicago to take care of customers and chart his own future

Longtime Plumber Starts His Own Drain Cleaning Business and Finds His Calling

 Technician Bill Oudshoorn uses a Picote Mini Miller to descale a drainline, while watching the progress with a RIDGID SeeSnake.

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Felix Delgadillo is not a man in a rush. The owner of Drain Guys Chicago is perfectly content to grow his two-year-old drain cleaning business at a sustainable pace that keeps him out in the field rather than in an office overseeing more rapid growth.

“I don’t want to grow too big too fast,” Delgadillo says. “Guys I know say, ‘Why don’t you focus on office work instead of making service calls?’ I tell them, ‘Hey, if I didn’t love this job, I wouldn’t do it. Working with drains is what I like doing.’ The way I see it, I just want to take care of my customers and be happy. I don’t want this to be stressful.”

A casual observer might conclude that Delgadillo is a little too laidback to be a successful business owner. A casual observer would be wrong.

Creating a future

Delgadillo was a mechanical plumber for 17 years before he became a drain cleaner. He got the notion of plumbing from a family member who was a plumber, drifting into the trade after high school. At first, he didn’t even particularly like the work. Eventually, he decided, “I guess I am going to make plumbing a career.”

His plumbing work was exclusively in new construction settings. He worked for multiple companies, but none of them offered drain cleaning services. Not until Delgadillo attended a WWETT Show in Indianapolis did drains enter his thinking.

“I ran into somebody there who said, ‘Why don’t you try to clean drains?’ That had never really crossed my mind. I sometimes would get calls as a plumber to see if I wanted to clean a drain, but I always declined.”

The chance conversation at the convention triggered a long-standing entrepreneurial urge. “I’d always wanted to work for myself. You’re creating your own future when you work for yourself. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding.”  

The 37-year-old business owner chose the name Drain Guys and opened for business in 2019 in Glenview, Illinois. (He didn’t check out the name nationally and later tacked Chicago on the end to differentiate his business from a New Jersey enterprise with the same name.)

When Delgadillo switched to drain work, he didn’t give up his day job, so to speak. Drain cleaning became his principal occupation, but he continued to take on unsolicited plumbing jobs. In effect, he leveraged his plumbing business to help launch his drain cleaning business.

“I sent out emails to all my plumbing customers letting them know that I was adding new services,” he says. “Turns out they needed drain services and I was able to fulfill it. It worked out perfectly.”

Today, 75% of his drain cleaning is on residential properties, the rest of it on lines serving commercial buildings, restaurants and the like. His customers are spread around Chicagoland, from North Chicago above Glenview to Chicago’s South Side as well as the various communities in between and further inland from Lake Michigan.

Honesty and equipment

Delgadillo ranks tools right up there with honesty as keys to his success as a tradesman. “Thanks to our machines we are finding work,” he says. “It comes down to honesty and equipment.”

The equipment part of the equation includes a suite of RIDGID cable machines: K9-306 and smaller K9-102 Flexshaft models and a K-50 sectional machine. Also in his work van are Spartan drain cleaning models 300 and 2001, the latter of which can reach out 300 feet.

For descaling cast iron pipe, Delgadillo depends on Picote tools. That part of pipe cleaning has kept him busy “about every day” in a metropolitan area where cast iron and clay are the dominant pipes in the ground. “The infrastructure is pretty old, but it depends on the city we’re working in. The older the buildings, the older the sewer, though sometimes an old building will surprise you and have sewer lines in pretty good shape.”

For his camera work, he uses RIDGID SeeSnake units and the company is growing a steady clientele of new homebuyers and sales agents contacting him to inspect drainlines before real estate transactions. He tries to leave mornings open for such work, scheduling drain cleaning service calls in the afternoons.

Such blocked out and efficient work scheduling was not something he could do as a new construction plumber and Delgadillo likes it. It’s another perk of being the boss. “This drain clearing and inspecting is a different ballgame. You never know exactly what you are going to find and where the day is going to take you. It’s pretty cool.”

Yet another RIDGID tool is one he pulls out at the end of a job — RIDGIDConnect, an online system that lets a service provider share reports, including video, with a customer through a RIDGID account. An archive function can establish a history of a sewer line. “And you can tell when the customer receives and opens the report,” says Delgadillo, who believes the reporting system is well worth the monthly fee.

A year ago, Delgadillo expanded his services to include some trenchless repair of sewer lines. He uses a Source One Environmental cured-in-place PipePatch system for spot repairs. Trenchless repairs are still a small piece of Drain Guys Chicago drain work — the company did about 15 patches last year — but he enjoys patching a pipe almost as much as he does descaling one.

“I love a good patch. I love seeing the results after you find and repair a crack in a 6-inch lateral. You put a patch in there and fix it in place and when you send in the camera you see this clean work. It’s amazing. It’s just amazing. That’s when I know that this is my calling.”

Not every job is a joy, of course. Delgadillo recalls a cleaning call that went awry when he discovered a probed pipe had collapsed. He spent eight hours freeing his machine. “People think you put the machine cable in the line and call it a day. Far from that. You never know what you are getting into, but that’s why I enjoy the work.”

Doing big things

Drain Guys Chicago is a small company by design at this stage of business and a frugally run one. It’s essentially a one-man business, with help from two high school boys he is mentoring; one of them is his brother, Jacob. The drain company and Delgadillo’s still-active plumbing business both operate from his two-car garage. He has one service van and is looking for a second one.

And when he needed a jetter to clean out debris from unclogged sewer lines, he built one. It produces about 3.5 gpm of pressurized water and cost him $1,000. “It can’t cut roots, but it breaks up grease and flushes it out.”

He also subs out some work. Once a month or so, a lateral isn’t cleanable or repairable and needs digging up. Because Delgadillo doesn’t have an excavator in his garage, he calls Bill Oudshoorn, a friend who runs a sewer line company in nearby southern Wisconsin. Delgadillo, in turn, is called when a tradesman friend needs his services — small companies looking out for one another.

Because he is unburdened by business debt, the businessman also has the luxury of helping people who really can’t afford the help. When he goes on a service call and learns a property owner doesn’t have the money to clear a pipe, he sometimes opts to work with the person. “Because I have little overhead, I can help out people. I’ve been there, I tell them, just pay me when you can. Obviously, it’s a business and we have to make money, but I try to do the right thing. God comes first and the rest falls into place.”

In his second year of business, the pandemic generally disrupted commerce. For Drain Guys Chicago, the disruption was minimal. “It was my best year yet,” the company owner says, because people stayed home and sometimes overwhelmed their sewer systems. “I don’t want to call it a blessing, but it was an opportunity. That was when I got my confirmation that, while plumbing work can wait sometimes, drain work doesn’t stop.”

Delgadillo started Drain Guys Chicago without having a customer base lined up, hoping his plumbing customers would utilize his services. He invested his own money in the absence of co-investors, convinced that his business plan was a good one. His confidence paid off. “I was just going to do it, so I did. And now, little by little, we’re doing big things.” 


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