Contractormag 984 Burstpipe 0

Customers Want Trenchless

Feb. 1, 2009
Traditional trenching used to be the only solution for sewer pipe replacement, but now, trenchless pipe lining and bursting technology is on the scene. It's a great way to prevent disruption to people and property while offering contractors a new business opportunity.

Homeowners and businesses across the country are replacing their clogged and disintegrating sewer mains while their floors, carpeting and outdoor landscaping stays intact. In fact, plumbing contractor sales are going up because trenchless technology and techniques are going down-under.

Until recently, home and business owners shied away from taking the plunge into sewer pipe repair because it was a messy and costly endeavor often involving multiple contractors in plumbing, excavating and landscaping trades.

Traditional trenching used to be the only solution for sewer pipe replacement, but now, trenchless pipe lining and bursting technology is on the scene. It's a great way to prevent disruption to people and property while offering contractors a new business opportunity. Surprisingly, I'm finding the industry is not fluent in trenchless. It's costly for contractors to invest in new equipment and training, including residential and commercial sales personnel who can make the sale.

The process

Pipe bursting is the easiest underground sewer pipe replacement technique to employ, but not without thorough training. There remains a degree of risk that the pipe will still have to be dug due to unforeseen anomalies, so you have to know what you're doing. You dig one or two access holes and run a wire rope lead through the old pipe. Attach a splitter head or bullet to one end. The new plastic pipe attaches to the splitter head. Pull the new pipe through on the other end and split the old one. This process maintains the same or one size larger diameter as the old pipe.

Pipe lining is more complicated. A resin-coated felt sleeve is pulled into the old sewer line and compressed against the pipe wall by an air-filled bladder. The bladder holds the felt in place until the resin cures. There are no joints and the life expectancy of the piping material is 50 years. The old pipe must be somewhat intact for this process to work. The benefit is that often no access pits need to be dug.

We all know that when pipes reach 30 years, there can be problems such as offsets with tree root intrusion. That's why homes and businesses built in the 1970's and earlier are a good target market because they're due for inspection, which often leads to a trenchless sale.

Trenchless is a “win-win” for your customer and your business. As the coaching manager for Nexstar, I help member companies across the country reap what they sow underground. They are learning how to sell sewer replacement through our proprietary training system and as a result, their pipe business is bursting and revenues are increasing at a dramatic pace. They are pulling sales of the future into sales today.

Residential service

Phillip Eastwood, general manager of AAA Service Plumbing in Wheat Ridge, Colo., says, “If you want to add 35% to your business from one day to the next, trenchless is it, but you must have trained staff to sell and install it.”

Our contractors' field practice system of showing the homeowner the condition of their line on a sewer camera wins them trenchless sales. When a call comes in for a backed up sewer main, a technician is promptly dispatched. They set up a camera to show the homeowner what's causing the stoppage. If the problem is anything but an accidental flushing of a foreign object, they will likely recommend line replacement and most often, the customer will opt for trenchless.

If you've only done traditional excavating and this is your first crack at trenchless, start with pipe bursting, because it's easier and less can go wrong. Once you have the process down, consider adding pipe lining.

Cesar Balbin, owner of Luskin-Clark Service Co. in Los Angeles says his company does a lot of pipe lining because the L.A. sewer lines or “laterals” are mostly clay. Pipelining requires digging one hole, so he doesn't have to dig up the street. However, when it comes to the inside of older homes, cast iron is dominant and requires bursting.

Luskin-Clark recently burst into a 1920's home with rotted cast iron pipes in a 2,200-sq.ft. basement with two bathrooms and floor drains. All the drain piping from the home came through the walls and tied into the piping that was below grade in the basement. Luskin-Clark saw-cut five interior holes and performed an interior trench pull and pipe bursting in the basement. They were able to save the concrete and cut down labor costs because they didn't need patching or gas-powered machines.

“The general contractor who hired us was refurbishing the home and he had never heard of trenchless,” Balbin says. “Neither had the neighbors. When we pulled the trench from the basement 200 feet into the street, crowds of people gathered around to watch. I could have sold popcorn!”

Commercial service

Laney's Inc. is educating school administration on the value of trenchless technology in their hometown of Fargo, N.D.

The cast iron rain leader running from the roof drain at Holy Spirit School had deteriorated in a section of a concrete block wall. This was an outside wall for the school's library and the break in the rain leader caused leaks. This wall contained the structural columns and it was necessary to keep them intact to support the roof, so breaking it up was not a reasonable option.

The first step was to camera the line to make sure that trenchless technology was an option. Fortunately, the existing line was in good enough shape to allow Laney's to offer pipe lining as a solution. First, they hired a crane to place the trenchless machine on the roof of the school. Then, they shot material from the roof drain horizontally to a 90-degree elbow and then down 16-ft., creating a new pipe inside the old existing 4-in. cast iron pipe.

Only one access pit needs to be dug on the job. The connection between HDPE sewer pipe and the house is completed with PVC. New pipe is guided through the burst pipe.

This process saved the school thousands of dollars and days of disruption that would have been necessary if the walls had been penetrated. Needless to say, the customer was very happy with the results and Laney's received an “A” on the project!

Laney's also took trenchless technology on a trip north of the border to an auto repair shop inside a technical school in Winnipeg, Canada. The exhaust ventilation for this shop ran underneath the shop floor and when the shop was originally built, the backfill crushed and penetrated some of the round ductwork under the floor. Also located under this shop floor was an in-floor heating system, making it impossible to take a jackhammer to the floor to repair the ductwork.

“We were able to shoot our material into this round ductwork and create a round pipe inside their damaged ductwork under the floor without disturbing the floor or the in-floor heating system,” Laney's President Kevin Wolf says. Again, it saved the customer thousands of dollars and no disruption of the floor and the in-floor heating system to solve the problem.

The commercial business for Larry & Sons, Hagerstown, Md., is bursting! They're utilizing trenchless technology to turn around two to five total sewer pipe replacement jobs every month in commercial properties ranging from a cement manufacturing plant to a McDonald's restaurant.

Company President Michael Corbett is pleased with the ease of the jobs they've completed and the value the technology brings to his customers.

“Jobs that used to take weeks to months to complete, now take a few days,” says Corbett. “And we don't have to dig everything up and make a big mess.”

Corbett prefers pipe bursting to pipe lining.

“We find that the pipes on these jobs are usually very old and once you're in there, you might as well put in a new line,” Corbett says.

Larry & Sons has completed more than 35 jobs over the past four years. One of those projects was a 60-year-old bowling alley with original cast iron pipes. Because the pipes ran under the bowling lanes, trenchless was the only solution. Within three days, the Larry & Sons team pulled 120-ft., connecting bathrooms on one end of the building to those on the other side. They dug four holes for re-joining the pipes, instead of having to dig up and destroy the bowling lanes. When the work was finished, the holes were filled in and covered with steel plates.

In an effort to keep customers bowling, they worked from 4:00 am - 1:00 pm and kept one set of bathrooms up and running. The snack bar had to be taken out of commission, but they made do with selling bottled beverages. Before trenchless, they would have had to close the whole bowling alley for days or even weeks!

Michael Corbett proudly notes that he trimmed $7,000 in power pack expenses by utilizing equipment he already had. He equipped his Caterpillar 350 trackhoe with a $900 wireless remote that also made it possible for the operator to control the hoe's power take-off hydraulic circuit from outside of the cab.

Another project brought Larry & Sons into an Alzheimer's wing of a local nursing home. With residents in need of round-the-clock care and seven bathrooms to meet their needs, the repair process had to be expedited with minimal disruption to the people and the environment.

Larry & Sons pulled 150-ft. of material and cut holes to access the drains and re-connected them in each bathroom using new HDPE pipe. Instead of carting debris through the building, they fired up a vacuum truck and ran a 6-in. suction pipe through the window of each bathroom to remove it. Sensitive to exposing residents to dust, they also installed large-CFM ducted fans. To prevent disruption, they only worked three to four hours per day, but still reduced project time by 75% and avoided tearing up the carpet and digging a trench down the hallways. They lived up to their proposal that promised, “As small of a footprint as possible.”

Gillece Plumbing, Heating, Cooling & Electric of Pittsburgh showed 7-Eleven the true meaning of “convenience store” when it applied trenchless technology to replace old cast iron pipes without disrupting sales.

The store was having problems with bathrooms on the side and back of the store because the old cast iron piping was rotted.

“Rather than excavating through the store, moving their coolers and merchandise, and closing down their snack shop, we turned to trenchless,” Gillece General Manager Joe Benz says. Gillece closed one set of bathrooms and closed off one of the front store entrances to run the line. They pulled a new 4-in. pipe to replace the old 4-in. pipe. The job took four days with minimal disruption.

Bob Hamilton of Bob Hamilton Plumbing, Heating & A/C in Overland Park, Kan., says the biggest motivator for him to move his company into trenchless was being the first to do it.

“I get more jobs than my competitors because we have a good working solution that doesn't destroy landscaping,” Hamilton says. “So far, we've added $40,000 to our bottom line by adding pipe lining.”

Horizon Services of Wilmington, Del., has always had a strong rooter and sewer-cleaning segment of its business, but owner Dave Geiger says, “Now that we've added trenchless to our offerings, sales have quadrupled. With drain cleaning, you're finding opportunities so you can capitalize on them. It's a quick turnaround. You sell it today, deliver and get paid tomorrow.”

Jack Tester is coaching manager for Nexstar (, a business development and best practices organization delivering comprehensive business training, systems and support to independent home service providers in the plumbing, electrical and HVAC professions.

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Contractor, create an account today!