Break-Out Pipe Bursting Company Stakes its Turf on Specialty Services

Utah Pipebursting uses education to grow a stronger market for its services.
Break-Out Pipe Bursting Company Stakes its Turf on Specialty Services
The Utah Pipe Bursting crew includes, from left, Jay Garrett, owner; Brandon Garrett, foreman; Trevor Garrett, laborer; and Matthew Gross, laborer.

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Imagine opening a pipe bursting business in a market where you’re practically the only game in town. Now imagine that only a tiny segment of your potential clients know what pipe bursting is. That’s the business climate in which Jay Garrett, owner of Utah Pipebursting, launched his business in 2009. The business is thriving on the philosophy that educating potential clients is the best way to transform them into paying customers.

“In 1998, I was living in the Los Angeles area and the mainline cleaning and video inspection company I was working for sent me to Ogden (Utah) to rescue a project at Hill Air Force Base,” says Garrett. “After that, the division in Salt Lake City requested that I remain and my wife and I decided it was a good place to raise a family.”

Garrett was introduced to pipe bursting when he joined Whittaker Construction in Brigham City, north of Ogden, in early 1999.

“I was running a division of the company that offered specialty services, including CCTV, vacuum trucks, hydroexcavation – anything that didn’t involve open-cut or directional drilling,” says Garrett. “We got a call for a pipe bursting job and the guy who had done it before was busy on another project, so they told me to go do it – a trial by fire. I figured it out pretty quickly. But after about four years the company got really large and realized it needed to concentrate on $25 millon projects instead of $5,000 or $6,000 pipe bursts that were almost as expensive to bill through accounting than any profits associated with them. In their position, I would have done the same.”

He joined CH Nix Construction in the same area in 2005, plumping up its pipe bursting business from only 10 projects the prior year to 85 the first year he was employed.

Garrett and a partner set out to launch their own pipe bursting business in Ogden in the fall of 2006. “I was already well networked with a lot of potential clients,” he says.

Ogden is located in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains. The northern part of the state has few competitors with pipe bursting capabilities – perhaps a dozen. The city itself boasts a population of more than 80,000, and it has access to an urban area of more than two million, and to Salt Lake City, about 40 miles to the north.

Pipe bursting a specialty

A little more than two years later, the partnership dissolved and Garrett started a new business under the Utah Pipebursting name in the spring of 2009, concentrating solely on pipe bursting.

He immediately hired one son, foreman Brandon, now 21. Trevor, now 19, was hired after his 18th birthday. Two other employees followed soon after. His other son Devon, 16, works for the business part-time as an electronic media specialist, defining the company’s Web presence.

About 80 percent of the company’s work is performed within 15 miles of Ogden, but Garrett chases contracts as far as 400 miles away. “We don’t have any problem driving from Point A to Point B in Utah,” says Garrett. “Anything below 50 mph is considered a traffic jam here.”

The business name describes what the company does almost exclusively. “About 95 percent of our work is bursting and replacing pipes, a very specialized service offering,” says Garrett.

About 80 percent of customers are on the residential side, about 15 percent are municipal and a little industrial work rounds out the service calendar.

“The geography of the area itself is a bit of a risk factor,” says Garrett. “There’s a variety of soil types. You might find a bed of sand and rock in one direction, and a band of cobble and clay in another. The constantly changing soil is a challenge to actual pipe bursting.”

Because much of the soil is clay that compacts poorly, almost all excavation work requires clay soils to be replaced with engineered fill.

“The sewer laterals also run deep here – a 6-foot lateral would be like a vacation to us,” Garrett says. “Most of the houses here have full basements, and it isn’t unusual to see laterals that start out at the house at seven or eight feet, then cut through hilly territory until they’re buried eight to 12 feet deep at the other end.”

There’s plenty of need for lateral repair. Ogden is rife with Orangeburg pipe and other materials approaching the end of their life expectancy.

“We had a huge population explosion here in the 1940s and 1950s in part due to the construction of Hill Air Force Base, trucking, and industrial and tourist development,” says Garrett. “They installed a lot of lightweight Orangeburg pipe, which was designed to last perhaps 25 years. There’s lots of clay pipe in the ground, and that was designed to last 60 years, and plenty of concrete that’s been in the ground for at least 70 years. It’s the perfect storm … everything is starting to fail at the right time for us.”

Education and marketing pay off

The key to the business’ has been education and marketing. “Only 5 percent of our potential customers know what pipe bursting is,” says Garrett. “Utah culture is very conservative, so often a technology must be proved everywhere else in the world before people in this state will accept it. We try to hook them right up front with our slogan: ‘Replace your pipe, not your yard.’”

Garrett generally wins clients over after explaining the cost savings of pipe bursting versus open-cut replacement. Much of the business is generated by word-of-mouth and online through the company’s website. Garrett also uses LinkedIn, Facebook and other social networking sites.

“Twitter is dying and the Yellow Pages are dead,” says Garrett. “Most people who find us call a plumber or drain cleaner who refers them to us. People in their 30s and 40s tend more to look us up on the Internet. Younger people turn to Facebook to find us on their iPhones in seconds. We’re currently designing a mobile phone version of the website to cater to that market. A lot of the younger customers are surprised when I show up and I’m a guy in his 50s.”

A few national chains that offer pipe bursting as a sideline will quote on local jobs, often prompting customers to look for a competitive quote elsewhere.

“People who thought I chose a boring name for the business have started to see the method in my madness,” says Garrett. “The moment they hit the Internet they enter the search terms ‘Utah’ and ‘pipe bursting’ and our company appears at the top of the search engine results. Because of our lower overhead and the fact that we don’t pay franchise fees, we often successfully compete on those projects.”

Marketing shift

Previously, when the company serviced a lateral in a subdivision built with Orangeburg pipe, Garrett would canvas the entire area, explaining the technology that averted a disaster at the neighbor’s house. He often converted more than a quarter of the neighborhood into paying customers. However, this sort of door-to-door marketing is no longer paying big dividends.

“Everyone is being inundated with flyers these days,” he says. “I’ve switched to a sandwich board parked near the road that says ‘Another sewer pipe saved by Utah Pipebursting.’ That’s gotten us a lot better response than flyers.”

Garrett takes advantage of networking opportunities through such organizations as Business Networking International, Cambridge Who’s Who, and local chambers of commerce. He also uses Angie’s List and pay-per-lead services, such as ServiceMagic, which connect him quickly with qualified potential customers.

The company’s equipment armada includes two bursting machines, a 30-ton and a 50-ton pulling unit from TRIC Tools Inc., two Kubota mini excavators, a Ford dump truck, two Ford pickups, assorted trailers, and shoring equipment by Griswold Machine & Engineering. Garrett orders most of his smaller-diameter bursting equipment from TRIC Tools and his larger-diameter equipment from HammerHead. Most of the equipment maintenance is performed in-house in the company’s small shop.

A four-person crew, the full employee complement, is assigned to each bursting project.

“We complete each lateral in a single day, from start to finish, then subcontract the asphalt to a contractor who will pave three or four access holes at once,” says Garrett. “Our policy is that we pay each employee for an eight-hour day, even if they manage to complete the project and go home after fewer hours. That not only keeps the workers happy, but finishing early frees up extra time for me to devote to the business.”

Pipe bursting is the right choice for almost any host pipe material, except for corrugated pipes that tend to accordion and gum up the process, says Garrett.

HDPE or PVC?

The company tends to favor either high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for new sewer laterals.

“HDPE requires a smaller launching pit, perhaps three by five feet, and the material is more flexible,” says Garrett. “With a 4-inch line you can put a bend on the pipe so that it has a 6-foot radius on it. PVC is a much more rigid pipe, so if you use a 20-foot stick you have to dig a 25-foot launching pit to insert it and you can get maybe a 2.5-foot deflection per 20 feet on it.”

HDPE can be pre-fused in lengths of up to 300 feet before it enters the staging pit – a time-consuming process. PVC, on the other hand, is more easy to connect, with the 20-foot lengths inserted in assembly-line fashion.

“Each replacement pipe material has advantages and disadvantages,” says Garrett. “Research your replacement materials and choose the material to fit the job characteristics, not the reverse.”

Utah Pipebursting orders HDPE line from ISCO Industries and Yelomine Restrained Joint PVC pipe from CertainTeed. Pipe fittings are by HD Supply.

Garrett has also developed some specialty equipment for specific contracts involving houses that share a common lateral that often runs under the driveway.

“Necessity was the mother of invention,” he says. “Instead of digging up two services and charging clients a ridiculous amount of money, I developed a bursting head that will pull two lines, one to one house and one to the other.”

Garrett isn’t, however, going to make a million dollars out of the invention.

“There were three of us who developed the idea at the same time independently –and to my knowledge, none of us patented it,” he says. “I do about 10 of these jobs a year because, for some reason, shared laterals were common here at one time. We recently worked on a project where eight houses had once shared the same combined lateral, but because the first three houses had been demolished, there were only five houses left.”

A huge variance in local bylaws and building codes is also a challenge, in large part because they never anticipated pipe bursting technology.

“Some jurisdictions, for example, require a rock bed to be installed under all new pipe,” says Garrett. “Although they really want to apply that rule to pipe bursting installations they can’t reasonably do that – so they tell us that we have to put a rock bed under the little 3-foot section of exposed pipe in the launching pit.”

Garrett is currently involved in forming a nonprofit pipe bursting association created by and for contractors, a complement to the vendor-driven pipe bursting subsidiary of the National Association of Sewer Service Companies (NASSCO), that may help to create broader acceptance of pipe bursting across the country.

“It will be focused on promotion of the technology, professional development and technical advice,” he says. “I hope to have it launched later this year.”

Not fazed by economy

Garrett says he hasn’t been fazed by the recent economic downturn. He’s currently working to expand into more municipal and commercial work and broaden his reach throughout northern Utah.

“When times are tough, a money-saving technology will be in high demand, provided your marketing is in place and people know what you’re offering,” says Garrett. “We’re harvesting where we’ve already seeded. I’ve done 700 laterals and I see a strong market for pipe bursting for at least the next 20 years, but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking out for other business interests. My sons will be taking over the business some day and I want them to be working on the next big thing if pipe bursting slowly phases out.”



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