Finding Pool Leaks Keeps Miami’s H2NO Leak Thriving

In his golden years, Miami contractor finds a profitable niche market — detecting leaks in residential swimming pools.

Finding Pool Leaks Keeps Miami’s H2NO Leak Thriving

John Pessoa uses dye to check one of the pool’s skimmers for possible leaks.

Interested in Location/Leak Detection?

Get Location/Leak Detection articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Location/Leak Detection + Get Alerts

Steve Reid didn’t realize it at the time, but when he established H2NO Leak — his cleverly named leak detection service — in Miami a little less than a decade ago, there were more than 76,000 compelling reasons to do so. In short, statistics from Miami-Dade County show that in 2006 there were 76,477 in-ground residential pools, which are the sweet spot for his business.

All Reid knew at the time was something that still holds true today: There are a lot of pools in the Miami area. Thousands and thousands of pools. That made for a compelling business case that goes something like this: Often enough, those pools leak. Pool owners need to find the source. Reid uses leak detection equipment to find them. Rinse. Repeat.

Actually, it’s not quite as simple as that. But one thing is as clear as pool water: At age 71, Reid has parlayed years of experience as a general contractor and installer of leak mitigation systems into a successful business. His secret sauce? A blend of good customer service, strong relationships with pool-service companies, technologically advanced equipment and a finely honed sense for detecting leaks based on years of experience. And last but not least, specializing in one thing and one thing only: finding ­— not fixing — leaks.

“I’m a specialist, kind of like a urologist,” says Reid, whose latest career started in 2010 at age 63, when he founded H20NO Leak. “I diagnose the problem, but I don’t do the surgery. Sometimes we (Reid and his business partner, John Pessoa) do minor repairs. But most of the time, the pool companies that call us do the repairs. They just want us to find the leak for them.”

Reid estimates that 60 to 70 percent of the company’s service calls come from pool-service companies, including one with a client base of more than 1,600 pool owners. “We usually do three or four service calls a day,” he adds. “We can easily do five a day. It’s good work, and the profit margins are decent.”

Why start a business when most people are either contemplating retirement or already retired? “I just can’t sit around and do nothing,” he explains. “Plus, I was driving my wife nuts. And thank God I’m in great shape.”

CIRCUITOUS CAREER

Running a leak detection service certainly wasn’t on Reid’s list of career choices when he graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in metallurgical engineering in material science. In fact, he ended up working in the securities industry for years as an analyst, stockbroker and financial planner.

In 2001, he started working as a general contractor in Miami. When the real estate market started to implode in 2008, Reid had shifted gears and was installing leak mitigation systems for insurance companies. Faced with a business slump as the economic downturn deepened, he decided to do another career U-turn.

“One of my buddies who’s a plumber told me I should get into leak detection,” Reid recalls. “As luck would have it, a friend of mine in California, Terry Bursell, makes Leak Pro leak detection equipment. So I went out to California, and he taught me a bunch of things about how to use the equipment.”

But as it often happens, Reid found his education in leak detection 101 really started when he began working back in Florida. “Like in any business, there are so many fine points you need to learn that only come with experience,” he observes. “You can’t be taught everything in a classroom situation. Most of what I know now was predominantly self-taught.”

On the plus side, however, it didn’t take Reid long to get established. He credits that to many relationships he forged as a general contractor and a good reputation he forged along the way. “I never jacked guys around, and I always paid them on time,” he notes.

LEAKS HAPPEN

Why do pools — even brand-new ones — spring leaks? “It just happens,” Reid says. They usually don’t stem from cracks in the pool itself or bad installations; instead, leaks more often stem from ground settling or tree roots that damage waterlines, he notes.

“Sometimes a guy starts compacting soil before installing pavers and puts a lot of pressure on the pipes below,” he explains. “Or we have a tropical storm that uproots trees or flexes the roots, which are on top of a water pipe.

“Tree roots are a big enemy,” he continues. “We have a lot of ficus trees, and their roots can find water on a molecular level. They’ll just strangle a pipe and break it open to get to the water.”

Most leaks occur in pipes within 3 feet of the pool. PVC pipes aren’t the culprit; they’re usually flexible enough to withstand settling and other external pressures. But things like elbow and tee fittings — which Reid says are made from a more rigid kind of PVC — are not. “So when you get settling from improper backfilling, for example, a crack in the fitting can develop,” he explains. “Or if we get a lot of rain, a pool can float up a little bit — maybe as little as 1/16 of an inch. But that puts a lot of pressure on a pipe.”

Reid doesn’t need a lot of equipment, which is one reason he found the business concept attractive: lower startup costs. He uses an acoustic leak detection system made by Fisher Research Laboratory, another acoustic leak detection system built by LeakTronics, a RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection camera, and a LeakTronics sonde.

WATCH FOR VISUAL CUES

The first thing Reid does when inspecting a pool has nothing to do with the equipment he owns. In a decidedly untechnological approach, he takes a few minutes to visually assess the situation, including a look at the pool’s pump and related equipment. Key visual cues might include sunken pavers or pavement, indicating the source of a leak. “You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out these things,” he quips. “A lot of it is just visual stuff. But I still run into things occasionally that I’ve never seen before.”

Reid learned to take a systematic and methodical approach early on. He recalls one job where he spent hours and hours trying to determine why a pool was losing anywhere from 1 to 2 inches of water a day. He even donned a wetsuit for a close-up visual inspection but couldn’t find anything wrong. Then he finally took a look at the equipment and found a pinhole leak in the backflow valve of a filter. “It was sending water into a sewer line instead of into the pool,” he explains. “That taught me to do first things first: Always check the equipment.”

If Reid can’t find a leak, he doesn’t charge the customer; it’s all part of his emphasis on integrity and customer service. “I usually will go back as many times as it takes to find the leak,” he notes. “In the last five years, I can think of only one or two I just could not find, but I knew there was a leak. But if I can’t find it, I don’t deserve to get paid.”

Sometimes Reid finds a leak, then gets a call back from the customer because the pool still is losing water. In those cases, he usually finds there were two or more leaks.

Reid considers himself a people person — a skill that comes in handy in his role as a subcontractor for pool-service companies. By the time Reid arrives, the customer already is upset because their water bill is sky-high, and they think the pool-service company should’ve been able to find and fix the problem. “So the first thing I have to do is soothe the savage beast,” he says. “I have to save the customer for the (pool-service) company. It’s basically a lot of PR work because I’ve got two customers — the customer who owns the pool and the pool-service company.”

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Maintaining strong relationships with those pool-service companies is critical to Reid’s success. As such, when a residential customer for whom Reid has diagnosed a leak calls back when another problem occurs, he refers them back to the service company. “It’s an integrity issue,” he explains. “We’re not going to steal their customers. We work on wholesale basis with pool companies that give me five to seven jobs a week. I could make more money working directly with customers, but that’s not how we operate.”

Reid also does the simple things that enhance customer service, like calling ahead to let customers know he’s on his way. “My wife, Lea, told me a long time ago to just treat everyone the way you’d want to be treated,” he notes. “That was great advice.” He also will not negotiate prices with customers; instead, he sticks to pricing that covers the cost of his business expenses, plus a profit margin. “It just doesn’t make sense to match or beat competitors’ prices,” he says.

Looking ahead, Reid doesn’t expect the company to grow. At this point in his life, he’s happy where the business is revenuewise and feels that growth might lead to lower-quality work. “We generally have more than enough work,” he says. “We’re not looking to grow this into a giant company. There’s no doubt in my mind that if we really wanted to, we could have three to five trucks on the road in a year’s time.

“But that’s when you start to lose control,” he adds. “Things get more complicated in a hurry. It’s like the old saying about buying a boat: The best two days of my life were when I bought and sold the boat. We don’t want to buy the boat, so to speak.”

As for retirement, it sounds about as likely as the more than 76,000 residential in-ground pools in Miami-Dade County springing leaks at the same time. “I plan to keep working until the day I drop,” Reid says. “I love my work too much to stop.”


Anatomy of a leak detection

When Steve Reid — the owner of H2NO Leak — arrives at a job site to find the source of a pool leak, he first visually assesses the situation. But if his site inspection doesn’t turn up a logical cause, he breaks out the heavy technology: acoustic leak detection equipment.

Here’s how it works: Reid throws a microphone into the pool, then walks around its edge, towing the microphone with him. At every opening — light ports, the main pool drain, skimmer seams and suctions, spa jets, and so forth — he stops to listen. The microphone is so sensitive that he says on some job sites, he can actually hear the sound of a dog’s nails clicking on a tile floor inside a customer’s house.

“A leak sounds almost like a mini jet engine, even if it’s just an itty-bitty hole,” he explains. “A lot of times I use a smaller microphone that I can stick inside a pipe, and I can hear a leak really loud.”

Reid typically can detect a leak in the first 10 to 15 minutes of his microphonic probing. But if that doesn’t work, he uses a dye test. Using a syringe attached to a thin, roughly 6-inch-long plastic tube, he slowly injects dye into the pool water. “If there’s even the smallest crack or hole, you’ll see the dye get sucked in,” he explains. “It’s not always a pipe or the pool — the seal in the back of a light fixture can leak, for example.”

Another weapon in Reid’s arsenal is pressurized detection. If he suspects the leak might be in the main pool drainline that goes to the pump, for example, he must isolate that section. So he dives into the pool, removes the drain cover and inserts a plug.

Then Reid disconnects the drainline from the pump, installs a special induction plug on the end of the drainline, and then connects an air compressor to the plug (the plug has a tiny hole through which it accepts air). “Now the system is plugged on both ends,” he notes.

Next, he turns on the air compressor up to about 10 psi. If the pressure holds, there’s no leak. If there is a leak, eventually just air will come out after all the water drains from the isolated section. Then it’s time to get a microphone out and start listening. “A leak will sound like a kid blowing bubbles through a straw in a drink,” he says. “And the closer you get to the leak, the louder it gets.”



Discussion

Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.