Clean, Inspect And Detect

Texas contractor keeps a tight focus on diagnosing problems and leaves repair work to other contractors.
Clean, Inspect And Detect
From left, Gerson Hernandez, Robert Pacas, Jesus Ibarra and Manuel Hernandez use the Aquatech truck to clean out a sewer line.

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Over the years, sewer cleaning companies based in northern climates would come to Houston during the winter months, but AAA Flexible Pipe Cleaning Company provided year-round pipe cleaning and inspection service. Their local roots and steadfast presence helped establish a solid customer base.

Michael Fisco, who came to Houston in 1979 to run the family business, says they began to concentrate on industrial, commercial, municipal and some residential work at that time, moving away from traditional plumbing services.

"The thing is, we don't do any repairs, so we don't compete with a lot of the other companies who are actually my customers in some cases," says Fisco. "All we do is clean, inspect and find the problem."

AAA Flexible Pipe handles the initial locating and inspection work and then turns over reports or DVDs to the customer.

"We make no recommendations as to the remedy," Fisco says. "We are not an engineering company. We do not recommend any specific company to come in to do the repair."

The essential toolbox

Leak detection and line locating are essential to the AAA operation. Fisco says that with the right equipment and proper training and experience in locating lines, the operator will avoid a lot of guesswork and wasted effort.

"Otherwise you can dig to find the line, and find you are 15 feet away," he says. "We have a longtime employee who is an expert at this, and he does all the training for us."

Leak detection and locating tools, including the RIDGID NaviTrack II, are often the first out of the box. Fisco says they don't always televise the entire line. When the smell of gas or sanitary sewer odors are present, they use the smoke detector, which is a less expensive procedure. In some instances they are contracted to use smoke detection on an entire city sewer system – again, a less expensive method than cleaning and televising.

When testing, if there is a break in the line, smoke will rise from the ground, and the area is marked to be televised. This is a team effort with three technicians – one to operate the blower, and two others who observe, looking for leaks while walking down both sides of the street.

The AAA team has four Hurco Technologies smoke blowers (two Power Smokers for manhole inspection, and two Power Smoker 2s for cleanouts). When televising is called for, they rely on RIDGID Mini-SeeSnake Plus cameras. They keep one on each of their five CCTV vans, which were built on Ford and Chevrolet box trucks by RS Technical Services Inc.

Hydroexcavation is another important part of the business. "With sanitary sewers or storm sewers, we locate first and then hydroexcavate to expose any breaks in a line," Fisco says.

Their 18 Aquatech B-10 combo vac trucks (Hi-Vac Corp.) range from 2004 to 2012. They have a 2,000-gallon steel debris tank and a 2,000-gallon plastic water tank for jetting. Pumps are by General Pump, 2,000 psi/65 to 80 gpm. They have positive displacement blowers with GE Water & Process Technologies Roots pump.

They also have four Aquatech SJR-1500 Sewer Jet Trucks.

Fisco says they usually get about 10 years of vehicle service within their fleet because his employees take excellent care of the equipment. Each morning, they have a toolbox meeting and run through a checklist on their trucks – lights, brakes and other systems. If there is a problem, it is fixed then and there. Otherwise they take a different vehicle. The crew is always aware of the safety issues.

"Our supervisors have expertise in specific areas, and everyone takes extensive training on a regular basis for all procedures, including safety," Fisco says.

Systems old and new

Shifting ground commonly leads to pipe breaks and joint separations, and as a result, AAA frequently encounters root infiltration in storm and sanitary sewers. Many of the lines they inspect are composed of 30-year-old truss pipe that has failed. Older lines are usually vitrified clay, but PVC is generally used for replacement. They also see HOBAS Pipe on bigger lines. For storm sewers it's usually concrete or PVC.

AAA has service and preventive maintenance contracts with municipalities and industrial companies, and they are a 24/7 operation.

"If a municipality has a stoppage, we respond within an hour, with a two-hour window. There are many cities that have their own equipment, but they still use us," Fisco says. "Sometimes it's on the weekend and they don't want to call their guys out.

"Everything that goes through the sanitary sewer is treated in a treatment plant. If rainwater is getting into a sanitary sewer, it gets treated, and that could be millions of gallons of water. It's very expensive for the city to treat that rainwater. Our challenge is to find all infiltration points so our customer can make the necessary steps to eliminate the problem.

"Another concern with storm sewers is when we find a sanitary sewer has a break in it and it's flowing into the storm sewer. This goes to the rivers and lakes, and we don't want this water going into the tributaries."

Fisco says the cities in their service region are big, and they could not possibly do it all. In La Porte, where he is located, they have had a contract for 25 years, even though the city has their own cleaning and CCTV crew that stays busy. "There is no way they can maintain the whole system themselves," he says.

Approximately 40 percent of the company's work is with municipalities, 40 percent is commercial, and the 20 percent balance is with industrial and residential customers who often have full storm systems in their backyards that need inspection and cleaning.

Refining the refineries

AAA also handles sewer and line cleaning, vacuuming and hydroexcavation for the local oil refineries.

"We don't find many roots, but old sewer lines that are cracked, depending on the size of the plant and age," says Fisco. "Usually there is vitrified clay pipe. But they are moving to steel pipe. There is a lot of percolating of the pipe. It builds up. To clean, we use high-pressure jetting.

"We have an ongoing contract for cleaning and inspecting with Exxon Mobil Corporation in Bay Town, Texas. Exxon has a strict policy as to who they use. They have contractors specifically set up to handle repairs. You can't just get into a plant. You have to go through a lot of training. We've been with Exxon for 32 years taking care of their sewers."

Safety training

Ongoing safety training for all employees is an essential part of the business.

"We use an outside company that comes to our facility," Fisco says. "We also do additional in-house training. When we are training to work in a refinery, we put a technician under constant watch for six weeks with a mentor from our company."

Fisco says some employees have been with him for 25 or more years, so he rarely has to worry about hiring. If it is necessary to bring on someone new, he looks for people who know how to operate equipment, as it's hard to train somebody to clean sewers. Even experienced people will be put with a trained operator for several weeks to learn how AAA Flexible Pipe conducts business.

"It takes a long time to know how to operate a truck and clean a sewer properly. It just does," says Fisco.

Room to grow

AAA Flexible Pipe operates out of a 15-acre site in La Porte, outside of Houston. Five acres is devoted to the business, with a 4,000-square-foot building and a 7,500-square-foot shop where two full-time mechanics handle all the maintenance and repair, with the exception of hydraulics. Ten acres are set aside for 14 longhorn steers, a pet project in honor of Fisco's dad, Ernest Fisco Sr.

They cover a 100-mile radius, which is sufficient to keep all equipment on the road. If Fisco gets a request from beyond this region, he will refer to another company.

"I prefer to concentrate the business and thus, I have better control," he says. "I have a lot of friends in the industry and a good network to make referrals."


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