Looking to the Net

TopGun Plumbing uses innovative online marketing methods to promote its pipe bursting, leak detection, and locating services

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Faced with a highly competitive market, Al King opened TopGun Plumbing four years ago, knowing he would have to set his company apart.

After trying to attract business through the Yellow Pages with little result, King relied on the Internet, schooled himself in Web site design, and started buying up relevant domain names. Today, he has 20 Web sites, which he designed and hosts. Each pertains to specific customer needs, and each has its own telephone number, with a line into his office.

King handles incoming calls and so can track where the leads come from. He relies on an answering service to pick up calls if he is talking on one line.

Tapping into the Internet for advertising was a part of his initial business plan, and it has paid off. From the beginning, King understood the importance of Internet promotion, and he signed up with a Google program, AdWords Qualified Company, a pay-per-click service that lets users choose keywords for their industry.

When someone searches for plumbing and related services, King’s company names are likely to appear at or near the top of the list. “For example, a customer searches under ‘waterline replacement’ and our name pops up on page one,” says King. “It’s like the Yellow Pages, but this is the Internet. This is what people are using to find services.” A part of the program is Google Analytics for tracking campaign results.

While innovating with marketing, King has also set his business apart with services, notably specialties in pipe bursting and residential waterline replacement.

Expanding the offerings

During his first year, King saw that he needed something more to give his company a unique position, and so he began offering locating, leak detection and waterline replacement. Two years ago, after investigating on the Internet, he discovered the pipe bursting system from Pipe Genie Manufacturing.

By the end of 2010, pipe bursting for waterline replacement had grown to 50 percent of the business, and King is one of a very few companies in the region providing the technology. TopGun specializes in home repairs and in waterline replacement on up to 2-inch pipes running from the water meter to the house.

In his region of Washington, 90 percent of the pipes are polyethylene, and the rest are copper or Schedule 80 PVC. A typical job length is 30 to 150 feet. He sees conditions where pipes have split from soil expansion or contraction, or where pipes sitting on a rock or near a tree root are damaged.

In almost all cases, customers call because they have seen sharp increases in their water bills, or have seen water on the surface. “When we show up, we first use our leak detection and locating equipment to determine where we are and what’s going on,” King says.

Supporting services

“An essential part of our business is the leak detection and line locating,” King notes. “You have to have it. As for pipe bursting, our customers are fascinated with the concept. We always have to explain the process and they like to see how it works. The equipment is very simple. It makes a lot of sense when you explain that you just push the cable through the line and create a path for the new pipe, which we then pull through. If the existing pipe is too small, we can pull through a larger pipe.”

Customers appreciate not having to rip up driveways and landscaping to replace a line. They are also pleased that one contractor can do the entire job, and that they save money in the process. One employee is trained on the Pipe Genie equipment, and he works with King – there are always two men on a bursting job.

King says the two can pull 100 feet of new pipe in two hours. The actual time required for a job depends on the amount of preparatory work needed and on the material and length of the pipe being replaced.

“If it’s a straight pipe, and it is plastic, you will pull it more quickly,” says King. “There is a learning curve with the technology and a lot of information to absorb, yet it is a fairly straightforward tool to use. You probably need about six months to get to the place where you will not need to call for technical help.”

List of unknowns

TopGun does not work on galvanized pipe, although an attachment for bursting that material is available. The nature of bursting jobs varies greatly. “We look at the location of the meter and the water connection at the house,” says King. “That gives us Point A and Point B. We excavate a 2- by 2-foot pit for the pipe splitter at the meter, and another at the house connection. We determine the type of pipe to be sure we can cut it with our equipment.

“For the next step, we insert a metal fish tape, which helps us find the path of the existing line. We push that through the pipe, and then we can use the locator to find the path of the pipe. With plastic it is otherwise sometimes difficult to trace the pipe. We use the fish tape to pull back the cable that we use to split the pipe, so it has a dual purpose.

“What becomes difficult is when the line is not a straight job. Any curving puts more stress on the pipe you are pulling. If we find the existing pipe has a severe curve, that would put about twice as much resistance on the new pipe as a straight line would.

“The risk of pulling through a curved line is that the new pipe will disconnect from the splitter. In most cases, with a severe curve, we excavate a third pit somewhere close to the middle of the bend. That allows us to split the pipe from the middle pit. One pull would be from the house back to the center pit. We would then spin the puller around in the pit, and then pull the splitter back from the meter to the third pit.”

Handling long pulls

King says the Pipe Genie equipment handles well in any situation. The crew can install new waterlines over long distances by starting at the meter and digging pits at 100-foot intervals. For example, in a 200-foot pull, there is a pit at the meter, a second at 100 feet, and a third at the house. For a 300-foot run, there is a fourth pit.

In its inventory, TopGun carries PEX (crosslinked polyethylene) pipe in rolls of 100 feet as most pulls are in that length range. King prefers PEX to traditional polyethylene because in his experience it lasts longer and works well with bronze fittings and stainless steel crimps. The advantages of pipe bursting are the small pits, the ability to split pipe on a hillside, and the ability to burst lines next to existing utilities without damaging them.

Pipe bursting, locating and leak detection have not grown the territory TopGun serves, as King wants to stay within the boundaries he initially set. Still, the services open opportunities for more business.

Besides the Pipe Genie TA-20 bursting system with 9 hp hydraulic power supply, the company operates three 14-foot Ford cube van service vehicles (2006, 2008 and 2010). One carries the pipe bursting setup, another carries the company’s 100-foot microReel SeeSnake camera by RIDGID, and the third is for basic plumbing services. Locating and leak detection equipment is by RIDGID, Radiodetection, Vivax-Metrotech Corp., and Greenlee.

Capturing the net

In 2010, King saw 29 percent growth in overall revenue. Business comes from the Internet, the Better Business Bureau, word of mouth, and Angie’s List, an Internet-based service that lists and provides reviews and recommendations on service companies.

“The Internet is the driving force behind TopGun,” says King. “At least 60 percent of business and possibly higher is generated by the Web sites.”

When a customer searches on Google for a service that matches one of the company’s keywords, the corresponding TopGun Web site shows up at the top of the list of results, as well as among Sponsored Links on the right side of the screen. The company then pays for each visitor who “clicks through” on a sponsored link. King chose Google AdWords as one of the three largest pay-per-click providers (the others being Yahoo! Search Marketing and Microsoft adCenter).

“With pay-per-click, I have the ability to choose the market to go after,” says King. “It can be by Zip code, or a 20-mile radius geographically. Google has a Web crawler that picks up the keywords in the Web site. That is the key – to have the right words for each site.”

As few as 1 to 3 percent of visits result in business, but that adds up. As data on calls is collected, including how the customer found TopGun, the company can track results. Customers who visit the sites find a telephone number and can fill out a contact form and indicate the service they need. Most often, they call.

King knew nothing about the Internet before starting TopGun and was spending $3,000 a month on Yellow Pages ads that generated one or two calls a month. After one year, he turned to the Internet.

King runs his business out of his home and spends considerable time on his computer working on the Web sites, which he frequently changes, and where he offers various discounts and coupons. “Would I add more domain names and Web sites? I absolutely would,” he says. “It’s an ongoing process. That’s why we’re doing it.”


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