Steps to Success

Progressive adoption of new trenchless pipe repair methods puts Midway Plumbing on a straight road to growth and profitability
Steps to Success

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David Ratliff’s Midway Plumbing is a quarter-century old, but it has lasted that long by doing new things. He launched the business mainly to install plumbing in new construction, but a decade and a half later he shifted entirely to service work.

Since then, the business, based in Abilene, Texas, has specialized even more, focusing on trenchless sewer line replacement and, more recently, trenchless water line replacement. Ratliff never stands still – he uses new technologies as stepping stones to more innovation.

“What we can do now is so much different than what we could do nine years ago,” he says. “We hardly run across anything that we can’t reline and replace trenchless these days. We’re not even excavating one-half of 1 percent of all the jobs we do.”

Son of a plumber

When Ratliff, 48, started his own plumbing firm two days after he turned 21, he knew what he was getting into. His father was a plumber, and he grew up in the business. At the beginning, Ratliff focused on new construction. As the housing market tapered off around 1990, he bought drain cleaning equipment as a defensive move.

“Then housing picked up again in the 1990s,” Ratliff says. “We jumped right back into it and diversified into light commercial construction.” Midway kept its service business going, though, and even grew it some, from just drain cleaning to all sorts of residential repairs.

Then Ratliff decided to quit construction for good. “In 1998 I unrolled my last set of plans on my drawing table,” he says. “We were doing light commercial jobs all over Texas, and we decided that we would focus strictly on service work.”

The reason? Profit margin. “It was real easy,” Ratliff says. “If a guy studies his numbers, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that possibly the only one making money on new construction would be the general contractor.”

Ratliff quickly saw that much of his service work was sewer lateral replacement, and when he read in trade publications about pipe bursting, he was interested. He added the technology from TRIC Tools Inc. in 1999, and it took off right away.

“It was definitely something that clients just jumped all over,” he says. “I had replaced gobs of sewer lines at many homes traditionally, with a backhoe. We just tore the living heck out of sprinkler systems, took fences down, disrupted their lives. Then when it was over, their drain worked perfectly, but they had a bad taste in their mouth because of the scar in the yard that they got to look at for the next six months.”

On to CIPP

Pipe bursting made jobs quicker and margins higher. “Where it was taking a couple of days to do a sewer line replacement, now we’re doing them and finishing by two or three in the afternoon,” Ratliff says. And with fewer return calls to deal with post-replacement glitches, like the settling of a newly installed lateral, Midway saw its costs go down, too.

That was just the start. “Pipe bursting really kicked the door open for us in the trenchless business,” Ratliff says. The profits also gave Midway some capital to invest in the next technology: cured-in-place pipe lining.

Ratliff read about CIPP lining technology in 2000 and began researching systems. He had hired Charlie Yocum to do much of the pipe bursting work, and he turned to Yocum to help spearhead the new technology.

He had met Yocum, who was working for a commercial truck tire-retread firm, through a friend. Ratliff and Yocum went to Europe to look at one lining system first hand and take a class in using it. He adopted it, but he wasn’t satisfied because the technology wasn’t suited to smaller pipes and those with bends and traps.

So he kept looking, and at the 2001 Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo, he learned about CIPP epoxy lining from Nu Flow, designed to work in smaller pipes. After testing the system in Midway’s shop, Ratliff began selling the service to customers.

Learning by doing

There was a learning curve, but in the end, the results were “just fantastic.” Besides residential customers and apartment complexes, he found customers in the soft-drink bottling and fast-food service industries.

And that led to the next technology. “We had such good margins in cured-in-place lining that we were able to purchase Nu Flow’s potable water pipe lining system,” Ratliff says. Midway added that service about four years ago.

Again, Ratliff tested the system first, building mock water line systems in the shop and then having crews practice lining them. Lead technician Cecil Soliz took a month of training at Nu Flow headquarters in San Diego, then taught the rest of the crew. “We’ve had enormous success with it,” Ratliff says.

Most Texas homes lack basements – they are built on concrete slabs – and that has contributed to the popularity of trenchless technology. Many sewer pipes that Midway repairs are cast iron. Kitchen and laundry drain lines have badly deteriorated, most likely from exposure to kitchen grease, detergents, bleach and other cleaners.

“Sometimes you can go out on a 2-inch kitchen sink line, and when you take your camera and look inside, it’s only a 1-inch diameter because of all the muck and grease and food built up in the pipe,” Ratliff says. Crews clean it out with a cable, then a jetter, and then a pneumatic cutting tool from Nu Flow that Ratliff compares to a brake-honing machine from an auto mechanic.

Many of the older cast-iron pipes are also distended and rotted out in places on the underside. Water draining from the rotted pipes can pool under the house and slowly swell the clay soil until it pushes up against the foundation slab, lifting it, cracking sheet rock walls, and causing other damage. Pipes damaged enough to cause problems like that are often jagged and rough inside and more difficult to line.

To fill voids at the bottom of pipes, the company uses gel and grout products from Avanti International. The substances are mixed and poured down the pipe. When they are cured, a technician cuts out the excess with a sewer cable. Then a liner can be easily pulled into place.

Service sells

Run-of-the-mill service work helps direct business to the trenchless operations. “When we go out, we have cameras and locators on every truck,” Ratliff says. “We show the client the problem, and we get a repair or a replacement out of it.”

The firm uses 12 SeeSnake cameras and 12 locators, all from RIDGID. The company’s cable machines, on every truck, are K-60 models from RIDGID using 5/8 and 7/8 cable. There’s also a home-built jetter on the truck used for CIPP lining projects.

Midway has one Spartan trailer jetter and three cart jetters, two from RIDGID and one from General Pipe Cleaners.

The firm has 10 field employees and three back at the office. All technicians are trained in pipe bursting. Two crews do CIPP lining for sewer laterals, and two more line water services.

The business runs eight Isuzu trucks with Hackney boxes and keeps a ninth on hand as a spare. When a truck reaches 100,000 miles, Midway trades it in on a new one. Each one is set up with identical tools, parts and supplies.

Patience is the secret of the trenchless business and of learning new technologies. That’s why it was important to Ratliff to bring in an outsider like Yocum. “I needed guys that had the patience to not get excited, when something went south, not get discouraged, and were smart enough to sit there and go, ‘How can we fix this?’” Ratliff says.

Yocum has become a master plumber. “He went all the way and got his license,” Ratliff says. “He doesn’t really focus on plumbing. What he focuses on is drains and cured-in-place lining. If there’s a drain he can’t unstop, it certainly needs to be replaced today. He’s done a phenomenal job.”

What’s next? Ratliff believes drinking water quality is deteriorating, and so he has been looking into a new line of business: installing whole-building and point-of-use water filtration equipment. “We just rolled it out the first of this year,” he says.

It’s yet another stepping stone, and perhaps the gateway to another quarter-century of change and growth for Midway Plumbing.


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