Long Shot: Rural Plumber Takes a Gamble on Diverse Customer Base

Learn how this contractor pushes the limits and takes risks to establish new service markets.
Long Shot: Rural Plumber Takes a Gamble on Diverse Customer Base
The team at Barney Allen Enterprises includes Barney, Blenda and their son, Brent Allen, along with Russ Dees, Tommy Haywood, Jean Haywood, Ryan Jones, Larry Emory, Pattie Pittman, Devon Groom, Matt Daughtry, Garick Donaldson, Jeffrey Rushing, Vickey Prince, Kelsey Moore, James Wright and Paul Parrish.

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Barney Allen Jr. admits he is something of a technology wonk. The business he started 38 years ago began primarily as an electrical shop, but his curiosity for new technology led him from wires to pipes, and soon he was acquiring the tools and equipment to handle everything from drain cleaning to pipe bursting.

Allen’s Electrical & Plumbing operates in a primarily rural area 50 miles from Savannah, Ga., serving numerous small towns. Many of the smaller communities do not have sewer systems, so offering septic services as well as all other maintenance and repair options is essential for meeting the needs of their diverse customer base. The company also collects and processes grease at their 8-acre facility, where they have a 7,200-square-foot office, warehouse and shop.

It was in the mid-1980s that Allen began to notice the advances in technology and new procedures available to provide customers a better product, and to grow his company.

“The part I loved was the specialized tools, and being a part of it,” Allen says. “Watching it grow, and getting ahead of things by taking a chance. We brought in cameras first, and later jetting. We included our vac trucks in the 1980s as well, which allowed us to offer services including hydroexcavation to the municipalities, in addition to commercial and industrial operations. Our move into relining and pipe bursting came about in the late 1990s. This again shored up our commitment to the expanding clientele list.” 

Allen says he has taken a bit of a gambler’s approach when it comes to making big investments in equipment for new services.

“For a while when these new opportunities were out there, we tried taking a survey to see what our customers would like to have us include for their various needs,” he says. “We just didn’t get any response. We tried getting jobs first and then making the investment, but that didn’t work for us. We just had to dive in, buy the equipment and take a gamble. Once we had the equipment, we could go out, say we are here and we can do this.

“It was darned scary – very scary to put out so much money when you are not assured of adding to the bottom line.”

Residential business accounts for approximately 75 percent of the work, with the balance in commercial/industrial and municipal. He notes they have underground contractor clients that keep them busy. A recent project involved excavating for a new manhole (32 feet deep, 6 feet in diameter) using hydroexcavation. They dug the hole, and the manhole was dropped in by the client.

Trench tactics 

In the sewer systems they deal with, Allen finds a lot of clay and Orangeburg pipe, but some systems have been updated. Older clay pipe is often cracked and broken and Orangeburg is always a challenge. Infiltration can be heavy, with major root problems. He says 75 to 80 percent of sewer jobs involve root problems, which is where CCTV and jetting service come into play.

“We have an additional charge for use of the camera and the jetter,” Allen says. “The customer will not always want to pay that extra fee, but if we have to go back a second time they will agree to those extra services.”

His technicians would much prefer to use the camera and jetter as opposed to a cable machine. He says they are pretty good at selling the job, and customers are much happier with the outcome in the long run.

Allen says that if he had to single out his company’s most important pieces of equipment, it would have to be the cameras and jetters. “They are essential,” he says.

The company owns three CCTV vans, all outfitted with CUES equipment and Granite XP software with laser profiling. They also have a trailer set up with UEMSI software and a standard pan and tilt camera.

Allen’s runs two trailer jetters, one from PipeHunter (4,000 psi/18 gpm) and another from US Jetting, also 4,000 psi/18 gpm.

Having the right nozzle is also a part of the puzzle, and Allen has relied on his suppliers, including StoneAge, USB - Sewer Equipment Corporation and Enz USA, to provide a variety of tools.

“You need the proper nozzle for each job,” Allen says. “There’s quite a difference between what you want for a storm line as opposed to a sewer line. It depends on the size of the line. It also depends on what you are trying to clean out – gravel, or sand, you need to use a different nozzle. It’s the same thing with roots. You need the right tools to get the job done properly, and having the technicians who are skilled in the use of all the equipment.”

Beefing up benefits

The benefits of relining and pipe bursting quickly became obvious when Allen’s introduced the services to their clientele. Word of mouth began to spread, and customers began realizing they had other options for sewer replacement and repair. Even though in some cases the old methods sometimes prevail, customers appreciate and are open to the options.

“One recent residential customer had numerous decks surrounding the home as well as walkways,” Allen says. “To dig and replace would have meant tearing up everything. There was old Orangeburg pipe, and we used pipe bursting and didn’t have to tear up anything in that yard. That was a very excited and happy customer. It was an example we could point to in promoting the equipment.

“Another project for a commercial plant involved relining an 834-foot sewer line that ran under the building, and we did 139 feet of 8-inch, and the balance in 6-inch pipe,” he continues. “We were there two days and the plant never had to close down. They were pretty happy.”

In Florida, Allen’s is wrapping up an 8,000-foot relining job for an elite mobile home park, with manicured lawns and landscaping, following some detrimental water issues. They are working with 6-, 8- and 10-inch lines and expect to complete the job in a two-week period of time with six technicians on the site. For this project they used Masterliner, but they also use lining equipment from Perma-Liner Industries.

Allen says the cities really appreciate the benefits of pipe bursting and relining, especially when it limits the time and expense of repairing roads and other structures. They typically burst 4- to 6-inch lines and sometimes an 8-inch line, and they rely on equipment from Pow-R Mole Sales.

A recent municipal job called for bursting 50 feet of 4-inch sewer line under a street. They completed this job in half a day, and if it had been dig and replace it would have taken a day and a half.

“We were able to go in there and get the job done and not have to tear up the roads, and when we left you could not tell we had even been there,” Allen says. “Another plus is we are responsible for that area for a year. The cities love us.”

With residential customers, the length of a reline or pipe bursting job will typically run from 100 to 150 feet, but sometimes they’re as short as 50 feet. Commercial and municipal lines will generally be much longer.

With the homeowner, cost is always a concern. Some considerations have to do with the depth of the line to be replaced.

“Our homeowner customers vary so much,” he says. “If you have a customer who is not concerned about what happens in the yard, digging to replace might be an option. But then you have to be concerned about the depth of the line. A deep line – 6 or 8 or 10 feet – would mean shoring, and dealing with trench boxes and safety issues. With a depth of 3 or 4 feet and no concern about the yard, digging might be the best option.

“For the customer who does not want a blade of grass disturbed, the new technologies are the answer. You have different customers, different concerns. It is just one of the things about any situation. You don’t know what it will be until you go there and find out what they have – what kind of pipe, if there are roots or something else. It calls for a lot of techniques and you have to do a lot of thinking about how you will fix it in the most economical and satisfactory way. Then you need to do a lot of preparation. A lot of that.”

Another key to problem solving has to do with the jurisdiction and what is required of the homeowner. In the town of Statesboro, with a population of 29,000, the homeowner is responsible for the lateral line from the house to the main. Other towns will require the residential customer to replace to the property line. This of course always plays into the advance planning.

Allen has appointed a key employee, Ken Low, who oversees the scheduling and all procedures with both relining and pipe bursting. His sons, Brent and Blake Allen, specialize in these procedures and all other aspects of the services offered at the company.

Asset assessment

Allen says he considers two primary elements in his hiring process. The first is dependability of the applicant – if they’ve spent six months on one job and one year on another, will this candidate stay with his company? Following up with referrals does not always yield a satisfactory outcome, as people tend to be reluctant to share anything about a former employee.

The other consideration is the skills this person will bring to the workplace. The company does provide a variety of training opportunities – and they sometimes rely on trade schools.

“I like to send our guys to the Pumper and Cleaner show,” Allen says. “But I also like to work with them myself with hands-on training. We go over the equipment and some techniques, and how we like things done. This works best. In some classes they teach just the basics. We like to do some teaching right out on the job. We’ve been there, done that, and learned a lot of stuff over the years – sometimes the hard way.” 

Allen says that he likes to have his technicians specialize in the various services they perform, and in this way they can be more proficient and attend specific classes related to their area of expertise.

“Having this variety of solutions as well as highly trained technicians has been a tremendous asset and played a key role in the sustained growth we have experienced for our company. We take a lot of satisfaction in our diversity and our willingness to tackle the day-to-day problems, and the tougher ones as well.”



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