Plumber Says Portability Is Key With Backpack Style Sectional Drum Machine

Portable drum machine lightens technicians’ loads while amping up efficiency — all without power cords.

Plumber Says Portability Is Key With Backpack Style Sectional Drum Machine

Technician Mario Sparto carries a SWITCH PACK to a customer’s home. (Photo courtesy of Andersen Plumbing and Heating)

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There are a lot of things that Mario Sparto likes about the new M18 FUEL SWITCH PACK sectional drum machine from Milwaukee Tool. But chief among them is the battery-powered unit’s backpack-style portability.

“It takes up a very small footprint in my van,” says Sparto, a technician at Andersen Plumbing and Heating in Aurora, Illinois. “I can hang it on the bulkhead and keep one on every truck. This allows me to do a service call for, say, a clogged kitchen sink at the drop of a hat instead of going back to our shop for a larger drum machine.

“We charge $195 for a rodding call, and if someone calls and I’m already in the field and I have a one-hour gap in my schedule, I can say yes to the call — even if I don’t have our larger rodding machine with me. We’re in a society where everyone wants things right away, so this machine’s portability is huge.”

PORTABLE POWER

The SWITCH PACK measures 15 inches wide by 17 3/4 inches tall and weighs about 28 pounds. Its size and weight makes it a cinch to transport up and down stairs — not to mention easier to access stack pipes on rooftops or work in crawl spaces. “It’s lightweight and powerful — that’s what’s so awesome about it,” Sparto reports. “You can throw it on your back and go up on a roof. With other machines, that’s a nightmare.”

Sparto estimates the unit’s portability saves him 10 to 15 minutes per service call because he can start jobs faster and reduce back-and-forth trips to his service van. “With the machine on my back, I have hands free to still carry my tool bucket,” he explains. “It’s nice to have your hands free and not have to drag something up and down stairs. That adds up to a lot of time saved over a year. It’s amazing how it all adds up.

“We have one customer that owns a 1-million-square-foot warehouse with bathrooms and drains all over the place,” he adds. “I put the SWITCH PACK on my back, carry in my tool bucket and get to work.”

Moreover, the machine also saves time because there’s no need to search for electrical outlets, which can be difficult in basements and older homes. In addition, the unit’s 18-volt battery doesn’t require frequent charging. “I’ve done four or five kitchen sinks on one battery charge and still had three bars (of power) left,” he says.

A CLOSER LOOK

The SWITCH PACK relies on a brushless electric motor that generates spin speed of 250 rpms. The unit’s size belies its power; Sparto says he has no problem plowing through soft blockages. (It’s designed for pipes ranging in size from 1 1/4 to 4 inches in diameter, but not for clearing roots). “You hit the foot pedal and it’s got plenty of torque — no issues there,” he says.

The unit can carry 50 feet of either 3/8-, 1/2- or 5/8-inch cable and 75 feet of 5/16-inch cable. Cable drums can easily be switched out without tools, and technicians also can connect two drums together for up to 100 feet of coverage.

Sparto says the integrated brake is a helpful feature because it quickly stops the cable from spinning when needed. Larger drain machines with heavier drums keep running longer because of the sheer physics of centrifugal force. “As soon as I let off the (foot-activated) pedal on the SWITCH PACK, it slows down quickly,” he points out. “It doesn’t come to a screeching halt, but it slows down fast.”

The SWITCH PACK costs about $800, which makes it affordable enough to equip more than one van (the company owns a 2017 Nissan NV3500, a 2015 Ford Transit 250, and 2004 and 2005 Chevrolet 3500 cargo vans). The company, which owner Chad Andersen bought and renamed in 2011, employs four technicians and focuses primarily on residential and commercial repair and service work in about a 20-mile radius around Aurora. “The machine pays for itself with four sink calls,” Sparto says. “After that, it’s all profit.”

TACKLING TIGHT SPACES

Another advantage is the SWITCH PACK’s ability to clean smaller drainlines. Sparto says he can remove the pop-up assembly in a sink drain and work a cable through the trap and into the piping in a wall. That helps him avoid taking apart the trap assembly and other sections of plumbing, which can be risky business in older homes.

“Things can snowball in a hurry,” he notes. “You come in to remove a hair clog in a customer’s sink and then suddenly have to pull the sink off the wall. The bill then goes from, say, $200 to $600, and no customer is thrilled when the bill is so much larger than expected.”

“The SWITCH PACK’s cables are so flexible that we don’t have to take anything apart,” he continues. “It’s such a big benefit if we can keep a job simple and not have it snowball into something bigger and more expensive.”

Sparto says the company owns more than $100,000 in drain cleaning equipment, including units made by Spartan Tool, Milwaukee Tool and Jetters Northwest, plus three SeeSnake inspection cameras made by RIDGID. The SWITCH PACK can’t handle every kind of drain cleaning job, but it fills a definite niche in the company’s services.

“The market lacked a portable and low-cost machine,” he concludes. “Milwaukee Tool came in and blew away that neglected niche.”



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