California Plumber Uses Old Ambulances to Make a Name for His Company

California Plumber Uses Old Ambulances to Make a Name for His Company
Plumbing Doctor, of Dixon, California, uses Nissan NVs as its service vehicles. The vans are decorated with wraps to make them look like an ambulance. (Photo courtesy of Plumbing Doctor)

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When Mike Farias decided to establish Plumbing Doctor in 1993, he had a specific vision in mind for his service vehicle: A truck that would mesh with the name of the company as tightly as a vise grips on a compression fitting.

The answer appeared in the form of a “retired” 1979 Ford F-450 ambulance, purchased from a local fire department for a mere $2,500. “I knew I had to have a visual along with the name, and I figured an ambulance or some reasonable facsimile of an ambulance would do the trick,” Farias explains.

The results speak for themselves. Some 24 years later, the company — based in Dixon, California, roughly 20 miles southwest of Sacramento — now runs 12 service vehicles and has more than 20 employees. The company’s focus is residential and commercial service and repair, plus sewer and drain cleaning, says Farias. He’s also the chairman of the board of Plumbing MD, which sells Plumbing Doctor franchises; currently there are five franchises, located in California, Nevada and Oregon.


To comply with regulations that govern the commercial use of retired medical-emergency vehicles, Farias had to disable the flashing emergency-lights system and the siren. And he’s not allowed to use any red lights on the front or side of the ambulance, or any blue lights on the entire truck. In addition, he had to modify the interior so it could carry enough inventory to serve as a rolling warehouse, which minimized time-wasting and profit-killing trips to supply houses.

With approximately 250 cubic feet of space, the ambulance offered plenty of cargo area. As a bonus, the old ambulances are also equipped with converters that provided 110-amp electrical service, great for recharging power tools on the go. “They also have ‘scene’ lights, which are great for emergency work at night,” he adds. “They’re pretty cool vehicles.”

But the real impact came in the form of marketing muscle. Farias wanted to create instant brand recognition as well as convey to consumers the concept of rapid response time to emergencies. The ambulances ticked off both of those boxes. “The plumbing service industry is a demand industry,” Farias notes. “When a customer wakes up in the morning and has no hot water or can’t use a toilet, it’s like an emergency dental problem — you have to get it taken care of and get it taken care of as soon as possible. Then the age-old issue for consumers is who they’re going to call. And if they remember your service vehicles, they’ll remember you.”

And consumers do remember. Farias says company dispatchers periodically ask people who call for service where they heard about Plumbing Doctor, and the most-cited factor is the ambulances. Even if potential customers don’t remember the exact name of the company, he explains, they remember the ambulances, which is enough for them to connect the dots once they do a Google search for plumbers and see the company’s service vehicles prominently shown on the home page of the Plumbing Doctor website.


At one point, Plumbing Doctor owned 10 converted ambulances; now the company has just three left in its fleet. That’s because after the company became more firmly established, Farias started buying new Nissan NVs for service vehicles. The ambulance theme is maintained via realistic-looking vinyl wraps made by Signs by Mason.

Why phase out the old ambulances? For starters, most of them had racked up close to 200,000 miles by the time Farias bought them, so ongoing maintenance was expensive and breakdowns hurt productivity. Second, the vehicles get poor gas mileage. And third, Plumbing Doctor could finally afford to invest in new vehicles that could still be similarly branded, Farias says.

Each truck carries a variety of drain cleaning equipment, including pipeline inspection cameras and locators made by MyTana Mfg., portable cable drain machines made by General Pipe Cleaners (a division of General Wire Spring Co.), and portable water jetters manufactured by Gorlitz Sewer & Drain. Technicians typically use RIDGID and Milwaukee power tools and Channellock hand tools. The company also owns a trailer-mounted water jetter made by General Pipe, Farias says.


While the eye-catching trucks are an important part of Plumbing Doctor’s operations, they don’t count for much if technicians don’t provide service that also makes a strong impression on customers. “Sure, the trucks differentiate us from everyone else,” Farias says. “But even if you have the best-looking plumbing truck ever created, it’s not worth much if you can’t back it up with an amazing service experience. If you can’t do that, you’ll be one and done with customers.”

As such, Farias has created not only a distinctive visual brand, but also a detailed set of customer-oriented protocols for technicians that results in a consistent customer experience, no matter which technician handles the service call. Or as he puts it: “I don’t consider myself in the plumbing service business. Instead, I’ve repackaged the experience, and the trucks are a big part of that in terms of the kind of top-of-mind awareness I want to create in the marketplace.” With no sirens or flashing lights required.


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