Great Technology Doesn’t Run Itself

People are the most important component of a combo truck
Great Technology Doesn’t Run Itself
Austin Welch operates a combination unit. Operating a combination unit requires physical exertion, so the operator must be physically fit. (Photos courtesy of Innerline Engineering)

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The pipeline cleaning industry has become a very competitive business. New companies are constantly emerging while established companies scramble to maintain their market share. Companies that thrive have established themselves as industry leaders and maintain a steady workflow because of the demand they have created for their services.

Understanding the roles that personnel play within a company is the first step in building a strong organization. We often think of the combination unit operator as the key figure in the cleaning business. As important as that role is, a support staff that sets up and oversees the cleaning operation is just as important.


The operator

I once worked for a company whose only criteria for hiring a combination unit operator was that they have a class A or B driver’s license. They were thrown into the field to clean pipe with minimal training. Naturally, they did the only thing they knew how, which was to run the nozzle all the way out to the manhole, bring it all the way back, and then move on to the next section.

Not only were the lines not being cleaned, the results were often severe sewer overflows. Instead of removing material, operators were dislodging root balls and grease that created blockages downstream.

Such things happen when companies fail to provide adequate training. New employees are often sent into the field to train with an existing operator. If that operator is incompetent, then they will be training another incompetent operator. If a skilled trainer is not available in-house, then one must be found elsewhere.

Pipeline cleaning is a precise art that requires a unique set of skills. Operating a combination unit requires physical exertion, so the operator must be physically fit. In many ways, it is a young person’s job. That doesn’t mean that older people can’t operate successfully. Many do superb jobs every day, but at some point it becomes very difficult to keep up with the demands that a combo unit places on the body.

Successful cleaning companies find the right operators for the job. They look for people who are creative and have can-do attitudes. They employ individuals who are teachable and take pride in what they do. They take someone with the right set of tools and invest heavily in their training. Their ability to clean pipelines can make or break a company.

An area that is often neglected is the appearance of the crews. Just because they work around sewage and get dirty doesn’t mean appearance isn’t important. Yes, they get dirty, but they must show up for the job looking clean and professional. First impressions count, and they can be difficult to overcome.

The equipment

A combo unit is a delicate piece of equipment that requires a lot of maintenance, some of which must be performed daily. The need for consistent, thorough and meticulous maintenance must be ingrained into operators. Cut corners, and the unit will break down sooner or later.

Reliability is indispensable to a top-rated cleaning company. Customers place their trust in them to not only be there when they say they will, but to get the job done right and on schedule. If the equipment is not being maintained properly and breakdowns prevent successful completion, the trust in the company will be seriously compromised.

Emergency response is another critical role for pipeline cleaning companies. When sewage is gushing out of a manhole and flowing down the street, there is little room for error, so the equipment must be in tip-top shape and ready to roll at a moment’s notice.


Proper tools

Looking into the toolbox of a combo unit can be very telling. Too often, nozzles are poorly maintained. Quality cleaning companies invest heavily, not only for new nozzle technology, but to keep them in good condition.

Duane Johnson, vice president at Affordable Pipeline Services in San Diego, often states during his training sessions that “a truck should carry at least 10 different nozzles. This will ensure that the right tools are available in order to effectively clean pipeline in 90 percent of the situations.”

Nothing will hurt a company more than showing up to a job unprepared. If the right tools are not on the truck, or if they are poorly maintained, the work cannot be completed properly.


Management role

Communication with the customer is one of the most significant components of doing business. Communication is critical to each project and helps build a foundation for long-term relationships with customers. The customer’s needs must be plainly defined and their expectations clearly understood. Knowing the expectations and meeting them consistently is what defines success.

Quality cleaning companies excel in this area, and they do it by assigning someone to oversee the projects in order to ensure success. These individuals are capable of communicating on both a technical and personal level, and are able to contribute creatively to the project.

Ideally, a person in management should fill this role. Dealing with someone with decision-making powers will impart confidence to the customer. This individual should have a strong industry background, be personable and be able to think outside the box. Coming up with creative and cost-effective ideas to get the project done is what sells. The right person will solidify the relationship with the customer.

Bill Houser, vice president at Innerline Engineering, believes his company’s status would not be what it is without direct management oversight.

“More often than not, a cleaning job will throw you a curve,” he says. “You can plan as much as you want, but when you get on site, things can be a lot different. Management’s involvement prevents disasters by identifying problems, finding solutions and pacifying the customer.”

It is not uncommon for companies to rely on the combination operator to fill this role. Operators should stay in the field cleaning pipelines and generating income for the company. Putting them in a dual role will guarantee that neither role is performed adequately. They will not be able to give the customer their full and undivided attention and they will be distracted while cleaning.


Feeding the bottom line

The media has demonized the word “profit” in recent years. But it is the lifeblood of our ongoing success. A string of financial losses could put any company out of business. Projects must be quoted properly without sacrificing the profit margin. Competition often forces us to bid projects lower than we would like, but we must never compromise on profit. Bidding a job just to “keep the guys working” is a recipe for disaster.

Breaking even is never that, it is always a loss. A company must make a profit so that it can upgrade equipment, invest in new nozzle technology or even purchase a new combination unit.

Becoming an industry leader isn’t easy. It takes a lot of determination and hard work, but the effort to get there is worthwhile and will ensure steady work and growth for years ahead.

Leaders don’t stumble to the top; they attain their status because they work hard at all aspects of their business. They have taken conscious steps, sometimes with great difficulty, to reach the point where they look good and perform well. They have worked hard at projecting an air of confidence and competence and are able to back it up with superior work. These companies rarely lack for work because they are always in demand.


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