Drain Cleaning Machine Brings Revenue Bump for Contractor

Plumber’s expansion into the trenchless pipe-rehab market gets a profitable assist from productivity-enhancing technology.

Drain Cleaning Machine Brings Revenue Bump for Contractor
A-1 Total Service Plumbing technician Nicholas Lee uses a TCM 5000 Merlin drain cleaning machine (RIDGID Seesnake) to descale 140 feet of 4-inch diameter cast-iron pipe in a strip mall in preparation for lining. (Photo Courtesy of A-1 Total Service Plumbing)

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When a friend first told Raymond Gray, the owner of A-1 Total Service Plumbing in Los Angeles, about the TCM 5000 drain cleaning machine made by GI Industries, he admits he was a little skeptical. That didn’t last long — just one job, in fact. And an ensuing revenue bump of about 20 percent over the last year or so certainly sealed the deal.

The project entailed descaling and deburring a 16-inch-diameter, corrugated-metal stormwater drainline to prepare it for a fiberglass liner. Using some stiff brush attachments custom-made by GI Industries, the unit — known as the Merlin — cleaned the 64-foot-long drainline in just six hours. And without using any water. “It worked magnificently,” Gray says. “That’s an excellent time to clean a pipe like that.

“Normally we would’ve used a hydrojetter, but the pipe was so deteriorated it had holes in the top,” he explains. “So every time we used the hydrojetter, more dirt would fall in. We would have had to go in with a vacuum truck (to suck up the dirt) and do just 2 or 3 feet at a time, which would’ve taken two or three days and a crew of four guys.

“But we did it in six hours with just a helper and me,” he adds. “The machine paid for itself in just one job. I call that money in the bank.”

The Merlin is different from most drain cleaning machines because it can use air or water pressure to flush out debris as it cleans and scours pipelines with various attachments, such as brushes and drills, attached to a flexible shaft. It’s designed to clean lines ranging from 1/2 inch to 24 inches in diameter and is equipped with variable-speed control. A 3/4 hp electric motor that can be plugged into a conventional 110-volt electrical outlet powers the machine (7-amp draw).

A belt-drive system spins the cleaning attachments at up to 1,750 rpm. A pneumatic foot pedal activates rotation of the flexible shaft and controls airflow and water flow for flushing. The shaft is housed inside a protective sheath made from a proprietary blend of nylon and plastic; this reduces the chances of binding and improves operator safety.

The machine is housed inside a heavy-duty steel cabinet that measures 19-by-16-by-10 inches and weighs about 45 pounds. A switch on the unit’s cabinet controls forward, neutral and reverse functions. In neutral mode, the head stops spinning so the operator can apply either air or water pressure to move debris. The unit includes a fitting for attaching a compressor for air-pressure flushing, and water is supplied by hooking the unit up to a conventional faucet bib with a garden hose.

The waterless-cleaning function is a big plus for A-1 Total Service Plumbing, which started out as strictly a service plumbing outfit but added trenchless pipe-repair technology such as pipe lining and pipe bursting. (The company uses systems made by Perma-Liner Industries, Pipetek USA and Prairie Dog Boring Equipment.) Established in 2004, the company now employs 35 people and runs 26 service trucks. The company also owns drain cleaning equipment made by Picote Solutions, a portable vacuum/hydroexcavating trailer made by Vac-Tron Equipment, and several custom-built water jetters for servicing both residential and commercial customers, Gray says.

“When we epoxy-coat a line, it has to be bone dry,” he says, explaining the value of waterless debris-flushing. “If you use water to remove debris, it takes longer for the pipe to dry, which prolongs the coating process. The Merlin moves debris with air, breaking it up so it can be removed with a vacuum.”

The Merlin provides another advantage: a 200-foot-long, one-piece cable that eliminates the weak link created when crews have to connect two cables together to cover that kind of ground. As such, expensive and time-consuming line breaks are removed from the equation.

In addition, because the Merlin completes jobs faster, Gray says his company can do more jobs per year. That resulted in about a 20-percent revenue bump since the company bought the Merlin in August 2016. Moreover, he’s also able to parlay that productivity increase into lower-cost bids, which make the company more competitive when vying for projects.

“It also allows me to pay my techs more money as well as pay for additional training, which makes them more loyal,” he adds — no small thing these days when quality help is in short supply. “They know they can’t get that kind of pay or training somewhere else.”
Gray also appreciates GI Industries’ willingness to quickly make custom cleaning heads as well as adaptors that allow him to use the machine with cleaning attachments he fabricates himself. “I haven’t found another company that will do that,” he says.

“The Merlin complements all our other equipment and has opened us up to new avenues of business by cleaning pipes faster,” he concludes. “It’s been a game-changer.” 


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