It All Comes Back to Plumbing

PSI Plumbing has diversified services, but plumbing continues to lead the way for this growing company.
It All Comes Back to Plumbing
PSI Vice President Aidan Kelly (left) and President Jim Harper in front of a 2012 3500 Chevy service van with a Hackney body. Photography by Dominique Taylor

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Planning and preparation are an important part of any plumbing job in the mountainous territory around Vail, Colorado, where PSI Plumbing Systems serves a mix of residential and commercial clients. Supply shops are anything but plentiful, so keeping a good inventory of parts and fixtures on the trucks and being prepared for anything is a critical component of the company's success. 

“In our company we probably do about 40 percent plumbing and remodeling, 30 percent drain cleaning and 30 percent HVAC,” owner Jim Harper says. “We do a lot of plumbing, which includes water heater replacement, kitchen faucet replacement, repairing pipes that leak, and the day-to-day plumbing problems that come up. Our other division, PSI Environmental Services, provides drain cleaning, which is an integral part of the plumbing industry on the sewer side. This allows us to be a full service provider. If we are fixing a toilet or sink, we want to be able to unplug the sewer drain or even the bath tub drain. We look at it all as a bold segment of our business where we can have our technicians specialize and become very proficient very quickly. It is a great way to grow our business.”   

Proper confined-space entry protocol is also essential to the operation, and technicians are all certified. “Without that we would be putting our employees at risk and we would be out of compliance,” Harper says.

“As drain cleaners and plumbers we have a responsibility of doing a lot of vault work. We do a lot of replacement pumps in various vaults — in water vaults, sewage vaults. That is a ton of our work, and it is actually a specialty for us. It is a service absolutely paramount in our area.”

PSI Plumbing Systems runs with a fleet of five GMC four-wheel-drive 3500 pickups with Hackney bodies. Harper likes the Hackney bodies because of their size, and they can carry a lot of inventory in an organized fashion.

“They are easy to get in and out of, and as they are all aluminum with trays that can be taken out, we can power wash inside the box. Plus they have a pull-out ramp and you can wheel in a water heater. They are amazing.”

He estimates they usually have about $30,000 in inventory on each vehicle. The seven technicians in this division specialize in plumbing but are also cross-trained and can switch over to PSI Environmental when necessary. In the other division there are six technicians, also specialists, but cross-trained as well.

Fixer upper
The region they serve is made up primarily of homes built in the 1990s, but some newer and some older dating back to 1962 when Vail was founded, and with a very diverse economic dimension, from the average income level to the upper 1 percent. Many are vacation homes with absentee owners much of the time.

Their remodeling work has taken on a life of its own, but is primarily designed to be manageable for a company of their size. They are not into new construction and do not work directly with designers or architects.

“We do a lot of projects that are mostly cosmetic, where the homeowner wants to move or replace a sink and faucet, replace a toilet, put in a new tub. Put in new tub and shower valves. Make changes in a master bathroom. You can’t give an average price for remodeling a master bath. It all depends on what the situation is. Are they putting in a $100,000 freestanding bath tub? Which we actually did. What is the size of the bathroom? Is it 8-foot by 5-foot? Or is it 30-foot by 30-foot? There are no average costs for these projects.

“When a customer starts wanting to move stuff around and go beyond what is plumbing, we suggest they bring in a builder or architect. We don’t want to be putting in cabinets or pulling cabinets in a kitchen. We want to just do the plumbing.”

Harper says that when a designer comes up with a plan, they will gladly follow what is specified, but they prefer not to be involved in the design phase. Their goal is to get their part of the job completed and move on.

Has remodeling been a profitable thing for PSI? “Oh yes,” says Harper. “That is why we like the small remodels. They are quick, fast, we get in and we get out.”

Because of its location and broad range of services, PSI has to carry an extensive inventory in its 1,800-square-foot warehouse. “If I was in Denver I wouldn’t need to carry all this inventory.”

Matter of importance
PSI Plumbing encourages customers, both commercial and residential, to sign up for what they prefer to call planned maintenance. These are written contracts that clearly spell out the plan to perform maintenance on a specified schedule for the client.

“We try to have enough information in the contract so the customer has a very clear understanding as to what they are getting for their money,” Harper says, adding that each contract is specifically written for the needs of that customer.

As to calling the contract planned maintenance rather than preventive maintenance, Harper says that the language is much clearer, because it is not possible to guarantee there will not be a failure.

“Mechanical things do break down. We wanted to get away from the use of the word preventive. If you change the oil in your car regularly, you still cannot prevent the engine from breaking down somewhere along the line. Bottom line, all mechanical things can and will break down.”

Harper finds their residential customers are very open to having this agreement for regular service. “We include planned maintenance for heating equipment, water heaters, a boiler or furnace, water softener. We plan to service on a yearly basis. This is particularly important for those clients who are not in the home year-round. We call these clients ‘preferred customers.'”

Mining for talent
Providing quality plumbing service requires more than just knowledge of plumbing systems; technicians have to understand that the customer comes first.

“We want them to know that we have to do the right job every time. Never deviate from that,” Harper says. “The job has to be done — executed in a fashion consistent with giving the finest service — doing the right job right.

“The challenge in finding that person is huge, and we never stop looking. We are always, always, always looking.”

Harper says that he probably does 10 or more interviews before finding the right individual to fill a slot. This is a huge challenge as this is a company that envisions expanding, moving into other areas with new offices, securing new customers.

Newly hired technicians ride with a senior employee for one to three years in order to gain a full understanding of the company policies.

Bellwether band
It was in 2010 that Harper and a partner, Aidan Kelly, established PSI Environmental Services in order to expand and broaden the overall menu of services, including jetting and pipe bursting.

“Ultimately, jetting is repetitive business for us. This is business that never goes away, as we go into hotels, restaurants and even serve residential customers on a yearly contract basis. Restaurants have to be taken care of. Our business with jetting and pipe bursting has helped us grow exponentially.”

The company settled on a Pipe Genie Manufacturing 40-ton unit with a 3/4-inch chain and Honda PowerPak. Their jetter is a US Jetting 4025 (400 psi/25 gpm) jetter in an insulated box mounted and enclosed on a 2008 GMC Topkick 5500 diesel. It includes a 600-gallon water tank and dual pullout reels with a 78 hp DEUTZ Corporation engine to power the jetter. The truck carries 500 feet of 5/8-inch hose and 1,000 feet of 3/8-inch. 

Inspection is handled primarily with Pearpoint and RIDGID camera systems, along with the GVision 2000 system from EPL Solutions. RIDGID SR-20 locators and cable machines from RIDGID and Spartan Tool round out the equipment inventory.

PSI Environmental Services depends on a 2001 Kenworth T800 powered by a 525 hp Caterpillar diesel engine, with a Progress aluminum tank and a vacuum system by KeeVac Industries.

Their market area is a 100-mile radius which includes the towns of Vail, Edwards, Aspen, Gypsum and Silverthorne. In addition to their warehouse they have 1,100 square feet of office space in Edwards.

Harper says that when he first opened his plumbing business, a desire he had long held, his expectations were to just keep his feet on the ground.

“Just doing the best job I could as I didn’t have any grand vision. Not back then,” he says. “That kind of came on and then the business began to grow. It was never stagnant.”

Harper says that the most important thing for him on a daily basis is being positive, having a positive outlook every day.

“If you don’t start your day with that, just forget it,” he says. “A positive attitude is what makes it all work.” 


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