Jump on the Gravy Train with Diversified Cleaning Services

Husband-and-wife team makes a successful — and lucrative — leap from drain inspection to hydroexcavation.
Jump on the Gravy Train with Diversified Cleaning Services
Cody Thompson readies the camera rig to inspect a stormwater pipe.

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Wayne Thompson Jr. and his wife, Becky, were running an infrastructure contracting business with nine utility crews and a substantial fleet of heavy equipment when they started Crawler Pipeline Services. Their combined years of business and construction experience gave the enterprise a strong backbone.

“Our business plan initially was to concentrate on pipeline inspections, drainline inspection and cleaning,” says Wayne Thompson. “We had shut down the construction company we operated for 20 years, partially due to the economy, but also because we were looking for an opportunity to work in a section of the industry where we would not be required to have a large number of employees, and would have a more manageable situation.”

Thompson grew up in construction and is licensed for highway construction in North Carolina. Becky holds a PU license for water and sewer lines, and has corporate experience in human resources and as a chief financial officer. As majority owner in Crawler, she is also in charge of finances and scheduling. Thompson uses his expertise to deal with equipment and on-site projects.

Their daughter, Lindsey, a college student, helped the startup family business by designing a website for the initial launch, and their son, Cody, a senior in high school, has worked in the field with his father learning about the technologies.

Thompson describes their game plan: “Initially for our inspection operation we acquired a used camera system from CUES that we had worked with before. Then we added another camera system from Cobra Technologies to enhance our capabilities.

“But other things kind of took over, and we decided if we were going to be a success we would need to have a vac truck, and that would best be a combination truck because we were not sure where we would be going in the marketplace with Crawler. Things have progressed for us steadily from there.”

Thompson says he had his eye on hydroexcavation and saw it as a wide-open opportunity for expansion. They purchased and rehabilitated a 1998 Vac-Con and began a promotional program touting the process through their website. Targeted clients spanned a 200-mile radius covering North and South Carolina and Virginia.

“For all our drain inspection and cleaning as well as the hydroexcavation, we were contacting the various customers we had dealt with in our previous experience,” he says. “Some had made it through the financial crunch and others were still in the business but working for someone else. We did have a local competitor who had been in business for a long time, and is a good friend, so we were careful not to step on too many toes as we moved ahead. I knew this was an important and good relationship to maintain. We began to pick up more municipal work in other locales, and to scout out the petroleum distribution industry.”

Although the petroleum distribution industry has long been on board with hydroexcavation as a safer procedure for exposing lines and other digging operations at their facilities, the Thompsons found an entirely different scenario for the municipalities they added to their customer list.

“We find that the municipalities are difficult to convince that hydroexcavation is something that would save time, money, and would avoid damage to existing lines buried in the ground,” Thompson says. “There is something of a stigma about this being muddy and nasty. They stick to the notion that it’s easier to use the backhoe, and then a shovel when they get close.”

Crawler is countering this resistance by revamping their website to include video demonstrations of the process. Thompson says that move has helped them gain the recognition and acceptance they need to grow the business.

“We would like to see hydroexcavation grow to 75 percent of our business, and right now it is just at 25 percent, with the balance in inspection and drain cleaning, jetting and CCTV,” Thompson says. “With our revamped website, we are encouraged we will see those numbers change as we change the perception of hydroexcavation.”

City blights

The municipalities Crawler serves commonly deal with root intrusion, gravel deposits, infiltration, dislocated joints in the pipes and the more recent but growing problem of paper products in sewer systems.

“Unfortunately, people think the sewers will take anything,” Thompson says. “We’ve even seen people lift a manhole and dump materials. The cities are starting to use manhole covers that are locked.”

Thompson crafted a hydraulically controlled robotic vacuum unit that is guided by a camera. He sends the unit into pipes as small as 33 inches in diameter to deal with problems like clumps of paper products clogging a sewer line. Typically, Crawler inspects pipes from 4 inches to 96 inches in diameter. Thompson’s unit is about the size of a small riding mower. Once the substance causing the blockage is broken up and jetted out, it is taken to the treatment facility for proper handling.

Small gravel can generally be jetted out, but the unit can be used for root removal in some cases.

Thompson says that in almost all the jurisdictions they serve, city sewers are under some sort of revamp or rehabilitation. In Raleigh, Crawler is inspecting areas where old sewers are being relined.

Because Crawler Pipeline Services typically works as a subcontractor, they are often side by side on municipal jobs with relining companies or other rehabilitation contractors.

During the cleaning and inspection processes, Crawler typically works in live sewers. The technicians are all trained for confined-space entry because of the danger of hydrogen sulfide in enclosed areas.

Recently, the company picked up a contract with a large municipality on the East Coast, performing extensive storm drain inspection and cleaning. The company’s municipal contracts range from managing sewer line and storm drain inspections to being on stand-by for emergency situations. Each agreement is set up around the client’s needs.

Pipeline territory

In the petroleum industry, where hydroexcavation is the only way to go, Crawler is carving out an important niche. Digging with heavy equipment isn’t allowed on these sites due to the prevalence of fuel and gas lines, fiber optics and wastewater lines. Sometimes the client might be adding new lines below and above ground, and they need holes dug for support brackets (poles) for overhead lines. Crawler also locates lines so that repairs can be made, and sometimes handles new construction and pipe repair. All of these jobs depend on hydroexcavation.

Most hydroexcavation work is planned, with emergencies, such as a broken oil or sewer line comprising a small amount of the business.

When a long-distance job opportunity comes up, whether in the pipeline industry or with a private contractor or municipality, Thompson must decide whether to visit the site before signing on or evaluate the job based solely on provided information.

“With our background we can make a good evaluation of the situation by getting as much information as we can, and considering the client we will be working for as well,” Thompson says. “If there are any questions, I will jump into a vehicle and go to inspect the job. Probably about half the time we can make a determination without a visit.”

He says one of the most important issues once they take a job is to ensure they have support for the machinery with backup parts in case of a breakdown – a particular necessity for a company doing big things with a small field staff.

“We have a service truck where we carry a lot of parts. Things we think we might need. So this support is an issue,” he says. “We also have outstanding reaction from our vendors. Vac-Con has been particularly helpful. I can always pick up a phone and get someone. I can always get immediate support from Cobra Technologies; they have gone above and beyond to be there for us.

"We have a local vendor, Jet-Vac Sewer Equipment Co. in Sumter, South Carolina, that we can count on. I can call in the middle of the night and get someone. We can turn to Public Works Equipment and Supply Inc. with locations in North and South Carolina and Tennessee. Whether we are 50 miles from home or 200 miles from home, this is vital for us.

“I can truthfully say our vendors have been total lifesavers in providing parts and service, and in helping keep costs down and our customers happy. Even with our service truck, we can never be sure to have every part available.”

When the company is on a long-term project at a distant location, heavy equipment is only left on site over a weekend if it is in a secure location. Otherwise it’s taken back to the Raleigh yard.

Power punch

Crawler Pipeline Services hits the road with its 1998 Vac-Con combination truck with a 10-foot boom and hydroexcavation package and a 2009 Ford F-450 as the support vehicle.

Crawler’s 2007 Kubota RTV900 4X4 is equipped with a custom-made camera housing with crane. The company also has a 2012 Cobra Technologies camera system with 1,000 feet of cable, and three additional cameras and transporters for different pipe sizes. From CUES there is the Inspector General Camera System with 1,000 feet of cable, plus an Ultra Shorty transporter with OZ11 camera as backup system. The Crawler Vac is a custom-made hydraulic robot with a CCTV system for confined-space entry. Crawler uses various push cameras with 1/5- to 4-inch capabilities.

Crawler also has a custom-made rubber tracked easement machine with a 700-foot hose reel and crane assembly for hard-to-reach outfall work.

On call

The Thompsons run their 24/7 operation out of their home, with a nearby 1-acre lease for equipment. Thompson says his experience with equipment has been particularly helpful in the new company.

“Being on this side of the business, but with the utility background, I have been able to head off a lot of problems for other utility contractors as we interact on a job,” he says. “This has helped our contractors and co-subcontractors, and also promoted our business. We can sometimes save them time and money.”

Thompson says he’s pleased with the progression of the business, even though there are things he would do differently if given the chance.

“I wish we had been able to spend more money on the vac truck – bought a newer truck. I would not have had to spend so much valuable time in the shop. That was a drawback. We did have to do a lot of rebuilding to get the truck to where we wanted it. I could have been out meeting clients and introducing Crawler Pipeline Services. But fortunately things have worked out. We are very busy. Becky does a great job running the office and dealing with myriad issues.”

Thompson’s last bit of advice for anyone in the industry: “Be there when you say you will be there, do quality work and always tell the truth.”


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