Laying Old Ways to Rest

Pipe bursting increases contractor's productivity and profitability when replacing broken sewer laterals
Laying Old Ways to Rest
Todd Farell (left) and Mark Baysinger of Air Services/All Service Plumbing use the Spartan Tool UnderTaker trenchless pipe replacement system on a residential lateral line. (Photos courtesy of Air Services/All Service Plumbing)

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For years, Air Services/All Service Plumbing in Springfield, Mo., replaced broken residential sewer lateral lines the conventional way: excavating customers’ well-groomed lawns or busting up driveways, sidewalks and patios to install new lines.

But that all changed in mid-2011 when the company invested about $30,000 in an UnderTaker trenchless pipe replacement system made by Spartan Tool, LLC. The unit not only doubled line replacement productivity and boosted profitability, it also gave the company a marketing edge by offering customers an attractive alternative that few competitors could provide.

“It used to take us two days to replace a line, by the time you dug it, laid the pipe, backfilled it, hand-raked it, seeded it and ‘strawed’ it,” says J.R. Gardner, the company’s general manager. “Now it takes us a half a day to one full day … so most times, it cuts the time in half. That’s huge. The more you do it, the faster you get at it. We’ve got it down pretty good right now.”

The UnderTaker is a pipe bursting system that generates up to 30 tons of lateral pulling force. Here’s how it works: A hydraulically powered cylinder pulls a bursting head through the existing line, shattering it. At the same time, it’s also pulling along seamless, code-approved, high-density polyethylene pipe (HDPE) that replaces the old line. It can burst 4- or 6-inch pipe (with optional 2- and 3-inch bursting heads available, and lay up to 5 feet of new pipe per minute.

The unit is powered by a 13 hp electric engine. It weighs 210 pounds fully assembled, with no individual component weighing more than 70 pounds. The footprint of the pulling unit measures 22 inches long, 22 inches wide and 32 1/2 inches tall. It’s easy to move around and assemble/disassemble; Air Services/All Service Plumbing carries it in a 12-foot box truck with a rear power lift gate.

“Instead of excavating, say, up to 100 feet of sewer lateral line from a house to the street, we only dig a hole that’s 2 feet wide and 4 feet long at the building and another hole the same size at the street,” Gardner explains. “Then we can pull a new line from the house to the street or from the street to the house, whatever is easiest to set up. It definitely saves time.”

The HDPE pipe, which carries a 50-year warranty, is a great selling point, Gardner notes. “You can drive a truck over it and it won’t break,” he says. “Once people see how tough it is, they’re willing to pay more for it. If they plan on staying in their home for a while, it’s the last lateral line they’ll ever have to buy.”

But the biggest selling point centers on taking wholesale lawn excavation or destruction of a perfectly good deck, patio, driveway or sidewalk out of the lateral replacement equation. That greatly improves customer satisfaction, Gardner says.

Moreover, Gardner says he can charge a premium price for a pipe-bursting job — even if there are no physical obstacles in the way. People are willing to pay more to have most of their nice-looking lawns remain undisturbed, especially in neighborhoods with high-end homes.

“I feel it’s my duty to be able to offer our customers options,” Gardner says. “If it were my home, I’d want options. The worst thing is going into a sales presentation with just one bullet. If you go to the gunfight with one bullet and they say no, then what are you going to do? People love to have options.”

Depending on various factors, the cost of a pipe bursting job can be cheaper than a conventional replacement or up to 50 percent more expensive, especially if unforeseen circumstances lead to removal of sidewalks, patios and the like. To keep customers expectations in line, Gardner says the company’s bids include the cost of replacing pavement, just in case the pipe bursting job unexpectedly goes south.

But that hasn’t happened yet, and Gardner has nothing but good things to say about how the UnderTaker breathed new life into his company’s lateral replacement business.

“We’re doing roughly twice as many jobs as before, and charging more money, too,” he points out. “The unit has more than paid for itself. It’s the workhorse of our plumbing department and it drives a lot of our revenue. We’re sure glad we bought it.”


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