Infrastructure failures in California provide opportunities for contractors

Infrastructure failures in the water and sewer pipelines of Southern California have created opportunities for contractors in the pipeline inspection business.

By Suzan Marie Chin
PearPoint, Inc.

San Diego, Calif., July 13, 2001 — Year 2000 headlines in the San Diego newspapers got Craig Post of Affordable Drain Services to thinking about potential opportunities available to expand his business into another area of the pipeline industry.

During March and April of 2000, the San Diego area experienced a number of sewage spills, one of which forced a quarantine of the Mission Bay, a major tourist attraction. About two years before that, the City of San Diego set policies to deal with sewer leakages that were taking place in some of the canyon areas.

All the city's sanitary sewer systems problems were getting a tremendous amount of media coverage. Environmental groups were filing suits against the city for failure to build sewerage and stormwater systems that were adequate to handle the needs of San Diego's population.

From 1995 through 1999 the city had 1,819 raw sewage spills and 316 of the overflows contaminated public waterways, according to a March 31 article in the San Diego Tribune.

With this, the city took action to correct and control the systems infrastructure failures that would include inspection, rehabilitation and replacement of pipes.

Another person was also watching the headlines closely and decided to approach Post with a business proposal. Duane Johnson, an operations manager with a local pipeline inspection firm began a series of discussions with Post about joining forces and expanding Affordable's business into the inspection side of the industry. Unlike most drain cleaning service companies that utilize their cleaning service as a platform for plumbing projects, Affordable performs only drain cleaning related services for many plumbing companies throughout the San Diego area.

After about three months of discussions and monitoring what was happening in the San Diego area, Affordable brought Johnson on board to run a new division for the company, Affordable Pipeline Services.

Johnson brought with him experience, contacts and a portable book of business. Before their first inspection vehicle was ready, they had contracts in place to hit the ground running in their new venture. With Johnson, he had bought a thriving business.

The largest contract was with Hirsch & Company, a San Diego based consulting engineering firm that was hired by the City of San Diego to provide inspection and assessment of the sanitary sewer system. The company rapidly added many more projects and clients to its customer base. The timing couldn't have been better, since there were very few contractors available locally to do the work in the San Diego area, the region offered an abundance of opportunities for Affordable to grow quickly. Within seven months of startup, they found it necessary to purchase a second inspection vehicle.

Johnson narrowed down a list of equipment vendors and asked each for a quote.

However, after a series of second interviews and additional field demos that pitted the equipment against some of the typical tough environments that Affordable would be encountering frequently, they ultimately decided that a Pearpoint system would best suit their needs.

"There are a lot of companies out there doing TV work using older equipment and not staying upfront with the technology," Johnson said. "We felt if we were going to step into this and move quickly and gain respect as fast as possible, we needed to be using the best equipment available on the market."

The right equipment for the job has proved to be a valuable selling tool. "Many times we have pulled up to a job site and contractors are impressed with our equipment and what we have to offer in comparison to what they have been seeing over the last 10 years coming from other inspection companies." In addition, the Pearpoint vehicles complied with state and federal workplace safety regulations.

The Hirsch contract requires Affordable to perform inspection on existing pipelines, then provide the data to Hirsch. Hirsch than assesses the information and presents the city with recommendations for rehab, replacements, etc. This information is then incorporated in the city designs, group jobs for the work are put out to bid and afterwards, Affordable will be called in by the rehabilitation contractors to re-inspect to insure compliance to specifications.

The task of inspecting all of the City of San Diego's lines is enormous. The city itself will soon upgrade its own inspection fleet with four new Pearpoint custom-built inspection vehicles. Even with this addition, the city will still need the help of outside contractors like Affordable.

Solutions for rapid growth

The steady business growth has provided Affordable a unique opportunity to co-op with other contractors who own Pearpoint equipment. Some of its current projects are demanding, and running multiple crews and vehicles sometimes isn't enough to keep up. Instead of viewing other inspection companies as just the competition, Post and his team look for opportunities where they can bid jobs together.

On the Hirsch contract, one of the reasons Affordable was able to obtain and renew its contract was its teaming up with Innerline Engineering (Hemet, California). Together they have a fleet of 5 vehicles and multiple crews and can handle large municipal projects with ease. On average, each truck can survey approximately 3,000 ft. per day.

"The crew is vital to our success," Johnson stated, "You can have the best equipment and great contracts but you have to have great operators to back it up." Affordable puts all their operators through a nearly four-month intensive training program before they can be on "billable status" vs. a traditional train as you go method.

In keeping with their commitment to always stay on the cutting-edge, Affordable recently added DVS (Digital Video Survey) to compliment its existing flexidata(tm) pipe survey reporting software program. DVS will give Affordable the ability to record an entire survey as an MPEG file while the operator is entering the observations seen in the pipe.

It can then be written to a CD with digital links to the survey. Hirsch and the City of San Diego had wanted all of their new survey data in digital format so the new DVS module will provide a highly efficient and compact data storage solution.

The market is expanding and Affordable is ready to take on the challenge. Johnson stated, "The work that is going to be coming for CCTV inspection is unlimited not just here in our region but across the country. The only way to properly identify problems within the sewers is through video technology." Affordable knows that contractors just like them now have a unique window of opportunity to grow if they look forward and seize the day.

For more information about Affordable Pipeline Inspection Services, call 858-689-4000. For more information about Hirsch & Company, call 619-563-4545. For more information about the CCTV inspection equipment utilized, call Pearpoint at 760-343-7350.

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