Article From Magazine October, 2009.
John Harris, owner of United Rooter, is a former Roto-Rooter franchisee.

John Harris is shaking up his drain contracting business model by offering trenchless lateral repair through a Roto-Rooter franchise

Challenging its typical business model, Roto-Rooter of Cheshire, Mass., has found that repairing and lining sewer laterals cuts into its traditional short-term rooting business and some larger excavation jobs – but pays dividends in increased revenue and customer satisfaction.

As an early adopter of proprietary lining technology, the company differentiates its services in the market by empowering customers to make their own choices about which service suits them best.

Five years ago, if you had asked owner John Harris if he could envision his drain cleaning business being involved in trenchless pipe repair, he might have told you to take a hike. But he has gone into pipe patching in a big way, using a proprietary technology that can take a damaged lateral with up to four inches of missing pipe from scoping to patched to cured in about three hours.

Harris started with Roto-Rooter in 1988, working his way up the ladder as a service technician, representative, and finally manager of the New York state territory. He returned to Cheshire in 1999 to take over Harris & Son Excavation, a company his father had operated as a sideline business since the 1950s.

Under his direction the company placed a greater emphasis on sewer and water pipe replacement. He purchased the Roto-Rooter franchise for Berkshire County the following year and continues to operate it under the Roto-Rooter banner.

Name carries weight
“The Roto-Rooter franchise name carries a lot of weight and is a good name to offer clients,” says Harris. “A lot of my customers see the franchise name as offering dependability, and they enjoy the warranty that comes with the name.”

The work in Berkshire County is roughly half commercial and institutional, and half residential. About 100,000 area homes offer potential contracts. Roots are a major problem in the area because much of the community is served by older sewers. Some of the area is still served by ancient Orangeburg pipe.

The non-residential work extends a little farther afield – healthcare facilities, restaurants, and malls offer the bulk of those contracts. From his base in the northwest corner of the state, Harris goes as far as New York, Vermont and Connecticut to serve non-residential clients.

Always interested in expanding his offerings, Harris became interested in pipe patching about two years ago after doing some online research. “I saw a YouTube video demonstrating lateral pipe patching and it really interested me,” he says. “I can’t say I was excited about it in the beginning because I didn’t know if it was a gimmick or not.”

Simple and effective
The video led Harris to Fernco Inc., which then manufactured Pipe-Patch cured-in-place-pipe (CIPP) lining products for sewer laterals. Those products are now manufactured by Source 1 Environmental, LLC, which recently purchased the line.

The process appeared simple, yet effective. After areas of root intrusion are located with a camera, a lining tube coated with epoxy resin is wrapped around a flow-through packer and pushed into the lateral. A bladder is inflated under 28 psi air pressure, and the liner cures in less than three hours. The packer is then withdrawn.

The process isn’t used exclusively on laterals – it can be applied to pools, spas, and municipal applications on pipes up to 24 inches. One person can make a lateral repair and the product is guaranteed to last for 50 years.

After being sold by an in-house demonstration, Harris spent a couple of days in training with the distributor to be certified to use the system. Other than the cost of the proprietary equipment to launch and install the repair, there were no fees involved.

‘They go with you on your first job to make sure you have the technique right,” says Harris. “We basically go into the basement and inspect with a camera through the clean-out. We take a flush bag to get rid of any major debris, but the line doesn’t have to be dry to surgically fix the pipe.

“Because it’s a flow-through product, we don’t have to shut off the water. That’s particularly important to municipal clients, and especially healthcare facilities, nursing homes, and schools that virtually have to close down any time the water is shut off.”

Harris already had cameras suitable for the job: three mainline push camera systems by MyTana Mfg. Co., Inc. With five trucks at his disposal, he splits the fleet into units. Two trucks perform sewer and drain service while the other three handle excavation, pipe patching, and other repairs.

Like heart surgery
Harris’s first customer was a cardiac surgeon. He made the doctor an offer he couldn’t refuse by describing the lateral operation in terms of a medical procedure. “I quoted the doctor a price on replacing the lateral from the house to the sewer main,” says Harris. “As an option, I told him I could place a repair in the lateral, just like a stent is placed inside an artery, for one-third the cost without digging up his lawn.”

Seeing as it was his first CIPP job, he told the doctor that if he failed to complete the repair as promised, he would apply the fee to the cost of the excavation, making it a no-risk proposition. “Naturally, he was delighted with saving two-thirds by going with the CIPP repair,” says Harris.

He continues to offer a similar guarantee to all PipePatch clients: if the repair breaks down within 10 years, he’ll apply the full cost of the original repair to any additional work required.

Roto-Rooter is the only contractor offering CIPP for laterals in Berkshire County. Harris says that’s partly because the idea of undermining future root clearing work by offering a permanent repair or eliminating expensive lateral replacement contracts goes against the grain of traditionalists.

“That’s what initially turned me off the idea a little,” says Harris. “But you can’t look at it from that perspective. I may offer to replace a line for $10,000, but not everyone has the funds to take me up on those offers. Instead, I might be asked to just clear out the roots and hope for the best. If I offer to permanently clear up the problem for $3,000 or $4,000, I may get several contracts from people who now find the job affordable.”

Risks and benefits
Customers are empowered by choice, says Harris. He offers them all three services, pointing out the risks and benefits of each on a diagram he carries on a clipboard. There are no recriminations, regardless of their choices. “Part of our service is to educate the client,” says Harris. “Once they understand what’s being offered, they can decide what’s best for their circumstances.”

Lateral repairs now comprise about 20 percent of the business. That’s a benefit to the bottom line, but traditional drain work is still the company’s bread and butter. Harris is picking up CIPP contracts from competitors who are limited to cleaning or traditional replacement. Despite the popularity of trenchless repair, however, many clients still choose the more costly excavation.

“Our typical day isn’t all trenchless repair,” Harris says. “It’s full of emergency phone calls about backups in main lines or kitchens. We typically diagnose the problem, provide an estimate, and perform the work right there.”

The company also offers sewer jetting and septic tank service. In addition, Harris offers Title V inspection, named after Title V of the Massachusetts Environmental Code. That law requires an inspection of the subsurface sewage disposal system of any commercial or residential property before a transfer of ownership.

“The regulations require the owner to hire someone to repair or replace the system if any defects are found,” says Harris. “Typically, the owner wants to move the transaction along as quickly as possible, so we’re often in a good place to take on any repairs. With the real estate market as tight as it is, if we can bring the lines up to code for a reasonable price, it can mean the difference between a profitable sale and a loss.”

Expanding the roster
Harris says the company is so busy, he hasn’t yet advertised beyond traditional phone book exposure. He’s about to expand by adding plumbing, heating and air conditioning to the company service roster. “Some Roto-Rooter franchises already offer these services and we often get calls asking us to do them,” he says. “The additional services are being offered based on existing demand.”

With the added service and increased prospects for trenchless pipe repair, Harris plans major expansion within the decade. “I believe that, based on our reputation and by offering new services, we’ll double our business in 10 years,” he says. “While we expand what we do, new technology will allow us to be more profitable.”