Pennsylvania Contractor Makes Lateral Move Into Inflow and Infiltration

Pennsylvania Contractor Makes Lateral Move Into Inflow and Infiltration

Chris Carlin, left, founder and owner of C. Carlin Plumbing, and Tyler Sherman use a portable Quik-Shot system to invert a CIPP liner at a large commercial project.

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It’s not often a businessman has good things to say about new government regulations. But for Chris Carlin, owner of C. Carlin Plumbing in Erie, Pennsylvania, new ordinances that made Erie-area homeowners responsible for repairing their own sewer laterals thrust his company into a completely different — and more profitable — direction.

The ordinances went into effect during the mid-to-late 1990s as municipalities realized they couldn’t afford to fix all the inflow and infiltration issues plaguing thousands of aging lateral lines in the region. “They figured out there were a lot more miles of laterals than there were miles of sewer mainlines,” says Carlin, 54. “So they made homeowners responsible for laterals from the house to the main.

“That’s when homeowners started to need lateral inspections, so we bought a sewer camera,” he says. “That was the start of our I&I work.”

After realizing the immense potential in this niche, Carlin slowly steered his company in a U-turn away from new-construction plumbing and never looked back. Doing so required significant investments in drain cleaning machines and pipe rehabilitation technology.

“It starts with a camera, but then you need a jetter because you can’t get through tree roots to figure out the problem,” he says. “One thing definitely leads to another, but if you want to be in the business, you need all the equipment.”

Today, only about 10% of his company’s revenue comes from new-construction plumbing, while drain cleaning and sewer repairs generate another 50%. Plumbing service and repair work produces the remainder, he says.

“In this case, more regulations worked out pretty good for us — it created a whole new line of work,” he says.

Be ready to capitalize

Carlin’s story underscores the importance of remaining alert to changing market conditions and being among the first to adapt to those conditions. It also reflects the value of staying abreast of new technological advancements that increase productivity and profitability while providing customers with more convenient options for sewer repairs.

Take pipe lining, for instance, which C. Carlin Plumbing started doing in 2003. At that point, the company had been doing I&I work for about seven years, and Carlin was weary of busting big holes in concrete basement floors to repair pipes. As he wryly notes, “It was as close to being impossible as possible.”

All that changed when he attended the 2003 Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo, now known as the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show. It was there he bought a cured-in-place pipe lining system from Nu Flow Technologies.

“We were the first company in Erie to invest in this kind of equipment,” Carlin says.

Today, the company uses felt liners and a Quik-Shot liner-installation system from Pipe Lining Supply, as well as pipe lining equipment made by MaxLiner USA.

The company also owns a trailer water jetter made by O’Brien (a brand owned by Hi-Vac). It features a 300-gallon water tank and a Giant Industries water pump that generates pressure of up to 4,000 psi and flow of up to 20 gpm.

In addition, the business relies on a Vermeer V500 portable vacuum unit with a 300-gallon debris tank, 200-gallon water tank and vacuum pump made by McLaughlin; two Kubota mini-excavators; 10 RIDGID sectional drain cleaning machines of various sizes; two small RIDGID water jetters; and three RIDGID SeeSnake pipeline inspection cameras.

For service vehicles, the company runs two Ford Transits dedicated to drain cleaning and five Ford E-250 and E-350 cube vans with box bodies made by Unicell and Bay Bridge Mfg. Two Ford F-350 dump trucks with 1-ton dump bodies made by Air-Flo round out the vehicle fleet.

In addition, Carlin prefers hoses made by Piranha Hose Products and jetter nozzles made by NozzTeq.

Unusual career path

Carlin got into the plumbing industry in a roundabout way. His father was a teacher who painted homes during summers, and while working for his dad, they did some work for a plumber. The plumber liked Carlin’s work ethic and offered him a job.

“I had to think about it,” Carlin says. “But my dad told me that whatever I learned from plumbing would take me a lot further than anything I learned from painting. So I took the job.”

After about nine months, the owner of the company took Carlin aside and suggested that plumbing might not be a good career for him after all. “He told me I was too afraid to make mistakes,” Carlin says. “He said all mistakes could be fixed — that’s how you learn.”

After that, something clicked. Within six months, he was supervising a crew of technicians while doing his own service and repair work on the side. That continued for 11 years until Carlin decided to strike out on his own.

“I was making top dollar where I was at, but it was a time thing, not a money thing,” Carlin says. “I was doing too much work on the side because I just couldn’t say no. I was 30 years old and never home. I had 6-year-old daughter and my wife was pregnant.

“After I started my company, I was able to work 40 to 50 hours a week instead of 90 hours a week.”

Carlin figured his company would start out with a solid built-in client base thanks to all the work he’d done for years on the side. But he quickly discovered that customers weren’t willing to pay the higher rates he now had to charge to cover the more expensive overhead costs generated by his new company.

“That was a shocker,” he says. “I lost about 80% of my side customers because they liked my old price more than they liked me. But I generated new business through word-of-mouth referrals.”

The takeaway here? Carlin says if you treat people right and charge a fair rate and do a good job, word-of-mouth referrals will follow.

Diversification is key

Having all of the company’s eggs in the new-construction basket was a risky business model, so Carlin felt good about leaning in harder on drain cleaning, sewer inspections and pipe rehab.

His diversification effort got a boost when another municipality near Erie passed an ordinance requiring lateral inspections whenever a home is sold. That led to a profitable contract to perform lateral inspections for that municipality.

“Through the camera work, we act as the municipality’s eyes,” he says. “An inspector from the municipality has to be there on site with us when we do camera work. Customers pay the municipality, and then the municipality pays us.”

That arrangement also led to more sewer rehab work — mostly lining pipe if a home’s lateral flunked the inspection. “We started to pound out linings because in most cases, it’s cheaper than excavating,” Carlin says. “And we’re still pounding them out.”

About two years ago, two other companies entered the market for pipe rehabilitation. While it may sound counterintuitive, he says the competition is good because it raises consumer awareness about the options available.

“Sure, prices go down a bit with more competitors,” he says. “But I’ve been doing it a lot longer, which I believe gives us a little bit of an edge, with 17 years of experience as opposed to two. That’s a pretty easy sell for me. Plus, I can’t take every job that comes along.”

While getting into the pipe rehabilitation work before anyone else definitely gave Carlin a competitive advantage, he also firmly believes there is enough work for everyone if they treat customers fairly and do good work.

“I don’t have a problem with competition,” he says. “It actually brings me more calls because people want to compare bids.”

Follow the money

In the bigger picture, Carlin urges other plumbers to diversify and get into sewer inspections and rehab work. “You need to get a camera and get into I&I work,” he says. “The need for repairs isn’t going to go away.

“I also think more and more municipalities are going to start mandating lateral repairs. If you want steady work, this business is the way to go.”

Unlike many drain cleaners, Carlin doesn’t charge customers an extra fee to run a camera through a line. And he always gives customers a copy of the video that they can keep for future reference. He tells them that they can even show it to other contractors to get a repair bid.

“It shows customers we’re being honest with them, and they respect that,” he says. “Besides, if we put a camera in a line, we sell the job more than 50% of the time. We get a lot of work off of providing a second opinion for customers.”

As he looks back at his decision to get into I&I-related work, Carlin has no regrets. He finds it a fulfilling and gratifying career with almost unlimited potential for growth.

“I really like figuring things out — finding solutions to problems,” he says. “Problem-solving is my big thing. So many times we see customers who have had drain problems for a long time, and then we come in and offer them a permanent solution. I just love that challenge.”

Looking ahead, Carlin sees more growth, noting that awareness of the I&I industry is starting to take off. “The infrastructure is failing left and right, and we can’t keep up with it,” he says. “There’s a lot of work out there and a lot of money to be made.

“You can’t count on new-construction work to keep you busy all the time, but you can always count on drain cleaning and pipe rehab and repairs,” he says. “None of this is going away. The market is huge, and it’s only going to get bigger.”


Sticking to your strengths

Offering diversified services has been an essential part of C. Carlin Plumbing’s growth during the last 25 years. But not every foray into diversification was successful, according to owner Chris Carlin.

About 18 years ago, Carlin decided to add heating and cooling installations to the services provided by the Erie, Pennsylvania-based company. It seemed like a logical extension of the company’s plumbing installation, drain cleaning and pipe rehab services. Plus, Carlin owns several apartment buildings and was tired of calling in heating companies.

So he hired an experienced technician and an assistant, focusing them on heating installations in new buildings. “It was also nice to have someone on the payroll who could handle problems in my rental buildings,” he says.

Yet roughly six years later, he jettisoned the business and came away with a valuable business lesson: Stick to what you know best.

“It was a very painful experience,” he says. “An accountant once told me years ago that you should focus on what you do best and pay someone else to do the rest. That was excellent advice.

“My big mistake was getting into something about which I wasn’t fully knowledgeable,” he says. “Plus, if someone didn’t have heat on a weekend, someone had to go in and take care of it, and that person usually was me. It was a lose-lose situation for me. I was not making any money, and I was working more on weekends. I was already doing that for plumbing calls.”

Eventually, he laid off the two employees. “Everything then fell on me, which I didn’t have time for,” he says. “I didn’t want to look for another technician, so I shut things down. If you can’t make money at something, there’s no use in doing it.”

Carlin says he still has several thousand dollars’ worth of sheet metal, equipment and other materials in his shop that remind him of the failed venture. But in the end, he chalks it all up to nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“If I made money on every venture I tried, I’d be a rich man,” he says. “You can’t win them all, but you can certainly try.”



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