Technology Drives Drain Inspections
The plumber wants to do the job right so that his reputation stays intact and he doesn't have to make a follow-up visit to fix a problem he should have known about on the first visit.
That's where drain inspection equipment becomes a lifesaver for plumbers.
Today's generation of drain inspection equipment-cameras and locators-offers plumbers the least intrusive way of scoping out a drain problem and pinpointing its location without unnecessary digging or fumbling around.
Marty Silverman, marketing director for General Wire Spring Co. in McKees Rock, Pa., said when his company first got into the business of manufacturing drain cameras, only about half of the units were sold with locators on them. These days, that figure has skyrocketed to 95 percent.
"Cameras are the hottest thing going for plumbing contractors because they're an equalizer," Silverman said. "The old-time plumbing contractor had a good guess about what was happening below the ground but the new plumber didn't have that experience. Now every plumbing contractor can see the same thing under the ground."
General Wire Spring, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, makes the Gen-Eye3 system that is available in a standard unit to handle drain lines from 3- to 10 inches in diameter, and a mini unit for 1.5- to 4-inch drains.
The standard Gen-Eye 3 is available with push rods in lengths of 200, 300 and 400 feet, while the mini will take either 100 or 200 feet of push rods.
Both units are available in either color or black & white.
"We have a transmitter built into our unit, but instead of it being built inside the spring, we put it into the command module where the monitor is located," Silverman said. "We use a 3-watt transmitter rather than the industry standard of 1 watt because the stronger signal is easier to find."
Ron Perez, the owner of Reychole Plumbing in Napa, Calif., works with several new home builders, inspecting drain lines before a new house is turned over to a homeowner.
"I'm always amazed at the kinds of stuff we find in drain lines of new houses that haven't even been lived in yet," Perez said. "And I've been in business 20 years."
During the course of a drain inspection, Perez once found an 8 inch long two-by-four in a drain line between the house and the street connection.
"That's not the kind of thing we usually find down there," he added. "Normally, stucco, gravel, stones, paint, pieces of tile and tile grout are the kinds of materials we find in the drain lines. They usually are introduced into the lines through the cleanouts, which often are uncapped during construction."
Or, he added, sometimes the cleanouts are broken off by grading tractors, or smashed by a carpenter's skylift. In any case, the drain line is then exposed to allow debris to get into the pipe.
Perez said the builders only want his company to snake out the drain lines to be sure they're clear, but snaking doesn't do much from his point of view.
"A snake might get by an obstruction, so we use a Gen-Eye unit and make a video of the pipe inspection," he said. "With the video, we can show that everything is clear from the end of the line to the street where it connects with the municipal sewer system."
Perez gives the videotape to the builder, who passes it on to the new homeowner as proof of the clear drain line.
Scott Aiello, director of marketing for drain cleaning and diagnostic products at the Ridge Tool Company in Elyria, Ohio, pointed out that the markets for drain pipe inspection and location have grown substantially in recent years.
"When we first launched our SeeSnake technology about ten years ago, most plumbers would only use the camera if they were paid to do so by the customer," Aiello said. "Today plumbers use the SeeSnake and our NaviTrack locator to sell other services like jetting or bacteria and enzyme-based products. Also, if a line is collapsed, broken or bellied, the plumber can easily sell the repair job."
Sold under the Ridgid brand, the SeeSnake comes in various models to inspect from 1.25 inch to 12 inch drain lines. The standard SeeSnake will handle drains from 2 to 12 inches in diameter and has cable lengths of 200 and 325 feet. The unit is available in both color and black & white, as well as with a self-leveling camera head that can rotate within its shell so the video picture is always upright.
Ridgid's mini SeeSnake handles lines from 1.25 to 6 inches in diameter and comes with 200 feet of cable. Its camera head diameter is one inch for the black & white model and 1.125 inches for the color version. The standard SeeSnake camera head is 1.375 inches in diameter.
"What sets these units apart in the marketplace is their maneuverability," Aiello pointed out. "We have a very small, compact camera that can get into tight spots and provide very good picture quality. It's also very durable, which is something many of our customer cite. Cameras that are always up and running will make money for plumbers."
Chris Griffin, owner of Sewerline Check Professionals in Sunland, Calif., typically has three inspectors each doing about 15 residential and commercial sewer line checks every day.
"Most of our business comes from the real estate industry where people who are purchasing a home want to find out the condition of the main sewer line before they buy," Griffin said. "We've had some interesting things happen out on some of those jobs."
For instance, the city of Beverly Hills switched over to its main sewer system in the 1950s, Griffin noted, but some houses in the city are still connected to cesspools.
"Because of the subdivision of properties, some of those cesspools aren't even on the original property," he added. "And sewer connection fees in the greater Los Angeles area can be quite expensive."
Griffin finds that root infestation and earthquake damage are two of the leading causes of blockages in some of the 60 to 80-year-old cast iron and clay piping systems that his inspectors see.
"Often a plumber will be called out to clear a root blockage and he won't use a camera to inspect the line," Griffin said. "The plumber clears the blockages and the line drains. Later we get called in and use the SeeSnake only to find that there's also a broken pipe in the line, which means environmental problems of mixing contaminated sewer water with ground water."
Another problem that some Californians have encountered is a sewer lateral that runs under a city street.
"Most homeowners aren't aware that the lateral that goes from their house to the saddle connection of the main city sewer line is their responsibility," Griffin said. "Some streets here have been expanded from one to three lanes, which means the laterals may be under the new street area."
Repairs to laterals can be costly, he pointed out, citing an average lateral repair running between $10,000 and $15,000 for a two bedroom, one bath structure.
"But I have seen lateral repair costs go as high as $80,000," he added.
Griffin estimated that 90 percent of the sewer lines that he's inspected in the greater Los Angeles area have some kind of problem, either with roots or needing another type of repair.
"When a plumber runs a snake down a line, he's guessing when he hits something," Griffin said. "With a camera, there's no guesswork. Plus with the locator, you know exactly where the problem is."
Another advantage for homeowners is that a camera is much less intrusive, Griffin noted.
"We can get into the line by removing the toilet from the floor, or through a main sewer line cleanout, or even by removing a rooftop vent," he said. "I've never had a job where I couldn't get into the drain line."
Many plumbers want the active participation of a homeowner when they're on a job, according to David Burritt, wholesale sales manager for Speedway Drain Cleaning Products in Bridgeport, N.J.
"A plumber wants the owner of the building leaning over his shoulder and seeing what he sees on the monitor," Burritt said. "They then can make an immediate decision as to what way to proceed. Video inspection is one of the best pieces of equipment to come along in our business in a long time."
Burritt noted that when a plumber tries to clear an obstruction, he's only operating by feel.
"The plumber may have a good guess as to what the obstruction is, but he won't know until he retrieves it or flushes it into a manhole and inspects it," Burritt said. "With video inspection, you can put a camera down there and see what the problem it, whether it be a crushed line, a belly in the line or something flushed down the line."
Speedway offers its standard Speedy-Cam to handle lines from 4 to 8 inches in diameter. The unit is available in both color and black & white, and the color unit can be had with a self-leveling camera head. Push cable length is available up to 300 feet.
Speedway's micro camera system handles drains from 1.5 to 3 inches. For drains 8 inches or larger, Speedway has a tracked vehicle with a camera that tilts and pans to inspect the entire interior of the drain line.
Transmitters are available on the standard units, although an optional transmitter can be strapped onto a micro unit if necessary. Speedway also offers a digital locator to track the transmitter.
Burritt believes that video inspection equipment can be a revenue generator for plumbing contractors.
"They can charge between $125 and $150 an hour for the unit and have new work knocking their doors down," he said. "And often other plumbers who don't have camera units will contract with a plumber with video inspection equipment. Many plumbers with cameras get work from their competitors."
He added that a lot of plumbers don't charge customers for the video inspection itself, but use it as a method to get the repair work and bury the cost of the video inspection in the repair job charge.
"Quite a few plumbing contractors are keenly aware of the opportunities to be had with video inspection," Burritt said. "They know how it makes them more professional looking and gives them a more complete service capability."
Frank D'Andrea, CEO of Ratech Electronics Ltd. in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, said Ratech is one of the oldest companies in North America manufacturing video inspection equipment for pipes.
Ratech, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, offers products in the Plumber's Mate, Plumber's Helper Jr. and Plumber's Elite categories that reflect different systems based on a plumber's budget and needs.
The standard system will handle from 2- to 10-inch diameter pipes, while Ratech's micro camera, with a .75-inch head diameter, will do a 4-inch straight pipe or larger pipes with multiple bends.
"The Plumber's Elite Duo system is one of our newest products that has a VCR and DVD recorder in the unit," D'Andrea said. "It will record inspections in pipes from 2 to 10 inches in diameter."
Most of Ratech's systems have standard features like built in microphones for voice over, AC/DC power, a keyboard for typing onscreen, eight pages of memory for comments, and on onscreen distance counter.
"Our most popular unit is the Elite DVD with a 160 gigabyte hard drive and a 15-inch LCD high-resolution monitor," D'Andrea said. "It comes in a briefcase-styled case which is compact and extremely portable. With the DVD recorder and flat screen monitor, the unit is very impressive to customers onsite."
The system also has a self-leveling camera, which D'Andrea said is one of its most popular features, along with a waterproof, foldable keyboard.
Drain inspection technology is sure to continue to develop, and plumbers have some ideas of their own about what direction should be taken with the systems.
"I would love to see a camera head with an integrated cutting blade on it," Griffin said. "When we're inspecting a root mass, we'd like to be able to cut through it and finish examining the line. Often we'll get 50 feet into a drain line and hit a root mass that we can't get by in order to view the rest of the line."
Griffin said he also would like to see a small tractor device for use in 4-inch drain lines, much like the ones that are used in 10-inch or larger lines.
Perhaps Aiello's view of drain inspection technology sums up best.
"A picture is still worth a thousand words," he said. "A camera and a locator will always help a plumber do the job better, faster and with increased profits."