Drain inspection and cleaning… the future of the industry?

Drain inspection and cleaning… the future of the industry?

The drain snake has stood many a drain cleaning plumber in good stead through the years and to a large extend still does. Technology however, continues to make leaps and bounds to give greater functionality. Deborah Andrich reports.

For plumbers looking to build their business into new areas, drain inspection and cleaning is becoming a growth market thanks to new equipment that eliminates the need to dig.

The market offers a range of products, known as ‘see it, clear it’ technology, suited to those starting out in the business through to plumbers working on high-end commercial or government contracts.

There are therefore variations between the product types, as well as training and safety considerations.

The use of drain cameras in inspections enables plumbers to pinpoint problem areas and uncover the blockage quickly and efficiently. These cameras range from basic push versions through to state-of-the-art cameras that are self-levelling and feature software that can save the data with GPS markers and reports for the client.  Some also have the ability to record audio notes.

Once the problem has been identifi ed, there are two schools of thought on how the drain can best be cleaned – either by water jetters or water cutters. Both of these have pros and cons.

Knowing there is a blockage is one thing, but determining where it is and what caused it is another.

Drain inspection tools range from a push camera mounted on a hose reel with a simple inspection monitor to a high resolution, self-leveling camera (so you always know which way is ‘up’) that takes video and images that can be manipulated to generate reports for clients and shared via WiFi or Bluetooth for instant consultation.

For smaller, shorter pipelines such as toilets and under sinks, the use of a push camera with a sonde may resolve the cause of the blockage without the need for high-end inspection equipment. In sewer systems where broken pipes or tree roots may be the issue, larger cameras attached to a product such as the Ridgid SeeSnake may be sufficient. For larger pipelines up to 1,500mm, a submersible tractormounted camera from SECA represents an opportunity to tender for larger government projects.

“The range of inspection equipment available on the market is enormous and driven mostly by application and price,” says Sewer Equipment Company (Aust) (SECA) managing director Mark Quealy.

“Push cameras have been in the market for at least 25 years and are now a standard tool. Ultimately, the difference between a good camera system and a poor one is the service and support. Any company that prides itself on camera technology will offer repairs, training and support for the product they sell. Sewer inspection and cleaning will never go out of business; no one wants to stop spending money on removing sewerage.”

The camera technology is relatively straightforward – it is in the interpretation and communication of the image that the smarts come in.

The simplest inspection monitor is a visual display of what the camera is seeing. For some, this is enough to identify the blockage. If needed, some plumbers are happy enough to take a photo with a smart phone of the display to send to the client or add to a hard copy report.

However, should the location of the blockage be required, geographic information system (GIS) and GPS capabilities may be handy. Supporting software can identify the GPS location, add it to the report of the blockage and link to GIS mapping for clients such as local government and linked to asset identification.

“If you know that between two manholes that have local government asset numbers there is a blockage then the software can add those details to the report to give to council, which can then be overlayed with other asset information such as services and businesses,” says Mark.

A useful tool for determining the location of the blockage is a locator. Designed to pick up the frequency generated by the sonde on the push camera, the locator scans the length of the pipe aboveground, receiving the sonde’s signal to indicate the site of the blockage. A transmitter with a locator can be used to assess electrical/data or gas lines by setting the frequency to map the target line. However, this method has its limitations if it is unclear where the pipe actually goes, but can be useful for ‘dial before you dig’ assessments.

At the higher end of the market, monitors can offer remote control functionality to direct the camera’s orientation or to convert the images into a two dimensional image that effectively ‘flatten’ the pipe. In addition, many offer the ability to store images and video, generate reports, offers audio note recording capabilities and save to USB or give WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. It won’t be long before Cloud-based data storage is available.

“Using a smart phone to take a photo of the monitor has its limitations,” says Ridgid general manager Joe Aquilina. “If it is sunny or poor light, the photo is going to be poor at best. It also doesn’t give you any information that will determine where the blockage is, whereas with mapping capabilities that can be supplied.

“Increasingly, more clients are looking for images to show that the blockage has been cleared. Having an image and report that shows the before and after, particularly in sites where hygiene is a factor, such as healthcare and food processing, it is important to show that the lines are clear. We have seen instances where a blockage has occurred several weeks after handover to the client, only to fi nd that the pipes had not been fl ushed through and a build up of tiling slurry had hardened and blocked the pipes. A quick check before handover would have prevented the blockage and inconvenience to the home owner.”

There are two main methods of cleaning out a blockage – water jetting and drain snakes.

Drain snakes operate by pushing a steel cable with a cutting head attached to cut through the obstruction. In drum format or sectional, many suppliers provide a cable length of 60m with the option of a further 60m. The cutters are available in a multitude of formats depending on the type of blockage – roots, grease, toilet waste, calcium build-up or garbage disposal.

The rotation of the cable turns the cutter to pretty well cut through anything in its path. The downside of this method is that should the cable move around the pipe, there is a risk that the cutter can chip, cut or damage the pipe itself.

Most drain snakes are configured in a ‘drum machine’ – essentially the cable is coiled into a covered reel to make it easier to transport. The limitation for many is the need to be powered by mains supply and the need for some form of trolley to transport around the jobsite. Relative newcomer to the plumbing market, Milwaukee has gone one step further on the convenience factor with a ‘commitment to cutting the power cord’ approach.

Known for battery-operated hand tools, Milwaukee uses a 5A lithium ion battery to power a ‘portable’ drum machine drain snake. The whole unit has been kitted out in a ‘back pack’ format to remove the need for trolleys and light enough to allow for work health and safety weight limitations.

“The functionality of the Milwaukee drum machine is the same as any power-cord based offering, it just gives more flexibility in terms of getting to more diffi  cult locations,” says Milwaukee digital marketing manager Ayman Harrak.

“We have put a lot of thought into the ergonomics of the drain snake to ensure the plumber is safely using and transporting the unit.”

The other option is the water jetter.

Essentially a high pressure water hose, the cutting action is provided by pressurising water from a pump to blast a hole through the blockage. Depending on the design of the nozzle, the size of the ‘hole’ can be varied. For some drain cleaning plumbers, this hole does not always clean out the full blockage, only a portion of it.

The effectiveness of either method is based mostly on user skill.

The cutters are based on circular shaped metal rings with differing heads for various cutting applications. The nozzles for water jetters, however, are a lot more complex.

Mustang Nozzles are Australian owned by well-known drain cleaning expert Bill Miller. A plumber for more than 20 years, Bill started out as a drain cleaner, but thanks to his a love of designing plumbing equipment to improve drain cleaning, he soon developed his own range of jetters and nozzles.

The motor mechanism for the drain snakes is pretty basic, but for jetters, pumps generate the high water pressures. The propulsion is derived from the pressure of the water through the hose and nozzle. The cutting action is achieved by having forward- or rear-facing jets in the tip of the nozzle or a combination of both. Outward pressure, dependent on the size of the pump, can reach as much as 5,000psi.

Aussie Pumps, a principal supplier of pumps for water jetters, has developed a range of pump jetter setups to suit a variety of applications.

Aussie Pumps manager Warwick Lorenz says the confi guration between pressure and flow rate will determine the water jetter application. Using principally Honda or Briggs & Stratton Vanguard pumps, Aussie Pumps has worked with industry to create portable units through to trailer-mount water jetter systems.

“Safety with water jetters is a primary concern for plumbers,” says Warwick.

“The units should be supplied with emergency stops; cut outs should the levels in the water tank become too low, cradles to safely mount the jetter in a van, ute or trailer. Even elements such as which way the exhaust points and access to the rear of the unit should it be mounted in a van need to be considered.”

Water jetters are regarded as high pressure devices and their safe use is defi ned under AS/NZS4233.1:2013 based on the machine’s rated pressure (bar) and flow (litres per minute).

In essence, there are two classes of pressure washers and jetting equipment – Class A units are applicable to operators of machines between 800 bar lpm and 5,600 bar lpm. Class B is for units above 5,600 bar lpm.

“A 300 bar lpm rating is equivalent to about a 4,300psi 15lpm machine, putting it in the Class A category,” says Warwick.

“In order to be a qualified operator, you must undergo a training program that includes danger awareness, site safety, machinery stop controls, hose and equipment inspection and PPE awareness.

“Class B operators need to be assessed through a registered training organisation (RTO) to show that they are competent in using the unit. The training includes system operation and safety, understanding of pressurised water jet hazards, nozzle selection and operation, component compatibility and safe operation (including body positioning). In addition, a refresher course is needed every two years.”

For Warwick, the biggest concern is access to the training courses to be qualified as a Class B operator and consequently he is working with industry to resolve the issue.

Personal safety is a big issue for the water jetting industry, with Mark, Joe and Bill having seen some horrific injuries to operators when a hose and nozzle under pressure has become wayward from the pipe or manhole.

Products such as shrouds, high pressure rated PPE and partially opening manhole covers have all contributed to the overall safety, but all four companies offer training or online videos on best practice operating procedures.

For most suppliers in the industry, connectivity between inspection tools and cleaning equipment is an integral part of the product offering.

Whether you are just starting out or looking toward higher-end contracts, the drain cleaning plumber will need inspection and cleaning tools as part of their standard kit. The key to understanding what tools you need is to understand your application – whether it is small domestic, septic or sewer and water mains. The next step is to be realistic about budget.

“Knowing what tools you need is part of the service provided by many suppliers in the Australian industry,” says Joe.

“If you are starting out, we look at what jobs you are likely to be doing and find a product solution that is right for you and your budget. If the jobs require more technology then we can look to upgrade components of the solution.”

“Whatever size operation you have, it is important that quality products are used to give the best results and prevent personal injury,” says Bill.

“Poor quality nozzles and hoses for example can explode and injure the operator. When you buy cheap parts you are taking a big risk. You also need to be sure you know how to safely operate the equipment.”

Mark adds that service and support are an important aspect of the buying decision, in that an off-the-shelf hardware supplier is unlikely to offer service should the camera go down or the pump needs servicing. When demand for drain cleaning continues to be a growth market, plumbers can’t afford to have long down times due to poor service and support from the supplier.

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