Becoming the plumbers’ plumber

December 23, 2015

In 49 states, especially in booming regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, the construction-related job outlook is strong and rising. Only Hawaii has missed out so far on the industry boom according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report this spring. With plenty of work to go around, the market may be a ripe time for plumbers to consider either expanding their services to include trenchless plumbing installation and rehabilitation techniques or even converting to specializing in its methods. 

Specialization turned out to be exactly the right move for plumber Juan Diaz, founder of TrenchFree in San Jose, California. TrenchFree offers the Bay Area’s historic landscapes and architecture several non-invasive plumbing alternatives such as earth-piercing, pipe bursting, horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and cured-in-place-pipe (CIPP) rehabilitation. 

Although market opportunity was important, it was not the only factor responsible for TrenchFree’s success. Those who have worked with Diaz said it has more to do with his high expectations and his drive to achieve them. Diaz himself, however, credits his company’s trusted reputation and full work calendar to buying only the most reliable tools and finding exactly the right employees.

Before Diaz founded TrenchFree, he worked 12 years on commission for a traditional full-service plumbing contractor. The job kept him busy in the Bay Area doing everything from fixing leaky faucets to open-trench sewer replacements. He learned right away that renting equipment dug deep into his commissions. Owning his own tools and machinery not only increased his take-home pay but increased equipment availability and reliability, since he carefully evaluated which brands made most sense to buy, those most cost-effective, reliable, and easy to maintain. 

“I ended up owning more tools than the company I was working for,” Diaz said. He even worked out a deal with his employer to increase his commission if he worked from his own truck. Equipped with these essentials, in 2007 he struck out on his own, establishing JD Plumbing as a one-man service provider. 

Lateral waterline repair and installation were back-breaking work for him. “It was all pick and shovel when I began. So the first time I saw a pneumatic piercing tool, I fell in love with that thing.” He checked various brands before deciding on a 2 ½-inch HammerHead® Mole®. “HammerHead’s manufacturer support is unbelievable,” Diaz said. “They’re great guys to work with.” 

The Mole catapulted him into trenchless specialties. Only one month in, he hired his first employee, Ramiro Guzman, whom Diaz refers to as “best Mole man in the world.” But choosing the right people would not be as easy as selecting equipment. “I learned right away that some of the guys who were trained really well as plumbers didn’t have the mindset required for trenchless work,” Diaz said. 

Trenchless work requires out-of-the box thinking, little “tricks,” Diaz explained, that are not taught in certification classes but learned through improvisation or passed along by word-of-mouth. Diaz learned to audition candidates, finding the talent he needed. “I'm very proud and thankful to all of my employees, my coworkers. Their great effort everyday makes this company achieve greatness on every project for our clientele.”

One example of unique trenchless problem-solving is how TrenchFree learned to use a Mole to create the cable hole for its HammerHead PortaBurst® PB30 Gen 2 static pipe bursting machines. Larger static pipe bursting machines use pull rods to draw a pipe bursting head through existing pipe. The compact PB30, however, uses a cable that must be fed from the pulling unit to the bursting head and product pipe at the other end of the run. Before getting his first Ditch Witch® horizontal drilling machine, Diaz installed countless short runs of new laterals with his PB30 by first creating a path for the cable with his Mole. 

Diaz now has two Ditch Witch HDD machines, which give him more than enough reach for even his longest installations. “But it’s just more convenient sometimes on the shorter ones or those in confined spaces, to use our PB30. We know lots of tricks like this, since we’ve been at this a long time now. Our years of experience made us trenchless experts.” 

For the past four years Diaz has been getting his HammerHead equipment and supplies through Ditch Witch of California, a full line HammerHead dealer. A Charles Machine Works company itself, Ditch Witch is a sister company to HammerHead Trenchless Equipment. Diaz is such a fan of the two manufacturers that he has a photo of himself with Ditch Witch founder Edwin Malzahn, son of Charles Machine Works founder Charles Malzahn and grandfather of the company’s current Chair of the Board, Tiffany Sewell-Howard. 

Diaz said, “Both HammerHead and Ditch Witch require very little maintenance. The trenchless world needs low-maintenance tools.”

He auditions his new-hires by putting them in the ground on Mole work right away, to see how they take to it. From the Mole they can graduate through pipe bursting, horizontal directional drilling (HDD) and cured-in-place-pipe (CIPP) rehabilitation – “But only if they’re ready and want new challenges,” Diaz said. “No one working for TrenchFree can complain of boredom.” 

Advancement opportunity is not the only reason Diaz has people lining up to work for TrenchFree. Another is a predictable, scheduled workweek. Diaz explained that although, like any plumbing company, they respond to emergency calls, his crews can generally expect to be home every evening and spend their weekends with their families. 

“Family is very important,” said Diaz, happily married for 16 years and father of three children. “I have the gift of being able to hang it up at the end of the day and be solely for them. I want my crew to be able to do the same.” 

Diaz doesn’t worry that he’s giving his men opportunity to become his competitors: “Actually, there’s plenty of trenchless work to go around. It’s the reason we finally had to stop accepting traditional plumbing work. If my guys want to grow, want something bigger for themselves as I myself did, I totally support them in that.”

Diaz believes TrenchFree and other trenchless providers have penetrated less than 7 percent of this region’s current market needs, and as the Bay Area’s historic buildings continue to age, the number of trenchless jobs will only continue to rise. “I just sold one of my bursting tools to a guy I guess you might call one of my closest competitors. At first that looks like I’m giving away my advantage. But no, I am actually smarter to sell it to him. See, I make a little money from someone doing trenchless work I couldn’t get to anyway.”

TrenchFree enjoys a good rapport with many of the other plumbing contractors, some of which, having their hands full with traditional plumbing jobs, call on TrenchFree rather than expand into trenchless work themselves. “You could say we’re the ‘plumber’s plumber,’” Diaz said. “They know who to call when they’re in a fix.” 

The implicit trust other contractors have in TrenchFree still catches him off guard from time to time. “We have had jobs where, when we showed up, the contractors on site said, ‘TrenchFree is here!’ and then they just left. See, they trust we know what we’re doing so they are comfortable turning their work over to us.”

TrenchFree had just finished a CIPP rehabilitation for a museum that some contractors had already turned down as too difficult. Impending failure of the museum’s 40-foot vertical runs of fully enclosed roof drain pipes threatened not only the historic building but its precious antiquities. Four 90-degree bends complicated each run. One contractor said he might attempt CIPP if he were allowed to expose the four elbows. Diaz shook his head: “What’s the point then? CIPP is so you don’t need to open them.” 

TrenchFree’s use of CIPP created a permanent solution by integrating the existing pipe with resin-impregnated felt liners to form composite pipes of the pipe in place without the need to expose it. Activity at the museum was never disrupted, because TrenchFree crews worked from its rooftop. The technique saved the museum from an expensive, complex demolition and restoration. Its new composite pipes are stronger than the original pipes and will last long into the future. 

It was also a quick job. Diaz said, “The runs inverted within, like, not even 10 seconds. It went so fast.” A few hours of curing time under 10 psi of ambient air, and the pipes were done. 

Although word has spread far and wide about TrenchFree’s alternatives to traditional line plumbing, the results are still incredible to some customers. For instance, recent CIPP performed by TrenchFree on 120 feet of 6-inch sewer line for a national hotel chain saved the customer at least a quarter-million dollars by using CIPP. A good portion of the main lay beneath the hotel’s kitchen. To remove the freezers, sinks and stoves and tear up the floor would have shut down the kitchen in addition to one-fourth of the hotel’s rooms behind the kitchen for four months. 

Having no experience with CIPP method, the hotel was at first so skeptical that Diaz almost didn’t get the job. Instead of four months, TrenchFree completed the job with CIPP in two days. The results convinced the chain’s management to retain TrenchFree for future work, including another 300 feet of sewer line in another section of the first hotel and upcoming 8- and 10-inch sewer main rehabilitations in other franchise locations.  

TrenchFree has grown in just eight years from a one-person, one-truck, one-Mole plumbing company to a specialty contractor with a 20-man field staff, two Ditch Witch 922 horizontal directional drills, an air compressor fleet, high-tech cameras and electronic pipe locators, two HammerHead Portaburst PB30 pipe bursting tools, mini excavators, dump trucks, trailers and multiple service trucks. 

In spite of this, Diaz said it’s still his humble little Mole jobs that make payroll. “The money we make from the bigger, more complex job seems as though it’s gone before it gets here. It gets invested in the company and in new projects. But Mole work, that’s our daily bread. Those little projects are a steady revenue stream for us.” 

TrenchFree crews finally wore out the first Mole Diaz purchased: “They broke it right in half – but you have to understand that was after five years of day-in, day-out, all-day running.” 

Diaz keeps the Mole in his office as a tribute. “I can’t part with my first Mole. No way. Not after all she has done for me.” 

Kevin Campbell, Ditch Witch Californian sales rep, has worked with Diaz for years. Although he’d like to say anyone who uses Ditch Witch equipment would do as well as Diaz, he said Diaz has a knack for successful use of both traditional and modern business tools that cannot be overlooked. “He has a gift for making the most of digital media in advertising and networking. He definitely hit on a market-friendly name for the company – TrenchFree – but he’s also done the legwork to get the name out there, learning how to expertly use social networking techniques.” 

Campbell said: “I’ve known maybe 20 contractors personally who’ve reached Juan’s legendary status. Each started out small but would tackle jobs that others were afraid of, and commit themselves to getting it done no matter what. Juan is like them. He is a passionate, active, hands-on guy, who works side-by-side with his crews. Most importantly, he picks up the phone when you call. He’s no small plumber anymore, but he’s still just as accessible as he always was, and that’s how he and his crew have earned their reputation as the plumber’s plumbers.”