Pump Force

Sept. 1, 2006
The world is full of opposing forces: predator and prey, light and dark, yin and yang. Not surprisingly, rental center operators often deal with the push

The world is full of opposing forces: predator and prey, light and dark, yin and yang. Not surprisingly, rental center operators often deal with the push and pull demands of the pump rental business: customer and employee, supply and demand, debt and profit. One of the interesting dichotomies of rental is that it can be quite technical — determining precise specifications to prescribe the right equipment, for example — while it is also a people-oriented, face-to-face business. The forces of nature also play a role in pump rental. When it rains too much, pumps are used to take water away; when it rains too little, pumps may be required to get water where it is needed.

While much of the pump rental business must be operated like an exact science — with the laws of physics playing a key role — the actual size of the market is a very large, very gray area. Even the pump pros are unable to give any real estimates on its size with any degree of accuracy.

“I'm not even sure that I could get within $100 million dollars,” says Shane Walsh, division vice president of Houston-based Andress-Walsh, which specializes in pump rental and distribution. “It's so hard to say because there are some markets that are $5 million and there are some markets that are $20 million. And there's a whole lot in between.”

With a market that stretches all the way to New Orleans, Andress-Walsh has seen a lot of activity, ranging from much-needed upgrade projects to the development of new subdivisions. Bill Thompson, president of Port Orange, Fla.-based Thompson Pump says the future is bright for pump products because of increasing demand and the expanding number of applications in which they can be used. With a growing population, new infrastructure projects, demand for infrastructure improvements, rising expectations related to environmental and remediation matters, and natural disasters always a possibility, the demand for pump expertise isn't going away.

Degrees of pumps

Rental centers need to know their territories inside and out in order to decide on the degree to which they should be involved in pump rentals. Thompson says that to compete seriously in the large, portable pump business, rental houses must assess the typical applications in their areas and collaborate with pump manufacturers to define the appropriate models for those jobs. If the territory is deeply entwined in mining, or the rental center caters to petrochemical plants or refineries, the mix of pumps in the fleet must reflect those demographics. And that's just the beginning.

“With each pump rental, there is typically a requirement for hoses, piping systems, fittings, manifolds, tanks,” Thompson says. “The end-users expect to have one source for both the pumps and the support items.”

Contractors and customers go to the experts, both the general rental centers and the specialized pump suppliers, to get the best pumps for the job. Just because one pump will accomplish a job doesn't mean it's the best pump for the application.

“The pump business is not easy,” says Joe Abbott, national sales manager for Bridgeport, N.J.-based Godwin Pumps. “A lot of people try and pretend that, ‘Oh, it's just like running a backhoe.’ It really is not. Every contractor plans to have a dry job. And one of the things I've learned is that you don't put a pump on a site because it looks pretty. You want it to do a job.”

Most general rental centers are involved in pump rentals to some extent. These rental houses carry basic pumps, small portable pumps, and basic dewatering pumps to service general contractors and general construction applications. Steven Spence, water pump product manager for Multiquip, says that the inventory of a general rental facility will vary depending on the demand and the market, but he recommends a few staples: a couple of submersible pumps, 2- and 3-inch centrifugal pumps, 2- and 3-inch trash pumps and at least one or two diaphragm pumps. From there, a rental center can branch into smaller or even larger pumps if needed.

The more specialized markets typically require a high level of engineering, involvement, setup and maintenance from the rental company. Experts agree that rental companies should not jump into pumps unless they are willing to put a substantial amount of effort and money into it.

“You have to be willing to focus on it and do nothing else but that,” says Walsh. “You can have one guy that can push generators and light towers and backhoes and air compressors and that kind of thing, but it takes a lot of focus — more than most companies are willing to put on pump rental — for it to be successful.”

Thompson agrees. “Knowledge alone will not get the job done,” he says. “In order to be effective in pump rentals, serious commitments must be made: a substantial financial investment; dedicated, specialized and trained personnel; vehicles; suitable facilities; specialized ancillary equipment; and appropriate policies and procedures.”

Busy or bored?

Most businesses have busy seasons when it seems there aren't enough hours in the day to complete every task. Unfortunately, there is also the typical downtime that inevitably occurs. The pump business is no different: It sees extreme demand during rainy seasons, hurricanes and floods and less demand during drought.

Marc Leupi, product manager utility for Menomonee, Wis.-based Wacker, says that the utilization rates of pumps tend to be a function of the weather. “They certainly get used in construction for groundwater seepage control and things like that, but absent that, if there isn't rain, they're not really going to get used a lot and if they're not getting utilized their rate of return goes down. But conversely, if there's a lot of rain, you get a wet year, and pumps are on rental a lot, you're going to make a lot of money.”

Of course, certain applications know no season, but weather does affect many pumping applications. Last year's season had pumps traveling south in a hurry to help with cleanup and recovery after Hurricane Katrina.

“Our company has never experienced anything quite like it,” Walsh says. “I'm not sure that any pump rental company has ever experienced anything quite like it. I was in New Orleans just a couple of days after the storm, and if you rented pumps in the United States, you had pumps in New Orleans.”

Godwin Pumps, with 24 rental locations in North America, was able to pull pumps from different locations to meet emergency needs during the critical time. Abbott, who was on call Labor Day weekend last year, sent out about 80 pieces of equipment over the holiday weekend. On a normal weekend, the company would supply one or two pumps. Kyle Horgan, senior operations manager, Pump & Power for Charlotte, N.C.-based Sunbelt Rentals, says that pump providers must be able to service customers as well after a storm as they do before a storm, which typically requires extra manpower. Sunbelt was able to call on employees from around the country to come into affected areas to deal with the high demand.

Heavy rain and flooding have avoided Lawrence, Kan., this year, so Anderson Rentals' owner and president, Bill Anderson, hasn't seen a lot of pump action in his general rental center. The company doesn't offer anything larger than a 6-inch pump, but does have trash pumps, dewatering pumps and electric submersibles. In a rainy year, Anderson orders pumps and hoses as often as once a quarter, but this year he hasn't ordered a single pump or hose. “When it's raining we never have enough, and today I wish I didn't have any because they're just taking up space,” he says.

But just because pump rentals have been slow doesn't mean Anderson isn't always prepared to help in emergency situations. Because Lawrence is home to a large university, the rental center has to be able to react quickly. “We keep our pumps mothballed pretty much all the time, which means we winterize them, even this summer, so that we get the gas, the fuel out of them,” Anderson says. “We keep them ready because they can be in such demand so quickly.”

Having a wide mix of pumps, primarily engine-driven, that are well-maintained, fueled up and ready to go, along with the right accessories and hoses is key, according to Wacker's Leupi. Pump rental companies should have a plan of attack for emergency situations. In case of natural disasters, advance warning of the impending storm can help in better preparation.

“The first step is to anticipate the requirements in the event of a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a flood,” Thompson says. “The second step is to designate and train the response team, and the third step is to acquire and position the equipment and vehicles out of harm's way but readily available for deployment.”

Logistical demands vary from location to location, so Thompson Pump designates a percentage of its rental fleet for emergency response projects. The company positions its pumps and related pipe, hose, manifolds and fittings strategically in each of its regional depots. Before an emergency occurs, the emergency response team works to find solutions to anticipated problems, such as acquiring fuel, loading and unloading without equipment, housing and feeding members of the team, and communicating when phone lines are down.

At Andress-Walsh, Walsh ensures that the company has enough pumps to take care of the higher demand during hurricane season. He orders his initial stock of pumps for the year, and then around the beginning of hurricane season puts in another order to beef up his fleet. Godwin Pumps also favors its southern branches during hurricane season as far as adding to inventory. Abbott says that a number of Godwin customers have a contingency plan, so they'll have equipment positioned on the site to be prepared.

Avoiding pump pitfalls

What a pump rental house doesn't know can hurt it — and its customers, the relationships with those customers and the equipment itself. When it comes to interrogating the customer about the pump application, the more questions, the merrier. Common mistakes, such as oversizing, undersizing or using the wrong pump for the wrong application generally stem from not knowing enough about the customer's job.

Multiquip's Spence has heard of people pumping everything from water to fuel to molasses. And for that reason, rental companies must know exactly what the customer's job entails.

“This is where you play 20 questions with the customer,” he says. “There are a number of things you need to know right off the bat that'll pretty well determine within the first two or three questions what type of pump they're going to have to have.”

Find out what the customer is pumping. If it's water, is it muddy water? How much water is there? What is the solids content? How fast does the substance need to be pumped? How far does it need to go? What is the customer looking to accomplish? How high does the customer need to lift the water? The more questions the pump provider asks of the customer the clearer that customer's application will be, increasing the chances of getting them the right pump for the job. The wrong pump may do the job, but may not do it most efficiently.

Oversizing and undersizing may not be crucial mistakes, but they can waste both the contractor's time and money. “Sometimes they end up taking much longer to pump out something or they get too big of a pump for what they need to do and they spend too much money,” Spence says. The cost for fuel also adds up if a pump is too large for a job.

Rental companies must also make sure to carry a broad enough line for their market, according to Wacker's Leupi. “When you use a certain type of pump in a less-than-ideal application the result isn't going to be as good and you're going to have a customer who's not that happy,” he says.

Also of high importance: The rental company should find out to what degree the customer wants it to be involved in the job. It is also key to understand how much experience the customer has with the pumping application in question.

“Many contractors already know what they need to have, but there are still a good number of them who think they know what they need, but in essence they may not,” Spence says.

“I think that all of us have made the common mistake of assuming that the end-user has qualified and trained operators who know what to do and how to do it,” says Bill Thompson. “The best way to avoid problems caused by ignorance is to collaborate beforehand with your customer to determine the job requirements and to have a representative on the jobsite when the pumps are delivered to instruct on setup and operation.”

Customers require various levels of service, from 24/7 monitoring to only having the equipment provided for them. Pump rental companies must be able to serve both extremes, as well as every customer that falls in between. Thompson Pump serves some customers on a rental-only basis: The company will monitor the job, but the contractor will set up, install, operate, service and remove with its own crews. At the other extreme, on some jobs Thompson Pump will do everything from setup to providing fuel, service and maintenance, and removing everything after the job is complete.

“How much or how little we do for our customers is determined by their capabilities, constraints such as time and conflicting projects, and the availability of their personnel and resources,” Thompson says.

Because pump projects can go on for long periods of time, rental companies must be committed. Burns Dewatering Services, a pump rental and dewatering contractor based in Theodore, Ala., worked on the RSA Tower foundation project in Mobile. “We designed the dewatering system and dewatered the foundation for nine months, with 24-hour-a-day monitoring from start to finish,” says Morey Westmoreland, vice president of the company.

Sunbelt's Horgan says the company also runs the gamut from just taking a rental call for a specific piece of equipment to taking a larger role in a project. That role can include engineering, setting up and maintaining the project — basically whatever the customer needs. “We like to say that we will be as involved or as uninvolved in the project as the customer needs us to be,” he says.

Pump people

Rental companies have to be willing to commit to their pumps, and that includes not only the investment in the product, but training personnel to be the experts they need to be. Fortunately, resources are available that will give staff the needed knowledge. Manufacturers generally offer training to customers and rental houses. Thompson Pump offers its Pump-ology schools to train both rental stores and end-user customers. Godwin Pumps offers two courses, Pumps 101 and 102, which Abbott considers pump “boot camp.” Multiquip also offers dealer training schools throughout the year, and Wacker provides certified pump training for sales and service. The Contractors Pump Bureau sanctions training seminars, and information can be found on the Internet and through manufacturer websites and manuals.

“Even the counter clerk needs to have a basic understanding of pumps because it really, really helps in the selection process and aiding the rental,” says Leupi. “So if you're going to make the investment in carrying pumps, and you're going to be carrying 5 to 10 pumps plus hoses, it's not a small investment. But then you really need to train your people on how to rent them — the application issues, sizing — because otherwise it's a wasted investment.”

Once employees are trained, rental companies should work diligently to retain them, because knowledgeable staff in the pump business is a large benefit.

“Expertise is key in the pump rental market, more so than in a lot of other types of rental operations,” Walsh says. “So if you can keep somebody around for a long period of time, the longer they're there, the more of an asset that person becomes because there's such a premium on expertise in our business.”