The Smell of Money

Jan. 1, 2003
Looking for a way to increase your rental business? Follow your nose. Drain-cleaning equipment, the product category that some rental operators consider

Looking for a way to increase your rental business? Follow your nose. Drain-cleaning equipment, the product category that some rental operators consider too dirty and stinky to bother with, is one of the top five rental items in the industry, says the American Rental Association. Home Depot stores report that drain-cleaning equipment is one of their best renting items with the least amount of down time. Why? Drains clog! No matter what the economy, no matter what the season, drains clog. How can you bring in drain cleaning equipment to your store? Follow these simple tips and you too can smell the money.

First, leave the cleaning of your snakes up to your customers. Make it clear at the time of the rental that there will be a charge if the machines come back dirty. The open cage machines are easy to clean. All the customer has to do is hose them off. It's helpful to oil the cables to prevent rust and corrosion. Some manufacturers sell a “snake oil” that not only lubricates the cable, but also includes a rust inhibitor and a deodorizer.

If you're still concerned about messy snakes, consider other products. Instead of a cable, other drain cleaning equipment uses compressed air to break up the stoppages in clogged drains. It's simple, clean and easy to use. Just pump it up with the self-contained air pump, place the tip in the drain and snap the trigger. The shock wave it creates travels down the path of the water and breaks up the stoppage nearly instantly. It's an ideal tool to recommend to customers with slow draining tubs and showers or trailer homes with drain lines that are too narrow for a snake.

But before you decide to jump into drain-cleaning equipment, look at your customer base. Plumbing contractors who, in a good economy had been doing new home construction and remodeling, now may be hurting for work. They turn to drain cleaning to supplement their income until things turn around. Instead of buying their own equipment, they'll come to you. Homeowners and local businesses that don't want to pay a plumber will come to you as well.

Also, before you buy a drain-cleaning package for your store, it's important to know the capabilities of the tools and match them to your customer's needs. So when your customer walks in the door and says, “I need a drain cleaning machine” or “I've got a clogged drain. Give me the cheapest thing you've got,” what would you say? What you should do is ask a few questions to figure out which of your tools is most likely to solve their problems. Ask, “Which drain is clogged? The kitchen sink? The toilet? The whole house?”

If just one drain is clogged, the problem is probably limited to the small drains where a small 25-foot handheld model or small 50-foot floor model will do. If the tub, sink and toilet are all stopped up, the problem is likely to be in the large drain line leading out of the house. For that kind of problem a larger 100-foot floor model machine would be right for the job. If your customers try to clear a large line like a floor drain with a small machine, they could easily damage the machine.

In the large machine category, you have two styles of machines. The cage-type machines are self-contained and easier to operate but can be heavy and difficult to transport; the sectional machines are lighter but messier and require more space to operate. Contractors have very strong allegiances to one or the other. Check with the contractors in your area to see what they are using before you buy.

Take a look at the tool selection guide to find the right tool for a particular job. Sometimes several tools can do the same jobs.

Should you rent hand tools or power tools to a customer? For the smaller jobs both types of tools are available. Electric machines are faster. But hand tools are less likely to get damaged in the hands of an unskilled operator. You should have some hand tools for customers you feel do not have the mechanical aptitude to handle an electric machine.

The best tool for clearing a clogged toilet is a closet auger. No other tool in your arsenal will go through the bowl as quickly and easily. But don't rent the inexpensive hardware-grade closet augers. They are hollow and cannot take the abuse of a rental customer. Instead, look for a multi-layered inner core that can protect the cable from kinking, yet remain flexible enough to get through the “S” turns in a toilet bowl.

When purchasing drain-cleaning tools for your rental fleet, you must first look at the most important part of the tool — the part that gets most of the abuse — the cable. The cable does all the work. It has to be strong enough to handle abusive situations and abusive customers. That's why all your machines should have left-wound inner-core cable rather than hollow cables.

When a customer gets the cable caught on a root or around a tight bend, the end of the cable stops turning. But the other end of the cable at the machine is turning because the operator doesn't know the cable is stuck. What happens? In a hollow cable, the coils wind up and squeeze down on nothing but air and will kink quickly and break. If you get into the same situation with an inner core cable, the core inside can support the coils as they start to collapse.

The businesses with the biggest need for drain-cleaning equipment are restaurants. Their drains clog with grease from the kitchen at the most inopportune times — on a busy Saturday night when the dining room is full and the line is out the door. Though you're not likely to be open on Saturday night, you can rent the doomed restaurant manager a tool to prevent this problem and become his hero.

A water jet is the ideal tool for just this situation. The high-pressure water cuts through grease blockages much faster and more thoroughly than snakes. Snakes just whip up the stoppage but don't actually clear it because of the self-healing properties of this type of clog. When you pull the cable out of the clog, the grease closes up the line again. The high-pressure stream of water from the tip of the nozzle cuts through the grease and then flushes it away.

The restaurant operator won't know to ask for a water jet. He'll ask for what he knows — a snake. You'll have to advertise to him, telling him, “Don't wait for your drains to clog on a busy Saturday night, rent a water jet from me on a slow Monday once a month and flush your problems away.” Other local businesses such as meat processing plants and farms will appreciate the water jet, too.

Safety first

In these litigious times, you need to think about the safest drain-cleaning machines possible.

Electrical safety is a prime example. Electricity and water don't mix. Yet you've got an electric drain cleaner that's used in water. The most important item on every machine should be a ground fault interrupter. If there are ever any electrical problems, like a cut in the power cord, this unit will detect the current leakage and shut the machine down.

Air-activated foot pedals are also important. You've got water on the floor. You don't need electricity there too. The air foot pedal uses air pressure to activate the switch inside the motor and keeps the wiring off the floor.

Safety slip clutches are yet another feature to look for when purchasing a drain cleaner. An untrained operator can twist a cable to the point where it will buck and whip, causing damage to the cable and possibly harming the operator. A slip clutch can stop the cable rotation before the operator gets into trouble, saving the cable and saving the operators fingers too.

Leather gloves are an absolute necessity when operating a drain cleaner. Cotton gloves can get caught in the coils of the cable as it's spinning and cause severe hand injury. Any rental of a drain cleaner should include leather gloves.

A key part of safety is good instruction and training, because a properly trained customer is likely to be a safe and happy customer. Most manufacturers offer instruction videos for each of its rental machines. Insist on having customers view them.

Marty Silverman is marketing manager for General Pipe Cleaners, McKees Rocks, Pa.