Victor Roberts has been in the construction business for more than 30 years. Starting off as a heavy civil contractor, he made the change to the pipe cleaning and inspection sector 15 years ago — a decision he couldn’t be happier with.
Roberts and his wife Wilma own and operate DownStream Services Inc. in Escondido, Calif., just north of San Diego. Victor services vice president and CEO and Wilma is the company president. The company provides pipeline maintenance services including CCTV inspections, cleaning and repairs, as well as condition assessment for its municipal clients across southern California. Rob D’Amaro handles project management, Steve Heiberger is the field operations manager and Kimberly Carr is charged with the storm drain division.
The Roberts started their heavy civil contractor business in 1976. In 1997, they were awarded a multi-year contract with the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS) for storm drain cleaning. “No one else was in the business and we were the only bidder,” says Victor Roberts.
They formed DownStream Services, focusing on CCTV work and storm drain cleaning. The Roberts ended up selling their heavy civil division in 2002 to concentrate on pipe cleaning.
“It wasn’t a huge step for us to focus on CCTV and pipe cleaning,” Victor Roberts says. “We were an underground contractor and worked on a lot of pipelines involving water, sewer and storm drains.”
But entering this new venture, they still had a lot to learn. Victor Roberts remembers just how much he didn’t know about the pipe cleaning business when they first got started.
To prepare, Roberts and his team filled a pipe with sand and buried it in their work yard, with a pit at each end. From there, they tried to figure out how to clean it, using different methods. No luck. “A friend of mine introduced us to Super Products’ Camel combination jet/vac truck, telling me he could clean that pipe in 30 minutes,” Victor Roberts says. “I told him, ‘There’s no way.’ Sure enough, he cleaned in about 30 minutes. We bought the truck on the spot.
“We really didn’t have a clue as to what storm drain cleaning was all about,” he says. “I knew those [combination]trucks existed but they were used in the sewer industry. No one used them to clean storm drains much. We were new to the industry. At that point, we had never cleaned a sewer line and very few people had jetting trucks except for a few municipalities.”
But that was 15 years ago. Today, the Roberts crews handle cleaning and inspection of smaller pipe diameters as well larger ones. DownStream Services has grown into a respected pipe cleaning contractor serving southern California, with six Super Products Camel trucks, four RS Technical CCTV trucks, as well as an Aries lateral launcher for lateral inspections and several Ridgid push camera systems. A few power bucketing machines are also in the equipment fleet. The company teamed with Inuktun Services Ltd. to provide a comprehensive program for long range inspections, incorporating state-of-the-art CCTV, sonar, laser and H2S technologies in its pipeline inspection services with the added capability of inspecting over 6,000-lf in a single run. They also offer limited trenchless technology applications, becoming an authorized installer of Reline America’s Blue-Tek UV-cured glass fiber reinforced (GFRP) pipe liners in 2008.
One of the services DownStream Services offers is a complete Preventative Maintenance Program to its clients, determining which sewer lines are in need of immediate cleaning and those that can wait. “We assess their system on historical information, cleaning logs and video inspection,” Victor Roberts says. “Based on the data we collect, we create a maintenance plan that can provide cleaning schedules, repair priorities, identifies problem areas and suggested repairs. This gives the information they need to focus their efforts where they needed.”
The company has many multi-year contracts with several of the U.S. Navy bases in the southern California area. “We have a lot of Navy clients,” Victor Roberts says. “We take care of their underground sewers, repair manholes and do some lining. We do all the CCTV inspection and a complete condition assessment for them.”
Victor Roberts notes how much more aware municipalities are today about maintaining their underground infrastructure than they were even when DownStream Services started out, recognizing the importance of cleaning and inspection programs and how they can add years to the lifespan of their lines. “People are putting more emphasis on maintenance issues today,” he says. “It’s like having a good maintenance program for a vehicle — it tells you what you should do and when you should do it.”
Key to the success of DownStream Services is the owners’ commitment to training and customer service, they say. They also build most of the equipment they use in the field, as well repair it in-house. “Being very hands on in the field keeps our costs down for our clients,” Victor Roberts says. “Pretty much everything we do is low bid. You don’t get the job because you are a good guy; you get it because you are the lowest bidder. We had to learn ways to be more efficient and keep up with our clients’ needs at the same time.”
Crew training is something the Roberts take very seriously and have a training program in place. “We stand down once a month for a full day and our crews go through whatever training is scheduled, for safety, confined space, vehicle maintenance or equipment updates,” Victor Roberts says.
Regular training and education in pipe cleaning and video inspection is vital to the success of any pipe cleaning contractor. Victor Roberts credits organizations such as NASSCO — of which DownStream Services is a member — for continuing to push and promote training issues. “NASSCO is a great resource for training,” he says. “It’s a great organization and has standardized the industry more than anyone else.”
Among the projects DownStream Services is working on right now is the cleaning and inspection of thousands of 4- and 6-in. laterals at Camp Pendleton in its industrial and residential areas. One project in 2011 involved cleaning a triple barreled 48-in. siphon that was under the Sweetwater River. “We had to jet it and clean it,” Victor Roberts says. “There was a lot of debris in it since it was the first time that pipe had been cleaned since it was installed nearly 30 years ago. It was about three-quarters full of rags. Some of those rag balls weighed 1,200 lbs.”
Victor and Wilma Roberts enjoy what they do, billing themselves as a “good team.” Victor oversees field operations and bidding on projects, while Wilma serves as administrator to all the bidding, insurance and paperwork that comes with running a company. “Wilma is a very detailed person and is very good at putting all of those together,” Victor Roberts says. “We work as a team and when we go home, [the business]is still the conversation across the dinner table. It does not end at 5 p.m. for us.”
Sharon M. Bueno is managing editor of Trenchless Technology.