Scenic City Sees the Light: Chattanooga Contractor Adds LED CIPP to its Offering
Municipalities have long known the benefits of cured-in-place pipe rehab to fix their deteriorated and leaking sewer systems. Looking at the residential and commercial property side of the fence — in many cases — the option is there, but open cut replacement and repairs still reign supreme.
In the Chattanooga, Tennessee area, one company is looking to change that. Since 2019, South East Total Service “Everything Plumbing,” owners John “JT” Alier and his wife Michelle have offered cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) rehab to residential and commercial clients. While the in-house CIPP services are new, it was a lengthy and well thought out process getting there.
But before we look at the present, it’s important to look at how the company got here.
After 20 years of working for others in the industry — and two years after moving to Chattanooga — JT and Michelle formed South East Total Service in 2007. JT handles the technical side and Michelle handles the business side. In that first year, the Aliers had four employees, grew to 10 by the third year and have grown steadily since.
“We decided to start our own business to help educate and provide a comfortable working environment for employees,” he says. “Fourteen years later, we are still achieving our goal.”
Today, South East Total Service has two locations and covers an area approximately 100-miles around Chattanooga with its 24 employees. The company specializes in commercial and residential services in new construction, septic and grease trap installation and pumping, a full range of plumbing services, pipe excavation and CIPP rehabilitation.
“I first learned about the CIPP process a long time ago,” JT says. ”It was 1998 and I was working for a company in Philadelphia, and they had a cured-in-place process that they would use.”
It’s a technology, he says, that has its place — especially in a city like Chattanooga. Much of the pipe is clay tile and cast iron with some Orangeburg and concrete sprinkled in for good measure. Additionally, JT characterizes the region as, “Pretty with a lot of brick sidewalks and historic buildings.” One that you would not want to destroy using an open-cut process.
“We seriously investigated CIPP when the detriment of excavation services affected our customers with the destruction of structures and property just to repair old pipes,” JT says. “We realized that there was a lot of unnecessary work with excavations, such as cutting into and repairing roadways, digging 10 ft into the ground and all of the dangers that come along with that type of work.”
After several years of offering CIPP via a sub-contractor, JT grew tired of the lack of control he had in terms of project quality and cost. That’s when he and his wife started to do in-depth research to bring the services in-house.
“That was probably about five years ago. We were on a long journey to get to the right product,” he says. “Researching the manufacturers and methods of CIPP is a necessity, due to the major differences in processes and equipment. We visited the manufacturers and went through their training programs. It was a great way to understand which system best fit our company.”
What they found was that the multiple processes each had its value depending on the type of pipe, fittings and distance requiring relining. Instead of working with different CIPP manufacturers to cover all its relining needs, South East Total Service opted to work with one company that offered multiple CIPP processes — two-part epoxy with hot water cure, pipe coating with epoxy and LED light curing with a one-part resin.
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The LED Solution
“We aligned with HammerHead Trenchless because of the advancing technology offered and the outstanding customer service. HammerHead Trenchless made sure our company was ready for the CIPP market,” JT says. “Education and training are an important part of their system. We spent hours in our shop training and practicing with the system. Technical support, engineering support, material handling and sales are all in place to be accessed when needed. All this support allowed our company to operate with complete confidence from our first CIPP job to today.”
All the South East Total Service technicians are trained in pipe relining, but there is a dedicated group of four employees who are the company’s CIPP specialists. South East Total Service also has the distinction of being one of the first contractors in the U.S. to acquire a HammerHead Trenchless Bluelight LED curing system.
“The investment into CIPP equipment demonstrates that your employees are valuable by helping them understand that there is a better and safer way to fix pipes without all of the risks,” JT says. “CIPP jobs also take a lot less time to perform, creating additional opportunities to serve more customers.”
Jumping into the pipe relining world is a huge step but doing it with a relatively new curing system can be a risky proposition. JT was impressed with the benefits of the LED curing, noting that the product has less waste, little to no odor and offers greater quality control in a less stressful environment.
“If you’re mixing a two-part epoxy, you’re on a time crunch, there is lot of stress and people walking on top of each other,” he says. “I’ve seen liners shot in, have a problem, and we’re digging up the pipe anyway.”
With the LED system, JT’s crew inverts the liner in place, sends the inspection camera down the line to make sure it is where it needs to be, follows that with the calibration tube and then they insert the Bluelight, which also has a camera on it so they can watch as the liner is cured. Only when the Bluelight’s LED lights are powered on does the resin begin to cure.
The other benefit of the system is being able to control the cost to a point where it is affordable — a key factor for bringing CIPP in-house. What JT and his team found was that sometimes CIPP was not affordable, and they would have to pass on projects where lining was the best choice simply because the cost per foot to reline was astronomical. It was at the point that he would pitch CIPP only if the line travelled under a street or structure — like a house or building.
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Affordability Is Key
“The Bluelight system allows us to make CIPP affordable to the point where other plumbing companies are using us for their relining work,” JT says. “It also allows us to bring it to an affordable level that gives the customer a more apples-to-apples [cost] comparison [with open cut repairs].”
The challenge has been educating the customers as the relining method hasn’t been readily available, affordable and properly marketed in the area. Customers view pipe rehabilitation as a secondary way to fix pipe. Through an advertising campaign focused mostly on TV — including a “The Walking Dead” themed spot that airs during the show locally — South East Total Service is getting the word out to the region.
Affordability and speed of the work are big selling factors for the South East Total Services team. “We’ve had Dunkin Donuts as a customer and we completed 180 ft of pipe relining without shutting down the business,” JT says. “When you don’t have to shut a business down and send employees home to do the repair, that is a pretty easy sell.”
Likewise, on the residential side of things, explaining to a customer that the technicians can repair the sewer and have them back up and running without tearing up a yard or having a lengthy shutdown makes the CIPP process appealing.
“Our whole company is excited to be in the forefront of the trenchless rehabilitation services in our area. We see a big future in trenchless rehab work. Having this technology available to our customers has opened all kinds of doors,” JT says. “The innovations in trenchless technology are allowing us to provide services that were once impossible. It’s starting to gain ground.”