While working in his Chicago garage in 1941, H.T. O’Brien took a manual hand drill, mated a 2-ft section of cable to it creating a drain snake. Little did he know that this innovation for clearing drains would catapult him — and his family — into the sewer cleaning and vacuum excavation industry.
From those Chicago beginnings to 2021, a lot has changed in the industry; however, one thing has remained the same: The need for simple, safe and reliable equipment. O’Brien’s innovative spirit and a focus on these three needs are cornerstones of Sewer Equipment, the Dixon, Illinois-headquartered manufacturer of vacuum excavation and sewer cleaning equipment.
Sewer Equipment owner Dan O’Brien represents the third generation in the industry and notes that as the industry grew so, too, did the equipment that customers needed to do their jobs. “We went from that small hand drill to trucks that have four axles and carry 15 yards of debris,” he says. “We have a world-class breadth of products.”
That breadth of products includes the Mongoose Jetters, Sewer Equipment Co. of America, Cappellotto by Sewer Equipment and RAMVAC brands. Also, under the Sewer Equipment and O’Brien family’s umbrella of companies are Rock Rental in Clinton, Iowa; Jet Vac Environmental in Island Lake, Illinois; and Jet Vac Equipment in Rockaway, New Jersey.
Just as wide as the breadth of products are the markets that Sewer Equipment serves. This includes everything from plumbers and contractors to utilities and municipalities to industrial clients and the oil and gas industry and customers worldwide — many of whom fall into the realm of trenchless.
“The trenchless industry, like everything else in the world, is all about productivity,” says John Wichmann, Sewer Equipment president. “Contractors are hypersensitive to uptime and efficiencies. If the machine isn’t out making money, it’s costing them money. That is the genesis of our thoughts behind simplicity.”
“What all these customers need is a safe, simple and reliable piece of equipment,” O’Brien says. “There is some variation…but really it comes down to they all want a safe truck that is easy to run and reliable. When I say easy to run, I mean simple to operate and simple to maintain.”
This edict is reflected in the company’s mission statement, which is to be the most innovative provider of safe products and services focused on the customer.
Innovative highlights along the way include:
- H.T. O’Brien followed his manual drain snake with the Model 25, an electric version that mated a cable drum to an electric drill in 1942.
- A trailer-mounted cable machine in 1954 that opened the family’s business to municipal markets.
- The 1200S continuous rodder came to market in 1960 and in 1968, the family entered the high-pressure sewer jetting world.
- In 1996, the company introduced Tiger-Vac, a trailer-mounted vacuum.
- The innovators at Sewer Equipment added a camera to the jetter creating the Model 800-HPRTV and the Model 747-FR2000TV.
- Things went smaller in 2002 with a focus on the plumbing market and Mongoose Jetters were first introduced.
- 2003 brought about Sewer Equipment’s first combination cleaner, albeit of the trailer-mounted variety.
- With an eye on the burgeoning trenchless marketplace and safe digging, the RAMVAC brand was born in 2004 with the mid-size HX hydro excavator truck.
- Sewer Equipment leadership saw that contractor and industrial customers in particular needed equipment for short-term rental options and Rock Rental was born in 2011.
- At the 2015 WWETT Show, Sewer Equipment Co. of America introduced the Model 900 ECO, its first chassis-mounted combination cleaner truck.
- 2017 was a step forward with the RAMVAC AX, which introduced air excavation to the RAMVAC line.
- The 2018 WWETT Show heralded the arrival of the Cappellotto by Sewer Equipment brand and its Genesis recycling combination sewer cleaner. The same year, the Model 400 ECO was introduced, which took Sewer Equipment’s chassis-mounted combination cleaner to a smaller footprint.
- In 2019, RAMVAC introduced the Tempest, a vacuum truck for industrial customers.
“This paints a picture of our innovation of new products, applications and tools to get the job done. We are not a one-trick pony company. We have an array of products we’ve developed over the last 80 years,” O’Brien says. “Because we have such an array of different products for different applications, we can go to the marketplace more as consultants. We can ask customers, ‘What’s your application? What’s your jobsite?’ and walk them toward the right piece of equipment.”
Growing in Dixon
Since 2012, Sewer Equipment’s innovations have come from Dixon, Illinois. Dixon is the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan and where innovators John Deere and Charles Walgreen both got their starts. Sewer Equipment now occupies approximately 122,000 sq ft, with plans to add an additional 37,000 in 2021.
Sewer Equipment’s innovative and customer-focused mission is made possible through its employees. According to O’Brien, the company has always held it paramount that the work environment be one in which the employee can thrive. In Dixon, and across its three rental and sales locations, Sewer Equipment employs approximately 205 people.
“Thrive means you can make a great living, increase your income with hard work and, if you are the type of person who is interested in being promoted and growing in the organization, there are a lot of places to grow and move upward,” O’Brien says. “Our employee’s safety is No. 1. If you walk around our plant, you will see that.”
Wichmann adds that in addition to providing a safe environment to work and thrive, the company has a focus on being an eco-friendly manufacturer, too. The Dixon facility harnesses solar power for its electric supply, uses low-VOC paints, reusable skids (pallets) for its vendors and there is a company-wide recycling program.
“We moved to Dixon because of our company’s growth,” O’Brien says. “With the onslaught of the hydro excavator market and knowing our combination cleaner truck was coming a couple years behind it, we needed a larger facility to accommodate that growth.”
The growth in the vacuum excavation market both hydro and air, can be attributed to the growth of the trenchless industry – horizontal directional drilling (HDD), in particular. This required larger trucks to haul drilling spoils and work was often in environments where a trailered vacuum excavator could not go. Additionally, system owners began seeing the benefits of — and enforcing — safe “soft” digging practices to locate and verify underground utilities.
What brought Sewer Equipment to the hydro excavation table? Wichmann says it really wasn’t a big leap of faith to launch the RAMVAC line.
“If you look at our history, everything was an evolution. We started with the hand tools, moved up to cable machines, then rodders and then trailer jets. At the end of the day, our equipment deals with pumping high-pressure water,” he says. “Whether it’s through a sewer hose or a digging wand, the principles are the same. It was an evolution to get into hydro excavation and the combination cleaner side of the business. When you look at it, there are a lot of similarities between our jetters, combination cleaners and hydro excavators.”
Simplicity = Reliability
Wichmann points out that the similarities also fall in line with Sewer Equipment’s mantra of providing innovative, simple, safe and reliable equipment. This is key when customers, regardless of sector, are facing a lack of skilled labor. Gone are the days where a company has one driver per truck. Today, many employees are trained across multiple pieces of equipment.
“Because our products are grown from the same seed, if you will, the pieces, parts and componentry are all of the same,” Wichmann says. “Our focus on simplicity makes the transition from one piece of equipment to another easier. If you are contractor with our combination cleaner, jetter and hydro excavator and you ask a guy to jump from one machine to the next, it’s not a huge exercise in training.”
Another benefit of this cross-brand similarity — especially for an owner who self-performs some maintenance or repairs — is that they can maintain less inventory, which equals less money spent.
“Simplicity equals safe and it also equals reliable. The simpler you can make something, the safer it will be because you don’t have operator confusion. If an operator cannot understand a truck or how to operate, you are no longer in a safe situation,” Wichmann says. “And, by definition, the simpler something is, the more reliable it will be. With our equipment, if a contractor has a test light or a multimeter, they can diagnose an issue on the truck. They don’t have to rely on a laptop to diagnose the system.”
Because of this, there are a lot of problems that can be troubleshot over the phone. If an issue is beyond what the owner can repair, Sewer Equipment has service outlets across North America. There are also mobile techs who can “parachute in” in the event the customer can’t get to the service center.
“Our philosophy is like a three-legged stool,” O’Brien says. “We work hard to build safe, simple equipment. We want it to be of a high quality and durable. And we want to support it with local service, so the customer experience is the best in the industry.”
Looking ahead, both O’Brien and Wichmann see no slowing down in any of the sectors the company serves. Even with the strains of the pandemic in 2020, many Sewer Equipment customers were busy.
“By far and large, the contracting market has not been as affected as the municipal market. The municipal market impact more depends on if they have retail vs. industrial tax base,” Wichmann says. “This is why you don’t put your eggs in one basket. It helps to have a diverse client base.”
Sales and training still needed to take place through 2020 and Sewer Equipment’s sales team responded just like many other industries – with virtual training or equipment walk-arounds when the customer was in an area that was not allowing visitors.
“Most all of our customers are considered essential services. Plumbers, for example, have never been busier,” says O’Brien. “Like us, they see a light at the end of the tunnel and expect that they will be busy in 2021 when the pent-up demand for projects opens back up.”
In terms of its equipment, Sewer Equipment’s leaders see continued growth for the recycling sewer cleaner market, which is in its infancy in North America. The Genesis machine is based on an Italian design by Cappellotto and that company has been in the European market for more than 50 years. They also see continued growth in the vacuum excavation sector. The reason for the latter is an increased awareness in the United States to underground safety.
“Safety is going to drive the industry to require an air or hydro vac on every jobsite like they do in Canada,” he says. “We are moving and evolving to that in the United States. Education is key and we work with contractors, municipalities and other system owners to make sure they are aware of our purpose-built equipment.”