Domestic sewer and wastewater infrastructure represent a significant market for cleaning and maintenance, encompassing an estimated 800,000 miles of public sewer, 500,000 miles of private sewer laterals, and 1 million miles of water pipe.
Sewer and drinking water issues have been in the news again recently, and the federal government is expected to pursue legislation providing federal funding and encourage state, local and private financing of infrastructure construction and repair. Although the majority of funding for municipal pipeline maintenance is generated locally through taxes and user fees, any increase in federal funding and awareness could be a tailwind for the growing pipe cleaning market.
Sewer and pipe cleaning technology has evolved from the historical use of manual and mechanical means to the present, where high pressure waterjet, often in conjunction with vacuum, is the primary means of pipeline cleaning for municipalities and contractors. Combo units have proven well suited for applications of clearing obstructions, cleaning to permit internal camera inspection or rehab, and precision high pressure cutting to remove obstructions.
Waterjet/vacuum techniques occupy the majority of the market for sewer cleaning in North America due to ease of operation, small footprint, and high quality results for most applications. A smaller percentage of the cleaning market is occupied by other techniques including cable or bucket machines, which can be very effective in clearing large blockages, but generally require lengthier setup and teardown time and also tend to be more disruptive to traffic.
The distribution of pipeline cleaning and maintenance work varies due to the fragmented nature of the municipal water and wastewater market. Larger municipalities tend to operate large in-house fleets of combo trucks and trailer jetters, while contracting out specialty jobs or reoccurring cleaning and maintenance. Smaller municipalities are often able to conduct most cleaning in-house with their own operators and equipment, while the smallest municipalities will contract out all of their sewer cleaning.
Sewer cleaning jobs range from routine cleaning to prevent obstructions, maintain flow capacity or permit routine inspections; response to acute issues such as blockages; and cleaning newly laid pipe or in conjunction with pipeline rehabilitation.
A notable trend in the pipe cleaning equipment marketplace recently has been the emphasis on recycled water for sewer jetting, with European vendors entering the North American market and also domestic manufacturers releasing new combo truck models with water recycling capability. While the water recycling still comprises a relatively small portion of pipe cleaning activity, adoption of this technology is expected to accelerate due to both environmental water conservation issues and the potential productivity increases that can be gained from not having to refill the water tank. Use of this technology also lessens the burden on municipalities to both generate potable water and then to treat the waste streams again after it has been used for pipe cleaning. Recycling water onsite reduces the burden on water infrastructure and could generate cost savings for municipalities under budget constraints.
For large cleaning jobs requiring significant jetting and high flow rates, water tanks empty quickly, and savings on labor, consumables, fuel, and more can be significant.
Overall the sewer cleaning market appears ready for continued growth driven by domestic infrastructure spending and the need to rehabilitate or replace aging sewer infrastructure, with much of the pipe laid in the early to mid-20th century approaching or exceeding the end of its lifespan. Details on a potential federal infrastructure spending plan are still up in the air as this article is finalized, but the plan should provide at least some stimulus for laying new pipe and repairing or replacing aged or damaged pipelines.
The growth in housing markets has also been a recent driver of pipe cleaning activity as new sewer lines and laterals are laid. The recent federal tax reform has created some uncertainty in the housing market outlook for 2018, but generally residential construction should continue with an increase in single-family homes. The continued transition in rural communities from septic tank to public sewers will also continue to serve as a source of pipe cleaning business.
A challenge for sewer cleaning providers continues to be the levels of state and local funding for maintaining underground pipeline assets given low sewer and water usage fees. Additionally, finding and hiring qualified operators represents a challenge for both municipalities and contractors, especially given the current high levels of employment and labor shortages in construction and the skilled trades.