How to Start a Drain-Cleaning Business

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Let’s be real: Sometimes those chemical drain cleaners don’t cut it, and you’ve got to bring in a professional. As the world turns, toilets stop flushing, sewers overflow and pipes burst (at least until the general population stops flushing things that aren’t toilet paper). It’s not shocking that the plumbing industry is huge. According to IBISWorld, it brought in a whopping $106 billion in 2018 and is only expected to grow.

Launching your own drain-cleaning company is easier than you think. Drain cleaning in itself is an offshoot of plumbing, and the most lucrative businesses manage to be the perfect marriage of both. To get started, you’ll need a little planning, a lot of training and the willpower to spend your days alongside raw sewage.

Start With a Business Plan

Every drain-cleaning company is probably dealing with a whole lot of stinky sewage. According to Greg Child, the 10-year drain-cleaning veteran behind Coastal Drains, toilets are the source of the most common blockages. Nonetheless, no two drain-cleaning businesses are the same. Some focus on sewers, manholes and water mains. Others service home plumbing systems. Some are contracted by municipalities, and others are contracted by private individuals. What they all have in common is the fact that plumbing emergencies are aplenty. According to Child, offering emergency services will put your drain-cleaning business ahead.

“Prepare for long or unusual hours. When drains are blocked or leaking, this can cause serious damage to a home,” he said. “Homeowners will want the issue sorted a.s.a.p., so if you really want to get ahead, you need to offer an emergency out-of-hours service, and you can charge a premium for this.”

One of the major parts of a business plan is outlining your revenue streams. Most drain-cleaning businesses make their money on the add-ons – pipe fixes, water heater installs and beyond – but you can’t make a good return on investment without the right prices. Always make sure to set your rates competitively. Not only will it help offset costs, but it won’t devalue your expertise.

“Pricing is definitely my biggest obstacle,” said Child. “It's a struggle keeping your pricing competitive enough to be perceived as good value for money for your clients, but you don't want it to be so low that people question the quality of your work or your ability to get the job done.”

Get the Proper Licenses and Permits

Though Massachusetts was briefly mulling over a drain-cleaning license requirement, you don’t actually need to be licensed to blast out nasty clogs. The downside is that you’ll need to be certified to do just about anything else in the world of plumbing. The more qualifications you have, the bigger the chance for profit, which is why many drain-cleaning contractors are also licensed plumbers.

Think of it this way: You’re on the job, and you go to fix what looks like a backed-up condensate drain, but it turns out to be a broken water heater. If you don’t have a plumber’s license, you can’t legally replace the water heater, which means you’re missing out on the $900 to $3,000 you’d get for the job. The same goes for if you snake a line and find out that it’s broken. You can’t replace piping without a license or permit. Depending on your business model, you’ll need to seek out both a plumber's license and/or permit before you can offer the following jobs:

  • Water heater services: Because water heaters are one of the most dangerous appliances in the household and have strict safety regulations, you’ll probably need a permit from the county in order to replace, fix or inspect water heaters. You may or may not need a plumber’s license.

  • Repiping and drain line replacement: The majority of your job is spent dealing with pipes. Sometimes they might be clogged, and other times they might be broken. Repiping a home and replacing the drain lines is a significant job, so it requires a plumber’s license and permit.

  • Sewer replacement: Most sewer-related work requires a permit and license because of the strict safety codes.

  • Moving plumbing: Say someone is getting his kitchen or bathroom remodeled. You may have to move some of the plumbing. Since there are legal building code requirements in a remodel (and this is considered a remodel), you’ll need a permit and license.

Not every state or country has the same requirements, so it’s important to check with your local municipality. You can usually apply for permits online, and you’ll definitely need a business license. Getting a plumber’s license is a bit more involved and typically requires a years-long apprenticeship plus a year as a journeyman (i.e., a working apprentice who must be supervised by a master plumber). You’ll also have to pass state exams, be over the age of 21 and pay a bond. For example, the bond costs around $3,000 in the state of New Jersey.

Insurance, Insurance, Insurance

A whole lot can go wrong in the world of plumbing, especially if you’re not working with licensed plumbers. For this reason, insurance is extremely important. One mishap could flood an entire home and bankrupt your budding business. You’ll need some or all of the following:

  • General liability insurance: This protects against any company negligence, meaning if you flood an entire building or burst a water main, your business can recover.

  • Property insurance: This protects your expensive equipment and your office building if you have one.

  • Commercial automobile insurance: This protects the fleet of vans or trucks your employees drive.

  • Workers' compensation insurance: This is a requirement for any business with employees.

Hire Employees or Drain-Cleaning Contractors

Enlisting the best help might just be the most important aspect of your business. Your technicians and engineers are the heart and soul of what you do.

“Engineers on your team represent your business when serving customers,” said Child. “How your team behaves when they are on the job can make or break your business. When your team is competent and professional, you can expect satisfied customers who become repeat customers, providing you with a solid reputation.”

So, who should you enlist? Unless you already hold a plumber’s license, you may want to hire some licensed plumbers to up your revenue stream. If you’re starting small, you should enlist drain-cleaning contractors to tackle the jobs your equipment can’t handle. If you’re focusing on the field work (i.e., unclogging all those nasty clogs), you might find it helpful to have an office assistant, bookkeeper or customer service assistant handling stuff back at the office.

“Hire a great bookkeeper. [It’s] so important,” said Wendy Smythe, co-owner of DS Plumbing and co-author of "There Is Nothing Sexy About Plumbing (Or Is There?)." “We have made many mistakes over the years. . . let others do work for you and work on the business. Ensure your team represents your brand positively.”

Invest in Quality Equipment

Those clogs aren’t going to unclog themselves. Drain-cleaning businesses need a lot of equipment, from work boot covers and drop cloths to cable machines and trucks. You may even want to purchase a sewer camera inspector if you plan to diagnose and fix broken sewer lines.

“At a minimum, a drain-cleaning company should invest in a large cable machine (like Duracable) and a sink machine (sometimes called drum machine, like K-45),” said Anja Smith, who’s been running All Clear Plumbing for the last six years. “A hydro-jet can be very profitable but is very expensive and not necessary for just starting out.”

If you don’t have the biggest upfront investment, starting small is totally OK. You can start with a single truck and a single technician. Just make sure he's a licensed plumber if he plans to work with sewers or larger piping jobs.

Smith still recommends one splurge for tight budgets. “My best advice about choosing equipment is to pay for a large machine with plenty of cable reel (at least 150 feet),” she said. “I see a lot of small companies have to give up work to a larger company because they are short on cable (i.e., they can't reach the clog).”

Market Your Services

Once you’ve outlined your business plan, it’s time to get the word out. Set up a website and take to social media. Many plumbers find success on Yelp, Google and Facebook, but the key to pulling in new customers is referrals. Gain exposure by getting involved in your community.

“Build strong relationships in [your] community,” said Smith. “People do business with people, and a lot of work in your early days comes from relationships. You don't have a reputation for your work yet. But the people who know you and like you will want to see you succeed.”

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About the Author

Mariel Loveland is a small business owner, content strategist and writer from New Jersey. Throughout her career, she's worked with numerous startups creating content to help small business owners bridge the gap between technology and sales. Her work has been featured in publications like Business Insider and Vice.