If you live in South Florida you may have seen the red, white, and blue Rapid Rooter 4,000-gallon tankers heading to a job. You’ll see more soon - this sewer and drain-cleaning business is growing along with the area. Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties have added a combined 281,000 residents since 2000. And the company, a family-owned and operated business founded in 1983, recently added plumbing services. The expanding market and new services have resulted in a 10- to 20-percent growth a year for the past three years, say owners Donald and Bill Rice.

A Specialized Fleet
Stu Stein manages the maintenance and scheduling of the fleet, which consists of more than 40 vehicles: 27 vans, six industrial pump trucks, one industrial vacuum loader, a jetting truck, and company cars. The company buys Ford Econoline E250s and E250 pickups through the Ford fleet program, averaging three to six new vehicles a year. Ford offers a plumbing package in which new vans come equipped with shelving, bins, cages, and racks. Carlos Ayala, the operations manager, drives a Ford Escape and the service supervisors use Ford pickups. The company has one Dodge van, “a gift to the company from one of the owner’s relatives,” says Stein.

“The Fords get worked hard but they last,” says Stein. The vans run about 25,000 miles per year. The company has six diesels now and is in the process of converting to all diesels. Stein says the bodies on the gas engines were holding up a lot longer than the engines, which were getting from 150,000 to 185,000 miles before significant repairs. Stein and Rice anticipate another two years of life out of the diesel engines due to a heavier chassis and more durable transmission and driveline.

Trucks Custom-Ordered
The ordering and customization process is more complex for the vacuum pump and jetter trucks. The pump trucks sit on International chassis with septic tank pumping equipment and 4,200-gallon tanks. After the chassis are built, the trucks are sent to Canada for custom tank and pump installation by PressVac. The 10-wheel industrial loader sits on a Volvo chassis with Vac-Con debris tank and Roots vacuum pump. The high-velocity jet trucks use a Ford F-550 chassis with a custom frame and a 500-gallon water tank on top. The frame is fabricated and mounted locally. Another company supplies the water tank and Harben jet pump. A Hatz diesel pony motor is used to run the hydraulics and jet pump.

The company trades in retired vans to the dealer or sells them through an independent broker. The book value on the vehicles isn’t much. “But we get our use out of them and then some,” Stein says.

A Stickler for Maintenance
Stein is a stickler for preventive maintenance. “When we bring the vehicles in, even if it’s just for an oil change, I instruct my mechanic to PM every vehicle whether it’s got 3,000 or 300,000,” Stein says. The vehicles are always given an oil change and a tire rotation. The fluids are topped off, the air pressure is checked, and the air filters are checked and changed if needed. Stein keeps the air pressure at 60 to 70 lbs. because of the heavy loads and to get better mileage. Brakes are checked and adjusted every 6,000 miles.

The company has an in-house mechanic who works on the diesels and big trucks, while the other vehicles are serviced at two local shops. Newer vehicles go back to the dealer for some services. The technicians take the vans home, so they’re responsible for them, Stein says. That means keeping the vehicles properly maintained and cleaned. Employees can wash the vehicles behind the office and will get them waxed if needed.

Stein saw a problem of peeling bumpers on his vans due to heat and pebbles on the roadway. “If we didn’t get them back to the dealership within a year, we were stuck with it,” Stein says. He found a cost-effective solution. “We’ve got a couple of guys who do bodywork on the side, and one does bumper painting. He gets the bumpers done in a day, and they look better than brand new.” Rapid Rooter manages its fuel consumption with a Wright Express card. Stein says the fuel reports come in handy. The company analyzes the reports to see where fuel consumption is up, and then finds ways to manage that number down.

A Steering Wheel Trophy
“This company is fanatical about safety,” Stein says. “These guys are going up on roofs and they’re carrying up a ladder, cable, and equipment that weigh in excess of 80 lbs. They have to make sure they lift it properly, carry it properly and bring it off the roof properly. Some guys think we’re crazy about all the safety stuff, but it’s for their benefit.”

Every Thursday during the company meeting a safety video is shown, covering topics such as lifting, ladder safety, heavy-bar safety, eyeglass safety, and general office safety, as well as roadway safety. The company also holds OSHA confined-space entry courses. The company conducts a mandatory driving course each year through its insurance company, Amerisure. Rice pays for additional training through the local branch of the National Safety Council, and has even sponsored CPR classes given by an employee’s brother, a fireman. The safety measures have resulted in a marked decrease in accidents and workers’ comp claims, which in turn has kept the company’s insurance rates low. Good driving is rewarded at year’s end with a marble trophy with a steering wheel on top.

Accidents happen. And if it’s the fault of a company driver, Stein says his bosses ask that employees take ownership of a situation. “We try to instill that in our guys,” he says. “No one will get fired for admitting they did something wrong.” As part of that ownership mentality, some employees have paid the deductible to cover the company’s cost for an at-fault accident. Some have been allowed the flexibility to repair the damage themselves, as long as it’s done to specs.

No Street Signs, No Problem
The company monitors and communicates with vehicles using a global positioning system by Teletrac. “I was one of the first people to have it in South Florida, right after Hurricane Andrew in 1992,” Rice says. “There were no street signs in Homestead. We used it to talk our drivers to jobs.”

As a dispatcher, Stein says he relies on the GPS system “80 percent.” He sends job information to the trucks’ two-way digital display, which frees up drivers from having to talk on the two-way radio while driving. The system’s geo-fencing capabilities can monitor known drug areas, and the speed alerts monitor unsafe driving. The system promotes fuel savings, protects against moonlighting, and helps security. Stein says the company used the system to recover a stolen van.

Overall, Rice attributes his company’s success to a hands-on approach and a loyal management team. “We’ve been approached by companies to handle our fleet management, but at this particular point we don’t see any benefit to it,” Rice says. “We run such a tight ship already. People have multi-function roles here.”