BY MARTY SILVERMAN
SPECIAL TO CONTRACTOR

RUTH COLEMAN, a schoolteacher in Somerset, Pa., came home to find her basement flooded. The whole house was tied into the floor drain, so when it was clogged, nothing in the house worked. She called Barry Frazier of Frazier Plumbing, Heating and Air. When he got the call he thought, "This could be a job for my new water jet."

Frazier said that he had resisted buying the water jet machine because his plumbing business is 60% repair work, 20% new construction and just 20% drain cleaning.

"For the little drain-cleaning work I do, it's expensive compared to a cable drain cleaner," he said.

His primary drain cleaner is a sectional machine; his first drain-cleaning machine was his father's old drum machine purchased back in the '50s. He's still got it, and it still runs.

He said that he'd heard that high-pressure water jets are better for clearing grease-clogged lines than cable machines are because grease is a self-healing stoppage. The cable will punch a hole in the grease, but when the cable is pulled back, the grease seals up the line again.

The high-pressure water spray will cut the grease off the walls of the pipe, and the high flow will flush it down the line. He'd also heard that jets work well on sand in sagging, bellied lines and will clear ice in frozen lines as well.

After much discussion with his employees and other plumbers in the area, he decided to buy a 3,000-psi, 4-gal. per minute water jet with a 13- hp gas engine and 200 ft. of jet hose. He also bought the accessory reel so he could use the gas jet on indoor jobs.

He had considered an electric jet because it would have been less of a problem handling indoor jobs, he said. But he discovered the power of the gas-powered water jet is significantly higher and thus made it better suited for handling the type of jobs he would run into — mainly long runs to the septic system in 4-in. lines.

After he bought the machine, however, it just sat in his garage, he said. He used it to clean his trucks now and then, but it hadn't gone out on a job. Then he got the call from Ruth Coleman.

"She was using powder detergent, and the 100-ft., 4-in. line was packed solid," Frazier said. "We had to work the line from both ends, inside and out. We had to cut through major soap blockages and hard soap deposits. When the line was clear, we had filled a 5-gal. bucket with soap chunks."

Frazier continued to experiment with his new water jetter. On another job, he cleared mud and shale from a floor drain in his old shop. The line was 80 ft. long.

" With this new machine, we've learned something new on each job," Frazier said. "You have to let it pull itself — you can't push it. You can't be in a hurry. Just let the hose move forward slowly and liquefy the blockage. We use the pulse to let the hose jump around the trap or through a blockage. It will jump around enough to pull through a vent too."

Pulse is what separates water jets from pressure washers. Pulse breaks the initial tension between the surface of the hose and the walls of the pipe, helping the hose slide around tight bends and propel itself farther down the line. It also increases the cleaning power of low-pressure electric water jets and is particularly useful in jetting around tight bends in small drain lines.

"You get into some of these old sewer lines, they're cracked, they're broken and you don't know what's going on," Frazier said. "What's nice about it is it pulls through sewer lines full of debris. We thought we had a leaf blockage in an outside drain line, but when the jet punched though it we found the line was packed with acorns, sand and mud. We even blew shale out of the line."

On a job at the Pine Grill restaurant in Somerset, Frazier's crew used the remote reel and left the unit on the truck.

"We didn't have to take the heavy machine off the truck, and my back likes that," he said. "We ran the hose down the main line, which was clogged with grease, and the jet pushed it open easily. Our old cable machine just bores holes in the blockage. When we use the jet, we know we got the pipe clean. In fact, though we still use our cable machine for cutting tree roots, we use it less since we got our jetter."

Three things can damage the pump of a water jet — running it without water, running it with hot water above 160° F and letting it freeze in cold weather. Most of the homes in Frazier's service area use well water, so he has to be careful to make sure he's got enough water flow before he starts the pump. He uses a 2-gal. bucket and his wristwatch. If he can fill the bucket in 30 seconds or less, he's got enough water to run is 4-gpm machine safely.

When it comes to hot water and grease, Frazier said that it's better to clear grease with cold water than hot. When you use hot water the grease clog melts, then flows down the line and congeals someplace else. When you clear a grease clog with cold water, it breaks up into chunks and flows away cleanly.

In the cold winters of Western Pennsylvania, Frazier knows to keep his jet machine inside at night to protect the pump from freezing. Or, he'll have a bottle of antifreeze on the truck to put into the pump if it will be in freezing conditions for a long period of time.

Another trick he said he's learned: Use the foot pedal to jump the hose around a corner or through a clog. "There was this one really bad job that I didn't think we were going to open with the jet, but with this trick it opened it right up."

His advice to other contractors: Use it a while and practice with it.

Marty Silverman is marketing manager for General Pipe Cleaners. He can be reached at 800/ 245- 6200 or at www.drainbrain.com