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Plumbing and drain cleaning are steeped in tradition. In many ways the craft follows the same principles it did decades ago, and contracting businesses are often handed down from one generation to another.
Yet while its members maintain their traditions, equipment manufacturers for the plumbing and drain cleaning industries are changing, as is the equipment they produce.
In recent years they have increasingly been influenced by the principles of the biggest names in tech to guide service models and product development.
In fact, the best practices behind things like smart phones and app development have driven some of the greatest new developments and ideas in our industry — making equipment simpler to move, maintain and use. So what is this “big tech” mindset bringing to the table?
Ease of Use
Until 2007, mobile phones came in all shapes and sizes. Phone makers produced various swivel and flip designs, and the hottest models of the early aughts had full keyboards built into the device.
Then came the iPhone. Apple CEO Steve Jobs prioritized simplicity in consumer electronics in ways that few had done before. He believed that technology should be designed with the user in mind, and his minimalist creations reflected this goal.
They provided more than style: The clean design of Apple electronics makes them less intimidating for users and has helped usher the world into a period of widespread smartphone use.
Today, nearly all competitors have adopted a similar design.
Equipment manufacturers for plumbing and drain cleaning equipment are implementing this customer-first mindset as well. They’ve worked hard to ensure that owning and using modern equipment is easy.
For example, while workers once struggled to maneuver snakes through lines, autofeed capabilities have made cabling jobs far less physically strenuous. In addition, manufacturers are giving their easy-to-use components simple interfaces, with uncluttered buttons, knobs or switches that take the confusion out of operation.
Today’s smartphones, laptops and tablets are mobile command centers, packing more power into a single device than our parents could have ever thought possible. And building more functionality into less space has been a defining principle in microchip development since the early days of computing.
While drain cleaning equipment doesn’t yet fit in workers’ pockets, there has been a move towards compact, efficient equipment and portability. This is a big shift for an industry where “small” once meant weak or flimsy.
But the footprints for upright cable machines are shrinking, and these tools are becoming easier and easier to maneuver. The introduction of features like stair climbers and removable reels has further simplified transport and allowed companies to retrofit older models to increase portability.
Simple, Brand-loyal Sales
The internet has made shopping simpler than ever. Consumers can go online and buy nearly anything at the click of a button. Yet the process has also grown more complicated: A shopper looking for a book may have to sort through countless used and new copies, each sold at a different price point, and with different shipping options, unique return policies and variable customer service.
In this environment, many online retailers have been successful by making themselves an easy one-stop shop to meet every consumer need. Amazon has excelled at this, but even retailers with a narrower scope are working hard to ensure brand loyalty by meeting all their customers’ needs in one place.
Brand loyalty in the plumbing and drain cleaning industry runs deep, and its tradition of customer service is going strong. Now, however, manufacturers are working harder than ever to build more consistency across their lines, and to ensure that they can provide everything — from specialized gloves to service to jetters — in one place. They are becoming one-stop shops in their own right, on their web sites and, increasingly, on platforms like Amazon.
In an incredibly short period of time, many of us have learned to take our virtual assistants for granted. What makes Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant so powerful is their ability to “learn” about a user and offer a customized experience.
Google Assistant, for example, gleans details about Android users based on their online habits and movements in the physical world. It tailors its news alerts, shopping tips, weather updates and travel advice accordingly.
While each device comes with factory presets, it quickly fills with user data. In this way one model can be incredibly versatile, and when updated with the owner’s personal preferences, can offer an entirely different experience for each person.
Customers today have come to expect this versatility in many aspects of their lives. That’s why quality cable machines are compatible with an ever-growing range of cables and blades, so users can customize them to fit their business’ unique needs.
To remain competitive, one manufacturer must offer a large selection of cable machine blades for cleaning and maintaining sewers and drains. These include blades for mainlines or sinklines, and many specialized tools. They also offer fittings that work across a range of brands and models. Users can make their machines their own, using them for a range of jobs and environments.
It seems like nearly everything today is online. From Wi-Fi-enabled toothbrushes to remotely monitored thermostats, we’re always connected. Accessing information, and sharing it with others, is easy and near instantaneous, and this allows us to use our data and information in new and unexpected ways.
Modern plumbing and drain cleaning equipment is no exception. Many workers will remember the days of VHS recordings, but nearly all drain cameras today come with internal storage and USB compatibility, and now many also support Wi-Fi streaming.
Users can effortlessly upload video and pictures from camera sessions and share with property owners and other contractors. It makes it easier for plumbers to protect and store footage, and customers appreciate being able to see and review problems.
Of course, there are differences between the consumer electronics and plumbing and drain cleaning equipment industries. And while manufacturers are taking quite a few cues from the design, business practices and capabilities of today’s hottest tech giants, there’s at least one key way they’re sticking to tradition:
The average “lifespan” of a smartphone in America is about two years. Warranties and contracts are limited to similar time frames, and some brands have even been caught building sluggish response times into older models during system upgrades. With the rapid pace of change and the sensitive nature of mobile hardware, most consumers are not surprised when they need to replace their phones after just a couple years.
This doesn’t fly with plumbers and drain cleaners, who need sturdy, long-lasting equipment. A smartphone may only last 2 years, but a quality jetter or cable machine can last 20 or more. Customers still expect rugged durability and quality construction that can withstand years of wear and tear. Any manufacturer that fails to provide that ongoing standard of quality is not long for this world.
Today, drain cleaning and plumbing equipment manufacturers are innovating. This “legacy” industry is constantly finding new ways to apply the lessons of the tech industry: ease of use, portability, brand loyalty, customization and connectivity. The trick is in merging these advances with a tradition of quality and durability that can withstand the test of time and provide plumbers and drain cleaners with the tools they need to get the job done.
Michael Och is the operations manager at MyTana LLC, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based full-service manufacturer of drain cleaning and inspection equipment, including cable machines, drain jetters and plumber cameras.