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How to Decide Whether to Rent or Buy Drain Cleaning Equipment
Cleaning drains is a dirty business — and one that many maintenance and engineering managers choose to outsource. But the stigma associated with clearing clogged pipes is often unwarranted.
“People have such a strong, visceral reaction to the concept of drain cleaning because they think they’re touching raw sewage,” says David Dunbar, national sales manager with General Pipe Cleaners.
Today’s drain cleaning tools are easier, safer and cleaner to use than their predecessors.
Whether managers decide whether to buy or rent drain cleaning equipment, technicians with the right tools and training can address common plumbing problems and prevent recurring issues, resulting in significant long-term savings.
Inevitably, maintenance workers must field calls about clogged toilets and backed up sinks, regardless of the type of building they service. To address these issues, it can be beneficial to have equipment immediately available as part of a drain cleaning program.
“It’s important to remember that clogs can happen in any drain pipe at any time — day or night,” says Tina Mares with Ferguson Enterprises. “So some specialty equipment is necessary, depending on the crew’s experience and the issues they’re having.”
When deciding what equipment to purchase or rent, the diameter and length of the drains is an important consideration, says Mark Speranza with Electric Eel Manufacturing Co.
“Typically, a drain cleaning program requires two to three drain cleaning machines to address a variety of concerns,” he says.
In addition to a plunger, suppliers recommend maintenance departments use a closet auger, also known as a toilet auger. These 3- to 6-foot sections of snake are fed down the toilet to safely remove obstructions without damaging the toilet.
Maintenance crews also should have access to a hand-driven or motor-driven snake or auger for clearing small diameter drains of 1¼-2 inches, such as those found in showers, tubs and sinks. Typically, this type of drain cleaning tool has a range of 35 feet.
“When small pipes clog, it’s usually within the first 5 feet,” Dunbar says. “Paper products are famous for doing this, as well as soap and hair. So you need a cable or snake that’s flexible enough to go through the twists and turns of these pipes.”
Medium-sized pipes with 2- to 4-inch diameters are also susceptible to clogs from paper, hair and soap. These drain lines connect two or more sinks or toilets and require a medium-size machine with a range of 50-75 feet.
Facilities that experience problems with tree roots also should consider renting or purchasing a large drain machine for clearing 4- to 6-inch-diameter lines outside the building. Two types of machines are available: continuous drum machines and sectional cable machines, Speranza says.
“Sectional cable machines allow you to run longer distances of up to 200 feet by adding 8-foot sections of cable as you go,” he says. “Continuous cable drum machines are suitable for clearing lines of up to 100 feet.”
Maintenance departments also should consider using a small hydro-jetting cleaner for kitchen sinks. This tool uses a high-pressure water stream to scour the inside of the pipe, clearing blockages and removing contaminants.
“Our diets have changed in the last decade, and there’s a lot of grease going down the drain,” Dunbar says. “I’m hearing from facilities maintenance (teams) that somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of grease gumming up today’s world is located within 10 to 15 feet of the kitchen sink. So for grease, this is the right tool.”
A kinetic drain cleaner or an air gun drain cleaner is an important tool to dislodge clogs quickly and effectively, particularly if buildings have issues with standing water.
“The kinetic drain cleaner sends a shockwave of kinetic energy down the drain,” Dunbar says. “We sell a lot of them to hotels, prisons and schools. If you have a foreign object blocking the drain, these are very effective at getting them out, and you can be done in 30 seconds.”
Having access to a variety of drain cleaning machines can save maintenance departments time and money, depending on the technicians’ skill level and the nature and frequency of the building’s plumbing needs. When it comes to video inspection cameras, however, it might be more feasible to rent the equipment or hire a contractor.
“A pipeline inspection camera is the most expensive piece of equipment in a drain cleaning program,” Speranza says. “It allows you to visually identify the cause of recurring issues and other problems in both interior lines and main lines. If you have a broken pipe, for example, the camera will help you identify where to dig to replace that pipe.”
Video inspection systems can cost $5,000 to $10,000, and, unlike many other drain cleaning machines, have a steep learning curve.
“You really need someone who knows what they’re doing,” Mares says. “You don’t want to spend a lot of money on an inspection camera and not know what you’re looking for. Sometimes, it’s better to rent one or hire a professional that uses one day in and day out.”
Dollars and sense
When considering any type of drain cleaning equipment, managers must juggle the technician’s ability to operate the machine and its cost.
“Drain cleaning machines can be dangerous,” Mares says. “I would not recommend owning or operating one if you don’t have the experience or you’ve never operated one before.”
In addition to assessing staff expertise, managers need to calculate the department’s yearly spend on rentals and contractors before deciding if a purchase makes sense financially.
“It doesn’t take long to spend a lot of money renting equipment or outsourcing your plumbing needs,” Speranza says. “A main-line drain machine costs about $2,000. That’s two or three trips from a plumber. And if you’re spending $10,000 a year to have someone inspect your sewer or drain lines, you should probably buy a camera.”
In addition to calculating yearly contractor and rental costs, managers who decide to purchase equipment need to amortize the cost of a new machine over its lifetime.
“A large drain cleaning machine lasts 10 years on average, and a small one lasts about five years,” Dunbar says. “So if the machine costs $2,000 and it lasts 10 years, that’s $200 a year. If I’m spending more than $200 to rent a machine every year, then it makes sense to own one.”
Facilities also should factor in the maintenance costs associated with owning drain cleaning machines and apply a preventive maintenance schedule to new purchases.
“Keep in mind with proper maintenance you can extend the life of your equipment and increase your return on investment,” Mares says.
The tipping point
For facilities that rent drain cleaning machines regularly, budgets weigh heavily on the decision to stop renting and start owning. Other factors also can tip managers toward making a purchase.
“The tipping point for a purchase has several variables, but the one that a lot of people don’t think of is the type of workplace disruption caused by these types of drain issues,” Mares says. “If you constantly have issues at 3 a.m. when you can’t rent a drain cleaning machine, you’d likely want to buy one to keep on hand as long as you have someone who knows how to use it.”
Indeed, frequent emergency plumbing issues might well be the tipping point for facilities to purchase equipment they might otherwise rent.
“If you have an emergency, you’re a couple of hours away from getting started if you rent the equipment,” Dunbar says. “You have to send someone to get it, bring it back, and then return it when you’re done.”
By having equipment in-house, technicians not only can tackle emergencies but prevent them from happening.
“Preventive maintenance is always better than emergency management,” Dunbar says. “If you have the equipment, you can address things before they become a problem. For example, if you know the kitchen sink backs up every six months, you can jet it every three to four months. So you’ll find yourself using the machines for things that are not yet emergencies that you wouldn’t have thought of before. This will have a long-term effect of reducing costs.”
For facilities that are still on the fence about whether to buy or rent drain cleaning equipment, Dunbar advises reviewing the quality and safety features of equipment the department rents.
“Sometimes rental equipment is not as safe or user friendly as the machines you would buy, so be careful that what you’re getting is a professional-grade machine,” Dunbar says. “Typically, rental companies want to rent you a machine that requires you to have both hands on the cable, and that’s not a safe position to be in. You want something with a power feed control and a guide tube that’s safer and easier to use.”
While the tipping point for purchasing a drain cleaning machine varies from one facility to another, the desired goal remains the same: To clear drains and prevent blockages quickly, safely and cost-effectively.
Kassandra Kania is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.