The Best of Two Worlds
Two Connecticut companies find complementary businesses
in equipment sales and municipal and industrial service contracting
By Rosalie E. Leposky
When clients need pipes cleaned or need new pipe-cleaning equipment anywhere in New England, the Bahr family of Wallingford, Conn., is ready to step in. William T. "Bill" Bahr, Jr., and his sister, Victoria E. Kavanaugh, own and operate two companies:
* Vista, LLC, which cleans and inspects large-diameter pipes for municipalities, large companies, and other contractors. The firm is known for solving difficult pipe-related cleaning problems, often after they have stymied other contractors.
* Bahr Sales, Inc., sells the heavy machinery needed to do this kind of work.
Together, Bill and Victoria manage both companies. Because each deals in sales and service, they have extensive knowledge of today's pipe-cleaning technology, and of its practical applications. The two sides of the business march hand in hand: The sales side provides equipment to customers, some of whom later call upon the service side to assist in its use or to provide specialized equipment they do not yet own.
Selling what works
"We've gained vast knowledge of how equipment should operate," Victoria says. "We've learned what machines work best in which applications and how machines perform. Every job has its quirks. Because he knows of the strengths and limitations of equipment, my brother has suggested adaptations that have been used by manufacturers and other contractors. His adaptations have solved problems that had other contractors stumped."
Bill and Victoria also benefit from their family's long experience in these comple-mentary businesses. Vista and Bahr Sales trace their origins to R.F. Bahr Company, founded in 1936 by Bill and Victoria's grandfather, Raymond F. Bahr, Sr.
Although Raymond Sr.'s primary business was the sale of heavy pipe-cleaning equipment, from time to time he helped customers use the equipment to solve complex problems in the field.
His sons, William T. Bahr, Sr., and Raymond S. Bahr, Jr., were running the company in 1955 when heavy rains associated with Hurricane Connie (August 11-14) and Hurricane Diane (August 17-20) soaked southern New England.
In a 48-hour period, 20 inches of rain fell on New England rivers, communities, and public utilities, causing $350 million in flood damage in Connecticut alone. The Naugatuck Valley flooded from Torrington to Bridgeport. Pipes filled with water and were clogged with debris washed from the hillsides.
Launching the service side
"My father and uncle contacted customers for ready-to-ship new equipment in our shop and asked them to take later delivery," recalls Bill. "Then they re-ordered the customers' equipment and diverted to emergency use the equipment they had on hand."
After the cleanup, the Bahr family kept the equipment and entered the cleaning business in a systematic way. They founded and later sold New England Pipe Cleaning Company.
Other changes to the Bahr business came with the introduction of video pipe inspections. "Initially we used 35mm cameras in waterproof containers," says Bill. "We took pictures of what we hoped were joints two feet apart. Then we had to wait while film was developed."
In 1971, the name of the family business was changed to Bahr Sales & Service, Inc. After the death of William Bahr, Sr., in 1990, Bill and Victoria acquired other family member's interests in Bahr Sales & Service, Inc. and reincorporated under Bahr Sales, Inc., and after that founded Vista, LLC.
Working with Bill and Victoria are two long-time employees whose tenures date from their father's time. Marty Szpak, Vista's superintendent, has been with the company over 20 years. "He was here when I first came to work with my father," Bill says. "Matt Arendholz, who operates our combination truck, has been with us since the mid-1980s."
Now, a fourth-generation Bahr has become involved. Bill's son, William T. Bahr, III, 19, a local community-college student, operates a TV inspection crew and is cross-training on vacuum trucks and bucket machines.
Vista and Bahr Sales rely on word of mouth for new business, and they also market their products and services in a variety of ways. Bahr Sales is a regional representative for several equipment companies and participates in trade shows. Vista calls on municipal governments, large companies and other contractors and sends out mailings to announce the addition of new units to its fleet.
Clean, inspect, troubleshoot
The current flagship of that fleet is the Model 800-HPR TV truck, introduced this year by Sewer Equipment Company of America. It's a pipe-cleaning truck with video inspection equipment installed on the working end of a high-pressure water jetter.
"This new technology allows us to clean pipes, and immediately inspect and trouble-shoot," Victoria says. "If we have a jetting problem or blockage, we can find it immediately by putting the camera down into the pipe. We have the ability to save customers the cost of hiring a separate video crew. Our crews don't have to break down, sit and wait while a video crew is called and completes its work, and then set up again. The customer has one bill to pay, and the service is quicker and more efficient."
"We chose this machine," Bill says, "because we found it can verify that the pipe is clean enough for us to send in our tap cutters, or pull a pan-and-tilt video inspection camera. If we are going out primarily to clean, having the ability to inspect the pipes afterward allows us to confirm that all roots, grease and other materials have been removed. This equipment allows even an inexperienced operator to know when the pipe is clean, and to spend less time jetting a clean line just to ensure that he has gotten everything out of the pipe."
Other major components of the fleet are:
* A 2000 Chevrolet Express Cargo Van with a specially fitted video inspection system with a color pan-and-tilt camera from RS Technical Services, Inc.
* A Clean Earth combination machine mounted on a 1995 Volvo White GMC truck with a Myers DP8020 water pump and Roots Dresser 824 blower.
* An easement machine, a small self-propelled cart equipped with a high-pressure water jetter. This compact rig can squeeze through narrow gates and tight passageways between buildings.
* Two trailer-mounted hydraulic bucket machines from Sewer Equipment Company of America.
Problems and Solutions
Municipal agencies, large companies, and contractors often call Vista for troubleshooting assistance. Sometimes they purchased their equipment from Bahr Sales, but not always. "Sometimes we can solve their problem with a phone call," Victoria says. "We have never charged for phone consultations. Customer service is a priority for us. We don't mind sharing."
On other occasions, however, Vista must send out equipment larger than what customers own to solve their problems. "Sometimes other contractors don't have the equipment or experience to go to the next step, or the problem is complex and they need assistance," she says. "A lot of people are now doing video inspections, but some don't do large-pipe inspections. Our experience makes us better than the competition."
In serving municipal and industrial customers, Vista encounters a wide variety of challenges. On one recent job, recalls Bill, an entire neighborhood was getting flooded because of a blockage in a storm drain system. "The customer was going to lower a Bobcat into open flood-control drains, but a box culvert four feet high, 16 feet wide, and 50 feet long under a bridge prevented him from cleaning the material out of this run.
"We set up dragline bucket machines, pulled the material back to the culvert and up into dump trucks, and vacuumed out a large plunge pool on the downside of the culvert to alleviate the flood problem. The cost was a fraction of what the customer would have spent to do it himself with cranes and small earthmoving equipment."
On another project, Vista cleaned a 1,200-foot-long interceptor line 48 inches in diameter that fed directly into a wastewater treatment plant, without allowing any of the debris to enter the plant. "In five days, we removed 47 cubic yards of grit with a two-man crew and a pair of bucket machines," Bill says.
In still another case, Vista improved water flow in a major pipe feeding into a wastewater treatment plant. "One of our competitors had cleaned the line previously," Bill says. "He explained the high level of water in the pipe by telling the customer the line had a large dip, when in reality the water was backed up because an 800-foot section was filled with large-diameter rocks."
Vista also has extensive experience with large line bucket cleaning, TV inspection of old oval-shaped pipe, and vacuum work in high-flow situations that challenge people with less experience.
The combination of equipment sales and contract service gives Bill and Victoria a strong and diverse base upon which to build a prosperous future.
Cleaner Cover Story December 2002
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