Get To Know Our Customers: Terrell Harmon of Harmon Pipe Service, LLC

Terrell Harmon runs Harmon Pipe Service LLC in Rockmart, Georgia, about 45-50 minutes from Atlanta. The company has been in business for six years. It serves the metro Atlanta area, primarily north Atlanta, Forsythe County, and surrounding areas. They work mostly in new construction, primarily new subdivisions.

At its peak, Harmon Pipe Service (HPS) ran a crew of six, doing Mandrel testing, vacuum testing of manholes, pipe cleaning, and video inspection. These days, it’s pretty much just Terrell in the field, and one other part-time employee in the office.

Focusing on Pipeline Inspection

“I’m starting to slow down,” he says, “so we’re doing mostly video inspection. No cleaning anymore, no jetting—mostly just video.” After experiencing many facets of the business, he has found the work he most enjoys and which generates the greatest return on resources invested.

HPS primarily subcontracts to larger pipeline contractors on big commercial jobs, so with this single revenue stream, it’s critical to him that his equipment work every time. He’s been using Cobra Technologies CCTV pipeline inspection equipment since he’s been in the business. What keeps him coming back to Cobra?

“It’s a great product line; simple to operate, and it’s a great product for a fair price. It’s a great fit for me because the company is local, and their after-sales service is great,” Terrell says.

Terrell Harmon driving his UTV-mounted CCTV inspection system

Terrell Harmon driving his UTV-mounted CCTV inspection system

Specializing in Off-Road Locations

HPS specializes in inspecting outfalls and other assets that require off-road access. He runs two of our Model 800 crawlers, two V5 cameras, and Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera on a UTV unit for doing off-road stuff.

He recalls adding that last piece: “Most of my calls were becoming those for off-road jobs. I guess with the big vans, they couldn’t get video equipment to these places. I knew that carving out a niche for myself in the local market was a good positioning strategy, and I saw one in being able to get where they couldn’t. That’s what made me successful.”

So in 2000, Terrell approached us and said “I don’t want a van, but I want your equipment. We’re going to be operating it on a UTV,” a utility ATV such as a Polaris or Gator. He specified what he wanted, and we built him a UTV-based inspection system.

From Niche to Now

The first model was a simple sheet metal fabrication. The second vehicle we beefed up the rugged factor and good looks by adding diamond plate in strategic locations. We then built a third one and began offering these models to the general industry.

These UTV-mounted systems are basically intended to get our equipment out where the landscape is more rural, and there just aren’t many wide, well-maintained roads. As Terrell explains:

“All sewer lines leave the road eventually. Some go through the woods, down to these outfalls in more distant and less-travelled areas. That’s what I specialize in. Everybody can’t stay in the road. That’s where I went with the UTV.”

He says that although it was something of a financ

ial risk, he had really looked at the jobs that were coming in, and studied where his market was going. He believed it would be a good move.

Owner Terrell Harmon stands in front of the rugged diamond plate housing of his Cobra Technologies UTV-mounted CCTV pipeline inspection system

Owner Terrell Harmon stands in front of the rugged diamond plate housing of his Cobra Technologies UTV-mounted CCTV pipeline inspection system

Quick Payoff

It was, only taking about 18 months to pay off that investment.

“Not bad at all,” he quips.

Aside from believing in his own idea, Terrell had to have faith that the Cobra designers and fabrication technicians would be able to execute the plan he saw in his mind. “They never had done (a UTV-mounted system) before, so I kind of worked with them. I said, ‘Here’s what I want, it’s going to work.’ I knew they could do it. We just had to mount the equipment on a UTV rather than in a van, just put a cover over it. I knew it would be fine, because Cobra is good equipment.”

Asked if he sees himself as a sort of pioneer, he chuckles and says, “Well, I’ll try anything.”

Showing the World

And he’s proven out his idea and gotten his mileage out of it. Now he’s ready to let the Cobra team show their mutual idea to the entire market, which is why we had it on display in our booth at the 2018 WWETT Show.

“I’ve been dealing with it long enough, and I was willing to let them bring it and have it at the show,” he says, “so, hopefully, it pays off for them, too.”

We have a funny feeling it’ll do just that. Thanks, Terrell!

Get To Know Our Customers: Randy Askea of Continental Pipe Services

Randy Askea (pronounced AS-kay) of Continental Pipe Services (CPS) in Marietta, Georgia got his start in the wastewater management industry in 1975. He worked for a pipeline services contractor for about six years, then went into business for himself in 1981.

CPS offers pipeline cleaning, inspection (mainly video), chemical grouting and sealing, manhole restoration, and wet well rehabilitation. They do pressure testing, vacuum testing of manholes, and generate reports on these tests.

“We’re really known for ‘pipe-in-the-ground’ contracting,” says Randy. “We do the job fast, which gets us a lot of projects for cities and military bases.”

At one point, this work supported a staff of twenty employees. When the economy tanked in 2008, Randy had to make some difficult choices. “We downsized when the economy got bad. We were forced to lose quite a few people, so we’re down to about four now.” As for so many other businesses, it was a tough time for CPS, but things are improving.

As of the 2018 WWETT Show, Randy had just bought a brand new TrioVision CCTV inspection truck. “We have an older TV truck van as well,” he says, “and I have one of the Cobra portable units that I can load onto a pickup truck, and go to places that most people can’t in the industry.” With that new equipment and capacity available, CPS has put a new crew to work, now that the economy’s picked back up in their area.

In his early years working for the other contractor Randy says he went a lot of places on the job. “We worked in Hawaii, Guam, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—all the military bases, all over the U.S. He would send crews and equipment over” to get the jobs done. These days, he keeps a bit closer to home, but still ranges out a bit. “I spent about five years in Houston back in the ’80s,” he recalls. “We had a project going there. I also did a lot of work up in the Memphis, Tennessee area. We go where the work is.”

CPS currently runs a total of five vehicles: Two mobile jetters, two televised inspection trucks, the previously mentioned mobile one, and the little portable inspection unit. The portable goes on a Bobcat 4-wheel drive. “I can throw it on there, then on the trailer,” to make it super-portable and handle jobs in tighter, trickier locations.

One place CPS really likes to use that portable setup is when they get contracts to work on new dam installations. “There were 48 dams that were to be laid down across Tennessee last year,” Randy remembers. “We inspected the overflow pipes. We just picked up another contract in Culpeper, Virginia, to inspect 11 more dams.” Those contracts usually come as a package deal for several dam locations.

One of the things that keeps Randy coming back to Cobra equipment is the heavier crawler that we developed, some years ago. “It’s heavier than most other crawlers, so it allows the cable to pull the camera farther,” he says. “You can go greater distances, doing several main sections at a time. It’s so efficient and increases productivity when you can do 700-800 feet at a time.”

He also enjoys the convenience of working with our Georgia headquarters. “The Cobra office is about three miles from that Culpeper location, making maintenance easy. I can run by, pick up a part…they can fix any issues I have. It keeps me out on the job, making money.” That’s important to a small business, running on tight margins in a competitive field. And the workplace is hard on everyone’s equipment.

“It’s a very demanding environment. When you drop a camera down two lines, you run back and forth all day long, and you’re beating on the equipment pretty bad. I don’t care whose camera you’ve got, it needs to be able to take that and still perform.

“But when things do break, you also want to be able to fix it quick and get back to work. One thing I like about Cobra: Almost every part on it seems to be a standard thread or whatever. I can go to a hardware store or Home Depot, and get the nuts and bolts and things that haven’t been specialized to the point where you’ve got to call the factory.” He appreciates that this ease of maintenance is also reflected in the ongoing price of ownership.

When Randy does have to take a piece of Cobra equipment in for service, he feels well-treated by our service staff. “If my guys got a problem—you know, a camera went out or a cable broke, or the guys messed the cable up—it’s always the operator’s fault, not Cobra’s or TrioVision. But when I call from a site with an issue, they put somebody on the job, and in a couple of hours, we’re back to work.”

He feels that his business is made a priority by his customer sales rep, who maintains ownership of the account long after each sale.

“When we walk in there looking for help,” Randy says, “they always pull somebody off whatever they’re doing. Cobra has done that throughout the time I’ve had a relationship with them, which is the entire 26 years I’ve been in the business for myself. They may make a lot of sales, but they’ve tailored themselves to be responsive to contractors, too. They know that contractors are different to cities: Cities can send it away and get it fixed, but when it comes to contractors, they have got to make money. They’re not making money if they’re off making repairs. So Cobra’s service guys quickly get you going, put you back on the job. In 26 years, my equipment’s never spent the night in their shop! They get it going in an hour’s time.”

He has had some issues through the years, when Cobra service has said, “If it comes to the point where we haven’t fixed it and you need to get back on the job, here’s a loaner camera you can take to get back to work.” But he’s never had to exercise that option.

“No matter what,” Randy says with a grin, “Cobra and their equipment keep my company profitable.”

And that’s what we like to see.

Gearing Up for Year-End, Part 2: Budgeting and Equipment Acquisition

With year-end planning in full swing, one of the inescapable must-dos is budgeting for the next year’s projects. In wastewater and stormwater management, this means including pipeline inspection as a line item.

Many municipalities are under consent decrees to lessen or put an end to non-point source pollution, and this necessarily has a massive impact on budgets. While normal budgets are determined by tax revenues, consent decree work budgets are driven by what kind of mandates they have issued. Depending on the specific project, sometimes the federal government will help cities find funding to do what they need to do.

  • If there is a “green” aspect to your project, you may decide to seek funding from an EPA Clean Water Act Nonpoint Source Grant (Section 319 Grants –—Congress amended the Clean Water Act in 1987 to establish EPA’s Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program to provide greater federal leadership in focusing state and local nonpoint source efforts. Under Section 319, states, territories, and Indian tribes receive grant money to support a wide variety of activities, including:
    • technical and financial assistance,
    • education and training,
    • technology transfer,
    • demonstration projects, and
    • monitoring to assess the success of projects implemented under the grant.
  • EPA Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF –— This program is a federal-state partnership that provides communities a permanent, independent source of low-cost financing for a wide range of water quality infrastructure projects:
    • wastewater treatment
    • stormwater management
    • nonpoint source pollution control
    • watershed and estuary management.
  • Often there are National Pollutant Discharge Elimination (NPDES – funds available, although the research and paperwork can be formidable.
  • You may need to be creative in your approach and the way you view your project, when it comes to identifying potential funding sources. Consider asking your local water district for help. Or you may choose to create your project in such a way that it qualifies for funding from other, less obvious sources.

Equipment Field Demonstrations

If pipeline inspection equipment is on your list of must-buys, first do as much due diligence as possible. Research every possibility online to keep your costs in time and travel to a minimum. You may want to consult our exhaustive Due Diligence series in this blog, starting with the first post ( and reading through to the end.

One of the important steps in choosing the right equipment for your needs is scheduling a field demonstration, so you can see exactly how it behaves in actual use. Don’t settle for a simple show-and-tell from a sales representative, especially if it’s new equipment you’re not familiar with. You don’t want to see how it performs under optimal conditions, which rarely exist in the field. You want to see how it handles the rigors and unexpected turns of a real job.

Once you’ve scheduled your demonstration, what should you expect?

According to Robert Studdard, our Southeast Regional Sales Manager, “A true demo should consist of an actual pipe inspection in normal working conditions. The pipe should be cleaned prior to inspection. The pipe size being worked on should be known in advance, so the crawler can be properly set up”, he says. “And the customer should understand that there are no ‘bulletproof’ systems on the market: meaning that the condition of the pipe, its lack of maintenance, and other factors can and will affect the way the inspection goes.”

All of these real-world possibilities should be explained by the sales rep, and the customer should be wary of too many promises made with no limitations. In other words, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

The need for realistic expectations extends to the length of the inspection distance coverage. Most manufacturers claim that their equipment will go a thousand feet, and it will. However, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Most municipalities and counties go manhole to manhole, somewhere between 300-500 feet per run. So make sure you actually need that run length: Bells and whistles on equipment increase its cost, and you don’t want to pay for something you simply don’t need and probably will never use.

You may also wonder what questions you should ask to complete an accurate and in-depth comparison of all potential equipment solutions. We have created a convenient, downloadable checklist for you to use in making these comparisons. It provides a one-stop, go-to document to allow you to ask all the important questions of each manufacturer or rep, so you can then compare apples to apples, so to speak.

Gearing Up for Year-End, Part 1: CIP Planning

While many folks are shifting into late-summer/early fall activities such as back-to-school and looking forward to the start of football season, municipal public works and storm & wastewater management officials have other things on their minds.


These professionals, whose performance over the next year may determine a great deal about the physical health, safety and comfort of those in their service areas, are thinking ahead to the year’s end. This time is always fraught with the pressures of making the best decisions for their systems and constituents, when it comes to planning the next year’s projects, expenditures and acquisitions.


It’s All About The Data

Much of this decision-making takes place only after analysis of earlier collection system pipe inspection results. Depending on the severity of what’s going on in any given pipeline, they may create up to a ten-year plan for their system segments most in need. To make sound, evidence-based decisions, they need to have solid, accurate data about real conditions from their inspection programs.


Knowing how best to allocate their always-limited resources requires accurate PACP coding of defects and rich, thorough data about every facet of their underground assets. This knowledge is critical to enabling city managers to adequately fund time-critical rehabilitation work, while nipping any growing problems in the bud, while they’re still relatively inexpensive and manageable.


The way many larger cities handle these inspection and rehab tasks is with their own dedicated crews. The work of those crews will directly reflect the value of the pipeline inspection equipment and data collection, analysis and reporting software they use.


Establishing Parameters

The first step in figuring out a budget is asking the right questions about the current situation and laying out specific time-and-budget-oriented goals. These questions will establish the figures needed to estimate time and cost. They include, but may not be limited to:

  • How much work needs to be done, and what kind of work?
  • How old are the lines and when was the last time maintenance was done?
  • What is the existing capacity of involved system segments? Do they need to be upgraded?
  • Have there been SSOs recently, or in the past?
  • Are you operating under a consent decree? If so, it will mandate what you must get done each year. This may force your hand in hiring more staff, more area contractors, and/or buying new equipment to meet those quotas.


Bringing Home the Data

In data collection, it’s important that the municipality be able to import any reports generated during inspections for the city. This way, you can send it off to the federal government to show progress on the work required by any consent decree.


You want to avoid “data islands” — where you have data in two or more different software packages, but your programs can’t talk to each other. It’s critical that engineers be able to access all inspection report data at once. This helps them decide where their budgets will work hardest. Make sure all your data management tools have the ability to share data about the overall health of your entire system.


One important aspect of data management that too often gets neglected until there’s a disaster is data backup. It’s critical to back up all the data you generate, both text and imagery, during your inspections. If not, you may end up having to do them over, and no one has the budget to cover such needless duplication of effort. Instead, contact your system administrator from the get-go and discuss your backup needs, so together you can find



Budgeting can become a little complicated for cities under a consent decree. You may want to take a look at the amount of work you must do to meet its requirements, on top of servicing your usual maintenance program. Obviously, this puts added stress on funding sources. In our next post, we’ll take a look at the many sources you might consult to look for additional funding to supplement your regular maintenance budget.

Due Diligence: Dealers & Distributors

In this final entry in our Due Diligence series, we take a look at the importance of dealers and distributors in both the equipment purchase and service processes. Some contractors prefer to buy direct from the factory, and that has its advantages. But over the long haul, many find that developing a relationship with a local or regional dealer or distributor the preferable option. Let’s explore the advantages of that scenario, and the questions you need to be asking to ensure you get the most out of such a relationship:

Consultative Approach

When you deal with the distributor, are they making sure you get into the best unit for your needs, or for their bottom line? This will be apparent in the kinds of questions they ask you. You want to feel that they really understand your needs, by really listening to the answers you give.

Make sure they use a consultative approach to selling. They should be asking as many questions as you are, as you tell them about your equipment feature and performance requirements. It may be that what you think you need and what you actually need are different. Only a seasoned, experienced representative will understand this and be able to ask the right questions to figure that out. Consequently, they can lead you in the right direction toward equipment that will actually help you accomplish your goals in the field.

Know-It-All…Or Not?

If the person you’re speaking with at the dealer or distributor doesn’t seem to know the answer to some of your questions, are they willing to admit this and find out from the right person? Or do they seem more interested in appearing to have all the answers?

You can’t afford to sacrifice getting the right product to their ego or pride. If you don’t feel satisfied with the answers you receive, find a way to politely ask for a second opinion. This purchase is too large and important not to make the right one the first time.

Does Staff Inspire Confidence?

Do a little homework before you even approach the dealer/distributor. Find out if its staff is fairly stable, or if they have high turnover. The latter could indicate a poorly managed company that may not treat its people well. This could mean you may end up dealing with a constantly changing assortment of representatives. Such a situation won’t inspire comfort or confidence in you…and probably shouldn’t. As the customer, you should expect to come first, not behind a line of internal management issues.

After The Sale

Lastly, you’ll want to find out if the distributor has the capacity (and willingness) to provide a reasonable amount of after-sale service. After all, the initial transaction is a one-time thing, but ownership of the product will hopefully go on for quite a few years. You want this extension of the relationship to be convenient and satisfactory, not fraught with stress.

Can the dealer service the equipment nearby, or will they need to send it back to the factory, perhaps far away? The latter doesn’t always mean a bad deal for you: In fact, sometimes factory refurbishment is the best possible option for keeping your equipment operating at peak condition and warranty compliant. But when that happens, does your dealer offer loaner equipment to keep you productive, while yours is in the shop?

How do they handle communications while they have your equipment?

  • Will they be proactive in letting you know when you can come pick it up, or will you have to babysit the process with several phone calls?
  • What’s their track record on delivery as promised? When they say they’ll have it ready, will it be?

Managing your expectations at this point is one of their most important jobs, and you need to know that their information is reliable. Otherwise, frustration can set in, and create a lack of confidence in the dealer. No one wants that. So do your due diligence at this end of the deal, and everyone should end up happy.

We hope you’ve found this Due Diligence series helpful, and that you’ve learned something of value that will help you get a handle on the process, the next time you need to make a major capital investment in your pipeline inspection or other professional equipment.





Cost of Ownership: Downtime and Other Considerations

Due Diligence Series #4 

Large capital expenditures carry that significant price tag up front, but cost of ownership doesn’t stop with acquisition. When making such a purchase, part of doing your due diligence is anticipating and researching total cost of ownership over the life of the product.

Seeking Service Life

The first consideration in determining total cost of ownership is how long you expect to keep the item. What is the average serviceable lifespan of this equipment, if maintained to factory recommended specifications?

If you don’t know, ask the vendor. In fact, ask multiple vendors, because they may be tempted to skew the numbers in favor of their own offerings. Better yet, do an online search using a Boolean term such as “average service life + [name of product].” If you can’t find a general parameter, include potential brand names you’re considering inside the product name (delete the brackets).

Do They Stand Behind Their Offerings?

Another rather obvious consideration of total cost of ownership is whether or not the product carries a warranty. If so, what is that warranty, specifically?

This is the time to read the small print, before you’ve committed your money. If you don’t understand any terms or meanings, now is the time to ask clarifying questions of the salesperson. And don’t settle for vagaries: Demand explicitly defined answers to all your questions, and don’t stop asking until you’re satisfied you’ve been told the truth, and all of it. These are not questions you’ll want to have to justify not having asked later, should something go wrong.

Says Who?

Speaking of warranties, are these promises based on actual testing of the item for performance and reliability? If so, is that done solely in-house, or is the manufacturer confident enough to subject its products to objective, third-party testing?

The testing alone isn’t really enough to tell you much, so you’ll want to ask if test results are readily available from the manufacturer. They should be willing and able to provide you with product spec sheets carrying all applicable information. This might serve as a good bellwether for setting your expectations of long-term cost of ownership.

Don’t Forget Consumables.

Of course, you can’t know every scenario that might face you down the road as an owner of the product you’re considering for purchase, but you can definitely create some kind of basic projections for what it’s going to cost to replace worn or lost parts. Ask the vendor about the average cost for consumable parts on the product you’re looking at, and how easy it is to get those parts if and when needed.

Another factor in long-term cost of ownership is the time it takes you to wait for such parts. Ask about average turnaround time for consumable supplies, delivery and repair requests. Include questions about shipping costs, which can often be significant, especially for more heavy-duty equipment.

What about ease of sourcing for such consumables? Are some repair parts proprietary, or can they all be purchased at a local hardware store or home center? This seemingly small detail can easily derail a project schedule if not planned for ahead of time, and we all know time lost is money lost.

Cleaning and Maintenance

Find out the manufacturer’s suggested cleaning and maintenance schedules, and what they consider mandatory. How easy will it be to keep the equipment under consideration clean and properly maintained on an everyday, weekly, monthly and quarterly basis? This is a regular and ongoing cost of ownership that can really add up over time, but if you take care of it, won’t morph into an unpleasant surprise down the road.

Speaking of which, you need to consider unplanned maintenance, as well. How easy is it for your own crews to perform minor field repairs on the product in question? If turnaround time isn’t quick, will the vendor provide a loaner replacement until yours is back online? If so, will it cost you anything?

Of course, there will be some maintenance that will cost money, even if it’s not unplanned. Explosion-proof equipment requires factory refurbishment due to safety considerations, but make sure you know about this up front.

Training Can Cost or Save You.

One of the long-term costs of ownership frequently overlooked at shopping time is training. What does the manufacturer offer in the way of training your crews to use and maintain their products? Do they make it easy for you to take advantage of? Will they come to you, or must you go to them? Have they made an effort to pack as much information into their training modules as possible, to take up as little of your crews’ time as they can while still imparting needed wisdom and experience?

Accessibility of Technical Support

The last factor you need to consider is how easily you can get technical help related to your purchase. The best in the world is of little value if it’s not accessible when you need it. How is the vendor staffed for such support? Do they provide several avenues (phone, text, email, in person) through which they can be contacted? Are they available during the hours you’re most likely to need them?

Adding It All Up

Take notes on all of these points and attach figures to those that can be anticipated. Make a matrix or spreadsheet containing a column for each point, and fill in those figures for each potential purchase candidate. This will help you compare apples to apples, and refer back to the comparison as needed. Add up all the figures and at the end of this document you will have created the proverbial (and literal) bottom line.

Now you can make an informed decision based on realistic, total cost of ownership for each piece of equipment you’re considering.

Next up: Our final post in this series, dealer/distributor considerations






DueDIligence Part 4 header

Manufacturer Considerations, Part 3: Just What You Need

Due Diligence Series Post #4 – Manufacturer Considerations, Part 3

In your manufacturer considerations thus far, you’ve vetted potential big-ticket equipment vendors for flexibility, both in attitude and ability to deliver. Those are both pillars of a solid vendor foundation. But what about the things that set them apart from the competition? What about surpassing your expectations into the realm of “above and beyond?”

The ability to deliver in this realm rests largely upon business philosophy and the vendor’s sense of their mission. This is the area where, handled properly, everything else in your manufacturer considerations becomes run-of-the mill. In this area, even parts of the rest of the transaction that may have seemed ho-hum turn into the Deciding Factor; the thing that exceeds expectations and delights the buyer.

Have It Your Way

Those of a certain age will remember the old 1974 Burger King commercials, proclaiming “have it your way.”

It was a brilliant campaign that allowed the #2 fast food provider to pull a lot of market share away from McDonald’s. The #1 giant had demanded everyone simply accept that their burgers were going to be delivered with the standard ketchup, mustard and chopped onions…no exceptions.

It was a classic example of the business success principle of putting the customer first, rather than trying to shoehorn them into what works best for you as a business. It’s no less effective today.

With that in mind, you need to ask of a potential equipment vendor is whether their standard stock is all that’s available, or if they offer customization. Clearly, the ability to have an off-the-shelf item tailored to the specific way you and your crews will actually use it is a serious advantage; not just in outcomes, but also in making that equipment pleasant and satisfying to use.

When you’re shelling out the kind of money it takes to outfit yourself well for CCTV inspection, why not hold out for a solution from a vendor who’s happy to let you have it your way?

Help Along The Way

One of the significant determiners of satisfying, long-term business relationships with an equipment vendor is whether the manufacturer works through a dealer network to help with delivery and repair. While the manufacturer must set the tone of how they expect customers to be treated, it’s often far more convenient to work with a local distributor or dealer, whose primary business is the service of the products he delivers. These middlemen more than earn their keep by helping you navigate any warranty policies and performing maintenance work on your purchase close to home.

It’s no secret that CCTV equipment necessarily has parts—such as the optics—that regardless of ruggedization by the manufacturer, are still vulnerable to the harsh environments and sometimes necessary rough handling they’re subjected to. So when those or other parts need replacement or repair, it’s important to have someone not too far away you can depend on to get you back in the field and productive as soon as possible.

Along those lines, we all know that sometimes, a part may take a bit longer than expected to arrive, or some other factor can cause delay in getting your equipment back. But the jobs don’t wait, and you don’t want to create a disgruntled customer. Does your potential vendor have a loaner policy, providing a temporary replacement to keep you working until yours is returned? This is one question that you may never really need to know, but if you do, it can make all your due diligence efforts worthwhile.

Can you get the equipment the way you need to?

Another really important question to ask, if you’re responsible for purchasing equipment for a municipality, is whether the vendor makes its products available through the channels you’re required to use to buy it. More and more public works departments are coming under blanket purchasing laws that require them to use online purchasing cooperative interfaces, commonly referred to as “buy boards.”

If you’re one of them, you want to make sure that the equipment you spec in your capital expenditures is available for purchase through this channel, or you can find yourself out of luck and disappointed when it comes time to issue the purchase order.

Increasingly, manufacturers serious about competing in the marketplace are understanding that they need to have a presence on these boards. Although lack of such a presence doesn’t automatically disqualify a vendor from consideration, it should raise concerns about how serious they are about maintaining a serious, long-term presence in the industry.

So when you’re considering a vendor for such big-ticket items, it’s clear that doing your due diligence is an investment of time and effort that can pay off long into the future. We hope this series has been helpful in outlining some best practices in planning for and protecting your equipment investment.

Manufacturer Considerations, Part 2: Who Comes First?

Last time, in discussing manufacturer considerations, we covered important questions to ask about potential equipment vendors, regarding identifying real decision makers, and the ability of the company to be flexible in meeting your needs. This post, we’re taking a look at not just the potential vendor’s flexibility in ability, but also in attitude.

Your key question in this area of doing due diligence is: Who comes first in your potential relationship—you or the vendor?

Manufacturer Considerations: Relational or Transaction-Based?

Obviously, every vendor will have certain strengths and limitations, and it’s your job in vetting them to find out what those are. After all, it’s a well-established fact that the most successful business relationships are those built and nurtured for the long-term. It only makes sense, really. People are predisposed to do business with those they know, like and trust, and it takes time to develop all three of those relationship facets. That kind of bond isn’t built overnight, or over the course of a single transaction.

So it’s the vendor that puts you, the customer, in front that will likely be your best choice to sustain such a long-term relationship. Clearly, it should always be the needs of the customer that drives every business relationship. In other words:

  • Does the vendor appear to exist because they like selling a certain product or service, and then hope to sell that to you as they envision it?
  • Or do they like dealing in a certain realm of service and seek out the products to sell that will best fulfill that mission for their customers?

In that vein, a specific question to ask is whether the manufacturer offers free field demonstrations, so you can see the equipment perform in YOUR real-world environment, rather than just a controlled factory environment. If not, you need to ask why.

Manufacturer Considerations: Convenience and Confidence…But For Whom?

Are they simply not set up for such demonstrations? If that’s the case, they’re missing a key component of good salesmanship, and probably aren’t as serious about their business as they should be. Sure, this kind of service costs them money in labor, energy and other resources; but if they’re not willing to make that investment, one must question their commitment to their success.

Or perhaps they’re simply not confident that their product(s) will perform as promised in an uncontrolled environment. Given that nearly every situation you’ll encounter in this industry takes place in the very definition of uncontrolled environments, that’s a real red flag. If it pops up when you ask about field demos, your best bet is to run, not walk, in the opposite direction.

Manufacturer Considerations: Service After The Sale: Retrofits

We talked last time about vendors offering service after the sale in terms of maintenance and repair. That’s a fairly common concern that most potential buyers will ask. But what about support long after the sale?

  • If you find yourself happy with the vendor’s offerings but a little short on budget, are they open to working with you?
  • Does the manufacturer offer retrofits and certified, pre-owned equipment, or do they only want to sell you new products?

Toyota, the car maker, learned long ago that planned obsolescence as a manufacturing policy is anathema to Americans, despite our tendency to be a disposable society.

In a country whose history includes a long tenure of the Big Three automakers, whose long-lived products practically defined the driving experience of an entire nation, Toyota learned that it needed to build cars that last, and then stand behind them. So they launched their Certified, Pre-Owned program, and it has carried their sales through every recession and down economy since.

Manufacturers of such durable goods as CCTV inspection equipment and vehicles face much the same expectations. Contractors don’t want to have to give up on an Old Faithful vehicle, even when the inspection systems age out or they really just want to move up to some newer technology. Vendors need to be able to offer a halfway option between limping along with legacy equipment or having to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for a full, brand new system.

That’s where the smart ones offer retrofits and pre-owned options. After all, if they can’t stand behind equipment they made themselves, even if it’s got a few miles on it, who can? Those who put their customer first seek proven ways of making their equipment accessible to buyers at every level. Refurbished units or retrofitting new equipment into existing vehicles is a great way to do that.

These are a few of the ways potential vendors can build in an attitude of flexibility in working with you, along with their ability to deliver.

Next time: Final manufacturer considerations.

Manufacturer Considerations, Part 1: Choose Your Partners Well.

When you take on the purchasing role in your company, with each buying choice you must decide whether the purchase warrants a short-term or long-term stance: are you just choosing a vendor, or a partner in your success?

With consumable items such as office or cleaning supplies, you can basically view them as commodities, which allows you to buy more on price and availability; in other words, a short-term stance that lets you be flexible according to immediate needs. With big-ticket items such as durable equipment, however, only a long-term buying stance will serve you well.

Such huge capital expenditures will either help or haunt you for years over the course of their service lives, depending on the due diligence you did to determine whether these purchases would wind up as expenses or investments on your bottom line. That’s why you need to think about more than just the equipment itself. You need to consider the vendor you’re getting it from.

There are quite a few questions you need to ask yourself about this company you could be associating with for quite some time. After all, you’re hoping the equipment has a long and healthy life, and you’ll likely be working with its manufacturer and/or distributor for the length of that life.

Vendor or Partner? Important Questions

Will the manufacturer be more than just a vendor? Will they take a consultative approach to sales and service, functioning as a full partner in your success? In other words: Whose needs come first—yours, or those of the vendor? In researching the company, there are several other questions you can ask to help you answer these.

Who owns the company? Is it privately held by a small group or family that values the company for what it really is and does; or is it simply another “property” in some big holding company’s portfolio, vulnerable to being sold off or broken up at the whims of a profit manager? The answer to this question largely determines how your company will ultimately be treated by the equipment seller. Respect for staff and company values starts at the top, and extends to the customer…or it doesn’t.

Who in the company will you be dealing with, and are they the real decision-makers? Do they have the authority and power to truly satisfy your requests? Again, this knowledge is crucial, because small business or family-run structure is far more flexible and less formal, allowing for the idiosyncrasies of new or long-established relationships, rather than being forced into some rigid corporate structure. You, the client, will always feel the upshot of that policy.

How long has the potential vendor been in the marketplace? Are they newcomers to our industry, or do they have a track record of quality, performance and innovation? What’s their corporate culture concerning service and after-sales support? When you’re considering equipment that gets beaten up as badly as most pipeline inspection systems do, that last question will have a considerable bearing on your overall happiness with your purchase in the long run.

Time Well Spent

This is where due diligence can get a little time-consuming, but it’s time well-invested to protect one of the largest spends you’ll ever make in your work. Good references are important, but don’t just stop at the “happy customer” testimonials the company offers. Seek out and ask colleagues who are or have been their customers, for real-world opinions.

Go to industry shows and ask around. Participate in online forums offered by our industry’s trade publications, where you’ll find plenty of your colleagues willing to speak out. And don’t forget social media: Lots of contractors and municipal representatives spend time on Facebook and LinkedIn. Join them, and ask about their experience with, and for honest feedback about, the vendor you’re considering.

This is just the beginning of the homework you should be doing on companies you’re considering entering into a significant relationship with. Next month, we’ll explore Manufacturer Considerations, Part 2, in this ongoing Due Diligence series.

Due Diligence Series #1 - Equipment Considerations

Pipeline Inspection Equipment Considerations: What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You!

Welcome to the first post in our Due Diligence series, intended to help you make sure your capital expenditures end up being investments, not expenses.

Let’s face it: Capital expenditures are probably the second most significant line item in your budget, whether you’re a municipality or a contractor. The specialized equipment you use to perform pipeline inspections can represent a good portion of that amount, so doing your due diligence before making such a large purchase can be the determining factor in whether that purchase ends up being a foolish cost or an intelligent investment.

What Do You Really Need?

Equipment considerations: Frigid Northeastern temperatures

The first equipment consideration is to be sure that you understand what it is you’re buying. Be very clear in your mind about what you expect that equipment to do for you. Your expectations must be realistic, of course; no system is perfect or flawless, and never breaks down. All underground and some above-ground environments in which this equipment is used are extremely harsh, and no matter what you buy, it will eventually succumb to wear and tear.

Equipment considerations: Dry cracked earth

The difference is in how long it takes to reach that point, and how repairs are handled when it does. We’ll explore those points later in this series, but at the buying stage, you need to ask yourself some important questions:

Equipment considerations: muggy Florida atmosphere

What special equipment considerations should you make for where you operate?

What are the most important features of the equipment you need?

For example, if you’re located in the Northeast, you must deal with freeze/thaw cycles, and so does your equipment. In the west, seismic conditions can be a test of both man and mechanical items. Extreme heat and dry conditions can be trying in the Southwest, while the muggy, tropical atmosphere of the Southeast can wreak havoc with mostly metal tools.

How Will You Use It?

  • What are the applications in which you’ll be using the equipment?
  • In pipe inspection or cleaning, what diameters and materials are your pipes going to be?
  • Will there be roots and debris?
  • How far from access point to access point?

All these equipment considerations will dictate rubber or friction tires or tracks, the type of lighting you require, and whether or not you can use a camera with an elevator.

If you’re in the market for locators, what type of buried utilities are you trying to find, and how deep do they tend to be buried? How far can the locator signal penetrate, and will it be aided or impeded by the type of soil and ground conditions you will likely be encountering?

While you’re responsible for the purchase decision, you may not be the one who’ll be using the new equipment. If that’s the case, it might be a good idea to consult the person or people who will be using it most often. They’ve likely developed some preferences for the type of machines they want to use, and can justify why. This can be invaluable in making sure you invest in a piece of equipment your crews happily use to help get the job done, rather than a non-starter everyone will avoid.

Share Your Equipment Purchasing Tips

We’re sure you have your own tips for making sure your next equipment buy is successful. We encourage you to share those tips in the comment section here, and on our Facebook page. After all, knowledge is power, and a rising tide lifts all boats. Happy sailing!