By Terri Perrin / Published July 2014
When first asked for his opinions on the evolution of the pressure washing industry in general and advances in environmental practices in particular, Dennis Black, McHenry Pressure Cleaning Systems, Frederick, MD, didn’t see himself as an industry pioneer. But once he thought about it, and considered he started in 1982, he realized time has flown by, and he does have some valuable insight to share. Before we delve into how environmental awareness has shaped his business, it helps to know some of the history of McHenry’s as a whole.
“When I joined McHenry’s, it was an auto parts store that sold a variety of products, including pressure washers, air compressors, and other equipment to service the auto industry,” recalls Black. “I saw great potential in the pressure washing line, and John McHenry, the company founder, encouraged me to concentrate on it to see if we could expand in this area. Slowly but surely, with more effort put into pressure washers, the other product lines were discontinued. By 1987, we formed a company division called McHenry Equipment, and we concentrated our efforts on the dairy and other agricultural and equipment industry sectors. With the introduction of hot water pressure cleaning systems, markets expanded, and we experienced a pretty big growth spurt.”
McHenry Equipment continued to grow, expanding brands to include Mi-T-M, Hydro Tek, Alkota, and Pro-Line, adding a service division, as well as chemicals, soaps, and detergents. In 1998, Black reached a purchase agreement with McHenry and he bought the business.
“Customer demand had a significant impact on both the development and formation of the wastewater treatment side of our business,” says Black. “We started bringing in related products in the 1990s, primarily from a few select manufacturers that were making us aware of wastewater treatment. We were a primary target because, as various manufacturers pointed out, we were so close to watersheds in Washington, DC, with Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Federal regulations that would affect us were coming, and we were forewarned to be prepared. We took heed and started to prepare, but we did not see the customer self awareness and enforcement come as quickly as we had expected. Even so, we continued to work behind the scenes to be ready for the changes and to educate our customers. The bottom line was, no one wanted to spend money [on wastewater treatment equipment] unless legislation or regulations demanded they do so.”
Black reports that a heightened industry awareness has come about over the past decade, but has escalated in the last five to eight years. “Today, customers don’t have to be ‘sold’ on the idea of environmental responsibility but come to us with expectations,” he says. “As awareness increased, 75–85 percent of our wastewater business now comes from referrals. This has affected us more so than regulations.”
Black saw another big change occur in the 1980s, where distributors moved from having only one brand of equipment and being very loyal to the brand, to offering multi-lines. “We no longer put all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak,” explains Black. “This is because of versatility of the different markets we sell to. One manufacturer may not be able to meet all demands of so many specialty markets, which represents a big part of our sales and is certainly something that holds a higher profit margin. We are not investing a lot in the ‘cookie-cutter’ products that consumers can buy from catalogues and big box stores. I believe that all distributors need at least one manufacturer that is willing to work with them to make custom units and see this as the future part of the pressure washing industry.”
With a history dating back to the 1930s, a California-based steam cleaning company called Walters Manufacturing had survived through a number of product changes and ownership. When Robert Bixby of Watsonville, CA, purchased the company in 2004, he felt that this particular market was sinking and focused, instead, on wastewater management.
“We changed the company name to Clear Blue Environmental and started selling water treatment systems,” explains Bixby. “Today, more than 95 percent of our business is now the building of complete wastewater treatment facilities in wash bays, breweries, wineries, and food processors. For large equipment, buses, and municipal facilities, we’ve taken this technology and expanded it. We manufacture some of our equipment ourselves, such as a hydro-screen system with self-cleaning spray bars, a basin system for pre-screening water before it goes down the drain, and a line of phosphorus adjusting systems. Ongoing innovation relating to wastewater management is essential. This aspect of pressure washing has achieved a whole new level of sophistication, and regulations are ever changing.
“I believe that the Mi-T-M bio-digester, introduced around 1999, has been the biggest breakout product relating to environmental concerns,” adds Bixby. “I also believe that as weather patterns change and drought conditions increase in many states over the next 10–15 years, wastewater treatment and water reclamation is where the pressure washing industry will go.”
“There have been so many equipment changes to ensure that pressure washing equipment is EPA compliant,” adds Gary Scott, CFO, Alkota Cleaning Systems, Alcester, SD. “In some cases, this adds to the employment requirements because of the extra care required to manage and operate according to stringent industry regulations. I see a lot of good regulations that came in to make it safe for people and the environment, but I think that some regulations are overkill. We—as an industry—have always worried about how we take care of the air and the water, and through natural evolution and ingenuity, we probably would have become more eco-friendly even without regulations. Unfortunately, very often regulations are written and enforced by people who have no field or business experience. I believe that many regulations are merely a way for our elected officials to garner votes, regardless of necessity or cost justification including the loss of jobs, which the regulations may cause.”
It is important to recognize that environmental awareness wasn’t just focused on protecting good old ‘Mother Earth.’ It was about protecting people, too! Before Chappell Supply of Oklahoma City, OK, started offering wastewater management services in 1993, company owner Roy G. Chappell, took the 30-hour training program to obtain Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) certification from Texas A&M University. It was a decision he has never regretted and, 20-plus years later, he stands firm in his support of the program that addresses the proper handling of the potentially hazardous wastewater in manufacturing plants and other facilitates. Eight of his current team members are HAZWOPER certified and, of those, six also have their Medical First Responder certification.
Chappell recalls that the benefits of HAZWOPER training and certification was realized almost immediately. “Thankfully, I had the training to know what precautions to take because one of the first wastewater management-related jobs could have been disastrous,” recounts Chappell. “To clean a wastewater collection rig for an oil company, we had to reach our double-gloved hands down into a big filter and pull out the filtration charcoal. In the process of digging this out, my brother Clifford said, ‘It feels like there are worms crawling all over my arms!’ Despite the fact that he had on two sets of rubber gloves reaching to his elbows, with the outside layer providing acid-resistant protection, the rubber was actually disintegrating and falling off. We later found out that this truck had been on an oil well site where they had used acid to clean it… and this was washed off into this wastewater collection system. Wearing the correct safety gear saved us from losing an arm. It was very serious stuff! With the HAZWOPER training, we were aware of the potential dangers, and we were able to advert a serious accident that day.
Chappell, whose previous work experience was in the oil business, remembers that back in the 1970s and ‘80s, when they washed drilling rigs, they used highly caustic soap and simply let the contaminated wastewater leach into the ground. “Fast forward to 2014,” he says, “and you not only can’t use those chemicals, you certainly can’t let them touch the ground. Wastewater is now collected or put into collection pods and then transported to other facilities for treatment and safe disposal.”
Eric Loferski, Briggs & Stratton, Milwaukee, WS, reminded us that being ‘eco-friendly’ goes beyond wastewater treatment. “We can’t forget about environmental regulations placed on gas engines and the emissions controls,” warns Loferski. “These regulations have required Briggs & Stratton, and the industry as a whole, to focus on emissions output making it safer for the environment and the workers, as well as increasing fuel efficiency.”
Bob Farley, Farley’s Inc. adds that another thing that has really changed is that they no longer send manufacturing waste to the landfill. “All of our waste products go to a metal recycling company, and we have a couple thousand pounds a month of pieces of coil pipe and other types of metal that are now recycled,” says Farley. “In the past, it would have just gone to the landfill.”
All pressure washing industry representatives that Cleaner Times | IWA spoke with still feel that, despite the incredible technological advances we have developed and embraced, there are certain aspects of the environmental side of this business open to further expansion. By no means have we exhausted opportunities in this area. Without question, becoming eco-friendly has been one of the biggest things that has happened to the pressure washing industry, and it shows no sign of letting up.
Next month: We take a look at how pressure washers have become ‘the next big thing’ in the consumer market. Do you have any pressure washing stories, memories, or photos from 1980 through 2014 that you would like to share with Cleaner Times | IWA readers? Please e-mail terri@terriPERRINink.com to learn how you could be a part of this series.
History of Presure Washing
• “The Next Big Thing”: Pressure Washing and the Consumer Market
• Industry Consolidation: Growth of the Large Corporations
• Industry Collaboration: Formation of Professional Associations
• Expanding Markets and Business Sectors: Internet and Social Media
• Changing Faces: A ‘New’ Breed of Owners and Staff