Harris Water Main and Sewers

Harris Water Main and Sewers has been serving the plumbing needs of New York City for nearly a century. Established by Abraham Harris in 1918, just after World War I, the company began with a single crew and focused primarily on internal plumbing. Upon his return from serving in WWII, Abraham’s son, Paul, pursued studies in design, blueprint reading and business administration at night, while working for different plumbers and heating companies throughout the city to learn every aspect of the business, before beginning to work full time at the company his father founded. After completing his Journeyman Plumber requirements, Paul went on to pass the Master Plumber exam, and began to expand Harris Water Main and Sewers into a company that offered sub-surface services. The company found great success on the industrial and commercial aspects of plumbing, and as the company grew and expanded, Paul was joined by Steven Kogel in 1975, who currently holds the Master Plumber License. In 2004, Brett Kogel, Steven’s son, Paul’s grandson, and Abraham’s great-grandson came on board, making Harris Water Main and Sewers a fourth-generation family run business. For our spotlight this month, we spoke with Brett Kogel about all aspects of running his company.
American Liquid Waste Magazine (ALW) Can you tell me a little bit how your family’s company came to be where it is now?
Brett Kogel of Harris Water Main and Sewers (HWM) We were originally established in 1918 by my great-grandfather. It was a small one crew company that focused primarily on internal plumbing, and after WWII, my grandfather decided to come into the business, and essentially grew it from that point. He saw the opportunity to go from “internal plumber” to “sub-surface plumber” doing roadways. Each generation has grown it a little more to the point where we currently stand.

ALW: Can you tell me about your background, including a few words about your education and training? Did you always plan to go into the family business?
HWM: I definitely didn’t. I graduated college with a major in Communications. After college I wanted to experience the business world on my own, I didn’t want to just step in to where I was supposed to be. My initial six years after college I worked for a banking firm. Eventually I was able to take everything I learned in the business world and bring it back to the family business, the stuff you can’t learn in school, which was perfect timing, because everything was starting to change right then in terms of internet and marketing.

ALW: What changes or modifications have you made since coming on board?
HWM: We had to redevelop our web-based platform. From paid marketing on the web to an SEO strategy so we would show up on Google organically, really transitioning from yellow book era to a web-based era. One thing we were able to identify is you can’t purchase 95 years in business. 95 years in business really sells itself, it added to our marketing.

ALW: How do you make sure you keep your business model fresh and relevant?
HWM: We work directly with DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) and DOT (Department of Transportation) in New York City all day every day, and every week they’re coming up with new codes and new rules that we must follow, which keeps us on our toes. Sometimes more than we’d like to be.
A major change goes into effect on August 8th. The DOT, to protect the roadways, is requiring plumbers to restore a concrete base below the roadway on every single excavation we make. Historically, we could resurface existing concrete with one and a half times in asphalt. If there was a foot of concrete, you could replace with asphalt, but they’d want one and a half foot of asphalt. For years the commissioner and DOT have been going back and forth, saying that asphalt doesn’t hold up as well, so we knew it was coming. Then the DOT notified the licensed plumber 60 days ago that we were being required to replace all roadway bases with concrete this Monday the 8th.

ALW: What equipment and procedural changes does the new rule require of you?
HWM: We have to purchase and staff up for people to utilize cement trucks, special trucks to mobilize and remove steel roadway plates and purchase roadway plates, and staff to manage this aspect of this business. We’ll have to change the way we operate for a couple of weeks. We’ll have to redesignate the installation crews to work on restoration on a temporary basis.

ALW: And prior to this did you do work with concrete?
HWM: We did work with some concrete, but it was easier to use asphalt for the larger projects. The concrete is a multi-stage process that adds a lot of time to the excavation.

ALW: Talking about the breakdown of your company, what kind of properties do you work with primarily?
HWM: The split is 55% residential, 20% new construction, 15% commercial.

ALW: You don’t directly work for the city but with the city?
HWM: Correct, any property owner in all five boroughs. If it’s the clean water going in or the dirty water coming out, we work on it.

ALW: What challenges does working in New York City particularly present?
HWM: A good portion of our work is that everything was built with older lead pipes and clay pipes. The infrastructure is quite old. We are constantly encountering problems with older pipes whether it’s from the private owner or the city. The positive of working with the city is that they are quick to fix and they respond to us very quickly.
They are set up to respond to “emergencies” that come about once we’re working with an open roadway. They have the capacity to respond to things much better throughout the city, with all industries then they would 45 years ago. They may have taken days to get to the location to investigate, whereas today, it’s often in the same hour.
All the underground utilities are definitely piled on top of each other, which does become a challenge. A lot of times when we are installing new connections to the city main for new construction, there will be other utilities blocking access to the city main.
The DEP always requires the wet connection to go straight, and oftentimes there are a few utilities in the way requiring the wet connection to be off-set, which means we have to specifically request the angle with sketches.

ALW: Can you explain that process?
HWM: We’ll submit a sketch requesting that the new wet connection is installed on a 45-degree angle, for example, to work around a 6-in. gas main that is 4-in. away from the city water main, to allow it to go straight. It’s a very quick process. We get all the measurements from the on-site foreman. We have a sketch template that we utilize, drop in the details and email it to the DEP office, which will respond with a question or respond with a formal approval, and the approval letter must be on-site when the DEP crew arrives to complete their installation.
No private company is allowed to install anything on the city main. Everything else on the street the licensed and bonded plumber can complete, but on the city main itself, it must be the DEP.
Another difference about New York City, is that in a lot of other areas the homeowner is only responsible to the property line, but the homeowner is responsible throughout the street. They’re responsible for everything up until the city main, including the connection that the city installed.

ALW: Do you run into many properties that have shared connections with other properties?
HWM: A lot of them have been rectified by this point in time. You might see it in a row of houses that was built differently, at one point. The challenge with those are that if one person has a problem it may affect a whole group of houses. Most people have invested and gotten their own connection to the city. Back in the 70s and 80s it was more cost effective to make sure you had your own connection. About once a month we’ll see multiple structures that share a water main.
ALW: How about commercially? Do different businesses in a single property ever want their own connection?
HWM: Legally it’s one water main per block and lot. Some buildings will do their separation on the inside of the building which is not the type of work we do. We get called about this all the time actually where commercial tenants want to bring in multiple water mains. But it’s one water main and one sewer per block and lot. Once they subdivide a building it has its own tax lot and block.
Those cases where old building have multiple mains or shared mains are grandfathered in, but if someone is going to do work on the pipes they’ll be required to separate. It comes up a lot with the sale of a home, we just had an example of that on the Upper East Side. Two beautiful multi-million brownstones had a shared sewer line. Our customer wanted to sell their home, and a clause in the contract said they had to put in their own main.
The main sewer line was running from the neighbor’s through the wall into the client’s home. We had to cap it off through the wall and then run a brand new sewer line out to the street after a formal DEP approval.

ALW: What sort of logistical complications do you face with working in the city? With getting supplies or staffing?
HWM: Materials are not a problem. We stock all of our materials in our warehouse and have a specified person in our warehouse who manages inventory. We have five applicants who come in for a job every day; it’s finding people with experience that’s the problem. In this industry, it’s really a specialty industry. Out of 10,000 plumbers in New York City, there’s only a handful who have the license and the bond or experience with DOT to perform the subsurface installation. All of our work is the subsurface work.

ALW: When did you go fully subsurface?
HWM: About 25 years ago, maybe 30. Originally it was in addition to internal plumbing, around 40 years ago.

ALW: Can you talk a bit about your business strategy?
HWM: When I was a little kid my grandfather used to tell me don’t go to school to be a doctor, don’t go to school to be a lawyer. You need to be a plumber. I thought he was being crazy, but as I got older I saw how right he was. Every building has water mains and every building has sewers, and not everyone can perform that work.
It’s not that we have a corner on the market, but we’re specialized enough in something that will always be needed. There’s more than enough work. There’s few guys that can do it, as opposed to the internal stuff where there are thousands.

ALW: How many employees do you have?
HWM: Including the office staff and managers we are at 44 employees.

ALW: How many crews do you have out in a day?
HWM: Between 6 and 8 crews a day.

ALW: Who does your marketing?
HWM: I do a lot of it myself. We have one outside firm who manages our online marketing strategy.

ALW: Who trains your employees?
HWM: There’s a process set up. When a new employee is hired, he’s classified as a helper or junior technician. And then that junior technician will work hand-in-hand with one of the twenty-year employees we have; we have about 10, they’re our foremen. This is all in conjunction with our monthly classes that we offer, monthly meetings where we go over new processes. Meetings where we go over new internal processes as well as new processes implemented by the city.

ALW: How often do you introduce new processes?
HWM: It feels like every second. At least every other week, whether it’s in the office or in the field.

ALW: Tell us about where you run things from?
HWM: Everything’s in Brooklyn. It’s been at our site in East New York for 60 years. This site is our main office and warehouse.

ALW: Do you own that and does that give your company an edge as opposed to having to lease?
HWM: Yes, definitely. We’re looking for an additional space, and because Brooklyn is booming, it’s a huge challenge. We always say that my grandfather would not believe what’s going on in terms of building and availability.

ALW: What trucks and major equipment are in your fleet?
HWM: We have a fleet of dump trucks which the crew drives to the designated location every day, as well as a fleet of backhoes that are used for excavating the roadway and sidewalk. We have a group of Mack tracks which are used for carting debris. We’re going to be adding a cement truck and boom trucks for shifting and removing roadway plates.

ALW: How much are your rates going to go up with the cement change?
HWM: We are working on a model where there’s a possibility where it may not have to go up. The industry is going to dictate what has to go on, so we’re working on a model where we can keep prices in line to where they currently are.

ALW: What would you say is your major source of clients?
HWM: Emergency-based work. If a water main breaks and there is water surfacing in the roadway. The city will issue them with a notice of violation, called a three-day notice, that they must have fixed within 72 hours. With a sewer it’s called a cease and desist notice, informing the homeowner that there is break in the sewer line causing a problem with the roadway, saying they must have it repaired.

ALW: How do people generally find you?
HWM: We have a strong referral based business because of the brand. And the average consumer goes straight to the internet, so you have to have a strong presence there.

ALW: You must not have very many repeat customers, because of the nature of your work?
HWM: With new construction, and with people who own multiple properties, we do, but otherwise no. We tell our customers it should last you and your child’s lifetime. You’ll never see us again.

ALW: What is the single most challenging aspect of your business?
HWM: Working in circumstances where you don’t ever know what you’re going to encounter below the roadway when you open it up. Also, keeping up with constantly changing requirements from the DEP and DOT.

ALW: What is the most rewarding thing about working with water mains and sewers?
HWM: There’s no better feeling than when you can actually help a person. We encounter people all the time where the city is going to turn off their water or the contractor is taking advantage of them, and we can give them a reasonable price and fix their service in the same day or the next day. It’s nice to be able to do that sometimes.

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