When managers at West Palm Beach, Fla., concrete producer CSR Rinker decided to test the pumping market, they did it with a minimal investment in equipment--less than $40,000 for two mechanical ball-valve pumps. A year later, they're using the two pumps in their Ft. Meyers district on jobs ranging from tie beams for concrete-block-wall homes to slabs on grade and patios.
"We had two main reasons for adding a small-line pumping service," says Rich Sampiere, operations manager for Rinker's Ft. Meyers District. "We wanted to better utilize our trucks on pump jobs and to offer our customers a one-call service for concrete and pumping. But we're not giving away the service. Pumping is viewed as a profit center, not just a way to sell more concrete."
Other producers added pumping to their customer service for different reasons. "We started pumping out of necessity," says Dixie Higgins, president, White Cap Ready Mix, Portola, Calif. "The closest pumper worked out of Reno, Nev.--an hour away--and our customers couldn't afford the travel time for small pours. Yet they needed the pumps since we're located in a mountainous region with lots of hard-to-reach footing and foundation pours. And when the wet weather arrives, muddy site conditions make pump placement almost mandatory." The pump permits more daily truck trips because concrete trucks aren't bogged down in the mud and drivers aren't cleaning up mud tracked onto the streets.
Higgins started pumping five years ago with a truck-mounted line pump, but her pump fleet now includes a 3/4-inch trailer pump and a refurbished 28-meter boom pump. "We sell more concrete as a result of our added pumping service," says Higgins, "and our pumps are in use every day."
Peter Brewin, president of Right Away Redi Mix and Concrete Pumping, Oakland, Calif., started offering small-line pumping services 15 years ago. Today, his pumping equipment includes 10 pea rock pumps, two 3/4-inch line pumps and a 28-meter boom pump.
Brewin believes small-line pumps are ideal additions to smaller producers' services. "For small pours, foundation contractors don't mind paying $5 extra per yard to pump the concrete because the pump makes their job so much easier," he says, "and in our area, no good stamped-concrete contractor would even consider doing a pour without a small-line pump. We stay away from most of the high-volume, low-price jobs and concentrate on serving small customers' needs. Our pumping service helps to sell more prescription concrete to these customers than we would without the pumps."
If you buy a new pump, the dealer or manufacturer generally provides operator training. But several producers we talked with say they also learned a lot by observing pumping service operators.
Jerry Blatt, owner of Star Concrete, San Jose, Calif., suggests spending time with a small-line pumper before buying your first pump. "Pumping isn't an easy job," says Blatt. "There's a lot of lifting, hose pulling and other manual labor, and the work gets harder as the line gets larger. You're not just turning on the pump and watching concrete flow into the hopper. "
Blatt owns 10 hydraulic ball-valve pumps, and he expects every operator to work with the customer, not just stand by the pump. Blatt's philosophy is simple: "If operators aren't willing to do the hard work, we don't want them."
Brewin strongly believes in the value of cross-training. More than half of his drivers can also operate a pump. All operator trainees work with an experienced operator for two months, during which time they get some solo experience. However, when Brewin puts an inexperienced operator on a job, he makes sure the truck driver for that job is an experienced operator.
You might think that small-line pump operators require less training than boom-pump operators. In fact, just the opposite is sometimes true. The larger pumps can handle tougher mixes and have the muscle to pump low-slump, harsh mixes made with rough-textured, angular aggregates. Because small-line pumps aren't always as forgiving, especially when the line is mostly hose instead of slickline, operators have to pay more attention to the mix they're pumping. "Our operators have to be real thinkers," says Higgins. "Aggregate in our area is a partially crushed river rock, and our sand lacks particles in the middle sizes. Because of this, operators have to pay constant attention to what goes in the hopper of our 3/4-inch line pump. A rock jam can cost them 10 to 45 minutes of line cleaning."
Pumping complements production
Concrete production and pumping are complementary businesses, according to Brewin, and small-line pumping is a highly service-related business. "Our pump operators work side-by-side with the customers," says Brewin, "usually on pours requiring 10 to 30 yards of concrete. Many of the jobs are in residential neighborhoods where washout is a problem. But that's one of the beauties of pumping. When the job is finished, the operator simply pumps remaining concrete back into the truck, leaving no washout water at the jobsite. We believe our customers' satisfaction increases when they can make one call to set up the concrete delivery and the pump, be assured that both will be there at the scheduled time, count on help from the pump operator, and know that the jobsite will be clean when the work is done."
Another advantage is the close coordination between concrete dispatcher and pump operator. Brewin's dispatchers make sure concrete arrives soon after the pump is onsite, and his pump operators never have to wait for a cleanup load. The dispatchers know how important it is to avoid delays when there's still concrete in the system.
Even for producers with boom pumps, the small-line pumps fill an important service niche. "We sell our boom-pump much harder than the line pump," says Higgins, "but for block-wall grouting and footing pours in hard-to-reach areas, the line pump is a more economical option for our customers."
Small-line pump choices
Pea-rock pumps are trailer-mounted ball-valve machines designed to pump plaster, grout or concrete that usually contains about 70% sand and 30% ½-inch-minus coarse aggregate. The 2- or 2 ½-inch-diameter hoses are easy to handle, and the simple design and few wear parts make this a reliable machine that's easy to clean and maintain.
Pea-rock pumps may be mechanically or hydraulically driven. The hydraulic models pump farther and faster than mechanical-drive machines, but they still can't pump concrete with any aggregate that's retained on a ½-inch screen. The typical output for a mechanical-drive ball-valve pump is 20 cubic yards per hour, while hydraulic ball-valve pump outputs range from 30 to 80 cubic yards per hour.
Most 3/4-inch line pumps have a swing tube, S-tube or rock valve instead of a ball valve. This allows them to handle concretes with more and larger coarse aggregate particles and lower slumps. They normally use 3- or 4-inch-diameter line, but with an appropriate line reducer they can also pump pea-rock concrete through 2- or 2 ½-inch diameter lines. Because the valves are hydraulically powered, operators can reverse the pumping action to relieve the line pressure when a blockage occurs. Ball-valve pumps don't have this safety feature.