By Curt Yeomans
It was a quiet Friday afternoon in March at John Raulins American Pipeline's office.
Most of the staff had gone home early. Drivers of the company's cleaning trucks usually sat in the workshop playing cards at the end of a work day, but even they were gone.
Then, an ambulance driver walked in the front door and told the few remaining employees they had to get out immediately: The building was on fire.
Black smoke was bellowing out of the workshop, because a cleaning truck had burst into flames.
Employees ventured into the building after the fire was out, unsure of what they'd find. While there was damage throughout the building, most of the heat-related damage was confined to the workshop area. The rest of the building suffered damage from the oily smoke that filled the structure as the company's four cleaning trucks burned. There was $1.5 million in damage.
An investigation determined that one of the trucks caught fire because of a short somewhere in the wiring between the battery and the starter.
"It's amazing that most of the damage was caused by the smoke," said Ed Calloway, co-owner of the business. "The majority of our electrical wiring had to be replaced, and the entire heating and air, and plumbing systems had to be replaced. This fire came at the worst possible time, because it cleaned out a lot of our cash reserves."
The owners refused to close down, while equipment and facilities were replaced or repaired. The company, which specializes in cleaning underground retention ponds and sanitation pipes, moved it's operations to the basement of Calloway's home in the Lake Spivey area.
It then paid $600,000 to buy the now-burned building from the people from whom they were leasing it, and spent $130,000 to renovate the facility. The money for the renovation came from the insurance settlement for the building. An additional $560,000 was spent to repair or replace equipment.
The company returned to it's location on South Main Street in Jonesboro in late September.
Three of the trucks were totaled by the fire, and a fourth needed about $10,000 worth of repairs. Two drivers were flown to Milwaukee, Wis., to pick up rental trucks to use until new ones could arrive. Each truck can produce up to $150,000 a month in revenue, making the rental trucks important to keeping the company running, said Ed Treadway, the company's operation's manager.
"It slowed us down for about a weekend, but we really only missed three days," Treadway said. "We were really fortunate. There was cautious optimism after the fire. People were in shock that it happened, but we were also saying 'This could be the best thing that happened to us.' It gave us a reason to upgrade our equipment."
But, recovering isn't as simple as replacing trucks and renovating the office building. The company must now deal with north Geogia's prolonged drought. It needs water to survive. If there is no rain, then nothing is being washed into the retention ponds. That means the company doesn't have to come out and clean the ponds' pipes.
John Raulins American Pipeline, and companies like it, have to apply to the water authorities in each county for water meters, and it can take weeks to get one. The company can't have access to water from fire hydrants, because water restrictions have forced Clayton County, and other counties across North Georgia, to forbid the practice.
John Raulns now gets roughly one job a day, totaling five a week. The company used to have as many as 15 jobs every week. Calloway said the drought is going to force companies like his to re-think their approach to business. He believes his company may end up shifting to the point that plumbing and hydro-cleaning jobs make up the bulk of its business.
He also said the company is working on developing a system in which air -- instead of water -- is used to clean a pipe. The air would be blown into the pipe, and a vacuum would suck the loosened debris out.
Treadway said he is optimistic that business will pick up in February, though. In his 30 years in the pipe-cleaning business, he's noticed that there's typically more water in February than other parts of the year. February is also the month when many cities decide to have their sanitation systems cleaned, because their new budgets just went into effect.
"The last part of October, through January, is normally the slowest time of year in this industry," he said.