January 17th, 2018
Thoughts from the Scanman
It's Fall in America again - children are back in school, Friday night football games, hot chocolate, and the smell of fall is in the air. Fall is the busiest time of the year for the chimney sweeping trade. It includes long days, cramped schedule books, and ordering supplies.
For us in Iowa, it's harvest time; our neighbors are operating 24/7 running combines, and tractor-trailers filled with the grain are on their way to the Mississippi to load the barges heading out for export. Living in the Midwest grain belt seems like a funny place in relation to the chimney industry, but we have been in Iowa over 30 years from our Pennsylvania roots.
Since 1978, I have been in all aspects of this industry, from a fledgling sweep in northeast Pennsylvania to the owner and operator of an interior chimney inspection camera and accessory manufacturer that sells equipment worldwide. I still remember the Mass. Guild meetings at the Lennox Inn! To this day, I still hold and retest the CSIA certification test. I have taken the test(s) 14 times. My certification number is 210, but I'm still in the field at heart! We have provided vision to thousands of chimney, masonry, and HVAC companies.
Keeping up with technology
Since 2014 Estoban went through an extensive change in operations and product design. What we used to make with the shears, snips, drill presses, and manual lathes, we now manufacture with CNC machining centers and lathes. This computer-operated machinery allows us to create older parts in half the time, plus replacement parts are guaranteed to fit. We liked how well the new CNC machine worked that we bought two more. One was identical to the first machine center, so we had a backup if one didn't work. Sure, enough, one part of the machine did go wrong, but we didn't miss a step.
We have offered inspection equipment to fulfill many of your needs through all the ups and downs. Our mission statement has always been to provide quality imagery and support for our customers and continues 33 years later. With continual improvements and YouTube videos helping owners with company training, meetings on using the cameras are growing. We are just finishing a new 4000 sq. ft. shop addition to help with our expanding needs.
Beginning with an End in Mind
One area of business that all of us need to address is creating an exit strategy. My wife Esther and I started working together shortly after we were married. In 2004, one of our customers stopped by our shop in Iowa. He and his brother relied on the Chim-Scan to generate new work, and the cameras were a major part of their company. He wanted to know our plan after Tom and Esther were no longer working? Gee, we had been so busy designing better products for everyone we hadn't taken the time to think about "retiring" or a catastrophic health event.
So, we started looking at what options would be available. Sell the company; hire middle management, etc. We hired business advisors who helped us formulate a plan. Yes, this is expensive, but they brought many ideas to the table that we had not thought of. As we set forth a plan, we hired them back three times over the next ten years. Each time they gave us new goals and projects to work on.
First, we had to decide what retirement looked like? We enjoy what we do and who we work with. So, we made a conscious decision to simply work fewer hours and hire good people who could run the day-to-day operations. We took a week off to try it, and when we came back, we fixed what didn't work. Then we tried for two weeks. Again, we fixed what broke. That meant writing the dreaded S.O.P. etc. We found that power points work great for SOP writing. Set the copy, add a photo, then the next step. The great part is they can be printed and placed in notebooks or put on Microsoft 365 to share and update them when needed.
I highly recommend a LEAN process called Streaming. Take post-it notes or 3 x 5 cards and go through each step of an operation. Lay them out on a table with all persons within the company watching. Then see if all agree on the steps or the need for more post-it notes or cards. Then align them in a sequence to reduce time and waste. Only the persons involved should do this for their department for larger companies. Then departments share their results with other departments to see if things align with the company mission.
We have found through trial and error that big expensive relational database programs require rigid rules to keep them going properly. (YOU NEED I-T PEOPLE) After a while, you wonder if the dog is wagging the tail, or is the tail wagging the dog. We now operate on two programs, QuickBooks and Microsoft Office. Period! The flexibility to do some operations are easier in these programs than in a total package system. We even learned how to use QuickBooks as a database for all the language used in our inspection program. We can write an estimate that looks like an inspection form, either level 1 or 2, with over 350 paragraphs stored in QuickBooks!
Regarding MS Office, SOPs, PowerPoint, Excel for production purposes, and Publisher for documents. I still believe in Leonardo DaVinci's saying, "Youth should be taught perspective then Proportion." It's a big world out there; at some point, you need to figure out who you are and what makes you happy. From there, work on the proportions needed to make your dream come true. When you reach this point, begin the measuring process needed to fulfill that dream. Until you set up the systems to measure it, your dream can stay just that, a dream. LEAN training and streaming really help in this area.
Our daughter decided that there were opportunities to join the company in 2010. Shelley is now our office manager; after working her way up thru wiring, repairs, purchasing, and customer service as far as our other employees have been here, 29, 15, 8, 5, 2 years and one that just started six months ago. Also, the other protection needed was to purchase Keyman insurance on principles within the company. Again, another failsafe to be sure of continued support for our customers.
Once we had our plans in place, we realized that many of our customers would need to think the same way. Some companies would simply stop working because they never set up their exit strategy. Others had family members who would like to continue the business. Our equipment was now such an important part of many companies' daily work. The question is no longer why I need to buy a Chim-Scan, but how can we make sweeping and scanning easier, quicker, and less stress on the sweeps body.
As with every trade, the tides of change are on the rise. As some companies grow, others are starting to retire. Some will leave with a legacy; others just close the doors. As we attend various trade shows, it's comforting to have our older customers come to our booth to introduce a son, daughter, or partner who will take over the business.
It's interesting to see new and old companies begin to grow way past the expectations of many, sometimes even themselves. They now have segmented operations, field personnel, staff meetings, human resources, marketing plans, and operations managers.
It's a far cry from the top hat and tails, "sweep your chimney for $40.00 with the big red vacuum". And the goal then was to make van payments repay student loans and mortgages. Maybe this is too much organization in your life? Maybe just enough. You be the judge. I know many 1-2 truck operations that lead a life they feel comfortable with. Others aren't comfortable until they reach 25-50 trucks with a goal for the stock exchange.
Making Sweeps Life's Easier
We looked over the data we collected to find what part of the equipment needed the most repairs. We realized that most companies were not using the centering device to protect the camera and that the cables were most vulnerable to damage.
In 2013, we created the lighthouse camera with its 360-degree, continuous variable-rate pan camera to help prevent cable twisting and stop the operator from having to twist their wrists all the time: no more twisted cables, and easier on the operator's wrists. Plus, the add-in cable reeler corrected cable storage problems.
When we added the Enviro camera to view straight up, this combo camera system included the stabilizers. As we tested this in the field, we created a way that sweeps could look straight up the flue (viewing offsets, misaligned liners, crack liners, and blockages in real-time) as they went up the flue. They could switch to cam 2 and view the side walls (open mortar joints, cracks in liners, missing liner sections) as they pulled the camera back down the flue. We then stored these two cameras and the attached stabilizers in their own caddy. All the sweep has to do is connect the 50' cable, and they are ready to scan. Plus, we make the adapters to any rod system you currently have, no more switching rods! This rugged two-camera system cut the scanning time in half, yet you can see twice as much of the flue's interior.
Even though one liner crack can justify a repair or reline, scanning the entire chimney appears to be a waste of time for some sweeps. By 1985 our Pa. sweep company had placed in 260 liners. I have stories of liners not fitting, a stainless boneyard, and all the headaches involved in NOT scanning all the chimney to see what was down there to hang liners up! With this system, in the time spent looking for one crack or defect, I can have the entire flue scanned and recorded in video format or still Jpegs.
The lighthouse combo camera answered many of the repair issues that we had, which increased reliability and reduced downtime.
The lighthouse camera has an acrylic lens cover, for easy change out in the field. Also, a replaceable flexible shaft between the two cameras allows easier access up thru a thimble chimney and prefabricated fireplace dampers. Also, the newly designed stabilizers can be easily fitted in the field.
Now, in 2017, we wanted to address the safety and fatigue of our customers. So, we accomplished the goal of reducing camera repairs, stopping twisting rods in your hands, offering better vision through better resolution; use specialty adapted LED lights to create a full spectrum light array. Plus, our goal was to build a camera for our newest product, "the Raptor: so that sweeping, and scanning could be accomplished at the same time.
All concepts are designed for the consideration of the chimney sweep's time. Roll in, set up, sweep, scan, use the Flue & Hearth notes as your checklist, so when it is time to be with the customer, you are ready and have collected the information necessary to explain your findings in Level 1 or 2 inspections. The Flue and Hearth Notes™ are segmented so that you can direct the customers' attention to a certain area of the chimney to reduce confusion and promote trust.
By segmenting the inspection, we found out how much faster and more complete inspections could be done and how many new opportunities were created. By going through the checklist, all the defects are noted and operational. The uniformity provides the office or manager with the same info as the sweep sees. (Collect data, train techs, engage managers, create a uniform platform to measure in one step). We have our own system we have used for several years. The checklist gets the data; QuickBooks with 300+ paragraphs have the explanations. The Flue and Hearth Notes™ is available in a paper triplicate form or use the fillable PDF to use on a computer, Android pads, or IPads.
We have not done articles for some time, to the point there are industry rumors that we are no longer in business. It takes time to walk the walk and place these changes into place and make them operational. This family's business plan has positioned itself to be here another 35 years. The other rumor concerning that Chim-Scans cost over $5000.00 is also exaggerated. With the process of high technology machine works we now offer units starting at $1995.00. Check out our website: www.chimscan.net Text photos or questions to cell phone 641-919-4896. We have full-time personnel answering the phone from 9:00 C.S.T. to 5:00 p.m.
Esther, Shelley, and I want to thank all of you who have placed your trust in our products. As Red Green would say," if you can't be handsome, be handy. And remember to keep your stick on the ice!" Have a great holiday season. Take Care.
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Tom Urban has worked in the Chimney and Hearth industry for 40 years. He's been an inventor and manufacturer for 35+ of those years.