Fire sprinklers boost California contractor’s plumbing business

By Kim Bliss, Uponor Inc.

Dale Maples has been in the plumbing business for 32 years. His father, Wayne, started as a journeyman plumber after coming back from World War II. In 1960, he launched Wayne Maples Plumbing and Heating. Based in Eureka, California, the Maples’ family business, which Dale and his brother Rodney now own, has grown to 30 employees and covers residential and commercial plumbing, heating and air-conditioning, as well as maintenance. Over the decades, the company has seen the highs and lows of the industry. From housing downturns to commercial slowdowns, the Maples’ have discovered ways to make their business viable to ensure a legacy for their families as well as their employees.

In 2011, when residential fire sprinklers became part of the California building code, Dale and his brother looked at the requirement as an opportunity to further expand their business.

“I had been a Type M copper installer forever,” Dale recalled. “But in 2000, a local rep, Osborne Company, came to talk to me about this plastic piping called PEX. We were very resistant, as we’d never used any plastic pipe before. So, the transition to PEX was a big one.”

Dale said what finally won him over was the warranty. Once he learned the manufacturer was so confident in its product that they were backing the pipe and fittings with a 25-year warranty, he was convinced to give it a try.

With PEX, there are many different fitting options, including crimp, clamp and expansion. With crimp and clamp fittings, a smaller-diameter fitting is inserted into the pipe; then a ring is clamped or crimped down on the outside of the pipe. With expansion fittings, the pipe and an expansion ring are first expanded with an expansion tool and then a larger-diameter fitting is inserted into the expanded pipe. Because of the shape memory of PEX, as the pipe returns to its original diameter, it creates a strong connection to the fitting.

For his business, Dale decided to go with the expansion fitting system, as it seemed to make the most sense for the properties of the product.
“You have to believe in the science of the expansion fitting system,” Dale said. “When you trust the science that the pipe has a memory and will return to its original size, you get it. It makes sense.”

It was a slow process, however, to get the local builders on board — especially those who had bad experiences with CPVC or polybutylene. But, Dale was sure that PEX was different. He knew PEX resisted corrosion and scale buildup that plagued copper. He also liked the fact that an expansion fitting system could not be dry-fit, completely eliminating the concern of blow-offs from fittings that weren’t properly soldered or cemented.

“I felt that I was giving the homebuilder a better product that wouldn’t require us to go in and cut into their walls to re-pipe failures,” Dale recalled. “I went to all the residential builders and told them they would never have a leak again — and they haven’t.”

Dale also liked that PEX was easy to inventory because it came in long coils as opposed to rigid sticks. The long coils and flexible pipe offered labor savings because of the fewer required joints with each change in direction.

The other benefit Dale found with PEX was its freeze-resistance. Because the flexible pipe can expand up to three times the pipe’s original diameter, it can withstand freeze-thaw cycles much better than rigid copper or CPVC. 

“We have freezes every once in a while,” Dale said. “Copper can’t withstand freezes. PEX does.”

Dale said from that point on, he was done with copper and used PEX exclusively for all his residential projects. After pioneering PEX for plumbing in California, Dale became the go-to installer for builders who wanted a PEX system for their homes.

Fast forward, in 2010 the residential fire sprinkler mandate was looming in the distance. Builders weren’t sure if it would pass, and installers weren’t sure which product or system to install if it did.

Dale decided to be proactive. He had heard about a “multi-purpose” system that his PEX manufacturer had been offering since 2000. The system integrated the fire sprinkler system with the cold water plumbing system in the home. It was a unique idea and something Dale was interested in learning more about.

He called up his contact at Osborne Company and asked for some information. Before he knew it, he was on his way to becoming a PEX multi-purpose fire sprinkler system installer. He first went to the PEX manufacturer’s facility for training. Then he sent information for his first install to the PEX manufacturer’s design department. Lastly, after he turned in his set of plans to the county and they were approved, he was ready for his first install.

“Osborne Company was there for the first install,” Dale recalled. “It was an exciting time. I was officially the first plumbing contractor to be trained to install this type of PEX multipurpose system in California. I knew it was going to change our business as well as the home-building industry.” 

So, how did he sell this multi-purpose idea to his builders? Pretty much the same way he sold PEX plumbing to them back in 2000; he believed in it.
“The builders didn’t want it. According to them, it drove up the cost of the home, and they didn’t see the value in it,” Dale said. “But, I was the only licensed contractor in the area who could install it. It was a tightrope I had to walk. The builders didn’t want it, but they had to be ready for when the mandate hit.”

Dale sold them on the idea that he could do both systems. 

“It was an easy add-on for our existing customers,” Dale said. “I would tell them I could do both the plumbing and fire sprinklers in one quote with one system and one type of product. Plus, they already knew and trusted us, so it was an easy sell.”

According to Dale, what made the whole process easiest was dealing with the PEX manufacturer’s design services department.

“I have built relationships with all the fire departments and all the water departments in my area,” he said. “Once I’ve gathered all the information for the hydrant flows, static and residual, water main and hydrant elevation compared to the main shut-off valve on the house, I send it to design services at the factory. Then, I have plans to submit to the county.”

Dale said even when homeowners change their plans, it’s no problem. He simply has his journeyman plumber on the jobsite contact the design services department to make a field change.

“We make field changes all the time and I get new plans sent right to my desk,” Dale noted. “I can then email them to my journeyman plumber’s phone on the jobsite.”

What’s been the best part about adding fire sprinkler systems to his offering? Dale said it’s actually allowed him to generate more plumbing business.
“We’ve gotten a lot of our plumbing business because of this multi-purpose system,” Dale explained. “The builders need the fire safety and, in order to get it, they also need to do the plumbing.”

Even better, Dale enjoys peace of mind with the system. 

“Once the system has been installed, no one ever has any reason to notice it,” Dale said. “It’s such a non-invasive product. Once it’s in, you never have to worry about it.”

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