DENNIS TOWNSHIP - James Esposito has operated a drain-cleaning and sewer-repair business in Cape May County for the past 15 years.
The job is dirty, for sure, but also vital for his commercial and residential customers, Esposito said.
Drain Doctor Sewer & Drain Service, of Ocean View, fixes problems that simply can't be neglected - clogged garbage disposals, overflowing toilets and broken sewer lines. Despite a rise in do-it-yourself home improvement, Esposito says this business is best kept in the grimy hands of professionals.
"You at least have to give it a try to unclog a drain," he said. "I give everyone credit for trying."
Esposito, of Dennis Township, was em-ployed in the drain-cleaning business for years, working first for his father and then for a competitor, before he started his own company in 1998. He credits his wife, Lisa, for giving him the confidence to gamble on a fresh start.
"He had been putting in a lot of hours without enough pay at his last job. He was a smart businessman," she said.
The couple took a mortgage out on their home to start the company, and the first winter was a little scary, Esposito said. Starting the business was expensive because of the heavy equipment needed to dig up broken sewer lines and unclog drains.
"That first year we did really well. I was able to bring on my first employee," he said.
Today, Drain Doctor employs four people, including his service manager, Zack Blake, of Somers Point.
The company uses the latest techniques to fix problems. For example, fiber-optic video is used to find the source of a broken pipe and new pipe is pulled through the void left by the old, broken one when possible to avoid having to dig up roads, parking lots, swimming pools and pavers.
When a fast-food restaurant in Middle Township needed to replace 160 feet of drain that went under its drive-through, Esposito's crew worked overnight so the restaurant did not lose business.
The job is not for the squeamish. Germo-phobes need not apply.
"Mike Rowe from 'Dirty Jobs' had to go in a crawl space under a house to fix a broken pipe," Blake said. "That's the worst. I've been there."
Esposito's daily goal is to keep his distance "at all costs" from the worst of the messes.
"We're always around germs, but we never get sick. I guess we have built up our immunity," Esposito said.
Unlike some other home improvements, clogs and broken garbage disposals are an unexpected expense that can create a stressful situation for homeowners, Blake said.
A backed-up toilet is not a problem most families can ignore for long, so the company's employees are on call weekends and holidays.
"Christmas, New Year's, Hannukah, Festivus - you name it, we'll respond," Blake said.
"Your world grinds to a halt when you have a clog, especially when you have kids," Esposito said.
For most service calls, the company normally can respond within 24 hours.
Grease is the biggest culprit among restaurant clients. But dropped cell phones often clog up pipes, too. And while those "flushable" baby wipes may actually flush, they often won't let anything else flush after them, Esposito said.
"At some point, every house will have a clogged drain. There's just no way to stop it," he said.
The company faced another crisis after the recession and 2008 housing-market collapse. Esposito had to lay off his employees briefly in 2009 when revenues did not keep pace with rising expenses.
"September of 2009 was the worst month we've had. It seemed like all our bills doubled," he said.
Simultaneously, his business faced a deluge of new competition from building contractors who turned to handyman work when construction jobs dried up.
"There was a lot of new competition out there. Most of it didn't affect us because we often were called to fix the things they screwed up," Esposito said.
Today, business is starting to return to pre-recession levels, he said.
Company employees spend the busy summer months rushing from one job to the next across Cumberland, Atlantic and Cape May counties. Coordinating the three crews is key, Blake said, as it can save hours of travel time.
"When it gets that busy, it's like a dance," Blake said. "It's organized chaos."
Contact Michael Miller:
Sewer & Drain
Location: 521 Woodbine-Ocean View Road, Dennis Township
Owners: James and Lisa Esposito, of Dennis Township
Revenue: Not disclosed