Owner Mike Flaherty likes to say three things haven’t changed about his family’s company, Advanced Pollution Control (APC) Corp., since it was founded by his father in 1975: dedication to customers, a family atmosphere and hardworking crews.
Many pumpers will point to traits like these to explain how their companies have survived and thrived. But APC has another successful formula other pumping contractors could learn from: tapping revenue growth and profits available through industrial vacuum excavation, a backbone service of the Bridgewater, Massachusetts, company.
APC started with a specialty in serving power plants and wastewater treatment plants. Through the years, the business has evolved to include utility locating and other vacuum excavation services. Flaherty’s dad, Mike (known as Big Mike), saw a need for power plant cleanup work in the Boston area. About 95 percent of the initial workload was servicing power plants and water and wastewater treatment plants. Those services expanded over time, and now the company provides vacuum excavation for construction companies.
“It’s a service that has taken off for us,” Flaherty says. “Construction companies are now realizing that vacuum excavation saves them a lot of collateral damage because they aren’t striking water or gas lines. It’s not as fast as an excavator, but it certainly has its place.”
The company’s fleet now consists of nine GapVax combination units. The newest truck arrived in 2016 and, like the others, has a stainless steel tank. “They’re all stainless steel,” Flaherty says. “I spend a little extra in the beginning and the trucks are very dependable and don’t rust out. It takes a lot more punishment before it’ll deform or needs to be replaced.”
APC crews try to perform dry vacuum instead of hydroexcavation because it allows them to backfill with dry material. “The dry stuff is far easier to control,” Flaherty says. “It’s neater to work with than mud slurry and saves our customers money. We never bring waste from one job to another location due to environmental regulations, so if we can’t use what we excavate, the customer has to pay for it to be dumped.”
To allow for air excavation, the company has outfitted each truck with a 185 cfm air compressor.
Not long after starting vacuum excavation, Flaherty saw another need in the area and branched off into servicing railways. Two hydrovac units are fitted with high-rail systems. “We do about 15 percent of our business with the high-rail trucks,” Flaherty says. “We’re called out to derailments and things like that. You never know when you’re going to get busy.”
BUILD A DEPENDABLE CREW
Just like traditional septic service companies, it’s important for Flaherty to have a readily available staff capable of doing any job for spur-of-the-moment calls. Flaherty is proud of his crew of 15.
“The big thing that makes a difference with our people is their tenure,” Flaherty says. One operator, Mike Darmetko, has been with the company for 38 years, and operations manager Rick Gay for 35 years. Operator Jim Silva has been with the company for 15 years. The rest of the workforce averages eight years of experience. “When we send out a truck, we’re sending out a very capable, well-paid, union operator who has seen a lot of different jobs and know how to do the jobs the most efficient and safest way.”
Flaherty attracts and keeps employees by treating them right. He makes sure they get 40 hours of work a week throughout the year. The company offers holiday and vacation pay, as well as sick time. “The fellas seem to care about the company, and they want to see it do well so that we’re out working and not staying here in the maintenance facility,” Flaherty says. “We want to be making money, not losing money.”
Even though nearing retirement age, Flaherty still joins crews on job sites, puts the work clothes on and starts digging. “I’m happy while I’m doing it,” he says. “If you have dependable equipment and a happy crew, it’s a winning situation.”
A SAFETY FOCUS
An experienced crew also helps with safety measures. The company provides regular safety training seminars for confined-space entry, lockout/tagout and other typical procedures. “We’ll also do respirator training, personal fall protection, hearing protection, hazard communication and forklift safety, and we’ll go over personal protective equipment,” Flaherty says. “We try to get the jobs done as quickly and safely as possible, and try to keep our reputation as a good company.”
The safety focus doesn’t stop at the shop; crews are always thinking safety on the job. If heading to a power plant job, crews will pull one of the company’s 14-foot enclosed safety trailers. Flaherty put together APC’s first safety trailers in 1980, and the equipment they carry has advanced in quantity and sophistication.
“They’re equipped with breathing equipment for working in bad air in confined spaces,” Flaherty says. The trailers have cascade breathing systems with eight 4-foot bottles, each with 250 cubic feet of air, good for about eight hours each.
“A hose no longer than 300 feet connects the bottles to a worker’s personalized breathing mask. A five-minute emergency escape breathing bottle is attached to each worker’s belt. We don’t charge for it unless we have to use it, but we have it all if the air changes or something bad happens. We just go into a different mode and no one gets hurt.”
The safety trailers also carry rescue and retrieval tripods used in confined spaces. Other fall-protection and safety equipment brought to the job includes winches and beam trolleys, Tyvek suits from DuPont Personal Protection (paper coveralls that protect workers’ clothing from contact with waste), encapsulated suits, ventilation fans, rain gear and extra rubber boots and gloves.
Last year, crews made sure to have the safety trailer with breathing tanks when the company was hired to clean coal silos at a power plant. The coal was burning within the silos. “The methane gas inside of it was something we had to be careful of,” Flaherty says.
APC workers ran 200 feet of aluminum pipes from the fourth floor of the power plant where the coal was down to the trucks and vacuumed the coal that was burning. They used a conveyor belt system beneath the silos to get the coal moving to the vacuum hose.
“When the methane got too high, we let the plant know we didn’t want to continue working because it was going to be a possible explosion,” Flaherty says. “They wetted down the fire and then we were able to continue.”
APC removed 77 truckloads of coal, averaging about 18 trucks a day. The job was finished in about four days.
A third generation of the Flaherty family is working at the company. Two years after Mike “Big Mike” Flaherty started APC, his son joined the company and took over control before the founder passed away in 1996. “I’ve been working for the company since I was just out of college in 1977,” he says.
Now he is training his son, Michael, to take over: “He started at the very bottom as a laborer and he’s progressed over the last three years.” Michael is an operator and works sales. Eventually Michael will take over. “He’s been a great kid all his life. He’s 25 years old now and everything he’s done, he’s done well.”
Michael says it was natural for him to work for the company, having grown up around it. “After college, I knew that I wouldn’t like a cubicle job, so I figured I’d give APC a shot,” he says.
Even though he hasn’t taken over yet, Michael has some big goals for the company.
“As the industry continues to change at a rapid pace, I am focused on making sure we control the things we can control, which is doing a good job every day for every customer,” he says. “Short term, I would like to see us grow some other areas of our business such as pipe cleaning, pipe relining, X-ray inspection and video inspection.”
Why the yellow trucks?
It’s not hard to spot one of APC Corp.’s nine GapVax hydroexcavators. The machines are painted a pale yellow from the Peterbilt chassis to the debris tank.
“There are some different options on each truck and there are improvements that the manufacturer has made,” says APC owner Mike Flaherty. “The fellas have to get trained on everything so when they are out in the field they know how to work everything and work it safely.”
All nine tri-axle hydrovacs have 16-yard debris tanks and hold 3,200 gallons. After the company takes ownership of a machine, crews install a 185 cfm air compressor on it to allow for air excavation. The trucks also have hot- and cold-water pressure washers.
The color choice goes back to when Flaherty’s dad founded the company in 1975. When he bought his first vacuum truck he didn’t have a lot of money to paint it. That’s when longtime family friend Ed Porter told him he was throwing away some yellow paint — three 5-gallon cans of it. “We painted one truck and it looked pretty good, and we’ve stayed with that color ever since,” Flaherty says.