Mark Slack knows he's started his own business at a good time, and in a good place.
While it's been more than two decades since Slack started working to plug leaks, speed flows and extend the lives of aging sewer pipes in communities throughout the country - he was the fourth employee of Insituform Technologies Inc., an industry leader - it wasn't until early this year that he had an operation to call his own.
Now, as president of I-CON Underground LLC, Slack is opening up a free flow of business in a town where sewer concerns are more than an inevitable fact of life; they're also part of a growth debate that has city officials scrambling, developers screaming and overall residents wondering just where and how fast the community can grow.
Slack is certain he doesn't have all the answers, but he's comfortable knowing that the work done by I-CON's six-person staff can pump more efficiency into a system clogged with worries that recently have bubbled to the surface.
"I never thought I'd move back to Lawrence. When I was a student here, it never crossed my mind," said Slack, a Kansas University graduate. "But when we decided to start a business, we chose Lawrence. We love Lawrence. And it's a good market for what we do."
What I-CON does is the not-so-dirty work of sewer rehabilitation.
Slack and his staffers use water, resin and sleeves of polyester felt to create "new" pipes within old ones. The "cured-in-place" pipes plug leaks and close off improper connections that soak up the system's sewer capacity.
So-called "infiltration and inflow" problems - which can range from water seeping into pipes through cracks, to residential storm drains connected directly into the sewer lines - put pressure on the overall sewer system.
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'It's real simple'
Anywhere from 7 percent to 12 percent of the sewage flowing into the city's Wastewater Treatment Plant doesn't need to be there, according to city estimates. That's because each year anywhere from 250 million to 430 million gallons of essentially clean water, most of it from heavy rains, makes its way into pipes designed for sewage.
That's where I-CON comes in. By shutting off as many improper access points as possible, that amount of inflow is reduced. And if the levels of clean water headed to the treatment plant drop, that leaves more room for actual sewage.
Having more space for actual sewage can open up more room at the city's edges to accommodate new homes, offices, businesses and other buildings - the kinds of projects developers want and city officials welcome.
"It's a way to effect some reduction in flow," said Dave Wagner, the city's assistant utilities director for wastewater. "If we can make the flow less, we don't have to make the pipes as big. It's real simple, and everybody can understand that."
So far, Wagner said, the work of I-CON Underground in town has been good. The company secured its first municipal contract - in Lawrence or anywhere - earlier this year from City Hall. The $405,405 contract includes lining the insides of pipes south of 23rd Street, east of Louisiana Street.
Park Hill project
Last week, Slack and his crew lined up their trucks, boiler, water hoses and other equipment on Park Hill Terrace. There, they opened up a manhole and pushed a sleeve of polyester felt into the existing clay pipe, which had shown evidence of cracks and other problems.
Using high-pressure water, I-CON workers pushed the resin-soaked sleeve through the length of the 400-foot pipe.
"It's just like turning a sock inside out," Slack said.
Then, using a boiler unit big enough to heat 27 houses, the water's temperature is increased to 110 degrees - that's to initiate the cure - and, finally, to 180 degrees to make it stick.
Within a few hours, crews have sent a video camera through the newly sealed pipe to find and mark locations where services from nearby homes have just been cut off. Another remote-controlled device then makes cuts to open up the connections, and within four hours residents once again can run sinks, take showers and flush toilets.
The work also costs less and doesn't require bringing in major equipment to dig up a yard.
"We can do something in half a day that would probably take two or three weeks to complete with traditional digging," Slack said.