Never Break the Chain

Cutters and chain knockers are powerful tools but need to be used correctly to avoid damaging pipe.

Never Break the Chain

Cleaning with cutters and knockers is about evaluating each situation and knowing your equipment well. Inspecting or precleaning the line with a standard nozzle before using the cutter can help prevent problems. 

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The last thing you want from a tool designed to fix problems is for it to create new ones. Unless you take the time to knowledgably choose and operate the right chain knocker or chain cutter for your next pipe cleaning job, that could be exactly what happens.

When used correctly in the right applications, the capability of these tools to power through the toughest clogs, roots and blockages provides a gift to utility crews. Paying attention to the details of the environment and understanding the material options and specs of your individual system is key. Being careless can break equipment and damage pipes, making a seemingly simple job difficult and expensive.

Choosing a chain cutter

After 15 years as a part owner and engineer for Arthur Products, Richard Rauckhorst says there are a lot of things to think about when buying a chain cutter. “You need to know what your objective is. Consider your environment and equipment to start off with and be very selective.”

Obviously, the environmental conditions are going to vary with every job, but consider what you will most likely be handling and choose equipment accordingly. That sometimes means picking a tool built to adapt. “Every situation is unique. Customization when it comes to any nozzle is important, but when it comes to a chain cutter, it is ultimately important because there are a lot more moving parts to deal with,” Rauckhorst says. “Also, don’t get your expectations up too greatly as far as speed goes because you don’t know the exact environment this is going to be in. It could be hair roots which are easy to clean or trunks that aren’t so easy to clean.”

SewerProShop owner and 30-year veteran of the chain cutter and drain cleaning industry, Reinhart Laimer, agrees: “The operator needs to know first and foremost what they are going to be cutting. Are they cutting roots, or are they cutting grease? Grease can be as soft as butter or as hard as a rock.”

Once you’ve established the general conditions in which you will be working, take a good look at your equipment and understand that the effectiveness of a chain cutter is completely dependent on the pressure and flow you’re able to produce. Without enough gpm or psi, a cutter can easily become another blockade in the pipeline.

“I need to know four technical parameters when helping a customer choose a cutter,” Laimer says. “First, what is the flow rate of the pump? Second, [what is] the operating pressure? It is very important to know this information because if you don’t use the right nozzle inserts with the right orifices the cutter won’t go up the line properly. Next is the hose size in diameter and then the length. This allows you to calculate friction loss.”

Rauckhorst also talks of the importance of using a suitable amount power for any cutter or knocker. “When you have chain or cables or anything on a rotating head, you’re adding mass,” he says. “To get that mass to rotate it requires more power, and that power comes from your system’s water pressure and flow.”

It boils down to knowing that the distance and effectiveness of any cutter or knocker is directly influenced by the specific system behind the head and what materials it is going through.

Material matters

A lesson we all learned at a young age is if you’re not sure what something is, don’t touch it. The same holds true when using chain cutters and chain knockers. Make sure you know what the pipe is made from and match the material of the cutter or knocker properly to avoid damage to both equipment and pipes. Do some research before pushing in a tool and revving it up to full throttle.

“We supply a cable system, a rower chain and link chain option based on the primary type of pipe you are going to be in whether it be PVC, clay, cast or steel,” Rauckhorst says. “Let’s say you are in PVC pipe with light hair roots, I would recommend the cable. The cable is very effective, and it can loiter and not damage the PVC. If you stopped a chain and let it spin in one spot, it would erode away the PVC.”

Rob Broccolo Jr. began his career in the industry over a decade ago and he has owned and operated Professional Drain Services of Southern New England for the past four years. Through servicing the variety of drains the New England area has to offer, he has learned a thing or two. “I try to use non-carbide tipped chains in older pipes the first time around to make sure nothing breaks but nine out of 10 times, I’m using a carbide cutter,” he says.

Manufacturers like RIDGID have readily available documentation for their chain knockers showing which of their products should be used in specific pipe materials. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer of your particular chain cutter or knocker and ask.

Size according to the job

Choosing the proper size of cutter or knocker depends on the diameter of pipe to be cleaned. If you’re unsure, ask the manufacturer. They will be able to provide assistance when purchasing and have documents to help contractors choose a model according to pipeline inside diameter.

The end goal is obviously to clean wall to wall, but Broccolo says that sometimes it’s smart to start with a chain that is smaller than the diameter of the pipe. “A smaller cutter can help you to navigate through and give yourself an opening for the right size chain afterwards,” he says. “You don’t want to go too small because it could flip on you, but with some experience you get the feel for when to use that technique.”

Tricks of the trade

All three experts agree that with any chain cutter or knocker, it’s best to proceed with caution. Knowing the details of the environment and materials you’ll be working with is the first step, but even after that, they all mentioned other strategies to make sure their equipment lasts and the jobs get done.

“I always tell people to use a nozzle first to actually clean out the line from debris such as sand, silt and rocks before running the cutter through,” Laimer says. “Our cutters spin at 4,000 rpm; if they hit rocks in the line, it can severely damage the cutter and the pipe. It is a root cutter, not a rock or concrete cutter.”

Broccolo adds that he uses a camera for visual inspection to help him decide which cutter or knocker he should use or at least which one to start with. Camera visuals can also inform contractors if there are multiple types of blockages in the line such as wipes and roots. In that situation, Broccolo opts for a different style head on his cutter. “Penetrating heads are nice for when you’re going into wipes or a soft blockage,” he says. “They provide a little grab to the front so they can grab and twist, allowing the chains to get in there and start spinning wall to wall.”

Lessons learned 

Experience is always helpful when operating any tool, for any job. Taking a few extra minutes to get things done right the first time will always be more efficient than the time it takes to clean up mistakes. “I’ve heard of people that either break the cable or flip the chains over inside the line and get it stuck,” Broccolo says.

Breaking a cable and leaving a knocker stuck in a line is usually not a quick, easy fix. “If you’re lucky, you’re able to get it out. But if you are in a deep line and you didn’t take the time to set it up properly and use it properly and you happen to make that mistake, the next thing you know you’re fixing your machine on site wasting time and money,” Broccolo says.

Cleaning with cutters and knockers is about evaluating each situation and knowing your equipment well, because when used correctly their effectiveness as a cleaning tool will boost your cleaning efficiency. 


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