February 20, 1995 in Nation/World

American Leak Detection Leak Busters Came To Town With A Mission To Track Down, Dry Up Wayward Water

Rachel Konrad Staff writer
 

Five years ago as an aerospace engineer in California, Joe Godwin would have never believed that he would become Spokane’s original “Leak Buster” - a man hunched over sonar detectors listening for gurgles underground.

Now the co-owner of the Inland Northwest’s only leak detection agency, he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“You couldn’t possibly carve out a better job,” Godwin said while adjusting his Leak Busters baseball cap.

“You never see the same situation twice, and you’re always in a position to help someone. It’s challenging and demands a lot of flexibility.”

Godwin and his wife Patti have monopolized leak detection here since 1993, when the couple risked $45,000 to buy franchise rights for American Leak Detection, which specializes in finding water leaks. The Palm Springs, Calif.-based company has 180 franchises in the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Although the couple had no previous experience in leak detection or plumbing - Joe was an engineer, Patti was in video production - they decided to leave California to be closer to Joe’s family in Moscow.

“We looked at what kind of business to buy, and we knew that Joe wanted to work outside in a technical field. And we wanted to provide a customer service,” Patti said.

It was also important that the Godwins - parents of 2-year-old twin girls - work out of their home and keep overhead costs low.

So Joe completed a 400-hour course at ALD headquarters, and Patti took a week-long course in ALD marketing. Then they opened shop at S4621 Sumac Drive.

“I know it sounds weird, and I have customers who are always amazed that we do this for a living,” Joe said. “I mean, how could anyone find hidden leaks in pipes? And why would anyone want to do this?”

But the Godwins enjoy their business, which has a niche with insurance companies, property developers and pool builders. In fact, they have so many clients they can’t understand how people survived before they arrived.

Water lost through an undetected leak the size of a pinhead can waste 360,000 gallons a year, enough to make 12,000 bathtubs overflow, an ALD brochure stated.

Considering that one in every 300 buildings has leaks, water loss and property damage can be outrageously expensive, forcing housing complexes to lose water permits and businesses to declare bankruptcy.

No wonder people act as if the messiah has descended when they see Joe’s red, white and blue Leak Busters van pull up the driveway.

“You can’t believe how happy they are after I drill out a foot-and-a-half hole and repair the leak,” Joe said. “I’ve seen so many `search-and-destroy’ jobs where plumbers dig up entire pipelines to get at one leak, and the house is practically ruined.”

As opposed to plumbers who may gut floors, walls and foundations to find leaks, Joe uses a combination of sound, radio and sonar technology. Once he finds a leak, he refers customers to plumbers or excavators or fixes it himself.

Typically, the Godwins charge $195 to find leaks in pools, concrete slabs and short pipelines.

Joe won’t charge customers if he can’t find the leak, but so far he has a 95 percent detection rate. He’s even found leaks the size of a grain of sand in pipes as long as 2,000 feet.

While Joe makes house calls, Patti manages marketing and advertising. Her experience as a manufacturers’ representative helped the couple overcome the fear of failure, she said.

“When you decide to start a business, the rate of success is limited, especially if you’re completely on your own,” Patti said.

“But if you can walk the same road as another franchise, your rate of success might be higher. That’s all we did. It seems too easy.”

Fortunately for them, not everyone thinks that using high-frequency radio to detect minuscule leaks is easy. The Godwins have found and fixed leaks at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, Davenport Hotel, NorthTown Mall and Washington State University, to name a few customers.

But they’re still adjusting to working in Spokane, which is more rural and northern than other ALD locations.

“The San Francisco franchise probably wouldn’t know what to do with a well leak,” Patti said. By contrast, well leaks on farms and in rural homes account for many of the Godwins’ clients.

“So many of the other franchises are in the Sun Belt, and most deal with pool leaks and can’t do anything else,” Patti said. “We offer that, but we take that same technology and use it on rural wells, pipes, concrete slabs, whatever.”

She noted that in California particularly, the goal of leak detection is conservation.

“But here, we’ve got so much water that conservation’s never been an issue. Yet you have to respect water, and that’s what we help people do.”

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