Derek Franz

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February 15, 2012
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Much more than 'dirty movies'

In a similar fashion to how a mysterious problem deep within a sewer system is discovered, the Enterprise stumbled upon a unique business thriving in Eagle County when a little pipe led to a bigger one.

Freedom Enterprises Inc. is the business and its mission is to find and fix all kinds of pipe-related problems. Not just any pipes, either. Freedom Enterprises specializes in the big and the strange, using innovation almost every step of the way.

"It's amazing the amount of technology you can cram in a pipe these days," said Bob Rasnick, part owner of the Bond-based company (his wife, Melinda Gorman is the president).

Rasnick's crew is called to handle tough situations. When the town of Red Cliff entered a state of emergency last week after going without water for several days due to a frozen water main, Freedom Enterprises was on standby.

"My guys got the call late Friday and were out there on Saturday," Rasnick said.

They helped find and fix the problem.

"The real credit belongs to the employees and management team at Eagle River Water and Sanitation District," Freedom Enterprises wrote in a statement. "Our company was there for only a short time compared to the district employees."

Before responding to the Red Cliff site, most of the nine-person FE crew was working on frozen water lines at a metal mine near Leadville.

"The same pipe froze again," Rasnick said of a big job that is at 11,000 feet in elevation, far away from the road and gets wind chills up to 65 degrees below zero. Rasnick's crew fixed it the first time in epic conditions in 2007, working continuous shifts for 10 days. The same pipe froze again last year and now this year.

"It's been a really bad year for this stuff because there is no snow cover to insulate the ground," Rasnick said. "That's what happened in Red Cliff."

The company tackles high pressure jobs. Not only is an element of time pressure often involved but the jobs frequently require the use of water jetting and blasting. "Water jetting" is anything from 0 to 5,000 psi and "blasting" is 5,000 to 80,000 psi.

Cases of frozen pipes generally involve jetting 120-degree water into the line. Other work that Freedom Enterprises does for the mines requires blasting the metal buildup in pipes, which occurs from mineral-laden water running through them over time.

The trick, especially when blasting, is not to punch a hole in the pipe or worse. Safety is a must.

"It could take your arm off. This stuff is going ballistic," Rasnick said of a water blast's danger. "It cuts steel without making sparks." That's why his crew members wear Kevlar suits for certain jobs. "After 19 years in the business, I haven't had a guy injured on the job except for one who cut his finger in the shop," Rasnick added.

Not damaging pipe, which is sometimes plastic, requires the proper hose nozzle and a skilled hand to direct the jet or the blast just right.

"Titus (Larsson) knows how to lay the nozzle back and blast stuff out without damaging pipe," Rasnick said of his foreman.

Choosing the correct nozzle is no easy task, either.

"There are millimeter differences and hundreds of nozzles," Rasnick said. "Most people use computers to figure out which to use, but one of my guys with a photographic memory just knows."

Besides high-pressure pumps and hoses, there is almost no telling what else might be used for a job. Sometimes dry ice is used for "cold cleaning" and of course there are cameras used to explore pipes as well. In one case, a snowblower was rigged to the end of a long hose and lowered into an open structure with a crane.

"There was 11 feet of snow in there," Rasnick said. "Four guys shoveled into the snowblower, which sucked the snow into a truck, which had to be emptied every few minutes."

Improvisation is where Rasnick's crew really shines.

"Once every two weeks, I'll see or hear of something I have never seen or heard of before," Rasnick said. "The challenge is so interesting, I think that is why these smart people stay with the job."

"It's hard to imagine some of the stuff you get in pipes," Rasnick said. "When my son was in eighth grade, he did a report on things I found in sewers and he stopped me when we got up to around 50."

Rasnick and a female employee once jetted a raccoon out of a pipe in Avon.

"She was standing by the hose where it went in the pipe - I couldn't see her - when she started screaming bloody murder," he said. "The water jet had forced the raccoon out and when we turned it off, it went right back into the pipe."

Rasnick has also come across dentures in the sewer - "the guy is still wearin' them," he said - and at least one historical marvel. He was working on repairing the dam at Chapman Reservoir ...

"It's on U.S. Forest Service land but it's private water," Rasnick said. "I met this really old guy who was the son of the guy who built the dam. His father built it with a horse-drawn sledge and clay pipe. That pipe was 100 years old and it only had one crack, I couldn't believe it. People don't lay pipe that well anymore."

Rasnick was doing a video inspection of a clogged pipe in Utah when the camera encountered a frog. The frog hopped away and Rasnick followed it with the camera.

"I came across what looked like a rock at first," he said. "Then it turned out to be a turtle that was stuck."

The crew found themselves in another unique situation when they inspected a water tunnel in Glenwood Canyon that ran from the dam to the power plant. The tunnel was just big enough to drive a vehicle in but it got so tight that the men had to climb out the windows.

Rasnick started Freedom Enterprises in 1993 as a humble household-type plumbing business.

He had grown up working with his dad as a plumber in the 1950s. After serving in the Vietnam War, he did a variety of jobs, working as a coal miner, before finding his niche by chance. One day he had a clog in his sewer system and rented equipment to fix it.

"Then my neighbors offered to pay me to do theirs," he said. "I realized I could make more money doing that."

With almost no assets, Freedom Sewer and Drain was launched out of Oak Creek.

"I bought a cable machine and started the business with $1,200 and two borrowed pipe wrenches," Rasnick said. "The cable machine was $1,100."

Before long the business grew so much that it couldn't stay in Oak Creek.

"I couldn't keep my equipment at my house there, so we moved to Bond," Rasnick said.

Rasnick and Gorman lived in a trailer at their present location in Bond for six years while they built their home and business. Rasnick said the plumbing business has changed a lot since his father's time in the 1950s.

"Now we've got cameras, sonar and laser profiling," he said. "There's a lot to know these days but my dad got into plumbing after dropping out of school to take care of his family."

The mountain region's elevation, geology and temperatures spawn invention out of necessity.

Rasnick and his crew are constantly tinkering with equipment, trying to make it better. A lot of it has to do with finding easier ways to get it to remote job sites or how to function better in extreme cold.

The crew is currently working on a truck that has never been seen before.

"People we buy parts from said it was impossible, that they had tried it and it couldn't be done," Rasnick said.

Now the boxed truck - enclosed for warmth - is almost finished. Its design revolves around a 15,000 psi pump.

"We're going to test blowout preventers," Rasnick said. Blowout preventers are valves used on oil and gas wells.

That ingenuity is probably why Freedom Enterprises is pretty much one of a kind, serving a multi-state region from its headquarters.

"We would be in the one percent of people who do what we do," Rasnick said. "There might be five to 10 people in the state who are close to what we do."

The Enterprise stumbled on the business out of curiosity about Eagle's "dirty movies" - video footage of the town sewer system.

Freedom Enterprises explores and records up to 25,000 feet of pipe each year in Eagle to locate areas in need of repair. With that help, Eagle Public Works and other municipalities don't have to search blindly for problems, and can even anticipate them. In comparison with the FE's other jobs, it's small potatoes.

"We do it because we like the guys" Rasnick said.

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The VailDaily Updated Feb 17, 2012 01:57PM Published Feb 15, 2012 01:08PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.