Plunjr brings plumbing fixes to video chat throughout coronavirus

Half Moon Bay’s Plunjr has an innovative way of addressing plumbing issues amid the coronavirus pandemic and could potentially change the industry’s business model.

The recently launched mobile app uses live video calls to assist customers as they fix their own plumbing problems, rather than sending a plumber to homes. The app gives people immediate access to union technicians and minimizes the chance of coronavirus exposure, with a lower cost.

“This is going to do good things in communities and change how people do plumbing forever,” said co-founder Aaron Gianni.

Plunjr’s prices are low compared to traditional plumbers, which average around $500 for an in-person visit to the Bay Area, said Plunjr co-founder Andrew Turner.

Plunjr’s video calls average about $45, based on $3 per minute for a 15-minute calls. Until shelter-in-place orders are lifted, the app is dropping its price to a penny per minute. However, customers must also pay for parts, which can be shipped or picked up at any of the country’s 1,500 Ferguson Plumbing Supply stores.

After 18 months of coding and building the app, Plunjr launched a beta test in December. The company has more than 200 customers and the founders believe usage will rise as people try more do-it-yourself projects during the pandemic.

The company isn’t profitable, but Gianni hopes to be profitable by next year and would need to average about 100 calls per day to reach the goal. He wants to average 500 calls per day by 2022 and 1,000 per day by 2023.

Plunjr hopes to build out a network of partners across the country and is in talks with Ben Franklin Plumbing in Novato.

“I know that sounds like a lot, but Larratt Bros., does 50 calls a week with two plumbers,” Gianni said. “If we can build a network of plumbing companies using this, adding a tool to their bucket, we can expand across the nation.”

Gianni, 38, has been a plumber since 2001 and bought Bayview’s Larratt Bros. Plumbing in 2014. Gianni and Turner haven’t taken any outside funding and invested about $500,000 of their own money in the past three years.

“That’s a lot of money for two guys kind of scraping around,” Gianni said. “I don’t have 500 grand sitting around. I’ve given up a second home and other investments. That 500 grand probably could have done me a whole lot better in the stock market.”

Gianni’s parents owned and operated a restaurant supply shop and a debris-removing company during his childhood.

Gianni drives to work at 4 am every day with the radio silenced and a cup of coffee in his hand. The idea for Plunjr came to him during one of those silent drives when he was working as a plumber in 2017.

He called Turner, who had a background in technology sales, including working about 11 years for AT&T and working for Cloud-based videoconferencing service BlueJeans Network. The two got together at Half Moon Bay Brewing Company, and in front of the fire pit, Gianni presented the idea on a cocktail napkin.

“There’s really something here,” Turner thought to himself.

Even with a mortgage to pay and three young daughters on his mind, Turner decided to go to work for Gianni.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Gianni got a phone call at about 4 pm on a Friday. A woman had a problem with her faucet and needed immediate help at her Palo Alto home in advance of a party scheduled for the next day.

Knowing he couldn’t get from San Francisco to Palo Alto to diagnose the problem, buy the parts and complete the repair before the close of business, Gianni asked the woman to do a FaceTime call. He talked her through the repair.

“After I finished that call, I was like: ‘I’ve got to get on this,'” he said.

A customer downloads the app, creates a profile, and chooses either to talk to a technician immediately or to schedule a video call. The plumber tells the customer where to aim the camera phone, so the problem can be diagnosed, and coaching can begin.

Just by having the customer hold a pencil as reference, Gianni said he can tell the difference between one-quarter, three-eighths and five-eighths supply lines.

The technician talks the customer through the repair or explains the needed parts. Then, a follow-up video call may be scheduled to complete the project.

If the customer still can’t fix the problem, Plunjr dispatches a plumber. But most calls don’t get that far, according to the company.

Kathy Winslow, a retired hospital administrator from Boston, moved to the Bay Area about 10 years ago. In January, her dishwasher was gushing water, so she used the app.

Gianni talked to Winslow’s husband through pulling the dishwasher away from the wall and reconnecting a hose as she directed the camera phone. Within 30 minutes, the problem was solved.

“That’s one of the beauties of it,” Winslow said. “You call, you get an answer, and you’re helped immediately.”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

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