Now, even the plumber may be using wireless

Andy Rodenhiser describes himself as “just a plumber from Holliston, Mass.” But he’s far from ordinary in his adoption of wireless technology and the use of field service software to dispatch and manage his 27 plumbers.

Rodenhiser, who owns Rodenhiser Plumbing and Heating, said he wanted to deploy field service software and a wireless dispatch system to improve customer service – while at the same time easing the burden of paperwork on his employees.

His solution has been to outfit his plumbers, whom he calls technicians, with a wireless system that includes rugged handheld computers from Symbol Technologies Inc. in Holtsville, N.Y., that run on the Palm OS and in-vehicle cradles attached to Global Positioning System receivers from Olathe, Kan.-based Garmin International Inc.

Garmin International is a unit of Garmin Ltd. in the Cayman Islands.

The Symbol handheld has a built-in wireless modem operating on a Verizon Wireless cellular digital packet data (CDPD) network at a speed of 19.2Kbps. Rodenhiser said he pays just US$29.95 per month per unit for the wireless service, indicating to him there is “a glut of wireless capacity” at reasonable prices that could be easily leveraged by other small and medium-size businesses.

Rodenhiser declined to say how much the new wireless system and software cost. But, said Rodenhiser, “I can’t emphasize enough the improvement and excellence of service” the system provides.

Andrea Linskey, a spokeswoman for Bedminster, N.J.-based Verizon Wireless, said CDPD service for small and medium-size business costs US$29.95 per month for unlimited airtime for handheld devices, and US$39.95 per month for laptops. Verizon Wireless intends to “support CDPD for the foreseeable future,” she said, even as the company introduces higher speed and more expensive third-generation service nationwide.

The application software Rodenhiser uses is based on etrace 3.0 software from Gearworks Inc. in Minneapolis. The software, which leases for US$100 to US$200 per month, can be configured for a wide variety of field service tasks in a number of industries, according to Keith Lauver, the company’s CEO.

Rodenhiser said Gearworks configured etrace to work with the back-end software developed for the plumbing industry by KRS Enterprises Inc. in Buda, Tex. When customer service representatives receive calls, they can access a customer record in the KRS system and note what service and parts are needed. The customer service agent then locates the technician nearest the customer on etrace map software, and sends him the information over the wireless system.

That information – including customer address, service record and type of repair needed – is automatically populated in fields on the technician’s handheld device, Rodenhiser said. The software also provides drivers with detailed driving directions, which saves time and money the company used to spend on detailed street maps.

On the job, Rodenhiser said, technicians have access to detailed service records, allowing them to quickly determine what type of repair or replacement to make.

The payoff: Rodenhiser said the system has helped him to better manage employees and lower costs to customers.

Rodenhiser said he is probably at the “top of the pyramid” of the independent contracting industry in adopting technology. Shiloh Edmondson, marketing manager of the Hebron, Ky.-based Excellence Alliance, a national organization of independent contractors, agreed.

Edmondson said, “Andy has always been innovative in his thinking…he’s leading the way” in the independent contracting industry, which is a big business. She said the Alliance’s members have a total of US$2.5 billion in annual revenues and more than 20,000 employees.