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Posted: August 01, 2010

Small biz: ex-realtor building meth cleanup biz

Mike Taylor

Peter Riley used to sell homes. Now he decontaminates meth houses.

Five years ago Riley launched Crystal Clean Decontamination, a Denver-based company that specializes in meth-lab and biohazard cleanup.

Riley, who was a real estate broker for 14 years before he went looking for a career change, figures he's decontaminated about 150 properties since he started the business in 2005, including about 25 properties this year.

On the low end, he'll charge about $3,500 for a small house that requires only removing the soft goods - the carpeting, the bedding, drapes, etc. - and cleaning the nonporous surfaces with multiple washes.

On the high end, a job can cost $40,000 if it's a big house and Riley has to gut it, taking the interior down to its 2-by-4 studs from the floor to the attic.

In Colorado, the meth level must be below 0.5 micrograms per 100 square centimeters, and the property must be tested by a third-party industrial hygienist. Regulations vary by state.

In early July, Riley and another worker drove several hundred miles to decontaminate two houses, one in Salt Lake City, the other a half-million-dollar house in nearby Taylorsville, Utah.

"The house we're working on right now is going to studs," Riley said on the phone as he took a break from his Salt Lake City job, one that's presumably going to rid the place of meth and leave an invoice of about $13,500. "There's not going to be any walls, just the 2-by-4s. All you'll see is electric wiring and the framing."

Riley and anyone working with him wear protective "head-to-toe moon suits" with air-purifying respirators when they work. The business is growing, generating revenue of about $200,000 two years ago, a little less than that last year, and back up to a projected $225,000 to $250,000 this year, Riley says.

At present, the core staff of Crystal Clean Decontamination consists only of Riley and his wife, Lori, a co-owner. Other than that, Riley relies on a few independent contractors, though he hopes to add a full-time employee soon. About half his business is in Colorado, the rest in surrounding states.

"I didn't think at this time I would still be doing as much of the work as I am," says Riley, 42. "But it's one of those things where attention to detail is just really important."

The tragic toll that methamphetamine exacts on human lives has been well-documented. The properties where the drug has been manufactured or used are often ravaged, as well, too toxic to inhabit from chemicals that have seeped into the walls and ceilings.

Riley is full of stories, like the HUD house in Pueblo where some "tweakers" lived with about 10 cats. "For several years they had basically thrown newspaper down over their filth and built layers up," he says. "It was like an archeological dig in there because they would throw cardboard down, empty beer-can cases, whatever."

Or like the 3,500-square-foot house in Yukon, Okla., - Garth Brook's hometown - where a meth user had lived for about five years. Initially taken in by his grandmother, the user continued to live there after she died. "There were so many needles around the house, and the trash was about knee-deep," Riley says. "I think we got over 200 needles just on the initial walkthrough. And even after that we found needles under the carpeting.

"That's another weird thing about tweakers is, they'll stash needles that are full so they can ... I don't know, get high right before they get busted, I guess."

Riley says his business is benefiting from word-of-mouth advertising, an improved Web presence (www.crystalcleandecon.com ), and because he's proved he's able to make contaminated houses safe to live in again when others have failed.

"My biggest competition are these huge restoration companies, and they have a vested interest in gutting the property," he says. "That's where we set ourselves apart. If we don't have to gut that property, we're going to save it. We've actually gone in after other companies have failed at it, and gotten them clean. That seems to be driving it."
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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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