In the Workplace – January 2010

To say the least, the relationship between septic contractors and state and local regulators is often strained.

But had it not been for a change in policy by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, Fort Mill-based Alternative Septic Solutions would probably not exist.

"Five years ago, the state agreed to allow the installation of aerobic septic systems in cases where conventional systems couldn’t be used," said Glen King of Alternative Septic Solutions. "We saw that as an opportunity."

According to Sal Vicari, company founder, the idea went back even further than that.

"We had hoped to purchase a beautiful piece of property from a former neighbor," he wrote on the company Website. "However, the property had soil issues and would not perk. We decided that we would not take ‘no’ for an answer and began the search for a solution. After much research, we found that the problem we were experiencing was not unique to us – it is an ongoing issue in many areas of the Southeast."

Like a number of states that sprawl from the Atlantic to the Appalachians, South Carolina has a wide variety of soils — some of them hostile to standard onsite methods. In the coastal Lowcountry, for instance, high water tables often pose a problem. On the other side of the state, Appalachian rock or steep slopes can complicate installation.

"One of the good things about alternative systems is that they don’t have to be buried as deep," said King. "Our drainfield is basically a length of 1/2-inch plastic tubing with vents every two feet. You can run that pipe around trees and on either side of driveways, so you don’t have to do as much damage to the property."

The Alternative Septic installers also use a ground saw, which permits a shallow excavation.

Basically, their system is of a type that is becoming more prevalent across the country. As explained on the Alternative Septic Solutions Website:

"The extended aeration process is a unique treatment that depends primarily upon the use of air that is introduced by passing from the blower to four air lines located around the perimeter of the mixing chamber.

"Aqua Safe plants are made up of outer mixing tanks and a settling chamber called a clarifier. Raw unsettled wastewater from your home enters directly into a mixing tank where simple hydraulic displacement is accomplished.

"The introduction of air promotes the growth of aerobic organisms in much greater amounts than would naturally occur, thus breaking down the organic solids in the wastewater.

From the outer mixing tank or aeration chamber, mixed liquid enters the cone shaped settling chamber, better know as the clarifier, from the bottom. No mixing occurs in this quiet zone where solids separate from the liquid and settle to the bottom of the clarifier and re-enter the mixing chamber. The liquid that separates from the solids in the clarifier continues to flow upward to the discharge pipe."

King claims the liquid that emerges from all this is "98 percent pure."

This would have obvious appeal to environmentalists, but they make up a small percentage of Alternative Septic Solutions customers — in part because alternative systems are more expensive. Generally, the company deals with homeowners and businesses who have no other choice.

"I’ve had people say that if it weren’t for us, they’d just have to let that piece of land sit, because they wouldn’t be able to get a permit for a conventional system," Fisher said.

For that reason, South Carolina has proved a rich fishing ground for Fisher and Vicari and partners Sandy Vicari and Nancy Deal.

"We’ve put in around 40-50 systems," King said, "and we’ve got a list of those that are waiting approval."

The company has subcontracting agreements with a soil scientist and an engineer, because they represent two pre-installation steps that South Carolina law requires.

"Otherwise," King said, "homeowners would have to find those people on their own."

Ironically, Fort Mill is only a few miles from Charlotte, NC, a potentially huge market, but it’s one that Alternative Septic solutions is reluctant to try.

"They’ve had these systems for a lot longer," King said, "and it’s gotten to be a very competitive market. In South Carolina, we have hardly any competition at all."

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