SPRING IS HERE…TIME FOR A TUNE-UP
By Jim vonMeier
This is the time of year where my inbox is flooded with, “We have a big wet spot in the yard…the toilets are flushing slowly…we had six inches of sewage backup in our basement. What should we do?” My first instinct is to answer: “Buy a new house.”
But I know most of these people would fail to see the humor, so I skip it and tell them the first step is to find a good, certified contractor and have the system assessed to see what the problem is. Is it a mechanical problem, like a plugged baffle or line, or is it an operational failure, like a leaking faucet overloading the system?
Another possibility is a design problem; if the tank is too small, it won’t allow for proper settling/storage of solids, and solids will be flushed out to the soil system. If the soil system is too small, it won’t meet the daily flows from the house. Or it could be something more serious, like an old cesspool that is not only illegal in most parts of the country, it is a danger—from cave-ins—to anyone in the house or neighborhood. The only way to determine what the problem is would be to call in a pro.
Naturally, some individuals have a distrust of contractors because of the horror stories circulated throughout the neighborhood, “I used to work with this guy, and his brother had an uncle whose best friend called a contractor out to pump his tank, and the guy failed it and turned it over to the county. They came out and told him he needed to put in a new $30,000 system. Didn’t have the money and lost his house.”
Hear a few stories like that and people will quake in fear just looking at the yellow pages. I tell them those horror stories make the rounds, just like in any other industry …but the problem is, I have never actually known anyone that it has happened to. Yes, there have been cases where someone is selling a house, and they were too unknowledgeable (or cheap) to have their system updated before they put a price on the house and listed it. Then, they got caught at the point of sale and had to shell out the big bucks to have it done before they could transfer the property. But the average homeowner with a problem? Nope, never seen it.
The truth is, most contractors do not want to be the septic police; their jobs are to fix systems, not make enemies. They also have to live and work in your neighborhood, and if they start reporting people, they won’t be working long. I tell them they are going to need to trust someone sooner or later; they may as well do it now or stock up on the rubber boots and air freshener.
In some cases, people have said, “The contractor walked around the backyard for three minutes and said I needed a new system and then left.” My reply: “Chances are, that guy has been working in your neighborhood for years and already knows all the systems on your street are faulty, and the only real solution is a replacement. It would be more frustrating if he spent three hours digging up your yard and then told you the same thing while handing you a bill for a half- day’s work. He did you a favor.”
But I do agree that not all contractors handle the bad news in the best manor. If the system does need replacing, you shouldn’t just hand the homeowners huge estimates and walk away like writing out a check for thousands of dollars is no big deal. You need to tell them why it is in their best interests to get the system repaired properly, starting with the pollution issues from an improperly designed system.
My favorite method is telling them that it could be contaminating their well, and “You could be drinking today what you had for dinner last night.” That usually gets them a little green around the gills. I’ve even triggered the gag reflex a few times when I tell them about people who have had their bogus systems replaced and two weeks later, their wells ran dry. Crude, but effective.
When they ask how this could happen, I tell them states have ignored septic systems for years because sewage is not a popular topic of conversation and, contrary to popular opinion, the health departments don’t want to force people out on the street over a bad system, so they have let homeowners slide. That doesn’t mean you can go on indefinitely flushing your toilet into your neighbor’s yard because things are getting tighter, but in most cases, they will work with you to help solve the problem.
However, don’t just give homeowners the bad news; follow-up with the advantages of a proper system: not only will they be able to sleep better at night and reduce pollution, it will also raise the value of their homes without raising their property taxes. Bonus round.
But let’s say you get the call and, after assessing the system, it comes out clean per code requirements; it is just slow/failing because of abuse. Something you should offer is a tune-up, using the analogy, “You have to tune-up your car; your septic system needs the same type of maintenance.”
- The tank should be inspected and pumped if necessary.
- The distribution box should be checked for cave-in or settling out of level.
- The lines from the distribution box should be checked and, if warranted, jetted to clean them of any potential obstructions.
- The next step would be to use an additive to treat the soil area. Most contractors have products they like for this purpose. In the old days, using acids was common; it was cheap and easy. However, these have been outlawed in most areas because that acid ends up in the drinking water supplies, causing cancer and birth defects. Today, there are safe products to use; one I like is Septic Scrub by Arcan (888-352-7226) to clean the sulfide build-up. If they have clay soils with sodium damage, I like Septic Seep by Drayner (800-372-9637). These are both environmentally safe products that have proven track records. There are also numerous bacterial agents on the market.
- Today, there are add-on aerobic components like Aero-Stream (877-254-7093) that fit in the existing tank and provide additional treatment before the effluent goes out to the soil area.
- If the soil system is in really bad shape (vehicle compaction), you could try soil fracturing (Terralift; 413-298-4272).
- A riser should be installed on the tank for future inspections; just make sure it is a secure riser with the safety net installed, because there have been several cases of the risers getting damaged when a homeowner hits it with his riding mower. The lid comes loose, and children could start jumping on the covers and then falling into the tank and drowning. I would go so far as to put something over the riser like a fake rock (877-329-6757).
- An effluent filter installed in the tank and a washing machine filter in the house to protect the soil system from further plugging/damage is also a possible solution.
Now that you have the system up and running again, you should encourage the homeowners to enter into an annual inspection program; for a reduced cost, you can inspect their systems for potential problems and determine if the tank needs to be pumped…and you can do this far cheaper because you have set the systems up for quick inspections, and you can do it from a pick-up truck, not a huge service/pump rig.
Just to show you how effective a simple explanation can be: a while back, I asked a friend if he included effluent or washing machine filters in his designs/installs. He said no because people don’t want to spend the extra money. I suggested when someone asks him for a bid, he ask them how long he wants the system to last—ten to fifteen years or indefinitely. When he is scratching his head, take the opportunity to explain how a system works and what causes it to fail (solids plugging the soil is a leading cause of failure) and how for a few more dollars, he could have a Cadillac system.
The contractor now not only puts in those more expensive Cadillac systems, he also wins bids over many other (cheaper) contractors because by explaining things, he shows the customer that he is looking out for him or her. Those few extra minutes can mean a lifelong business relationship…and with the city treatment plants and public utilities competing for your customers, you will need that loyalty.
Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners, teaching them the health and environmental need for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect/design/install/maintain their systems. He has also represented homeowners in their fight against public sewer projects and speaks at contractor programs around the country on the subject of customer service.