Landscaping a Tank for Easier Inspections and More Revenue

For the last few years, I have been suggesting to contractors and homeowners they should voluntarily start doing annual inspections and only pumping when necessary; there are several reasons for this suggestion.  The first is purely environmental.  There are fuel costs, air pollution from diesel engines, pollution to rivers, the potential for disease transmission if a land app is done incorrectly, and nutrient run off into lakes, rivers, streams, and oceans. The second reason to conduct annual inspections is financial.  Diesel fuel isn’t inexpensive and neither is the dump fee you pay when you unload at a treatment plant.  Even if you are doing a land app, you are looking at the cost to prep that load and the time you spend in the process, as well as the cost of maintenance and repairs on that rig.  Although the cost is transferred to the homeowners, the more you have to charge, the less happy they are. 
Still another reason I push voluntary inspections is because if the government starts stepping in, it could backfire.  I was talking to a contractor in one area who was charging $350 for his inspections because he could—inspections were required in that area, and he was the only contractor available.  While the government forcing people to pay you $350 a year may seem like the ideal money-making scheme, that price is on par with what those homeowners would be paying for city treatment.  Eventually, when homeowners are presented with the option of public sewer treatment, rather than recognize the cost to set up the system ($30,000 to $60,000) or the environmental consequences, they focus on the monthly cost.

If you want your customers to stay with a septic system, it needs to be a far better value.  In the long run, an inspection program is far cheaper for you, and it is a savings that you can pass on to your customers. 
For example, I, too, had my tank pumped every few years rather than inspecting it. My tank was only six inches deep, so in the past, we dug it up—but even digging a few inches took time.  And from frequent removal, the manhole cover was beginning to crack and crumble around the edges, which was a safety issue.  The access pipe over my exit baffle/effluent filter was also too short—every time I pulled off the cap, dirt fell into the tank. 
[could delete the following paragraph and pix and jump to “During our inspection…” if space is needed]
Working side by side with my best crew, we went to work to correct these problems and set it up for easy (fast) future inspections/service/pumping.         (pic 1)            

(pic 2)     A lid like this is a tragedy (lawsuit) waiting to happen.

 

During our inspection, we found a few problems; the first was an exorbitant amount of toilet paper that was not breaking down.  Part of the problem was we had all been on antibiotics over the last six months, and this was contributing to slow bacterial activity in the tank.  In cases like this, a proper additive may be necessary to boost the activity in the tank/soil. 
The second reason was the type of toilet paper we were using.  My wife is a coupon shopper, and she got a great deal on some two-ply “soft-as-a-cloud” paper, which won’t break down as easily.            

To remedy the digging problem, we set landscape blocks to outline the tank, laid down weed barrier, and filled it in with red mulch.  [again, if space is an issue, delete this sentence and pix and go to “But we were not through…] In short order, we went from a sloppy mess to this.     
(pic 3)                                                                 (pic 4)

But we were not through.  I wanted more than an easy-to-service system; I also wanted something that looked nice and was safe.  We set in a birdbath, whiskey barrel planters, and used fake rocks to cover the access covers. 

(pic 5)
The most important reason for covering these ports is safety.  A homeowner can hit and damage the risers with a lawnmower and knock the lids loose.  Children become curious, and as a result, there have been several cases of kids falling in to a tank and drowning. 

Another reason for fake-rock cover is that it will provide a thermal break and insulation in the winter.  Check out www.fakerock.com

After discussing the situation with Tom, who pumps systems, there were other modifications that I needed to make:

  • I would have to install a washing machine filter in my house.
  • I would need an effluent filter.
  • Every April, Tom would send out a postcard reminder that he would be inspecting my system sometime in May. 
  • If the system did need to be pumped—unless it was an emergency—Tom would schedule it for sometime when it was convenient for him.

To determine whether there were any problems, I needed to visually inspect the area, looking for outside damage and vehicular traffic over the drain field. I’d need to redirect downspouts away from the system, etc.  Then, Tom would open the tank to look for the “bad items” and to assess the bacterial activity in the tank.  After putting the “sludge judge” to work to determine if the tank needed to be pumped, he would fill out his report with his findings and provide any suggestions.  This report and the invoice would be left for me.  If, however, any problems were discovered, Tom would talk to me in person or on the phone to make sure I knew what was happening.          
The cost for this process is $75.  If and when the tank needs to be pumped, then the cost would be $150.  Although many believe that they cannot generate a profit with this process, it is possible. Additionally, it is not about doing one inspection, it is about doing a whole neighborhood.  If you have ten homes on the same street, you are looking at $750 gross ($500 net) by midday.   And, while I was able to do the work myself, not every homeowner is willing or able to do it—that means they will probably be paying you to do most or all of it.  With filters, rocks, blocks and risers, a standard pump-and-run could turn into a $500 to $1,000 job. Further, if you are really into landscaping with the fountains and waterfalls, you could be starting a whole new facet for your company. 
If you want an unbiased, third party, endorsement to convince your customers to follow a plan like the one above, I will be putting a full explanation of why all homeowners should conduct inspections, complete with step-by-step pictures on my websites: www.septicprotector.com and septicprotector.org.  
Keep in mind, you don’t have to “own” a pump rig to offer this program; you can sub-contract that out.  But there are precautions to take when reporting items found in the tank, scheduling pump-outs, or prescribing additives. You will occasionally encounter a homeowner who believes that he/she never had a problem before and that you are simply trying to make more money. To protect yourself, you should make certain the tank actually needs a dosing or a pump.  Take pictures and save the evidence to show the homeowner—allow him or her to witness the toilet paper or other materials in the tank.  These steps can ensure that a homeowner will not question your assessment.

By Jim vonMeier

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 fights against public sewer projects and speaks at contractor certification courses around the country on the subject of customer service. 
1-763-856-3800  jvonmeier@septicprotector.com          

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