Drain Field Restoration Can Mean More Revenue

Let’s face it, with a glut of new homes sitting empty on the market there are not a lot of new septic systems going in, and with a sluggish economy, homeowners aren’t exactly rushing to replace old or failing systems.  In fact, many people aren’t even pumping their tanks (unless they are having a problem). That does not, however, mean you have to stare at the phone waiting for the right customer to call.  
Right now, I am in the middle of a project to get several septic systems in a neighborhood upgraded and to put the residents on an annual inspection program.  This is going to be used as an example for the rest of the country, and I hope to have the details in the February issue of ALW. 
I was talking to one of the contractors brought in to do a complete replacement.  He was grateful to get any work; over the last three years, his installs have been down eighty to ninety percent.  He mentioned that he gets several calls from people who are having problems, but most of them were not willing to go with a system replacement—they just wanted a “band-aid: to get them through “until next year.”   
This contractor did not offer to troubleshoot, repair, and restore systems for the same reason so many other contractors are hesitant—because installs are “where the money is.  I would rather make a few thousand dollars a day rather than a few hundred.”  What many fail to realize is that the larger paying jobs are not as readily available as they once were.   
In our industry, while the economy has certainly impacted us, it is not all bad.  Some of the contractors from Septic-Check said their business has actually increased because so many septic contractors have gone out of business.  While the number of contractors may have gone down, those septic system customers (excluding those that have been lost to the big-pipe) are still out there.  And they certainly are going to expand into a new market.   
When a drainfield flames out, my first instinct is to replace it rather than spending hours/days poking, prodding, and trying to coax it back to life. When the economy is down, however, and homeowners are pinching the purse strings, you need to offer them alternatives, like a tune-up that may restore that system; today there are a lot of “tools” at your disposal to do this.  
The first step is simple: rather than passing the customer off to a competitor, offer to troubleshoot the system yourself.  Is it a mechanical failure like a plugged baffle or an operational failure like a leaking faucet overloading the system?  If these are the reasons, the correction(s) are quick and relatively simple.  
Perhaps it is a design failure; if the tank is too small, it won’t allow for proper settling/storage of solids, and those solids will be flushed out to the soil system.  If the soil system too small, it won’t meet the daily flows from the house.  If the soil system is too deep, it could be contaminating the underground water tables. Old cesspools are also an outright hazard because they could cave-in. 
If this is the case, it means the system won’t meet current code, and a noncompliant system will in all likelihood have a long-term impact on the property owner.  
If there is nothing obvious (like a plugged/missing baffle or a plumbing leak), it is time to consider these options:   

  • The tank should be pumped. 
  • 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.
  • An effluent filter should be installed in the tank, and a washing machine filter in the house to protect the soil system from further plugging/damage.
  • If needed, the next step would be to use an additive to treat the soil area.  For clay soils, I suggest Septic Seep (1-800-372-9637).  To clean the clogging mat, I would treat it with Septic Scrub (1-888-352-7226).  These are both environmentally safe products that have a proven track record.  In some cases, you may want to use a bacterial agent.  I have had success with Lenzyme (800-223-3083).  NOTE: Do not use caustic cleaners!
  • If the soil system is in really bad shape, you could try soil fracturing (Terralift 1-413-298-4272). 
  • There are also add-on systems like the Aero-Stream (877-254-7093) that will convert the tank to an aerobic atmosphere.  This means the effluent leaving the tank is significantly “cleaner,” taking the load off the soil/drainfield and can allow the soil to “repair” itself.      
  • A riser should be installed on the tank for future inspections with a safety net.
  • Offer an annual inspection program for a reasonable cost. 

Hopefully, up to this point, you haven’t actually done much more than a visual inspection for obvious problems.  You might charge a nominal trip fee for this service, but here is where you offer the different solutions, what each will cost and what, in your professional opinion, the homeowner should do. 
How you present the potential solutions to them will make a difference in how they react.  If you blatantly tell them that their system is illegal and will cost a lot of money to replace and then immediately ask when you can start, they will probably send you on your way. No one likes to be rushed or backed into a corner.
On the other hand, you can tell them that the system doesn’t meet the current codes because too deep/too small/cesspool (whatever the reason is).  Outdated systems have been ignored for years, but that is changing.  Some states are now forcing people to bring their systems up to code before they can sell their house or pull a permit to put on a new roof or addition.  Eventually, it will be nation-wide and chances are good at some point the homeowner and all of his or her neighbors will have to get their systems done.  While that doesn’t mean a replacement is immediate, the longer he waits, the more expensive it will be because the cost of materials, labor, and fuel goes up every year.
Your next suggestion should be a less expensive option. If replacing the system isn’t in the cards right now, you could try rejuvenating the system [with the line jetting, treating the drainfield, Terralifting or Aero-Stream].  It isn’t a permanent solution like a new system would be, but it is less expensive and should be able to keep the system running until a replacement can be made. 
By giving them professional advice and offering less expensive choices, some of those people will say they may as well do it now as long as it will save them money.  And you can also tell them to talk to their neighbors because you can give them a bulk discount if more people want theirs done at the same time.  Others may opt for the tune-up. 
Although some contractors may be concerned that they will need to buy a pump truck or a Terralift machine, there is always the option of working with other contractors who already have the equipment.
Additionally, line jetters are not that expensive.  Inspection cameras are reasonable now as well.  Dropping large money on a pump truck or a soil fracturing machine that you may only use once in a while isn’t a wise investment, but a few thousand dollars on a jetter or inspection camera is worth it, because now that you have it, you will use it. 
It doesn’t make any difference if you just do designs, installs, or pumping, by investing in a few tools, networking with other contractors, and thinking outside the box, while you might not be making an overly large profit, you can still afford to remain in business.       

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

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