Is the Septic Industry Failing? What You Can Do and How to Rescue it.

This Recovery Will Be Unlike Anything You’ve Seen in the Past.

The stock market gets all the media glory, but home ownership is the foundation of our economy. For most, it’s the biggest investment they will ever make, the biggest monthly bill and, later in life, the basis of their nest-egg. In the past, mortgage lenders were glad to loan you the dough to get you a slice of the American Dream, as long as you could prove you could pay them back.

And when times got lean, people made adjustments. They opted for “staycations” over vacations, chicken over steak, and knock-offs over name brands because that house payment was more important than Mickey Mouse, fancy shoes and expensive T-bone steaks. Homeowners rode it out until things picked up, and when developers started building houses again, steak was back on the menu and Disney World back in the vacation schedule.

This time, however, times are different. This time the economy crashed because of the housing market, and more importantly, because of the lending practices that went along with that explosion. By 2003, the old rules no longer applied, and
anyone could buy a home.

“No Credit, Bad Credit, No Job—No Problem…We Can Get
You a Zero-Down Adjustable Rate Mortgage.”

This became the method of doing business, and who did they target? The people that couldn’t get mortgages in the first place. They went after the young and financially inexperienced, the under employed and even the unemployed. They upselled those who should have been downsizing, “Why suffer in a twelve hundred square foot starter house when you can have a five thousand square foot palace?!” And what was the result? Bills piled up, banks stepped in and houses were either sent into foreclosure or sat empty and unsold.

Now, “experts” are saying that recovery is just around the corner, but that isn’t going to help the septic industry. Why would someone pay top buck for a custom built home when they can get one that is already built for half the price? They wouldn’t and they won’t. When the economy does bounce back, the number of new systems isn’t going to magically jump with it.

But don’t expect the good times to roll anytime soon, unless you take control of your future and the future of your industry, and the way to do that is to capitalize on an existing and much needed market: upgrading existing systems and offering your customers on-going maintenance.

I have been talking for years about getting your customers set up on a voluntary, annual inspection program before the local regulatory agency mandates them or you lose those people to the pipe. I haven’t seen many do it so I’ve decided to do it on my own, starting with my own neighborhood. I no longer design or install systems, and I don’t pump or inspect them, either, so now I teach.

I had a feeling it would be a tough sell in my area. Most of the homes were fifteen to forty years old, with some already on their second or third system. Homeowners would feel they were good for awhile. In my state of Minnesota, you have to upgrade to current code before you can sell your house, but no one was selling in the near future, so why worry about it?

Even pumping is cheap. One part-time pumper/farmer does it for eighty-five dollars, while the full-time septic contractors do it for one hundred thirty to one hundred fifty dollars. In fact, many of the people already had their tanks pumped every two or three years. And if a system did fail, people would just run a hose out to the woods because no one would do anything about it. So why would people change? I went door to door explaining what would happen if they didn’t.

I explained that I worked with communities all over the country, and two things were happening—cities either mandate pumping according to their schedule or they run the sewer mains out to them. The response I got was a big, “So?” Neighbors told me they pump their tank every two years, and asked why wouldn’t they want city sewer? That way, they wouldn’t have to worry about their septic systems failing.

That’s when I started the dialogue that was eye-opening for my neighbors. The answer is that things are going to get expensive. Mandate pumping means adding more paperwork to the process, and more paperwork means more money.

Now, pumping is no longer a choice, and it has to be done whether the septic system needs it or not. Right there, the cost to pump just doubled or even tripled. And if sewer companies want to run the pipe, they don’t dig up the roads and lay pipe for free—they charge large for that, too. We will each pay fifteen to thirty thousand dollars just to have that pipe go past our houses. Then, sooner or later, we will have to hook up to it, and that could cost another five to fifteen thousand dollars.

It doesn’t end there. In a few years, wells will start running dry because water is finding its way into streams and rivers instead of back into the ground where it was originally taken from. When that day comes, homeowners will either pay to punch their wells deeper or pay the city to run water mains out to them.

Most of my neighbors were shocked to hear this and asked if the city was planning on running the main out to us. My answer was not to my knowledge…yet. I brought to their attention that all the new developments that have been creeping closer to our own homes over the last ten years went in after the pipe was laid. Most of them thought it was done to protect the public’s health and the environment. I find, though, that if you dig deep enough, you will often find there are financial motives such as treatment facilities bringing in big money for developers and developments bringing in tax dollars for the city. Today, that pipe is less than three quarters of a mile away. I said that we can shut these things down if we get organized as a group and start maintaining our systems. That way we can say, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

I had negotiated a deal with a local pumper; for sixty-five dollars a year he would come out and inspect the homeowner’s system to determine if it needed to be pumped and look for any potential problems. He would then give a written report of his findings. If the tank did need to be cleaned, he would do it and waive the sixty-five dollar fee, send his truck out and charge his standard one hundred thirty dollar fee. If we could get ten or more people onboard, he would do the inspections for fifty dollars. Fifty dollars a year for sewage treatment is a great deal, as homeowners would pay fifty dollars a month for the city pipe. The only catch was that the systems needed to be code compliant with an easy access riser, an effluent filter and a washing machine filter.

Although there are a few illegal systems that need to be replaced at six to eight thousand dollars, most of the systems will only need a riser and filters, which would be marginally less in cost. I impressed upon them the real potential benefits of doing this, which is that it’s not just about shutting down expensive government programs. If you have a proper system and are using it right, it may never fail, and we may never run out of water.

About a dozen said, “Sign me up,” while another dozen had to think it over. Within a few weeks, most of those people were calling to get on the program. One guy said, “Our nearby town is pulling over a quarter of a million gallons of water out of the ground everyday and flushing it to the ocean. What I can’t believe is no one is doing anything about it. I want to be part of this.”

I called Plaisted Companies first and talked to Brad Behrns. Most contractors in my area go to Plaisted to get their tanks. I explained to Brad what I was doing and asked what kind of a discount we could get for two or three tanks. He said he liked the idea and would talk to Todd Plaisted and get back to me. The next day Behrns called and said Plaisted was in. When I asked what kind of discount I could get, he said, “How about free?” This was one of the few times in my life that I was speechless. Behrns continued, “This is our community, and we want to help. Maybe it will get other people to do it.”

Donations rather than discounts. Armed with this new angle,
I called Darrell Maves at Sim/Tech in search of the safety nets they manufacture. He said, “We have been telling the industry about the need for safety nets, and this would be a great example. How many do you need?”

From there, I called the boys at PolyLok regarding the effluent filters and spoke with Pat Mulhall, who said, “We will do you one better. We have the new Extend & Lok Adapters that makes installing in existing tanks a breeze. We will toss in a case of those, as well.” And yes, they do make installations quick and easy, even in new tanks.

But PolyLok had something else: insulated covers. We were just going to use standard covers, but with Minnesota winters, you need some type of insulation and PolyLok just came out with them. However, these aren’t just for the North Country. The higher the temperatures in a tank, the better it works. Have you seen what the weather has been like in Florida? These insulated covers should be used everywhere.

I then talked to Bryan Coppes at Infiltrator. He said, “The entire industry is down. Something like this could get it going again. Let us know how many systems you will be doing.” Jeremy and Jamie Duinick from Prinsco tossed in sixty feet of riser pipe, and Bill Fredrick at Septic Protector agreed to work with Hardware Hank to donate washing machine filters.

I went back to the neighborhood with this new found deal. Those that were on the fence jumped onboard right away. Residents John and Kelly Schneider had known for years that their bottomless tank was illegal, as well as a health and environmental risk, but money had been tight. When I first approached him, he said if they could get even a small discount they would do it. When I told him that the materials would be free, he looked at me and said, “Now you’ve really got my attention.”

I am finding out that neighbors are talking to neighbors about this program, and, by all indications, we will have the majority of them on it come springtime. I am even going to talk to the local landscape nursery to see if they will offer a discount for those who want to dress-up their finished tanks. Now I am going to take this program to other neighborhoods and am working on some cluster systems.

What does this have to do with you? Well, it could save your business and even save the industry. Almost weekly I see articles featuring upset homeowners who are in areas where they pass mandatory pumping and inspections. Last year, Florida passed a statewide bill that mandates inspections once every five years. Citizens are in an uproar demanding it be repealed. It looks like they got the bill put on hold for now, but it shows what people can do as a group. However, it’s also the perfect opportunity for you to sell this kind of program by telling them this:

If you do not want the government to control your future flushing, then do what this community did in Minnesota: do it yourself. It will not only be cheaper, but you will be solving the problem of pollution and depleting water supply.

This is no longer a theory or a suggestion, it is an actual example to follow. I am already approaching the news with this unique approach toward protecting America’s water supplies, and a few other homeowner groups around the country want it.

You can do it, too, and I’d be glad to help. I can come to your community and sell your customers on it for you. They won’t be getting free tanks, filters, risers and covers, but they will get them at a discount. It won’t cost you more than a few hundred bucks, and, who knows—if you do it right it could be free.

Before you say, “I can’t make a living on a couple of filters, a riser and inspecting a tank,” know that it is not about doing one system. It’s about doing thirty systems, or three hundred systems, or three thousand systems. That’s better than waiting around for that recovery.

Story by Jim vonMeier

Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners, teaching them the health and environmental needs for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect, design, install and 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. He can be reached at 1-763-856-3800 or jvonmeier@septicprotector.com.

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