Tim Haeg adapts advanced onsite system designs to meet growing customer demands, challenging soil conditions and shifting regulations in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
Inspecting onsite systems for Stearns County Environmental Services, the county’s planning and zoning division, enabled Minnesota regulator Tim Haeg to see a broad spectrum of materials, equipment, practices and workmanship. In March 2000, he left the public sector to open Watab in St. Joseph, Minnesota. The company specializes in onsite system designs and inspections. Finding solutions to the common construction errors Haeg had seen enabled him to design better systems.
“From day one, I’ve never had a slow spell,” says Haeg, 44. “I did 200 jobs that first year, two-thirds of them design and the remainder inspections. Every year has shown growth, despite the work becoming progressively more complicated.”
By 2015, Haeg and his staff had doubled production, completing 424 projects. Referrals and repeat customers keep his service board full. Haeg’s commonsense approach to projects includes treating each one with respect and persevering until he has a quality product. “Our business model has rewarded us with the best customers — people who are interested in seeing things done well,” he says.
CLOSE TO HIS ROOTS
Haeg’s desire to stay near his birthplace in Collegeville, Minnesota, has shaped his life. In 1994, he graduated from Saint John’s University, with a major in biology specializing in plants and a minor in environmental studies. He found employment that kept him close to home. “My biology degree made me the top candidate for the position of onsite regulator at the county, and I enjoyed working with the contractors on job sites,” says Haeg. He was certified as an inspector through the University of Minnesota.
In 1996, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency revised its septic code to require soil testing and an onsite design before issuing building permits. Designers also had to be certified. “At the time, plans were hand-drawn and contractors had difficulties working with them,” says Haeg. “They’d ask me to interpret the designs, and I’d offer suggestions to help them make informed decisions.”
When Haeg left the county, the contractors still wanted his help. They also asked him to design systems. He opened Watab, an Ojibwa noun for “river with spruce roots.” The Watab River flows through the area and into Watab Lake, so the name is synonymous with clean water, Haeg explains. The contractors he helped at Stearns County formed the basis of his clientele.
Scheduling became Haeg’s biggest challenge, because nothing moves until counties have the required onsite design. “Whether clients need an inspection, maintenance or a design, it’s their most important project,” says Haeg. “Our philosophy is to treat every person’s project as if it is our most important job.”
In 2001, Haeg bought a Bobcat 331 mini-excavator to dig test pits. Two years later, he bought a Bobcat S205 skid loader and hired installer Don Fischer. (Fischer has since been certified as an onsite inspector, designer and service provider.) “My brother Greg also worked with me for a few years,” says Haeg.
Office manager Megan McNair followed in 2005. “Her degree in exercise physiology brings a different, beneficial perspective,” says Haeg. “Although we’re an eclectic crew, Megan nevertheless tries to influence us. She recognizes ways to improve our diets, to keep us hydrated, or to remind us about health and wellness.”
Ben Pflueger, who joined the team in 2012, is a certified inspector, designer and installer. “Jen Burg started here doing part-time office work when she was a high school senior,” says Haeg. “Then she worked for the county in a position similar to my old job before I hired her again in 2013 to help develop drawings.” Megan’s brother, Fletcher McNair, provides seasonal help while attending college.
Haeg’s design work has always been 90 percent residential and 10 percent commercial. Residential systems average 600 gpd with designs split 50/50 between replacement and new construction. Conventional rock-and-pipe drainfields or Quick4 chambers (Infiltrator Water Technologies) work best in the area’s glacial till, glacial outwash (sandy plain), and lacustrine (clay and silt) soils. “In-ground systems and Wisconsin-type mounds are typical, but we also design many box-type mounds and sand filters,” says Haeg.
Haeg frequently tackles challenging sites requiring creative solutions, but the technologies he chooses depend on available suppliers and support resources. “As service providers, we see MicroFast (Bio-Microbics) and Nibbler (Aqua Test) aerobic treatment units performing well,’’ he explains. “They dovetail with our precasters — Brown Precast (Brown-Wilbert), Amcon (Amcon Block and Precast), and Wieser Concrete Products — and suppliers Granite Water Works and Pipeline Supply.”
Haeg’s licensure as an advanced designer allows him to work on projects with flows up to 10,000 gpd. Flows greater than 10,000 gpd must be designed by a professional engineer.
Like most designers, Haeg’s common challenges are lack of space, setbacks and disturbed or filled soils. Frequently, his soils also contain buried treasure. “People have lived here for generations,” he says. “Don and Ben were digging test holes in a wooded site recently and encountered the foundation of an old farmhouse. Don kept moving the holes back until they found native soil suitable for a mound.”
As design opportunities arose, Haeg rectified construction errors he had noticed as a county inspector. Sagged force mains from the pump tank to the drainfield topped his list.
“Minnesota’s frost depth is 42 inches, but pump lines are usually buried 24 inches deep,” he says. “Because contractors were nervous about damaging the tanks, they often didn’t compact the backfill around them properly.” The settling ground pulled down the pipe, creating a belly in which the drain backwater froze. Haeg’s designs specify sleeving the force main in 4-inch Schedule 40 pipe to help minimize settling.
A 1996 code requirement for inspection ports caused the next problem. When Haeg tried to remove inspection caps, the whole pipe often came out of the hole. “Glue isn’t the answer because the ABS plastic in drop boxes won’t bond with PVC pipe,” he says.
Haeg encouraged installers to use mechanical fastenings, but they soon found some screws lasted longer than others. Haeg disseminated that information while visiting with contractors. “Our goal is to help everyone install the proper equipment, while making it long-lasting and serviceable,” he says.
Before 2008, the biggest service obstacle was risers buried 2 to 3 feet below grade. Instead of excavating them, pumpers cleaned septic tanks via the 4- or 6-inch inspection port, an approach with dubious results. The 2008 code revision required risers at grade for new installations. Stearns County went further, requiring all risers be brought to the surface. When Haeg performs an inspection, he orders the tank pumped and makes sure access is to grade if it wasn’t already. He uses 24-inch Ultra-Rib risers (Orenco Systems) ordered through Granite Water Works.
TECH TURNING POINT
A pivotal moment for Haeg came in 2003 when he invested in Vectorworks CAD software. The purchase was quite the plunge, but it paid huge dividends. Haeg designed a site plan template, and soon everyone involved in his projects knew exactly where to look for certain information.
Contractors forwarded the designs, saved in a PDF portfolio, along with background information and test results, to wholesalers for material takeoffs and orders. In return, Haeg tried to accommodate contractors who preferred certain suppliers by specifying the products they carried. Today, familiarity with Haeg’s standardized plans helps contractors find the information they need for accurate bids and construction.
“CAD software helps us interface with other professionals such as surveyors, engineers, and manufacturers’ support staff,” says Haeg. “For example, we import the surveyor’s AutoCAD file and develop the site plan on top of his survey. It adds another level of accuracy to our work.”
When Haeg occasionally has questions about which technology best suits a site, he looks to his peers for recommendations. “I work with local regulators and the University of Minnesota engineers, but most often our suppliers help determine the best available choices,” he says.
A recent example involved owner Matt Lee of Aqua Test helping Haeg develop estimates for an onsite system serving a new coffee shop/restaurant with a small kitchen and bakery. “Matt acted as a sounding board for my ideas,” says Haeg. “Rather than generalizing the entire wastewater flow, we looked at the nature of each waste stream separately. Together, we met the client’s needs without overkill.”
MINNESOTA STAYS AHEAD
Another of Haeg’s clients razed his convenience store/gas station in preparation of building a bigger version with an expanded kitchen on the same lot. “Our challenge was fitting an 1,800 gpd onsite system into a small footprint,” says Haeg. “We worked with suppliers Andy Winkler of Wieser Concrete and Tony Birrittieri of Petersen Products Company.”
The treatment train has a 1,000-gallon grease interceptor, 4,800-gallon two-compartment septic tank, 5,000-gallon equalization tank, and a 6,000-gallon two-compartment pretreatment tank with a 3.0 HighStrength FAST and 3.0 MicroFAST in series. The 3,000-gallon dose tank pumps to two 9- by 84-foot drainfields with Quick4 chambers.
Before long, what Haeg was doing caught the attention of educators. “Minnesota is progressive in its approach to wastewater, and our regulations are somewhat foreign to people outside the Midwest,” he says. “For example, why worry if septic tanks are watertight? It’s interesting that what we take for granted in our area strikes people as remarkable in other parts of the country.”
Haeg has spoken at CONEXPO-CON/AGG and the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association Installer Academy, both in Las Vegas. Closer to home, he shares his experiences at Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association conferences and with Realtor associations. Several times a year, Haeg partners with the University of Minnesota Onsite Sewage Treatment Program to find suitable sites for field classes. “We dig the test pits and take students to see working systems, design sites and soil conditions,” says Haeg.
Looking ahead, Haeg envisions expanding the business by creating a service and maintenance branch. “I see the need for all systems to have regular scheduled service calls and routine repairs,” he says. “Repairs are often as simple as replacing an alarm float or effluent pump, which we stock.”
When Haeg is ready to build his dedicated O & M crew, he will hire veterans. Three are already on his staff: Fletcher McNair, Fischer and Pflueger, all Marines. “They have a tremendous work ethic,” he says. “I can’t imagine a better group of qualified, motivated individuals.”
When I’m not working
Collapsing with pneumonia after his first year in business taught Tim Haeg, owner of Watab in St. Joseph, Minnesota, the importance of separating his professional and private lives. However, the confessed workaholic must physically remove himself from the work environment before he can relax.
His favorite retreat is pheasant hunting in South Dakota. “Last summer, my friend and I spent all our free time building a hunting lodge there,” says Haeg. “The hunting is spectacular.”
Early this year, Haeg’s old yellow Labrador retriever died and he brought home a yellow lab puppy in March. He sent Murdo to a professional trainer, who taught him to be a disciplined hunting dog. “I’m counting on Murdo to help me become a better pheasant hunter,” says Haeg.
Somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the work slows down somewhat, ice fisherman Haeg enjoys catching a meal of panfish in the lake across the road or at a local secret spot. He has also flown to Alaska to angle for halibut in Cook Inlet and salmon in the Kenai River. His health remains excellent.