California ‘septic surgeon’ Nick Herrera loves his machines and puts them to good use tackling a broad spectrum of onsite challenges.
After years in the wastewater business, Nick Herrera didn’t go big. He went the other way, and in the process found that having a smaller company is a better way to serve his customers.
“When I had crews before, I’d spend most of my time going from crew to crew. And now I can be a lot more controlled and everything gets done right the first time,” he says.
Getting it done right the first time is the way Herrera looks at business. Look at the company’s website, and you see this: “Our philosophy is simple: Do the very best job that is humanly possible, period.”
Herrera went into the installing business as soon as he graduated from Paradise High School in 1978. That installer was his father-in-law, and Herrera stayed there until 1986, when he started NH Construction. His license is for general building and engineering contracting, and while he built a couple of houses on spec, he likes wastewater work better. He says he prefers moving from job to job instead of chasing the many small pieces that must be brought together for a house.
Big idea for onsite
Herrera’s service area is Paradise, California, and the nearby city of Chico, both about 90 miles north of the state capital of Sacramento. Paradise is a city of about 26,000 people in the mountains of northern California, north of Sacramento, northwest of Lake Tahoe. Chico is downslope, a city of about 90,000 and one of the many communities in California’s agriculture-heavy Central Valley.
Paradise is also the largest community in the U.S. Herrera knows of that has no municipal wastewater system. Every home and every business has its own onsite treatment system. That strategy is left over from the 1980s and ’90s when city leaders didn’t want their community to grow too fast.
Those were the older leaders. Younger people in charge now are thinking differently about the city, Herrera says. There is talk of collecting wastewater and sending it downhill to Chico, which has some excess capacity at its treatment plant.
Either way, Herrera has business because he handles both types of wastewater service. His business is about half onsite and half sewer work. Onsite is done in Paradise and in the nearby rural areas. Sewer work happens in Chico. And he lives in the lower part of Paradise, closer to the valley floor, where the distance between the communities is about equal.
NH Construction used to employ eight people. About three years ago Herrera reduced that to one person besides himself, Nick Graham. It was all about quality.
Doing it right the first time has multiple payoffs. The customer is happy because there are no lingering troubles and repeat calls for service.
Another payoff is cost.
“Going back to a job again and again to fix problems costs you the money you would make on a new job, and it costs you the time that would be spent on that other job. Going back is also not pleasant, and adds risk. When you put a system in the first time it’s all new pipe and new fittings. When you go back to work on it, it’s no longer new. It’s soiled,” he says.
Loves his machines
You can see most of Herrera’s equipment on his website. He likes earth-moving equipment, which started when he was a boy fascinated by Tonka trucks, then continued with the real thing.
“Whenever I see a kid watching me dig and they get intrigued, I say be careful because you could wind up like me,” he says with a laugh.
He favors Bobcat equipment, as is clear from the list of his gear:
- Bobcat 418 mini-excavator
- Bobcat 430 zero-swing compact excavator
- Bobcat 331 tracked compact excavator
- Bobcat T180 tracked skid-steers
- Bobcat 763 skid-steer
- Bobcat 442 tracked excavator
- Caterpillar 303.5 tracked excavator
- Caterpillar 228 skid-steer
- Fermec four-wheel-drive 760 backhoe
- Terex four-wheel-drive 760 backhoe
- Ditch Witch JT922 directional drilling machine
His website also shows a dump truck, but he doesn’t have it anymore because it became more economical to do without it in the face of regulations from the California Air Resources Board. As part of its effort to reduce pollution, CARB wanted to decommission older trucks, and when he looked at the cost of newer equipment plus the necessary licenses and insurance, it was cheaper to contract his heavy hauling, Herrera says.
His trucking needs are now met with a pair of 1-ton pickups, a Chevy 3500 and a GMC 3500. He uses dump trailers for moving equipment and light hauling. One in particular he had custom built with sides about 3 feet off the ground to make it easier to load with small equipment or debris.
At the end of the season all the equipment is washed. He usually does maintenance himself during winter, but sometimes takes machines to a dealer if a repair requires specialized knowledge.
A detour into dining
For a while Herrera was in the restaurant business by accident, but it led him to a productive relationship that he maintains today.
In the early 1990s he was called in about a challenged system at the restaurant. The owner didn’t want to fix the system. He was ready to shut the business down. Herrera worked out a deal. He took over the restaurant, installed a new wastewater system, and ran the business.
“It was like an upscale Denny’s, but family owned. The restaurant business is a really hard business — which I learned. You have to keep everyone happy all the time, and that’s hard when you’re serving 200 to 500 people a day and must depend on the people you hired. One of the big downsides was keeping the business fully staffed, and it was a big restaurant. There could be an event in town, and suddenly 200 people would walk through the door on a day when you expected to have only half the restaurant open,” he says.
On top of all that, minding the restaurant took time away from his main business. Herrera sold the restaurant to a man who had eight others, and focused on wastewater systems.
But from that restaurant detour came his relationship with NorthStar, an engineering and design firm. Its staff designed the system for the restaurant, and almost all of the engineered systems he installs are done by NorthStar. The two companies have a good working relationship and a good process.
Look first, draw later
“Before we do anything, before we put anything on paper, we’ll go out to the site, look at it, and toss ideas around. When the plan comes out of engineering, we know it will work because we’ve worked out the issues beforehand. Compare that to some engineers who draw plans first, and then it is on people in the field to find out where the problems are,” he says.
Herrera does some septic design himself. The city of Paradise allows an installer to design a simple pressure-dose system. Anything more complicated requires an engineer. The county requires designers to be certified if they do anything more complicated than a gravity-fed system. He does some design work for other installers, but it’s not steady, and it’s not a lot because Herrera is busy with his own projects.
Advanced treatment installations make up about 40 percent of his business with the remaining 60 percent being conventional systems. He favors Orenco Systems products.
His largest system is a complete collection and treatment system for the town of Robbins, California. The groundwater was about 2 feet below grade, and Herrera had to install tanks and piping for the system as deep as 13 feet. Because the shallow groundwater left too little unsaturated soil for final treatment, the system used a pair of shallow ponds to evaporate treated wastewater. Water was pumped into one pond until it was full, then pumping switched to the second while water in the first evaporated. He dealt with the groundwater by drilling wells around the perimeter of the site and setting pumps before installing the wastewater system.
“At one point we were pumping over 2,000 gallons a minute just to keep the groundwater at a decent level,” he says.
Providing quality service from the first bucket of excavated soil to restoring a home’s landscaping is a key to keeping customers happy. On his website Herrera dubs his company “the septic surgeon.”
“I picked that because we try to be surgically precise and not tear everything up. When you’re done with a job, the only thing the customer sees is the top of the ground. If you defaced their land while working, they’re not happy about it,” he says.
From a project like the one in Robbins to the smallest residential project, that emphasis on getting it right has ensured success for NH Construction and kept Herrera at the controls of the equipment he loves to operate.
No advertising needed
With nearly 40 years of experience in the onsite industry, Nick Herrera, owner of NH Construction, requires few marketing strategies to keep the workload coming in. His website lists other companies as references, people who do a good job and who are good to be associated with. His only ad, he says, is the company name on the doors of his trucks.
“A lot of times when I am hired to do projects it’s because of a recommendation from an engineer or someone I did work for,” he says. “I’ve been here for almost 30 years doing this, and pretty much everybody knows me.”
Herrera does not look at other installers in his area as competition. He designs systems for some of them, and his specialty of doing difficult projects makes him distinct. Other installers are his colleagues.
“You know what, I don’t call other installers competitors,” he says. “I don’t feel I have to be super competitive because I have plenty of work and don’t have to beat the next guy out of a job.”