The challenging topography in New York’s Finger Lakes region tests the men and machines of Zinks Septic Solutions.
Earning a degree in petroleum technology prepared Barry Zink for various jobs in the oil and gas industry. However, when he arrived in Alaska in 1985, oil prices were plummeting and major energy companies weren’t hiring. “I never used my degree,” says Zink.
He returned home to Palmyra, New York, and worked for 28 years as an onsite installer before opening Zinks Septic Solutions in April 2014. “I wish I’d struck out on my own much sooner,” says Zink, 52. “I doubled the number of installations in the second year, enabling me to hire two employees.”
The company hit another milestone in 2016, replacing 40 mainly conventional systems and installing five new. This year’s business prospects suggest even greater growth.
IN THE GROOVE
Zink cut his teeth in the construction and onsite fields while in school. His aptitude for machines soon made the work second nature, and he liked that level of proficiency. So did his father-in-law, who was struggling to find and keep good employees in the pumping and septic company for which he worked. “I stayed with them for 22 years, but moved on when the onsite branch was eliminated to expand the business in other areas,” says Zink.
Zink worked six years for another septic company, continually enlarging his network of local health department personnel, engineers, contractors and developers in Monroe, Wayne, Livingston and Ontario counties. Whenever clients asked them to recommend an installer, Zink’s name was always in the mix. The volume of work generated by referrals convinced Zink to fly solo.
“My niche is installing onsite systems, often in places other contractors won’t touch,” he says. Zink works primarily in the Finger Lakes region on tight lots with steep slopes. Soils include well-drained glacial outwash and till, heavy clay, shale and loam.
Zink opened his company in a hurry. He hired an attorney familiar with the construction industry to form an LLC. Then he bought a 3500 Chevrolet van with Supreme Corp. box body, an International 2554 dump truck with 6-cubic-yard Galion box, a Talbert AC10 tag trailer, a Kubota L45 loader/backhoe, and a Spectra Precision/Trimble LL-300 laser. Zink rented excavators until he knew what size he really needed.
Acting on the advice of other business owners, Zink hired an accountant specializing in construction. “You don’t want a friend who is an accountant or the typical certified public accountant,” he says. “You want someone who not only looks at the bottom line, but who analyzes industry trends. That person is a sound judge of when I should buy equipment or proceed with other ideas.”
Although New York State has no onsite license requirements, Zink takes courses during Education Day at the WWETT Show and attends classes offered by county health departments. “Staying abreast of the latest industry advancements enables me to better serve my customers,” he says.
For example, a homeowner asked Zink to bid on an engineer-designed mound system. After evaluating the work, he determined an Advanced Enviro-Septic (AES) treatment system (Presby Environmental) was a better fit. “I spoke to the engineer in depth and convinced him,” says Zink. “The client was thrilled because I saved him lots of money that would have gone for fill.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Despite Zink’s network and numerous referrals, his biggest concern the first year in business was low name recognition, so he spent some money on print advertising. Sheelah, his wife and office manager, developed the company website. Then Zink found LocalVox Media, a digital best-in-class marketing platform that helps local businesses publish promotional material.
The exposure via Zink’s numerous illustrated articles on onsite systems and treatment products worked, and the business grew. In 2015, he hired his son, Paul, and foreman Randy Seavert. “Onsite isn’t Paul’s passion. He’s moving on and I’m looking for his replacement,” says Zink. “Randy does everything thoroughly. He’s dedicated and hardworking.”
Onsite projects (95 percent residential) produce 90 percent of Zink’s annual revenue. Excavation, site preparation, waterline installation and repair, and downspout and lateral (house to septic tank) maintenance comprise the remainder. New home installs are minimal, because builders typically hire the same contractor for the driveway, waterline, grading and onsite system.
Since systems in the Canandaigua Lake watershed must be engineered designs, Zink works closely with engineering firms, local and county health departments, and George Barden, an inspector for the Canandaigua Lake Watershed Commission. When Barden heard that Norweco was releasing a new phosphorus-nitrogen tank and filter, he asked Zink, a company distributor, to bring him the data. “George will present it to the commission to discuss whether they want the technology installed in certain situations,” says Zink.
He also works extensively with Bill Grove, P.E., of Grove Engineering in Naples, New York. The team has a reputation for cracking the hardest onsite challenges. A recent example was a system replacement for a two-bedroom seasonal lakefront cottage on a steep wooded hill. Access to the site was from a road 80 feet above the lake.
Grove specified a 500-gallon lift station with 2 hp sewage grinder pump (Liberty Pumps) at the cottage. Years ago, road builders had leveled a spot in the hill 40 feet above the home, and Grove set the 1,000-gallon septic tank (tanks by Roth Global Plastics) and AES trenches on it. The elevation from the cottage to the septic tank rose 18 feet in a 45 percent slope.
“Since we couldn’t maneuver the E55 Bobcat excavator down the hill, we had to hand-dig the 5.5-foot-diameter 5-foot-deep pump tank hole,” says Zink. “The silty loam was the consistency of wet concrete, and the spoil kept wanting to fall down the hill.” They also dug the 12-inch-deep trench for the 1.5-inch force main to the septic tank.
To prevent the 225-pound fiberglass pump tank from heeding gravity’s call, the crew lowered it with a rope. “Had we lost control, the tank would have bobbed off into the lake,” says Zink.
Once the lift station was set, Zink machined down from the road to excavate the hole for the 450-pound 10- by 5- by 4-foot septic tank. He also dug the trench for the supply line, prepared the drainfield site, and leveled an area uphill to stage the system sand.
“The driver of the slinger truck shot the sand over the bank and right on target,” says Zink. Using a Kubota 75 tracked skid-steer, Paul Zink transferred the sand to the Bobcat excavator driven by his father and he placed it in the drainfield. Then Seavert leveled the sand. The normal two-day installation on the flat took four days.
Another team project involved a five-bedroom lakefront home with a sound 1,000-gallon steel septic tank and failed drainfield. The installer, hired by an excavation contractor, looked down the 50 percent slope and said he had no idea how to attempt the job. The contractor called Zink.
He proposed modifying the septic tank into a lift station by having Liberty Pumps fabricate a fiberglass basin to fit inside it. However, the basin would not have the capacity for 500 gallons plus storage. Grove and Barden agreed with Zink to use duplex 2 hp pumps and a control panel (Liberty Pumps) to meet demand.
“Now I didn’t have to take the excavator down there to dig a new hole,” says Zink. “We rolled the basin to the tank, stuck it in, and there was our lift station.”
The next morning, Paul Zink and Seavert hand-dug a 12-inch-deep trench for the 2-inch force main 210 feet to the base of the new asphalt driveway. The area averaged a 25 percent slope with sections of 30 percent slope.
To avoid damaging the drive, Zink hired Keith Burrows of Burrows Bros. to bore under the steep bank supporting it. Burrows tracked the remote-control driven JT2020 Mach 1 Ditch Witch down the driveway, then realized that once he’d maneuvered over the drive’s drainage ditch, there was nowhere to set the drill. “I hadn’t taken that into consideration, so we hand-dug a level spot into the bank,” says Zink.
The 30-foot bore went smoothly. From the driveway, the grade rose even steeper as Paul Zink and Seavert dug the force main trench 120 feet to the septic tank’s location. Meanwhile, Barry Zink fought the Bobcat excavator up the hill and dug the hole for the 14- by 5.5- by 4.25-foot TW-1500 tank (Infiltrator Water Technologies). The excavation was three times as deep on the steep side of the hill.
The men secured the 581-pound tank with a rope, then lowered it over the bank. Zink helped control and slow the tank’s descent with the excavator bucket until able to lift and set it.
ONE FOR THE BOOKS
As Zink prepared the drainfield site, softball- to basketball-sized rocks in the spoil rolled down the hill, smashing through silt fences 15 feet below and landing on the driveway close to the house. “To avoid a major rock catastrophe, we built a berm with the excavator to trap them,” says Zink. “I’ve never encountered that situation before.”
Once again, the slinger truck driver launched system sand some 40 feet down from the road and directly into the bed. After the crew lay 350 feet of AES pipes in the drainfield, the slinger covered them with a layer of sand. A total of 80 tons was required.
“Backfilling the system and making the final grade and slopes without driving on the bed was tedious work,” says Zink. “I constantly thought about where to position the soil and how to grade it, while working backward toward the only spot on the hill where I could get out.”
As he cut into the berm to use the soil for backfill, Paul Zink and Seavert caught dislodged rocks on the move. “One got away from us and hit a tire on my truck,” says Zink. “A hit on the body would have obliterated it.”
The soft soil made the excavator want to slide down the hill. Zink fastened his seatbelt, and trusted his son and Seavert to watch for signs that the soil was giving way too much. The project took five days instead of 3 1/2 days on the flat.
Zink’s expertise in solving difficult situations ensures an overflowing service board. He plans to grow the business to just five employees. “I can control what happens at that size,” he says. “The most important things are keeping my good name and doing quality work.”
Facing seasonal challenges
Weather plays a major role in installing onsite systems in New York’s Finger Lakes region. “We call time-out on rain days because working on the 20 to 50 percent slopes is too dangerous,” says Barry Zink, owner of Zinks Septic Solutions. “If it begins to rain and we’re working in silty clay or loamy soils, we stop because the excavator becomes unmaneuverable.”
Even mild winters limit installation opportunities. Slopes become slick and thaws make materials wetter than normal. Trucks laden with sand or stone are too heavy to reach systems without damaging lawns or bogging down. “Over the 2016-’17 winter, we installed 10 systems and replaced four septic tanks, and all were on the flat in sandy or gravely soils,” says Zink.
The irregular fieldwork enables Zink’s crew to service 15 maintenance contracts on aerobic treatment units, replace pumps (more fail in winter than in summer), and cracked or collapsed concrete distribution boxes. The crew also inspects and cleans laterals from the house to the septic tank and drainfield supply lines using a Viztrac AM-200-100 camera with sonde (Amazing Machinery) and RIDGID K-3800 power snake.