George Schooley loves the challenge of repairing and replacing troubled treatment systems on sites with cramped spaces and difficult soils and terrain.
A mountain home needed a replacement onsite treatment system. There was just one problem: The property around the house was largely solid rock, and the only available drainfield sites were at 100 feet higher elevation.
That didn’t stop George Schooley and his team at Legacy Septic & Excavation. They managed to dig a trench, run a pipe up the mountain, and install a pump big enough to deliver the septic tank effluent to the drainfield.
Tough system repairs (well, not all quite that tough) are the specialty of Legacy Septic, based in Westminster, Maryland. The company does installations for new homes and small businesses, but Schooley much prefers devising fixes on sites with tight spaces, tricky soils, difficult terrain and other obstacles.
“New construction is not a challenge at all,” says Schooley, who runs this business with his wife, Jenny Walsh, accounting and marketing director. “It’s all been laid out for you. It’s all on paper. The repair work is what I love doing. Anything that’s challenging, where somebody says it can’t be done, we can do it.”
The company also operates a thriving septic tank pumping business and goes to market with an array of promotions that include online presence, community education seminars, and visible support for multiple community organizations serving youth.
The roots of Legacy Septic go back to 1963. Schooley’s father, George Sr., started in business as a house painter in Loudon County, Virginia, and later took to building homes. In time he bought equipment to dig foundations and prepare driveways and roads.
“When I was about 13, he hired a guy to install septic systems,” Schooley says. “I looked up to him, and anytime I could, on weekends and after school, I helped him install the septic systems, and water and sewer lines.” By age 17, Schooley was supervising a crew.
Several years later, after attending night school and nearly finishing a degree in electrical and mechanical engineering at Montgomery Community College, he left the family business and went to work for an HVAC contractor.
He rose through the ranks to chief engineer and project manager, working on large and complex projects in commercial facilities. Along the way, in the late 1980s, he met his wife, who was managing a million-square-foot commercial office space in Rockville, Maryland, for one of the nation’s largest property management firms.
After his father died from cancer in 2001, Schooley, along with Walsh, came back to the family business. At first they continued with a diverse construction and excavating business, but they gradually refined the focus, and by 2013 were in the onsite business exclusively, having started the pumping service in that year.
“I learned the onsite business at a young age, and I always liked to design and install,” Schooley says. “It isn’t like digging a basement, putting in a road or grading a yard. It’s parts and pieces that you put together, and you’re helping the environment. I love being able to help people who have failing systems.”
Schooley is licensed in Carroll, Baltimore, Frederick, Howard and Montgomery counties and has state certifications for drip systems, sand mounds and sand bed systems. Leads for repairs come in directly from customers, but also from engineering groups. On drip systems he collaborates with longtime friend Tom Ashton of American Manufacturing, a major drip equipment supplier.
Walsh runs the office and generates the work orders. “She has exceptional phone skills in talking to customers,” Schooley says. “When somebody calls, she can usually sell the job. If it’s something where I need to get involved before it becomes a job, she’ll let me know and I’ll either call the customer or go out on site and meet with them.” Once work orders are generated, projects are divided between two field crews.
Legacy installs mainly conventional pipe-and-rock drainfields with concrete septic tanks, using plastic tanks (Infiltrator Water Technologies) in rare cases where a truck can’t access the site for concrete tank placement. When aerobic treatment units are required, Schooley relies on Singulair Model TNT systems (Norweco). “We size them by number of bedrooms,” he says. “The TNT 600 (600 gpd) is good for up to five bedrooms. We’ll go up to the TNT 1000 for houses with more than five bedrooms and for commercial systems.”
Legacy rents equipment for commercial projects and difficult jobs from Mid Maryland Rentals. The company’s own fleet includes:
- 2007 John Deere 310J backhoe
- 2005 New Holland 75.B backhoe
- 2002 Kobelco SK35SR mini-excavator
- 2007 New Holland C185 track skid-loader
- 1994 GMC Topkick sewer jetting truck with 1,000-gallon aluminum tank built in-house, and Conde SDS Ultra Power Pak pump (Westmoor)
- Three Ford Super Duty service pickup trucks (2002, 2003 and 2005)
Repair starts with finding out why the system failed. If a customer reports sewage surfacing in the yard or a backup into the house, Schooley goes out to investigate, sometimes pumping the tank immediately to provide temporary relief. Then it’s a question of devising a lasting solution, usually working with a county sanitarian.
The existing system is uncovered and examined. Measurements are taken to help identify a proper replacement drainfield location that meets setback requirements from wells on the site and neighboring properties. A perc test is completed and Schooley develops a design and pricing for the new system, which requires a county permit.
Sometimes the fix doesn’t require a system replacement. “We often find distribution boxes out of level,” Schooley says. “All the effluent has been going into one line and overloading that line. The solution might be as simple as putting in a new distribution box, and maybe turning that overused line off to let it rest and rejuvenate itself, while running off the other line for four to six years. Then we can go back and turn the line back on that we turned off, and the system will work again.”
If there’s no such simple answer, replacement systems are often challenging. Small lots may pose difficulty meeting well setbacks, typically 100 feet. The northwest part of Legacy’s territory has red clay soils that typically require sand mounds or sand beds. “We have a few low-lying areas where the water table is high,” says Schooley. “In those areas, Tom Ashton will design a drip system, and we’ll install it.”
In practice, things can get much more complicated. The mountainside site began with a “treatment system” that failed a real estate transfer inspection because it was nothing more than a tank with a pipe leading to a creek. The property itself was big enough for a drainfield, but the shallow bedrock ruled that out.
“We got permission from a neighbor to enter the property from the back and do perc testing on top of the mountain,” Schooley says. “We found a good site, but the problem was getting from the lower to the higher elevation, which was probably 100 feet difference.” They set a Singulair TNT 600 ATU and a 2,000-gallon pump chamber near the house, and the tanks were water-tested because the lot was near a stream. The pump was a Pentair SKHD150 with 127 feet of head.
The team found a route for the pipe that wasn’t as rocky and steep as most of the mountainside, and dug a trench for a 1,020-foot run of piping up to the distribution box. “We had to hold the trackhoe on the side of the mountain using a cable and a track loader so we could dig the trench for the force main,” Schooley says. “Then we hauled in dirt and covered that over.” The drainfield had two 71-foot trenches 8 feet deep with 4 feet of stone.
In another case, a couple bought a home and six months later had to sell it because the husband got a job transfer. The septic system failed the inspection. “The lot was small, and a previous owner had put about 7 feet of fill in the lot,” Schooley says. “Onsite systems don’t work in fill. We dug test pits down 26 feet and never hit groundwater. We put trenches 17 feet in the ground. It was a very expensive ordeal, but we were able to get a system installed and save the sale of the property.”
On a job in the red clay area, septic systems at three side-by-side homes had failed; effluent was leaching into a pond. Legacy installed an ATU for each home, all three discharging to one large pump chamber. The pump then delivered effluent to a two-zone drip system on higher ground.
GETTING THE BUSINESS
Helping bring projects like these to fruition are technicians Steve Hannon, Ernesto Sanchez Fernando and Craig Peeling. Theresa Saunders handles many office duties, including charitable giving and scheduling of community education events. Ryan Schooley is a 2017 summer intern supporting marketing campaigns.
Legacy runs a multifaceted marketing program. A mainstay is a series of educational presentations in public libraries in Carroll County, the company’s home base. The approach is strictly educational, although one lucky attendee at each presentation receives a certificate for a free septic system pumpout.
“It was Theresa’s idea to go to the libraries,” says Walsh. “George gives really sound advice. The libraries asked us to provide child care, and so our teenage daughters, Ryan, Logan and Cameron, wear Legacy T-shirts and sit with the kids and read to them, assemble puzzles or play in the puppet theater.”
Schooley adds, “I have a little model that shows a septic tank. I explain that they need to have a riser on their tank. I show them the different types of systems, and I tell them what it could cost to repair their system if they don’t take care of it.”
Legacy’s new website includes customer testimonials. A Facebook page attracts significant attention. “All the time I hear other businesses owners say, ‘Facebook didn’t do anything for me — do you really think it works?’” says Walsh. “We’ve gotten so much business through community group pages on Facebook.”
HELPING ON THE HOMEFRONT
“We’re very community-oriented. Carroll County is a community county. A lot of people know each other. Our daughters are in 4-H, and that has been a great resource for us. We financially support the 4-H Foundation and the annual cake auction. We do book fairs, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts. We exhibit at the county Home Show and local business expos.
“The University of Maryland Extension Master Gardener Series is a dream demographic. The members typically have septic systems. They care about the environment,” Walsh says.
“When George spoke to them, about 50 people attended, and it was a very receptive audience. We’ve had customers come to us because they see us in the community so much.”
Walsh credits Carroll County’s Small Business Development Center and the Miller Center for Small Business there with helping Legacy Septic develop a sound marketing approach. She encourages other onsite service companies to make use of similar resources in their areas.
Sharp marketing of high-quality services has created a winning formula and a bright future for Legacy Septic & Excavating.
Pumping up profits
The Legacy Septic pumping business has grown to some 800 customers in just four years, and it’s not because the company offers the lowest price.
Legacy’s service includes providing customers with complete records on their systems. “Once a customer chooses us, we contact the local health department and request the property’s septic system records,” says co-owner George Schooley.
On the day of service, the technician draws a map of the septic system location, records any notable features of the property like access issues and presence of pets, takes site measurements, and makes recommendations as needed.
Later, the customer receives a report containing information from the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA), the county property record, and other information.
Over time, the company tailors the pumping frequency to the number of people living in the home and the system’s usage history.
Schooley built his own vacuum trucks, both on International chassis with 3,000- and 2,500-gallon-capacity steel tanks and National Vacuum Equipment Challenger vacuum pumps. Legacy also has maintenance contracts to service about 150 aerobic treatment units twice a year.
When not tackling tough onsite system repair jobs, George Schooley “relaxes” by powering extreme four-wheel-drive vehicles on off-road courses in a national racing circuit.
It all started with an old, abandoned Jeep he saw on a job site. “Years ago I had a project manager, Clinton Bates, who often talked about Jeep racing,” Schooley recalls. “While working on a job I saw this old Jeep sitting in the weeds and asked the customer what he was doing with it. He said, ‘If you want it, take it.’”
Schooley put it on a trailer and gave it to Bates. The two worked together to restore it. Bates then began running it on a local Jeep racing circuit. “He kept trying to get me to go to a race, and I just didn’t because I knew I’d be hooked,” Schooley says. “I’m a very competitive person. I raced motocross when I was young, and I did truck and tractor pulling.
“Finally, there was a race where all the events were timed, so Clinton could race the Jeep and I could race it, too. I agreed to go with him, and I won every event that weekend.”
One thing then led to another. Schooley bought the Jeep and started racing, then built a faster one in which he won a couple of 2015 racing series on the East Coast. Later, with wastewater industry friend Bob Wimmer and other friends, they bought the Ultra4 vehicle that had won the 2016 King of Hammers race, the world’s toughest one-day off-road race, held in Johnson Valley, California.
They qualified for the 2017 King of Hammers and placed 36th in a field of 140 entries — one of only 50 vehicles that finished the race. They plan to enter about half a dozen additional races this year. It’s one way to shake off the tension from those challenging onsite projects.