When others walk away, this experienced New Hampshire system designer picks up difficult residential and commercial projects and makes them work.
In March 2015, homeowners approached onsite designer Penny Wright of Nottingham, New Hampshire, to design a replacement system, but she was too ill to work. Throughout the summer and fall, 17 other designers evaluated the property and walked away in defeat. The owners finally got their system when Wright recovered.
Wright established her reputation for tackling projects nobody else wanted to touch while working for New Hampshire Soil Consultants. As a sideline, she opened The Wright Choice Septics in 1997, designing a few systems a year for friends. In 2008, the economic downturn caused NHSC to lay off its entire septic department.
Wright switched her business to full time, and was hired three weeks later to design a replacement system for a hotel on a cliff that dropped almost straight down to a river. The structure was built on a slab, and all the plumbing ran through it to the tanks, which straight-piped to the water. “No other designer would look at it,” Wright recalls. “That project launched my company, and I’ve remained busy ever since.”
Wright spent 10 years becoming familiar with New Hampshire’s varied climates and soils. The former ranges from temperate in the south and coastal areas to frigid in the northern White Mountains. Of the state’s six soil groups, Group 3 (sand and loam) and Group 4 (ledges) are most common. The southern region where Wright works is densely populated, often with two- and three-bedroom cottages built after World War II on thumbprint lots, many on the back-barrier salt marshes.
“The homes had septic tanks straight-piped to the marshes,” says Wright. “Homes not on marshes had holding tanks, which residents popped holes in rather than pay for weekly or even more frequent pumping.”
In response to those environmental problems and the mid-1980s building boom, the state approved alternative products such as plastic leaching tubes and plastic chambers. But there were problems. “We’re constantly replacing them,” says Wright. Installers and septic evaluators report finding liquid in the leaching tubes and a biomat on the bottom.
“The aerobic bacteria were drowning and creating the biomat,” says Wright. She removed them from the equation by turning to aeration pretreatment. While no product is a perfect fit for every site, Wright prefers the Clean Solution ATU from Advanced Onsite Solutions (formerly Wastewater Alternatives). “The shoebox-size air compressor plugs into a standard outlet, makes less noise than a refrigerator, and doesn’t require a licensed electrician,” she says.
While aeration pretreatment prolongs the life of leaching tubes and chambers, it doesn’t prevent the chambers from failing prematurely because they have lost up to half their volume.
“Evaluators tell homeowners if they have septic problems, then a designer comes out to rectify them,” says Wright. “I’m finding 13- to 15-inch-high chambers one-third to one-half full of coarse sand due to settling. What confuses me is I’m not seeing any above-ground depressions associated with their sinking, and no one I’ve talked to has heard of an answer.”
Wright suspects the chambers were not installed correctly or a design flaw enables them to settle during backfilling and grading. In 2010, manufacturers widened the chamber lips and are recommending placing concrete sidewalk blocks under the corners where chambers meet to support them.
“The Granite State Designers and Installers installed five different drainfields at an adult day care facility in Stratford,” says Wright. “The fields are monitored every few months by Tom Canfield, who runs the state septic evaluator certification program. In the next few years, it will be interesting to see which changes, if any, have made a difference regarding leaching tubes and plastic chambers.”
Wright designs 30 to 35 systems per year, with 80 percent residential. Replacing those systems with 600 gpd designs equals 90 percent of her work. Whenever possible, Wright prefers pretreatment aeration with traditional stone-and-pipe drainfields.
“The state gives such systems almost a 90 percent reduction — 900 to 1,200 square feet down to 150 square feet,” she says. “Stone-and-pipe is simple and reliable, while the smaller footprint enables people to use most of their yard.”
Her design challenges frequently include access — the most expensive system required renting a crane to lift components over the house — tiny lots, property line disputes, tidal buffers, shoreline regulations, and local conservation commissions. Such projects drag out for three to 12 months, and involve surveyors and advising clients to hire an attorney.
“Attorneys are proficient at obtaining legal access permits and explaining grandfathered rights to neighbors and officials,” says Wright. “In one instance, the abutter needed a replacement septic worse than my client. When the man’s attorney explained my client’s legal rights to the abutter, that person suddenly realized everything he would be up against for a septic repair and became much more cooperative.”
Wright always consults with clients on-site before accepting projects. Her homework includes referring to the Army Corps of Engineers soil map to gain a feel for the land, and obtaining the property’s tax card for a bedroom count. “If homeowners have a septic design or some other legal paper that shows a different number of bedrooms, then I’ll design for that. Otherwise, I follow the tax card and not what clients tell me,” she says.
ADVICE ON MEDS
Working in the onsite industry for 21 years has taught Wright a few tricks that aren’t in the state technical college’s curriculum. For example, many lots are on ledge, especially in New Castle. To locate suitable test pit sites, she walks around the backyard with clients looking for multiple chipmunk holes. “In winter, chipmunks need sleeping quarters below the frost line and above the water table,” she says. “They burrow in areas where the ledge probably dips, and that’s where we’ll dig, too.”
Wright often encounters situations where a family member is taking medications that will harm the system’s microorganisms. She advises patients receiving radiation and chemotherapy to rent a commode throughout treatment and to continue using it two to three weeks afterward to maintain the system’s healthy microbial colony.
“People should ask their county and hospital social workers or the local Visiting Nurse Association about obtaining home medical equipment,” says Wright. “The VNA also will have information on who can empty the commode’s storage tank and dispose of the waste.” She advises asking the VNA about safe home cleaning products or to suggest a certified biohazard cleaning company, as bleach and strong detergents will kill the microbes in the tank and field.
Wright also applies her magical touch to designing 1,000 to 20,000 gpd systems for shopping centers, senior-assisted living communities or subdivisions. Although this comprises only 20 percent of her work, rapid turnarounds on cookie-cutter systems are the company’s bread and butter. “Most commercial projects come from professional engineers,” says Wright. “I’m extremely good at limiting their liability, which is a huge sales point.”
The state requires a licensed designer and installer — Wright is both — a professional engineer, and a construction inspection report for systems larger than 2,500 gpd. Wright monitors those installations, then writes the report. It includes copies of invoices to verify specified components were installed, and photos of utility locations to aid future contractors.
“The reports limit liability for all parties by ensuring that systems are installed correctly, but I go a step further,” says Wright. “I know which contractors have excellent reputations in each field and, depending on the site’s requirements, I assemble my A-team from them.” Such dedication produces brand loyalty. The owner of Nordic Village in Bartlett and Nestlenook in Jackson refuses anyone except Wright to touch his septic systems.
Another of Wright’s specialties is keeping commercial designs below 20,000 gpd to avoid the state’s perpetual ground discharge monitoring program. One example is Baxter Lake Campground, which had 365 lots, 321 of them with cabins. Only 110 lots were permitted for septic and 114 lots were permitted for community well water, with seven lots having both permits. The state agreed to permit the occupied lots, but the 44 unoccupied parcels were designated permanent green spaces.
“My 16,210 gpd design was based on six months of water meter readings from the four wells instead of sizing by soil,” says Wright. “Most soils were Group 3, which are assigned 1,250 gpd per acre.”
The five septic tank/pump stations, sized according to the number of lots served, pumped to a 3,000-gallon dosing tank, then to the original undersized drainfield. Wright’s design specified repurposing the dosing tank to a buffer tank and building a new pump station. It pumped effluent to a distribution box feeding six 38.5-foot-wide by 100-foot-long drainfields in a large athletic field. Six fields enabled one to always be dormant.
Referrals from contractors and evaluators drive the business, but persuading local and state officials to consider multiple waivers and options requires involving them from day one. “Once they understand how a design will bring the lot as close as possible to current standards, they grant clients concessions they never thought possible,” says Wright. “It just takes being 100 percent open and honest.”
By day, Penny Wright wore work boots to evaluate properties before designing new or replacement onsite systems. By night or on weekends, she transformed into a mysterious woman in high heels and an evening gown, introducing magic acts.
“I couldn’t speak in public,” says Wright, owner of The Wright Choice Septics. “Therefore, I wanted my children to be comfortable doing it and to master other skills they would need as adults.”
A chance meeting with Wendel Gibson, owner of Gibson Magic Co., let the genie out of the bottle. “The kids went crazy, because years ago my father had purchased one of Gibson’s first magic effects and later gave it to them,” says Wright. Gibson introduced the family to the Society of Young Magicians and Phillip, then 8, and Arwen, 6, became members.
Through the years, the children’s involvement with magic taught them public speaking, how to run a business and schedule bookings, how to interact with the public, and how to apply science when building props for their acts. Wright benefited as well. “Magic is nothing but science presented artfully,” she says. “Helping the kids build props taught me different ways to look at things. It’s responsible for my reputation for thinking sideways, which is a reference to magic.”
A perfect example is the girl who climbs into a magician’s box. When the audience views her straight on, she is much broader than when she turns sideways. “Creating magic effects taught me how to fit septic components into places deemed impossible,” says Wright. “Every one of my creative septic ideas is based on a magic trick.”