Constantly Learning

From septic tanks, to treatment units, to electrical connections, Andrew Damiani is always looking for ways to do things better in his onsite-only business.
Constantly Learning

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Trial and error may have led Andy Damiani to the practical techniques he uses every day, but his strict adherence to proven methods are also key to his success.

Damiani's constant desire to learn and grow professionally has enabled him to rack up a growing list of "first installations" in his southeast Pennsylvania service area. "These installation jobs came my way," he says. "I did not seek them out. I do appreciate how they have helped me grow. They have opened other doors for me."

Before Damiani's dad was a contractor, he was an installer. Even after contracting was the predominant business focus, father and son dug basements and installed onsite systems to serve the homes dad was building. "I never considered anything else," Damiani says. "I am blue collar through and through and never wanted an office job. During and after high school, I was able to work with Dad through the school's co-op job training program. Heck, I was operating a backhoe by my 12th birthday."

In 1984, he married Gwen, now his business partner, and bought his dad's equipment, going into the excavation business on his own. Most of the early jobs were in support of his dad's projects. "In the early days I dug it all, but by the early 90s, I had focused exclusively on onsite system installations," Damiani says.

Different yet the same

At that time, about 95 percent of his work was installing systems for new construction in subdivisions. Operating from Telford, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Damiani saw his 40-mile-radius service area booming. However, one subdivision was significantly different from its neighbors.

"It was about the turn of the century when one of the builders I'd been working with decided to try a cluster plan for a 35-home development," Damiani recalls. "The bulk of the land would be a common open space, but it would not be completely open. In that common land, we installed 35 individual onsite systems."

Each served a separate house, and each was placed on a use-restricted portion of the common space. The homeowner association would be responsible for periodic inspections, maintenance and tank pumping. Homeowners would take charge of individual system repairs.

"Each house was on a separate tract and deed, and each had its own 1,000-gallon, two-compartment septic tank within its boundaries," says Damiani. The septic tank effluent was directed to an elevated sand mound absorption area. When possible, the delivery was achieved by gravity propulsion; at times, a lift pump was needed to transport the effluent up to 2,000 feet to a dosing pump close to the mound-type absorption areas.

"While the cluster concept was new, we were familiar with the basic components," says Damiani. "Nonetheless, it was a first and it served as a model for the concept in the county. Those systems are still performing well today."

When the homeowner association asked for a management proposal, Damiani bid $50 per system. "The association leaders decided they could do the management themselves, and today they still are responsible for periodic inspections, scheduling pumping and assuring repairs are made as needed," says Damiani. He sees change coming in the management arena: Maintenance requirements are growing, and the skills needed to perform effective management are elevating. Management and maintenance needs are different from 10 or even five years ago.

Today, Damiani sees these as areas ripe for business growth. Mandatory, time-driven pump-outs, which many municipalities near him are requiring, is not management, in his opinion. He is looking for a management program that addresses far more, combining system monitoring with need-based pumping and periodic maintenance.

His own drummer

He likes doing design and installation his own way, too. "I'm a fanatic about design details, installation processes and proven brands," he says. "I am loyal to Goulds products because they have delivered what I consider outstanding performance and service life. They exceed my expectations – some continue in productive service well beyond 20 years."

"Goulds used to offer an extended warranty for pumps, and I consistently bought it. Well, I discovered that the pumps were outliving the basic and extended warranties, so I quit buying those warranties, since I never needed them."

He also believes in precast concrete tanks. "Isolating effluent and groundwater is essential to a system's success," he says. "Watertight tanks are critical. Drip systems can be overloaded by inwardly leaking tanks." For similar reasons, he uses only concrete risers. He believes a secure, watertight connection between the riser and tank can best be achieved with an appropriately bonded concrete-to-concrete connection.

"My tanks are not from the closest vendor," he says. "They are from the vendor with the best product and customer service that meets my quality expectations and scheduling needs."

He also looked for watertight performance in junction boxes and wire-splice protection. He tried heat-shrink materials, found them wanting, and today he makes his own electrical connections in a multi-step process.

The connection starts with traditional wire nuts. Each nutted connection is encased in plumber's putty: It is easy to shape and squeeze into small places, and gaps are easily spotted and corrected. Next, 2 1/2-inch-wide PVC tape is wrapped around the putty, further compressing it into a ball shape. Finally, that ball is enclosed using underground splice coating material (3M). "It works, and until I have one fail, I will continue using this method," Damiani says.

"I am always looking for a better way to do things and, more important, a way to successfully prevent problems."

Knowledge opens doors

The pursuit of better ways also leads him to new and better technologies. "When I first heard about drip irrigation systems, I resisted the technology," Damiani says. "I didn't want to get 'My system is frozen' calls in the dead of winter." After their introduction in Pennsylvania, drip systems spread rapidly, and Damiani knew he had to learn to install them to stay competitive. After studying the technology and recognizing that at-grade drip systems are fragile, he knew that during installation he could incorporate safeguards.

"In at-grade drip systems, the drip lines and portions of the manifold (delivery lines) and return lines are installed above prevailing grade on a placed bed of sand and are covered with additional sand and topsoil," he says. To protect the delivery and return lines, he began covering that area of the system with inch-thick blue-board insulating material before backfilling. He firmly believes this added layer of protection has prevented winter calls.

Damiani also embraced AdvanTex advanced treatment units (Orenco Systems), Eljen's Geotextile Sand Filter (GSF), and a nonproprietary system design approved by state Department of Environmental Protection a few years ago, known locally as an A-B system. "Used on shallow, slow-piercing soils, the A-B system is a long, narrow system built on and parallel to contour," Damiani says. "It is in many ways a modified elevated sand mound."

Exclusively onsite

Damiani believes these opportunities were brought to him based on his exclusive focus on onsite systems. Word has gone out in the installer and real estate communities and among homeowners that he is the local go-to guy when others cannot offer a viable solution. "I am a good craftsmen but my business promotion skills are terrible," he admits. "My equipment and trucks are clean and dependable and not lettered."

Damiani posts signs on his job sites and has a modest Yellow Pages presence. Word-of-mouth is both steady and effective; a website is under development.

He strongly believes installers need state-level certification and credentialing. "The systems are becoming more complex, site conditions more stringent, and technology manufacturers are trying to ensure that installers are knowledgeable on their products," he says. "Certification makes sense."

Certification will likely not come soon, although home improvement contractor registration is already in place in Pennsylvania. "I had to register, but being registered has no relationship to being judged or declared competent," Damiani says. He knows some contractors represent their registration as a sign of qualification, and that, he feels, is not appropriate.

A requirement for inspection of existing systems before a real estate transaction is also needed, he believes. Two things keep him from doing these inspections: a lack of state-approved or other recognized inspection standards, and the potential for misrepresentation.

"I am convinced that inspecting a system and then selling the repair work is a conflict of interest, which I want no part of," he says. Nevertheless, he does inspect systems for performance issues.

When called to solve a performance problem or repair a component, he first diagnoses the symptoms to identify the underlying cause. This, he believes, is an inspection process that presents no conflicts. Indeed, it is one he needs to perform to do the repair correctly.

Well-equipped and growing

Helping to coordinate all this work is Gwen, who, as office manager, handles all purchasing and billing and some customer contact. Damiani learned backhoe skills as a kid from his father, Pete. "I learned installations and a lot more from him, and when work load demands, he fills in as a contract laborer," Damiani says. "I can pretty much count on his availability year-round – except during hunting season."

The Damianis' oldest son, Drew, is another contract laborer: His work schedule gives him the freedom to help out as needed. He also grew up on a backhoe and is a skilled worker. Father and son would like to join forces: a management technician slot could help fulfill that goal.

The equipment inventory includes a Komatsu D31P dozer with swamp tracks – very wide tracks "that exert lower pressure on the soil than I do when I walk across the site," Damiani says. Other machinery includes a Komatsu PC 120 excavator, a Cat 953 track loader, a KX057-4 Kubota tracked mini-excavator, a Case 580 Super L backhoe, and a Cat D3 dozer.

As new technologies become approved for use, Damiani will likely find himself on the installation frontier. Being on innovation's front line is a familiar, comfortable and desirable position, one that preserves and sharpens his exclusive focus on onsite treatment.


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