Always Flexible

West Virginia’s hilly terrain provides fertile ground for TR Davis and a specialty in secondary treatment systems with low-pressure pipe distribution.
Always Flexible

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Success was a long, winding road for Timothy and Reba Davis of TR Davis in Branchland, W.Va. Although world events once threatened to sink their fledgling company, their hardscrabble background left them well prepared to cope with adversity.

Their ability to accomplish a lot with little and to diversify helped them crest the summit and enjoy the company’s best year in 2010, and continued success since.

Timothy Davis, 53, holds licenses for excavation, onsite installation, electrical work, general building, general engineering and plumbing. Today, onsite installations generate 90 percent of company revenue; excavation provides the remainder.

“Residential systems are our bread and butter, and we specialize in low-pressure pipe systems,” Davis says. “Only 10 percent of our work involves commercial systems, but that could be changing.”

For several years, Reba Davis helped run the business from their home and wasn’t afraid to shovel gravel if her husband needed help in the field. “She’s been my partner since the beginning,” Timothy says. “Reba became my wife when I was 21, and her steadfast support has made it possible for us to be where we are today.”

Challenging sites

The mountainous setting of Lincoln County provides the first challenge of Davis’ days. “Our 100-mile service radius doesn’t sound like much until you consider that most of it is ups, downs, and S-curves,” he says. “Lots are usually small. Homes are shoehorned between a hill and country road with a stream alongside. It’s common for soils to fail percolation tests and to have water tables 3 feet below grade.”

Word of mouth has always brought the vast majority of work. That includes occasional projects from health departments, such as demonstrating installation techniques for state and local officials and installers. “West Virginia doesn’t require continuing education, so regulators ask us to provide training when they find an improperly installed system,” says Davis. He and two employees recently raised and reset some peat modules, then added a dosing pump and control panel under the watchful eyes of 20 people.

Davis moved from installing conventional stone-and-pipe systems to aerobic treatment units (ATUs) with low-pressure pipe (LPP) dispersal when the Lincoln County Health Department designed such a system for a dam keeper’s house. After installing it, Davis knew LPP was the answer to many of the area’s site conditions.

Installers design most systems, then present the plans to the local or state regulatory agencies for approval. “LPP systems required math that pushed my high school education,” says Davis. “It was a hands-on learning experience because there weren’t many people around to help me.”

Tax accountant and neighbor Hal Ray Smith watched Davis struggle to design the systems, then wrote a computer program that did the math. Davis has used it ever since. “We’ve installed 25 to 30 LPP systems over the years,” he says. “That may not be a huge number to anyone else, but it’s major for around here. We also have installed more of them than any other contractor.”

Tough times

That accomplishment took every ounce of grit the couple had. Davis worked in a machine shop after high school graduation, married in 1980, then joined his cousin as a partner in an excavation business launched in 1983. Davis bought a used John Deere 310B backhoe as his part of the deal.

Home construction was doing well, and the partners quickly noticed that installing onsite systems was a bigger piece of the pie than excavating holes for the tanks. Davis earned his Class I installer license, and the company branched into installing conventional systems. When they won the contract for the system at the dam keeper’s house, Davis got his Class II license to install alternative systems up to 600 gpd.

As the business prospered, the men went their separate ways, dissolving the partnership in 1990. Davis took his backhoe and opened Davis Construction and Excavating. That August, Iraq invaded Kuwait. “It was a terrible time to start a business because everyone had their minds on the war,” he says. “Nothing was moving, and that slowed the economy. I was under heavy debt, and it became very difficult to make the payments.”

His childhood had prepared him to live on the edge: “My father died when I was 10 and my mother raised the four of us. We were very poor and those were harsh times.” He also credits his faith for getting the business through the first three years. “I wanted to quit more than once because it was so difficult financially,” he says.

The expanding housing bubble brought work opportunities. By the mid-1990s, Davis was installing 100 systems a year and had hired two employees. When onsite jobs temporarily dried up, he returned to his excavation customers, and that work occasionally spun off into electrical and plumbing projects. “Maintaining my multiple licenses enabled us to hang on until the cycle reversed itself,” he says.

Shot in the arm

A major turning point came in 1995 when Davis realized that if he was to stay in the wastewater business, he needed to associate it with a product. “We didn’t have much going for us other than the LPPs, so I went at it hard,” he says. “I researched how different ATUs were designed and made numerous calls.” Seeking something simple, reliable and easy to service, he chose the Whitewater aeration unit and became a distributor for Delta Environmental Products (a Pentair company).

With secondary treatment in hand, Davis expanded his search to include multiple nonmechanical components and became a distributor for products from Infiltrator Systems. “The two lines improved the status of our company and boosted revenue considerably,” he says. He is considering adding Eljen geotextile sand filters because the low-profile, narrow-trench drainfields have no moving parts, require minimal maintenance, and can be installed above the high water table.

In 1997, Davis incorporated the business and renamed it TR Davis. “The R is a tribute to Reba for all she has contributed,” he says. “The funny part is some people call me TR now instead of Tim.”

Tough conditions

Low-pressure pipe systems saved many home sites but also presented Davis with his toughest challenges. One of the worst was a new system that immediately began clogging. The soil was good, but the site had high groundwater. Davis traced the problem to tacky particles plugging the 5/16-inch holes in the discharge pipes.

“The health department didn’t know what the material was but assumed it might be a byproduct from mining in the area,” he says. “The system never did work properly, but it taught me that not all problems are due to bad components.”

On another service call, Davis found soapsuds in an ATU: “I talked to the owners, who swore they used only the recommended amount of laundry detergent and dishwashing liquid. In later conversations, they finally mentioned having natural soft water.” Using less soap cured the problem and underscored the importance of thoroughly investigating what happens in the home when designing a system.

The most complex systems the company installs today use Whitewater units or Puraflo peat biofilters (Anua) and low-pressure drip tubing (Geoflow). A recent project involved five peat modules and 1,400 feet of tubing snaked across a steep hill.

When working on slopes with more than 20 percent grade, Davis rents a Toro Dingo compact utility tracked trencher from the local Caterpillar dealer. “It’s a very stable machine with good traction,” he says. His standard equipment includes a John Deere 450 G bulldozer and 310 E backhoe, a Kubota U45 tracked mini-excavator, and an International dump truck.

Commercial side

During the past four years, Davis has watched residential installations decrease by 40 percent, yet in 2010 he increased the company’s average annual revenue of $350,000 to $792,000. The next year it dropped to $261,000, but it rebounded to $550,000 in 2012.
“2010 was a milestone because of a Lincoln County Commission Green Wastewater Project funded through the U.S. EPA,” says Davis. “We installed Puraflo modules with surface discharge at 20 homes and added a part-time employee.” It was the company’s largest contract to date.
Commercial clients include small businesses such as service stations, pharmacies and restaurants. He also handles the occasional industrial site.
To compensate for stagnant retail sales during the last three years, Davis focused on repairing or upgrading systems he installed in the 1990s. If sites have no room for a replacement drainfield, he installs an ATU with direct discharge. “We get lots of calls from original customers when their systems begin failing from age,” he says.

Davis attributes the calls to his business principle of always servicing what he put in the ground: “I’m convinced one reason 50 percent of my competitors didn’t survive is because they neglected what they installed,” he says.

Personal touch

Committed to being the best in the game, Davis noticed that state agencies used IBM Lotus Approach to track permits in the early 1990s. He bought a computer and the software to track his customers. Today, he uses Microsoft Access.

Staying in touch with customers paid dividends, opening the door to work with real estate agents. Although the state doesn’t require point-of-sale inspections, many real estate agencies and banks do. Without a list of certified inspectors, officials didn’t know where to turn. Homeowners recommended calling Davis.

“Once we did an inspection, agencies continued to use us because we worked with sellers and buyers and we were willing to wait for our money,” he says. “If properties had failed systems, we provided repair estimates and were usually hired.” The state requires installers to provide two-year service contracts on ATUs. Subsurface discharge requires four inspections, and surface discharge systems have quarterly inspections. The company maintains 700 systems and tries never to miss an inspection.

“Our technicians leave tags on people’s doors so they know we’ve been there,” says Davis. “Recently, we’ve begun sending a condition report to owners of surface discharge systems to comply with new Department of Environmental Protection requirements.”

When contracts expire, the company mails renewal notices. “People with surface discharge renew at 90 to 95 percent,” says Davis. “We’re lucky if we pick up 50 percent of subsurface customers, and we lose 50 percent of them over the next six to eight years.” Nevertheless, the company still services some units installed as early as 1995.

Looking ahead

Coming out of a period of economic doldrums, Davis remains resilient. In 2012, he installed a 2,000 gpd system with Salcor 3G UV disinfection for a medical facility, possibly a route to expansion in the commercial sector. He also wants to sell more quality products.

“Distributorships are essential to being in the onsite business long term,” he says. “I’d love to see us average $1 million or more in revenue per year and be able to build a 40- by 100-foot shop with one bay. I believe it’s achievable with the right economic conditions.”


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