Directing Do-Overs

Another Chance Septic builds a specialty in site remediation and system replacements, always with an eye toward long-term solutions that satisfy unique site characteristics.
Directing Do-Overs
Paul McGrew carries a Stakemill 16-foot grade rod, while a GoPro HERO 2 camera for time-lapsed video of the septic installation is set up along with the Trimble Spectra Precision laser. Infiltrator Systems LP22 chambers sit in the background.

Interested in Repair?

Get Repair articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Repair + Get Alerts

Paul McGrew got into the onsite installation business as a financial backer, not a hands-on worker. He had no plans to dig or work in the trenches. The original plan was fund but not operate a Terralift drainfield restoration business. The plan was simple: After five years, the business would be built up, and one partner would buy out the other.

Six months after startup, McGrew was without a partner and had a fledgling business to operate and nurture. From the outset, the company’s niche and name, Another Chance Septic Co., were fully entwined. Working within a 25-mile radius of Clinton, Ohio, located about 15 miles southwest of Akron, McGrew found a steady demand for his services, Terralift and otherwise. “We were and are content to let others do the new installations,” he recalls.

Today, McGrew’s business occupies a strong niche in system repairs, ranging from simple drainfield remediation, to more comprehensive overhauls that include installation of aerobic treatment units, to complete system replacements. He even installs the occasional new system on a virgin site.

Every job proceeds from a detailed site evaluation and a design based on McGrew’s extensive and always-growing knowledge of onsite treatment principles, soils and regulations.

Steep learning curve

When McGrew got into the business, his only experience with an onsite system was the one serving his house. That meant learning was a priority. “Recognizing that Terralift had its place and understanding that it was not a cure-all, drove my quest for knowledge,” he says.

“To learn about more traditional repair or restoration processes, I went to the county health department for a one-on-one tutorial. They taught me soils, how to prepare and read design plans, how to conduct inspections, and a whole lot more.” The county closely scrutinized every design he submitted, and McGrew appreciated it. He saw it as part of his training.

“Site evaluation skills, especially soil characterization and recognition of limiting features, are critical,” he says. “The county taught me this early on.” He uses those skills every time he is asked to design a repair strategy. Even when called to a site where someone else conducted an evaluation, he still conducts his own.

“In the end, I must be satisfied that the evaluation I performed and the design I propose are a good fit for the site’s conditions and the regulations being applied,” he says. “I have walked away from jobs where I was told I must use a previous evaluation or design, and I will do it again if faced with the same choices.

“I’m the odd man in the field. I didn’t work as a laborer or equipment operator for someone else before I got into the onsite business. With no experience, I must learn not only the regulations but the processes, too.”

Customer interaction

McGrew believes customers, not consultants, should make the hard choices. He doesn’t just evaluate the site and propose the single best solution. Instead, he develops two or more possible strategies for the situation at hand. He presents an option paper as an education tool that empowers customers to make informed decisions. “They understand the opportunities and drawbacks of every solution, and they make the hard choices,” he says. “Presenting options shows owners the long- and short-term outcomes that a minor versus major repair can bring.”

About two percent of his work relates to first-time installations. Here, too, he relies on informed customer decision-making. Owners sometimes find it hard to sacrifice their dream home location for the system site, even when he explains that the spot he has chosen has the most system-friendly soils on the property. The discussion plays out differently when the customer is the builder and not the homeowner: About 90 percent of owners are willing to use the best soils for the system; fewer builders are so inclined.

When a legacy site (undeveloped and approved under the state’s previous regulations) is ripe for development, there is some leeway on whether old or new regulations will apply. If the site was properly evaluated and can meet current standards, then those standards prevail. Sites found acceptable under the old standards are permitted according to that scheme. If the site was not properly evaluated, then it requires a new evaluation and design.

Whether to dig

At the outset, McGrew decided not to be an excavator: Hiring those services helped conserve capital. On the other hand, it put McGrew at the mercy of contractors, and he quickly found drawbacks in response time and pricing.

“I found that excavators new to the business usually charge enough to practice onsite installation until they learn it or walk away,” he says. “During that period, customers don’t get what they think they’re paying for, namely a quality job from an experienced installer.”

On the other hand, “I noticed that a lot of the excavation work we referred was eventually priced above what I thought was right for the work and marketplace – our customers were not getting a good deal.” By controlling the selection process, McGrew can influence the price while driving quality up.

Doing the actual component assembly and installation himself, he is on site to supervise the earth moving. Both he and the excavating contractor benefit. At first, he worked with a variety of subcontractors, but now Stoney Excavating from nearby Brewster is his excavator of choice. Stoney has also bid jobs using Another Chance as its sub.

With full-time employee Daniel Ringer and part-time worker Brent Geiger, McGrew handles all the field installation and soil fracturing. The use of subcontractors also lets the company succeed with minimal equipment: a Ford van, a Terralift machine and a water jetter, plus full array of layout/stakeout tools, including a laser level.

Remediation with education

While McGrew got into the onsite business focused on drainfield remediation technique, his horizons soon broadened. Today, he advocates aerobic conversion. When an existing site evaluation reveals that the soils are suitable but the aggregate void space has been compromised by sludge accumulation, he proposes conversion of the tank from septic to aerobic treatment. When clayey soils are present without a biomat issue, he proposes soil fracturing, then aerobic treatment, then an oxidizing chemical to achieve the optimum bioremediation.

Some sites are too far gone for those processes. When the tank or drainfield has a strong chemical smell, he will not attempt remediation. A strong chlorine smell signals overuse of bleach products. The unavoidable discharge of surplus antibiotics from a seriously ill person’s body can also harm the tank’s ecosystem and the receiving soil.

First, McGrew reads the messages that signal the system’s condition. He uses that information and more to educate the owner before and after the job. He considers it important for customers to understand all they can about the situation and the fix he has installed.

When presenting solutions, McGrew uses component models to lay out the system on the kitchen table and make his presentation memorable. “Before I leave a job, the owner and I walk the system end to end,” he says. “The owner learns about every component and has a good understanding of where it is, why it is there, what it does and how each interacts with
the other.”

McGrew seldom finds anything new or unusual discharging to a system but he is always on the look out. He regularly finds air conditioner condensate lines, water softener backwash discharges and ice machine drains entering building sewers. He redirects them to separate discharge areas whenever the regulations allow.

He also monitors water usage. “Every new installation or major repair job I do includes a water meter and a dose event counter,” he says. “Homeowners must understand the relationship between water use, system sizing, performance and scheduled maintenance. If we designed and installed a 500 gpd system and you are using 700 gpd, I want to know. The water meter tracks total consumption, and the dose event counter tells us how much water reaches the system.”

Different and the same

Looking ahead, McGrew sees his business structure evolving. In five years, he envisions doing mostly customer interaction, site and system evaluation and troubleshooting, while an installation crew and a repair crew work in the field daily. Although he sees some opportunities in system operation and maintenance, he considers it a challenging segment to enter, since equipment vendors want to retain the maintenance income stream.

As for marketing, he has seen business generated through Angie’s List: “It’s a new take on word of mouth advertising. People seek it out, and they value the information they receive.”

Meanwhile, customers are becoming more bottom-line focused. “They are not yet focused on problem prevention,” he says. “Instead, they build down to the minimum standard that gets them by.” Even in this environment, he expects to become a bigger player because of the value he brings to the field and the kitchen table.

He’ll continue to offer sound solutions at prices that reflect the value he delivers: “We will never sacrifice quality for price.”


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.