Great Customer Education, Ongoing Maintenance Bring Repeat Business

Thorough customer education and convenient ongoing septic system maintenance help California’s Clay’s Septic capture repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.
Great Customer Education, Ongoing Maintenance Bring Repeat Business
The Clay’s Septic & Jetting team, shown at the office in Nipomo, Calif., includes (from left) David Medina, Rudy Uriarte, Clay Barks, Doug Smith and Lucas Mendez.

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Clay Barks doesn’t think his customers should have to worry about their onsite treatment systems. He believes the worry should belong to him and his 12 team members.

His business, Clay’s Septic & Jetting in Nipomo, Calif., is built around customer confidence, from the extra care his crews take when repairing and replacing systems, to the Worry-Free Septic Maintenance Program that lets owners pay a flat monthly fee for scheduled service visits and pumping.

Customer care is a key reason why, despite diverse and aggressive marketing and promotion, the company still gets 80 percent of its business from repeat customers and customer referrals.

“Our slogan – and you’ll see it on our website and in the Yellow Pages – is, ‘One call solves all your problems,’ ” says Barks. “We will take care of your problem, whatever it is. Customers want to know you’re going to be there when they need you. We have worked very hard at figuring out ways to make that happen.”


Barks got his start in the area working for his father’s plumbing business “from the time I could walk.” In 1987, at age 28 and licensed as a plumber, he decided to strike out on his own. Not wanting to compete with his dad, he bought a vacuum truck and started pumping septic systems. Barks pumped the tanks while his wife, Kelly, ran the office. Soon he earned a wastewater contractor license and began working on septic system repairs and, eventually, installations.

About three years into the business, he bought a Case 580 Super K backhoe and brought on Anthony Gutierrez, now a septic technician. A year later, he added his brother-in-law, James Norling, now construction foreman. Today the team also includes:

  • Doug Smith, office manager
  • David Medina, septic dispatcher
  • Lucas Mendez, grease scheduler and backup septic dispatcher
  • Justus Erickson and Greg Lewis, septic technicians
  • Reyes Martinez, septic technician in training
  • Jose Varelas, grease technician and septic technician in training
  • Rudy Uriarte and Spencer Comeau, construction laborers
  • Ernie Blakey, mechanic and yard laborer

Most often, the company repairs and replaces aging systems instead of building brand-new ones. That’s because much of the service territory lies in the wine country of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, on the Pacific Coast north of Los Angeles. Land there is more valuable for growing grapes than for housing – the homes tend to be large and costly.

“The median home here in the Central Coast region costs probably $375,000,” says Barks. “We often say, ‘You can’t afford to live here, but once you do, you don’t want to live anywhere else.’ If the temperature is less than 50 degrees, it’s cold. If it’s more than 80, it’s hot.”

The area’s onsite systems need repairs or replacement largely because they are old, but also because many are undersized. “In the 1980s, the counties changed the way they calculated the size of a leach system,” Barks says. “The size is based on a perc test. If the soil percolates at, say, 30 minutes per inch, you’re allowed to build a very short leach system. They don’t consider what will happen when the biomat builds up. Once it does, the system is inadequate for four people. Systems on hillsides will surface and run into the neighbor’s yard. On flatter land, the systems will back up in the house. We end up going in and making the systems work.”


Replacements are common enough that the company installs 50 to 70 systems per year. That takes a full-time, three-member crew led by Norling; Barks leads a second crew when needed.

The installation equipment fleet includes a Caterpillar 420E backhoe, a Bobcat E45 zero-tail-swing excavator that serves well in tight spaces and a Schaeff HR 12 mini-excavator.

The company is transitioning from concrete septic tanks to IM-1530 plastic tanks (Infiltrator Systems) for their lightness and ease of handling. About 80 percent of new leachfields use high-capacity chambers (Infiltrator); the balance use EZflow media (Infiltrator) or rock and pipe.

Replacement business comes mostly from Clay’s Septic pumping personnel who notice system problems during regular service. While it can be delicate explaining to a customer that a system needs replacing, Barks uses tests that make the diagnosis conclusive and remove owners’ doubts about the necessity of repairs. Inspections and locating using push cameras and a NaviTrack Scout (RIDGID) show customers broken sewer pipes. A simple “rock test” using water probes (T&T Tools) demonstrates leachfield problems.

“Even if it’s a chamber system, we still call it a rock test,” says Barks. “We add water to the leach system through the water probe. If water returns to the septic tank, we have the customer come out and observe, and then we do an interview. I don’t like to use the word ‘failed,’ because that is a complete misnomer. The fact is that the leach system is not failed. It’s just saturated – maybe they had a wedding in the yard the past weekend.

“We talk to them about why the system might be saturated. We ask them about their water softener and how much salt they’ve been using. We check in the septic tank for evidence of leaks from the house – we talk to them about leaky toilets. If we can’t come up with a reason for the system being saturated, we tell them they have three choices. They can live with what they have, which is not much of a choice. They can cut back on water usage, which customers tend not to do. Or they can have us put in a new leach system. If they have the money for a replacement, that’s usually a quick conversation. If money is an issue, we explain how they can use less water, such as with low-flow showerheads and water-saving toilets.”


Replacement systems from Clay’s Septic are built for longevity and for ease of maintenance. Trenches are installed using a laser level (Topcon); chambers are placed on virgin soil – not on backfill material – greatly limiting the chance of settling.

“Every one of our leach lines has an inspection port at the end, so we can come back in the future and see how well our leach system is working,” says Barks. “I’m also a big advocate of drop boxes and sequential distribution. I designate which trench I want the water to go to first. Then it goes to the second, then to the third and so on. In a gravity-fed system, that is the only way to go.

“We also have a policy that when we touch a system, we own it. Consequently we don’t just put a new leach line on the end of the existing line. We dig all the way back to the septic tank. First of all, the tank has to be brought up to code. We put in 24-inch risers, 5,000-pound capacity lids and PL65 effluent filters [both Polylok].

“We make our systems extremely maintenance-friendly. I tell the guys that if I’m going be the next to dig up this lid, I only want it 4 inches deep, or on the surface if that’s legal, secured with screws. We also use our smartphones to get a GPS of the location of the septic tank.”

After installation, Clay’s Septic personnel talk to the owner about system maintenance but without trying to limit lifestyle choices. “The one thing we do stress is that if you can drink it or eat it, you can put it in your septic tank,” says Barks. “Beyond that, if you want to run a garbage disposal and fill your tank with eggshells and coffee grounds, we’ll be there pumping it more frequently. If that’s the way you want to live, we’re not going to stop you. Just make sure you keep the hazardous waste out of it.”


Customers who receive new systems – and in fact all customers – have access to the Worry-Free Septic Maintenance Program, conceived by office manager Smith and launched about a year ago. The customer signs a six-year contract and pays a monthly fee covering an annual system checkup and pumping every three years. “We also include emergency callout service in the price, so that if something goes wrong with the system, it’s covered,” says Smith.

Smith admits the program can be a hard sell to customers who’ve just invested thousands of dollars in a system replacement, but they have a six-month window to sign up. As of last May, the program has about 85 subscribers. “Eventually,” says Smith, “we hope to have several thousand homes on it.”

Meanwhile, the septic pumping side of the business thrives. Clay’s Septic is one of three dominant players in the territory, with 10,000 properties in a database. “We have everything organized by address,” says Smith. “To us it doesn’t matter who lives in the house.” Barks adds, “If I could give a free tip to any maintenance provider, it would be to stop filing records by invoice number or customer last name and file by address.”

Records going back to 1987 have been computerized. Team members who work on a system record complete information about it – condition of the tank, baffle and components, presence or absence of a riser, tank and leachfield location, number of people living in the home and more. “We do a full report on every system we service,” Barks says. “That way, when we go back to the property in the future, we know the history of the system.”


The pumping fleet includes a 2015 Kenworth T800 with a 3,100-gallon FlowMark tank and 500 cfm Robuschi RB-DV45 pump; a 2008 Mack with a 3,600-gallon Progress aluminum tank and Robuschi RB-DV45 pump; a 2009 Kenworth with a 3,100-gallon steel tank (IBEX) and Masport H75V pump; a 2004 International 8600 with a 2,500-gallon steel tank (Southern California Tank) and Masport H75V pump; and a 2000 Volvo with a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank (Longhorn Tank) with a Masport H75V pump and a Fruitland RCF500 pump.

The vacuum trucks carry water jetters (General Pipe Cleaners) for clearing residential sewer lines. Clay’s Septic also owns a 2006 International 4300 with a Harben 4016 jetting unit and Progress tank (300 gallons freshwater/500 gallons waste), used mainly for clearing lines in restaurants, mobile home parks and commercial buildings.


As the company looks to continue growing, Barks has his eye on coming changes to onsite regulations. He serves on the Santa Barbara County Local Area Management Plan committee, working to improve management of septic systems and to integrate local regulations with new California rules.

“Supplemental treatment will become a big deal,” Barks says. “Some sites in our territory have high or perched groundwater, and the state has tightened regulations affecting those conditions. So in those circumstances we’re going to have to use aerobic treatment units.” The company has become certified to install and service Bio-COIR and AeroCell single-family residential fixed-film media systems (Quanics).

Clay’s Septic team members are ready for the challenge of the more advanced technologies – and determined that whatever they install on a property, the customer will find it worry-free.


Bobcat Corporate - 800/743-4340 -

Case Construction Equipment - 866/542-2736 -

Caterpillar, Inc. - 309/675-1000 -

Enz USA, Inc. - 877/369-8721 -

FlowMark - 913/663-6637 -

Fruitland Manufacturing - 800/663-9003 -

General Pipe Cleaners - 800/245-6200 -

Hancor, Inc. - 888/367-7473 -

Harben, Inc. - 800/327-5387 -

Infiltrator Systems, Inc. - 800/221-4436 -

Liberty Pumps - 800/543-2550 -

Longhorn Tank & Trailer, Inc. - 800/422-9840 -

Masport, Inc. - 800/228-4510 -

Orenco Systems, Inc. - 800/348-9843 -

Polylok - 877/765-9565 -

Progress Tank - 800/558-9750 -

Quanics Inc. - 877/782-6427 -

RIDGID - 800/769-7743 -

Robuschi - 877/424-1020 -

Southern CA Tank & Fab - 909/627-1313

T&T Tools, Inc. - 800/521-6893 -

Topcon Positioning Systems, Inc. - 925/245-8300 -


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