2014 Was A Sometimes Wet, Sometimes Wild Construction Season For Onsite Installers

In 2014, the onsite industry was greeted by a muddy mess and an uptick in work orders, causing many installers to finish the year with a flurry of work.
2014 Was A Sometimes Wet, Sometimes Wild Construction Season For Onsite Installers
Shown are typical working conditions early in 2014 for Schmitz Brothers LLC in Monticello, Minn. A late spring thaw and heavy rains plagued installers in much of the U.S. last spring, setting work schedules back.

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For many onsite installers, it’s getting to be time to park the mini-excavator for the winter and reflect on what seemed to be an unusual 2014 season of digging dirt and laying pipe. In my discussions with installers over the past several months, I’ve identified several factors that came together to challenge these small-business owners in ways they haven’t experienced in a while.

My sense is that contractors were frustrated by springtime rains, then they were rushing to catch up with increased and intense demand for their services all summer long. In the fall, at least for those working in the north, there was a dash to meet all of the year’s commitments for new systems before the ground froze.

I’ve spoken to installers who were going full-bore from early spring to late fall. Others experienced periods of long days and long weeks, followed by a few weeks of relatively little work piled up and the phone remaining silent. I do not recall talking to anyone all year who was desperately short on work; the attitudes were certainly not like they were in the construction lull that followed the 2009-2010 recession.

What were the factors that either challenged or confounded installers? I’ll share a few, along with my take on what business owners can do to relieve these stresses for next year.

The precipitation blues

Wet weather put many installers behind schedule early in the year. I recall talking to Pete Schmitz, of Schmitz Brothers LLC, in Monticello, Minn., about the late spring thaw and heavy rains that got his year off to a muddy, messy start. Orders for other excavation work piled up as Schmitz grappled with an emergency septic tank replacement. Delivering the tank, a truck got buried up to the axle and Schmitz lost days pulling the truck out and laying down special mats to reach the failed onsite system.

Schmitz wasn’t alone with weather-related headaches. We were ready to profile several system installs for the magazine, only to see them put off for months because of soft ground and pressing emergency work brought on by overloaded septic systems. Time and again installers talked about the frustration of standing idle while waiting for good working conditions. In this respect, installers are a lot like farmers. The whims of Mother Nature are beyond your control.

Pent-up demand builds

Installers tell me the economy is not where it was at the apex of the building boom about 2006, but it’s getting close. They see evidence in a rise in new housing starts, commercial growth and property owners starting to feel more comfortable about ordering long-overdue onsite system repairs and replacements. In July, contractors told me they were already booked through September and later in the fall.

Hopefully the demand continues to grow in 2015. And the key to being able to take on the additional work and complete jobs in a timely fashion is to bolster your work crews. Many installers are still stinging from having to trim down their workforce after the housing market imploded. Letting good people go is one of the toughest things a small-business owner has to do, and those layoff days are not soon forgotten. But you can only avoid hiring new helpers for so long. People drive growth for your business, and it may be time to think about putting another crew on the job.

The regulations, they are a changin’

The uptick in infrastructure spending seems to be mirrored by an awakening of regulators of onsite wastewater systems and water quality. For the past year, many states have announced long-overdue reviews of onsite rules. And the Chesapeake Bay watershed states, at the behest of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, are leading the way in looking at stricter onsite limits on effluent that makes its way back into sensitive waterways.

The result of stricter standards is that advanced systems are more the rule than the exception in more and more regions. That means installers need to adapt to a wider array of technologies to be able to solve problems faced by their clients. They need to be able to offer onsite solutions that require less space on small lots, produce cleaner effluent and be willing to offer ongoing maintenance required of complex systems. A good way to stay current with technology is by attending the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport Show in February in Indianapolis. The show (formerly the Pumper & Cleaner Expo) offers dozens of educational seminars and exposure to all the latest products the onsite industry has to offer.

Tell us about your most challenging job in 2014

While we’re reflecting on the past year, I’d like to ask you to share how you met your biggest or most interesting onsite challenge. I’m currently on the lookout for projects to write about in our System Profile feature in Onsite Installer. One of our goals as a trade publication is to learn by networking, and explaining how you overcame a difficult site or need for using an advanced technology for the first time will help others in the industry.

So how can you get involved? It’s easy. Simply drop me a line at editor@onsiteinstaller.com and tell me a little about your tough job. I’ll give you a call to discuss the project. These days, most installers use digital cameras or the advanced camera in their smartphones to document the work they do. We can use those photos to illustrate a story about the system you installed. If your project is still on the horizon, we can discuss how you can shoot the photos to best show your crew at work.

I often hear from installers after we feature their system in the magazine. They are proud to share their experiences with others in the industry, and they can show off the magazine to customers, serving to enhance their reputations as professionals in the field. It’s a big win for industry networking and promoting the quality of work they perform. So what are you waiting for? Contact me today to talk about your most interesting job from 2014.


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