Agricultural Drainage Company Moves Into Septic System Installation

Bob Tiedt’s old-line Iowa agricultural drainage company turns to onsite work and finds a valuable niche to keep busy during a slow portion of the growing season.
Agricultural Drainage Company Moves Into Septic System Installation
Tiedt Drainage employees use a John Deere backhoe and skid-steer to cover a drainfield after installation of Infiltrator Systems Quick 4 components.

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Bob Tiedt has been working with soil and drainage issues through his family’s longtime agricultural tile business. About a decade ago, the owner of Bob Tiedt Drainage Inc. came to the conclusion that his farm drainage background would translate beautifully to the onsite industry.

So the Waverly, Iowa, company – recently celebrating 60 years in business – is building a solid reputation in the onsite business like it did serving generations of farmers across the fertile fields of northeast Iowa.

A year ago, Tiedt, 33, took over ownership of the business from his father, Jim. Tiedt and his wife, Dana, who handles the accounting and office work, hope to continue to build the business and one day pass it along to their children, Macy, 7, and Jake, 4.

TRANSFERRING SKILLS

“When I was 10, I was on the tiling job – learning. It’s in my blood,” Tiedt says. Tiling agriculture land has been a good business for the Tiedt family since 1953, when Tiedt’s grandfather, Paul, started the business. Jim took over the business in the 1970s and Tiedt started working full time in 2000.

“Dad didn’t want to deal with the septic systems, but starting in 2000, I started pushing him to get the name started with the septic system,” he says. “With the farm drainage end of it we’re limited. We needed something to fill in that time frame.”

Tiling work is done from about mid-March to mid-May until the crops are in, then it’s on hold until about mid-September after the harvest. While Tiedt gets some residential tile draining work, he recognized the need to diversify and balance the income – especially when agriculture has a downturn. His skills are ideal for onsite installation, he says.

“I have a very, very good understanding of drainage characteristics of the land,” he says. “A basic septic system is still drainage. In farm fields you are out-letting the water into a ditch or stream. In the septic side of it, you’re cleaning the water with the soil. My knowledge of drainage in farm fields helps to lay out a system in a yard or in a lot. I feel I have an edge on that just because of what we do [draining fields].”

KNOW THE CODE

Understanding soil is also important. Having dealt with a variety of soils when tiling, Tiedt goes by how soil feels as much as how it percs. For example, with recent dry years, some soils perced OK, but Tiedt considers the soil’s texture and how it will saturate in a wet spring. In many cases, he adds footage to the leachfield to prevent problems.

Experience is important, but Tiedt knew there was much to learn about septic installation. He took classes to earn CIOWTS (Certified Installer of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems) certification and Time of Transfer Inspector credentials to inspect systems.

“The classes and certifications really got me looking in-depth into the code. I get a kick out of having the code knowledge and being out on the job and not having to have to say ‘I need to check the code,’ ” Tiedt says. “I read the entire code. I enjoy knowing that. I know it and I understand it, and I can see why they have us doing what we are doing.”

Knowing code is important because many homes in Tiedt’s service territory are built on lots with limited space. For example, a 3,000-square-foot home on a half-acre lot doesn’t leave much room for a conventional septic system. That’s where it pays to understand codes to install advanced systems.

ADVANCED SYSTEM SPECIALTY

“I really enjoy the challenge when a secondary system is needed,” Tiedt says. They come up quite often when systems have to be installed in a small footprint or when the soil doesn’t meet the perc test. Other installers who don’t like installing them sometimes refer the work to Tiedt.

The systems approved in Iowa pump the effluent from the septic tank across bacteria-laden media (peat, plastic, foam). As the water disperses, it’s filtered and cleaned so the water can be safely discharged on the ground.

“I can treat the waste from a six-bedroom house in 120 square feet,” Tiedt says. “A conventional system would have a 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot area for a leachfield.”

He uses systems from Quanics Inc.

“I stick with them so I know everything about the product,” Tiedt says. “I call in and describe the situation, like a five-bedroom house or a church with so many members. They design a system that’s stamped with approval by their engineers and I install to their recommendations.”

The systems incorporate a three-compartment tank, two for settling solids and a third for pumping effluent into an Aerocell unit that disperses it over a foam media. Tiedt used the system effectively for a house with a tiny 10- by 20-foot yard. The property was part of a housing addition with a failed lagoon system. The state’s Department of Natural Resources informed homeowners they needed to install individual systems.

“Everyone had to have their A-game on and worry about each other, utilities and neighbors’ property lines. We had to worry about everything.” Working with the county to approve extra room on the property line setbacks, his crew installed the Quanics system that covered the entire front yard. He gave the homeowners the option of a mound or level system. They chose a level system with plans to landscape to hide the risers.

HELPFUL TOOLS

For agriculture tiling, Tiedt uses the latest RTK technology to accurately install tile, but he uses older Trimble-based laser technology for installing septic systems. He is a big fan of the latest smartphone technology, however.

“I can be on a job site, look at the system and call the Bremer County Sanitation Department, which has scanned-in septic maps. Within 15 minutes I have a map of the system on my smartphone,” he says.

Tiedt owns an assortment of excavation equipment to accommodate large jobs as well as working in tight spaces. A 2001 John Deere 17ZTS mini-excavator works well for septic inspections, while a 2001 Bobcat 331E mini-excavator is ideal for digging small, shallow septic systems.

For large jobs, his John Deere backhoe fleet includes a 2007 310SJ TMC and a 2012 310SK TMC. His 2005 322 CTL John Deere skid-loader comes in handy for a variety of jobs.

Tiedt also has 1996 Mack and 2001 Sterling trucks, along with a few Dodge pickups and an old dump truck and dump carts.

He installs septic tanks manufactured by Swales Precast Inc., risers from Polylok and buys components from Infiltrator Systems Inc. Cedar Rapids Winpump provides the pipe. A laser level from Spectra Precision helps properly install the systems.

BIGGER IS BETTER

“In our area you won’t beat word-of-mouth [for advertising],” Tiedt says. “We aren’t the cheapest contractor around. But I will guarantee quality, and I will do what I say.” He knows the importance of building a good reputation from experience in the ag tiling business and farmers know the Tiedt name. Getting a new group of people – homeowners – to know the name is a new challenge.

“There are a few contractors that are very reputable, who are getting closer to retiring,” he notes. “I want to get my name built up, so when they phase out, [their customers] will know my name. I feel that will help my business.”

He’s hopeful that his past customers will spread the word, but he’s not leaving it to chance. He recognizes the importance of advertising.

“When I have an ad company come to me – like phone books – I ask them to open the book to see who is in there and what the ads look like. I order bigger ads to attract attention and stand out in some way,” Tiedt explains. “But I absolutely refuse to put another company’s work down.”

He also maintains a professional website created by John Unsen Design. Unsen is a friend who drives new marketing ideas for Tiedt. Some of them are effective, including a Facebook page and a contact form on the website. This has helped boost the onsite side of the business.

DIVERSIFY FOR THE FUTURE

With pumped up marketing and word-of-mouth, Tiedt hopes to greatly increase the number of installations. Onsite is still a smaller part of the business, but it’s growing and Tiedt has started a sewer-jetting service.

“Last winter we did sewer jetting for 20 to 25 systems that froze up,” he says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had frost 5-7 feet in the ground.”

Designing for frost is a challenge, and a couple of his systems also froze because they were new and bacteria hadn’t had a chance to grow to keep the tank warm.

“The biggest thing we saw was problems from lines freezing going to the tank. High-efficiency furnaces have drainlines that have a small amount of water going down sewer lines and it starts to freeze. The mini freezing in micro layers produce big layers and an ice dam in the line holding the water back,” Tiedt says.

Like good field drainage, it’s important to set an adequate grade on the discharge line, he notes. And using hay or straw bales to insulate the ground over the system has also proven a good strategy for homeowners during cold winters, he says.

With certifications in four counties and licensing to do inspections, Tiedt is ready to keep himself and his crew busy between agriculture tiling work. And he’s up for the challenge of dealing with any tough job or utilizing any advanced technology on the horizon.

“I’m not scared of any project,” Tiedt says. “I can do everything from large commercial to a one-bedroom house. I’m just getting going.”

MORE INFORMATION

Bobcat Corporate - 800/743-4340 - www.bobcat.com

Infiltrator Systems, Inc. - 800/221-4436 - www.infiltratorsystems.com

John Deere - 800/503-3373 - www.johndeere.com

Polylok / Zabel Environmental - 877/765-9565 - www.polylok.com

Quanics Inc. - 877/782-6427 - www.quanics.com

Spectra Precision/Trimble - 800/527-3771 - www.spectralasers.com



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