Onsite System Inspections are the Key to His Business Success

An educated, professional team and a burgeoning real estate market spell success for Tim Shotzberger and Home Land Septic Consulting.
Onsite System Inspections are the Key to His Business Success
The office staff at Home Land Septic includes, from left, Emily Harris, Amy Pletz, Holly Dennis, Tim Shotzberger, Jessica Harrington and Erin Moffett.

Interested in General?

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

General + Get Alerts

Tim Shotzberger started his septic system and well inspection company in Essex, Maryland, believing he could succeed by doing it better than anyone else.

He struggled for the first few years but managed to grow through the 2008 recession and aftermath. Then the company hit its stride. For the past few years, Home Land Septic Consulting has grown by about 40 percent annually and now has 10 employees who performed some 1,400 septic system inspections and 1,100 well tests in 2014, the vast majority connected with property sales.

A revived real estate market has certainly helped, but Home Land Septic thrives in large part by delivering high-quality inspections and detailed reports, and by providing the high level of service and communication required by the real estate agents who recommend the company
to homebuyers.

Credit for that, in turn, goes to the field and office staff members, mostly college graduates, meticulously trained and well compensated. “We love talking up our employees,” says Shotzberger. “We have their pictures, titles and short resumes on our website. The field guys have degrees in areas like chemistry and environmental science. We look for people with science backgrounds. It isn’t always easy because it’s hard to find smart young people who are also willing to go out and dig holes every day.”

BUSINESS TRAINING

Shotzberger grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and in 2000 earned degrees in economics and finance from Salisbury University in Maryland. His second job out of college was with Clear Creek Environmental in Annapolis, a sister company of Wind River Environmental.

“I was an acquisitions analyst,” says Shotzberger. “They were looking to purchase smaller pump truck companies and roll them into something bigger. I was the financial guy who would go in, look at the numbers and interview the owners about their practices.”

After about a year, Wind River bought out Clear Creek, and Shotzberger continued in an acquisitions role, evaluating companies in Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New York. Later, he was made a branch manager for a division in Sterling, Virginia; then he was transferred to Sykesville, Maryland, and that part of the business was sold to Fogle’s Septic Service.

“I worked for them for a year and a half, and that’s when I started my business,” Shotzberger recalls. Short on cash for a startup, he concentrated on an area of wastewater services with a low threshold to entry and a perceived upside looking to the future: inspections.

“Inspections didn’t require a lot of equipment, and it correlated with the training I’d had at Fogle’s – I did a lot of inspections for them,” he explains.

DEMAND GROWS

The Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) has a septic system inspection policy but no regulation requiring inspection for real estate sales. On the other hand, most homebuyers get inspections because mortgage lenders require them. “That definitely helps us,” says Shotzberger. “Without that requirement, this business wouldn’t be nearly as productive.”

Shotzberger took the inspection certification class that MDE requires. Since then, the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association (MOWPA) has taken over the course and teaches it under MDE auspices. Shotzberger is a fill-in instructor and MOWPA treasurer.  

It took time to get the business on sound footing. Shotzberger hit the pavement, visiting real estate agents to give them business cards and information. “It’s hard to get business as someone new because this is a very important job,” he says. “Nobody wants to hire you for a septic inspection unless you have a reputation and are qualified.”

To supplement his income in the early years, he at various times operated a lawn care business, worked as an employment recruiter (headhunter), and delivered pizzas. He also tried unsuccessfully to take on a partner and offer well pumps and water conditioning.

WE HAVE LIFTOFF

His big break came when he joined the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors: “They give you marketing opportunities. Realtors belong to the board, and affiliates like Home Land Septic can sponsor events and get their name out.

“They were kind enough to let me teach an Introduction to Septic Systems continuing education class. I’ve done that for the past several years. It gets me in front of Realtors, and more importantly, teaching classes gives me credibility. I can just talk to the people, relate to them, give them answers and shoot straight. People trust me after I teach the class.”

Shotzberger has branched out by building connections with county Boards of Realtors. “Starting in 2012, post-recession, it’s really in the last 3 1/2 years that we’ve really started to gel. It’s a really good real estate market. Interest rates are low, there’s inventory, there are buyers and sellers. It’s not just about our company doing an excellent job. It’s also us riding on the back of the real estate industry.”

His team members help keep the momentum going. Eric Garrett, field manager, leads the crew of inspectors, which includes Jon Blevins, Dave Bancewicz, David Vincent, Scott Thompson and Michel Higgs. Working the office are Erin Moffett, office manager; Amy Pletz, marketing director; Jessica Harrington, human resources manager; and Holly Dennis, administrator.

WORKING WITH REALTORS

A professional staff is key to catering to the real estate industry, Shotzberger says. The agents are the gatekeepers for most inspections, and Shotzberger concentrates on his staff’s relationship with them.

“Realtors expect a very high level of service,” Shotzberger says. “You got to be there when the phone rings. We have four office staff members – it takes that level of staffing to communicate with the Realtors, answer their questions, talk to underwriters and make sure the reports are accurate. In addition, our field team members are well-educated guys who can communicate, write well and speak well.”

New team members take the MDE-required inspector certification course but get most of their training in the field. Typically, a new person travels with an experienced inspector for three months and must pass a company-created exam before doing inspections independently. Office staff members travel with inspectors for at least one day. “If they’re going to explain things to customers over the phone, they need to go out and see things for themselves.”

Although MDE has an inspection form that it recommends using, Home Land Septic created its own form. “What MDE wants us to do is something more than homebuyers want to pay for.” It’s mainly a checklist, although it has spaces for comments and descriptions of issues. There’s also room to draw a map of the system.

Aerobic treatment units are increasingly common. Company inspectors have encountered several models and received training from the manufacturers in how to educate buyers to move forward with operations and maintenance. “The manufacturers actually frown upon us doing any type of inspection,” Shotzberger says.

“We pull records from the county and the manufacturer, make general notes about the aerobic treatment unit in question, and suggest the owner contact the appropriate operations and maintenance person.”

STEP BY STEP

The first inspection step is to find and expose the septic tank. While in most cases there is an access at grade, many tanks must be located and dug up. Each inspector carries probes (T&T Tools) and a metal detector (CST/berger) that can pick up tank rebar at depths of 3 feet. For looking inside tanks, they carry a mirror and a powerful flashlight; they use a Sludge Judge tool (Cole-Parmer) to measure the solids level.

They inspect the distribution box, if that is accessible, and perform a hydraulic load test, running water through the system in an amount based on a formula that includes the number of bedrooms in the home. The most important part of the process is probing the drainfield. Because few systems they encounter have inspection ports, inspectors use a 3-pound hammer to drive in sections of electrical ground rod. They pull the rod back and get a reading on whether the stone is wet or dry or has heavy biomat.

“We type up our report, which is a two-page Word document template,” Shotzberger says. “We fill in the address, the date and time, the weather conditions, the size and type of septic tank, and write comments to describe the system and its condition. We want somebody to be able to come behind us and do exactly what we did, so we have a lot of detail in our reports. We email them out to our clients within 24 hours.”

The reports stick to observations about the system and do not make predictions, such as how long a system might last. “You can have a great-looking system in July, and once the wet season comes around in December, it could fail,” Shotzberger says. “We can’t measure the water table and what the groundwater does. On the other hand, if we see a system that is backing up, that is concrete proof there’s a problem, and we will use stronger words. We actually label it unsatisfactory.”

Inspectors don’t get involved in negotiations between buyers and sellers but do answer questions about how septic systems work and how to maintain them. “We pride ourselves on being a third-party inspector,” Shotzberger says. “We brag about not doing repairs – if we find a problem, we’re not going to replace your drainfield. That gives us a lot of credibility.” As a shield against liability, the company carries errors and omissions insurance.

THE RIGHT TOOLS

A custom software tool called Jolene, created by a local developer, Jeremiah Seitz, helps the office team book appointments and track revenue. “We have three people who answer the phones, so it’s tough to use a simple spreadsheet the way we used to,” says Shotzberger. “With the software, all the office people can book jobs at the same time without stepping on each other’s toes. Once a job gets booked, all the person has to do is mark the date and time down in Jolene. It’s impossible for them to double-book a job.”

The company markets almost exclusively through real estate channels. “That’s our bread and butter, and that’s where we spend at least 90 percent of our marketing dollars. Our website is new as of last year, and we love it. We try to drive people there. It has great information that helps us build business. People can book a job through the website by sending us an email.”

The field equipment inventory is growing. The company aims to buy an excavator soon to limit manual digging and to access tanks buried deeper than 3 feet – beyond which Shotzberger will not ask his people to dig with shovels.

The company recently bought a SeeSnake push camera and an SR-20 locator (both from RIDGID). “That helps us find tanks and distribution boxes,” Shotzberger says. “With that equipment we can offer a higher-priced inspection. We can stick that camera in the drainfield lines and get a visual look at the pipe. We can put on paper to scale exactly how long the front line is, how long the back line is and how long the drainfield trenches are.”

The camera and locator may enable the company to expand into lateral inspections on homes connected to municipal sewers, another service referred by real estate agents. “Plumbing in the Baltimore area is old and bad, and there is a pretty big demand for sewer inspections.”

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Right now, Shotzberger’s biggest problem (a good one to have) is keeping up with growth. “It’s tough because you can’t plan for 40 percent growth, and yet if you don’t plan for it, you’re under capacity,” he says. Last summer, the company was typically backed up two weeks with work.

The team helps hold it all together. Once on board, people have tended to stay; turnover has been limited to one inspector and two office employees.
“We’re trying to create a family atmosphere,” Shotzberger says. “Just recently we had a happy hour at my house, where everybody came with their families. We really enjoyed ourselves. They’re good people, and when you have good people they tend to stick around.”



Discussion

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.