It’s a Dynamic Time to be an Installer

Regulatory changes, diverse sites and soils, and many diversification opportunities bring fresh challenges to the crew at Minnesota’s Advanced Septic Solutions.
It’s a Dynamic Time to be an Installer
The crew at Advanced Septic Solutions includes, from left, John Fink, Nick Simonsen, Tom Wirtzfeld, Paul Simonsen and Tim Barry. They’re shown in the company shop with a Ditch Witch JT20 horizontal directional drill.

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When it came time to embark on a third career, retired U.S. Navy and commercial airline pilot Tom Wirtzfeld sought an occupation that was recession-resistant and kept him close to home for a change.

His startup onsite services company, Advanced Septic Solutions, in Northfield, Minnesota, accomplished those goals and has been a rewarding business ownership experience. In just over a decade, Wirtzfeld has had an impact on the advancing decentralized wastewater industry, built up a company that rewards his loyal employees and helped many customers along the way.

Wirtzfeld had flown patrol aircraft for the U.S. Navy and completed 25 years as an airline pilot before retiring in December 2004. Research into small businesses with strong growth potential led him to the onsite industry. According to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Minnesota has an estimated 535,000 homes and 10,000 businesses using
septic systems.

Through membership in the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association (MOWA), Wirtzfeld learned about upcoming changes in the septic code. Effective in 2008, the new provisions included inspecting residential systems every three years, advanced treatment systems multiple times a year and large decentralized systems daily. The code also incorporated approved advanced treatment products.

“As soon as licensure became law, my people were in the first available classes for them,” says Wirtzfeld, who earned his installer, designer, pumper, inspector and service provider licenses in one year. Later, he and employee Paul Simonsen earned wastewater operator Class C licenses.

With the code changes, contractors who refused to adapt went out of business. Advanced Septic Solutions became qualified to do inspections and install ATUs. Soon word-of-mouth and a solid reputation filled the service board to overflowing year-round. “The challenge became to not overextend ourselves,” says Wirtzfeld. “Then and now, we turn away work.”

MAINTENANCE RULES

Wirtzfeld’s home, abutting three counties, is a prime location to mine for customers. A 2013 inventory in Rice County identified 600 properties with noncompliant systems, many with wet wells or straight pipes. “It’s safe to assume that Dakota and Scott counties have similar situations,” he says. “That’s a lot of work.”

Wirtzfeld strives to bring the most value to projects instead of the lowest bid. As the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) approved advanced treatment technologies, he and other employees became certified installers of AdvanTex pods (Orenco Systems), Puraflo peat biofilters (Anua), FAST units (Bio-Microbics), sequencing batch reactors (CromaFlow Inc), Multi-Flo units (Consolidated Treatment Systems), E/One grinder pump stations (Environment One Corporation) and the Ecopod series (Delta Environmental Products/Pentair Flow Technologies).

“I’m not a distributor because no matter how good technologies are in certain circumstances, they are not a one-size-fits-all panacea,” says Wirtzfeld. “I want unrestricted access to the best solution for every site, and it will not always be the same product.”

Wirtzfeld fulfills manufacturers’ two-year service agreements and has not lost a contract renewal. “Once owners understand they have a large investment in advanced treatment technology, and it has worked perfectly for 24 months because of routine maintenance, they continue the service,” he says. In 2015, the company had 400 homes under contract, but its major maintenance effort is the long-standing operation of 13 decentralized systems in rural communities, schools and golf courses.

In Minnesota, onsite systems larger than 10,000 gpd require a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and a Class C or D (lowest) licensed operator for plants with subsurface discharge. Wirtzfeld or Simonsen visits those systems twice a month, spending two hours checking components, adjusting active drainfields and pulling samples.

INSPECTION LAW

Besides maintaining onsite systems, Wirtzfeld’s team also inspects them for various clients. “We were one of three companies (in 2015) each inspecting 48 systems for the Town of Randolph in Dakota County,” he says. “The number of viable systems would help determine if the community was a candidate for a decentralized system.”

When point-of-sale inspections became law, Wirtzfeld networked with Realtors to perform them, test well water and repair systems. Brokers invited him to meetings to explain inspections and sway the opposition. “Once audiences understood the process, I talked about hydraulic capacity and how adding two bedrooms to a system designed for only three affected treatment and the drainfield,” he says. “It made believers out of them.”

Today, the company averages 60 inspections annually. Wirtzfeld’s biggest job is educating people about their expectations, especially when the seller wants to provide a Yugo of a system and the buyer wants a Lexus. “By explaining the scope of work, I help establish what the seller will pay and how much the buyer must kick in to achieve his goal,” he says.

“Then I advocate the best solution, often a Ford of a system.”

Wirtzfeld also earned his advanced designer license, enabling him to design systems up to 10,000 gpd and assist engineers with systems greater than 10,000 gpd. Because of the state’s complex and area-specific soils — everything from pure sand to dense clay and glade (soil 12 inches deep or less over limestone or dolomite) — his license renewal includes six hours of soils work every three years. For challenging sites, Wirtzfeld hires licensed soil scientist Terry Bovee.

COMPLEX SITUATIONS

Soils aren’t the only thing to perplex Wirtzfeld. Difficult clients bring their own complications, but the worst situation he ever faced was a woman accustomed to having her own way.

“She insisted the system be put ‘here,’ but here was in the middle of a wetland,” he says. “Finding an acceptable location became my most frustrating business experience because her attitude never changed.”

Another challenge Wirtzfeld confronts is convincing owners to have their land surveyed when the records are absent. “Some people insist emphatically that they know where the property lines are,” he says. “If they argue with me for too long, I walk away from the job.” Most clients relent, including the one whose lot lines were 40 feet off from where he thought they were.

For new systems, Wirtzfeld insists on walking the property with customers and discussing long-term site planning during the early design phase. “It’s important to ask where the husband wants to put his storage shed 12 years from now, or where the wife wants to plant a new tree,” he says. “Exploring all possibilities is time well-spent because it helps customers make informed decisions.”

On the regulatory scene, Wirtzfeld’s greatest challenge is jurisdiction. After the state passes a new septic code, counties have a year to enforce it, then townships have another year to accept it. “I spend a lot of time checking which county I’m in, whether I’m in the orange, yellow or lavender rule book, and what day it is to keep up with townships when they enact an ordinance,” he says. “Our code is cumbersome and inflexible.”

Consequently, Wirtzfeld joined the MOWA legislative committee, which works with the MPCA and receptive legislators to affect change. Issues on the table include nitrogen standards, the half-mile rule for common ownership, seven-day averaging to determine a system’s hydraulic capacity, seasonal use exemptions and an appeal process.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES

While working for legislative changes, Wirtzfeld slowly changed the direction of his company. Since 2010, he has focused less on residential work and more on complicated systems with flows from multiple buildings. Four or five times a year, such projects required horizontal directional boring. Wirtzfeld subcontracted the work, then purchased the JT20 Ditch Witch machine from that contractor. “When word got out we had it, a bunch of jobs came in,” says Wirtzfeld.

The most interesting project happened in the last weeks of January 2013. The owners of White Bear Lake Yacht Club were adding a pavilion and swimming pool with showers, and hired Wirtzfeld to determine and install the tankage. Effluent would discharge to a central main handling seven other onsite systems. The nearest junction was 138 feet from the pavilion, and the route to it traversed fairways and greens belonging to the club’s golf course.

“It took three days for insulated, heated blankets to thaw the areas for excavating the drill’s entrance pit and exit pit,” says Wirtzfeld. “The bore team drilled 8 to 10 feet below the lake’s water table, pulling a 4-inch sleeve for the 2-inch discharge pipe.”

Meanwhile, other workers excavated through 3 or more feet of frost to set 21,000 gallons of tanks. To improve treatment, Wirtzfeld specified micro (0.25 mm) bubble diffusion aerators (Schaus-Vorhies Water Treatment, sourced from WEXCO Environmental). “The pounds of treatment produced by the oxygen transfer rate – typically 10 to 27 pounds/horsepower-hour – give an incredible bang for the buck,” he says. “Especially if three-phase power is available.” The course opened on time that spring.

LOOKING FORWARD

Working year-round, especially during brutal Minnesota winters, challenges workers and machines. To maintain and protect them from the elements, Wirtzfeld built a 60- by 160-foot shop with four heated bays near his 300-acre home site. He built a 76- by 32-foot heated building to store a Ford LT 9000 vacuum truck with 4,200-gallon steel tank, Masport pump and carrying a Crust Buster tank agitator; Ford F-800 with a Mongoose jetter and 6,000-gallon water tank; Volvo dump truck with a Henderson box; and Ford 1-ton dump truck with an Anthony box.

Wirtzfeld converted a 60- by 88-foot sheep barn to store supplies and a John Deere 400 backhoe, Bobcat T200 skid-steer, Takeuchi TB 135 excavator, Kubota SVL 90-2 compact track loader and KX 80 excavator, and the directional boring machine. “Much of the equipment is old but reliable,” he says.

Equipment constitutes half of a business’ success. Wirtzfeld ensures his employees like where they work, providing benefits including a 401(k) retirement plan. In 2013, he sweetened the pot by beginning an IRS-approved cash balance retirement plan. “It’s a benefit for my five full-time employees, some of whom have been with me for eight of our 11 years,” he says. Further, to ensure seasonal workers return, Wirtzfeld offers wage increases for each additional season of service.

Having prepared well to seize business opportunities, Wirtzfeld now prepares for the next milestone in his life. December 2015 marked his 65th birthday, and within a year he intends to semi-retire. “Working 70- to 80-hour weeks has become too challenging for my wife, Bev, and me,” he says. “Therefore, we’re grooming our employees to carry on the business. We have sufficient depth of bench that they could take over today.”



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