Tough Onsite Jobs Dominate the California Coast

Topanga Underground tackles onsite systems in and around Malibu, California, that involve major site challenges — and carry price tags to match.
Tough Onsite Jobs Dominate the California Coast
The Topanga Underground team includes, from left, Manny Ibarra, Jose Merlos, Carol Montes, Richard Sherman, Jose Umaña, Hilario Saravia and Carlos Cardenas.

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That Richard Sherman considers a routine onsite system project would be well outside the mainstream for most installers.

That’s because Sherman and his company work in Malibu and other California communities west of Los Angeles, where cramped lots, hilly terrain, beachfront homes and strict regulations make almost every installation a challenge.

Onsite systems using aerobic treatment units, with seepage pits instead of traditional drainfields, are the norm. Replacement systems routinely cost $100,000 and more. Sherman and his 15-member team tackle those challenges daily, while also inspecting onsite systems, installing water mains, setting fire hydrants, and handling multiple other tasks.

“I’ve been working around here since 1969, so I get calls for almost anything,” says Sherman, still going strong at age 79. “I don’t need to do any advertising. People know we’re here six days a week. We look at 400 to 500 jobs a year. We do probably 75 percent of them.” It adds up to a business that generates $2 million to $2.5 million in revenue per year.


Sherman began his career working in the machine shop for Rocketdyne, a rocket engine design and production company based in California. He eventually became an expediter on the factory manager’s staff. “I got laid off in the late 1960s and went to work for a grading company in Topanga, where I lived,” he says. “I’ve been there ever since.”

The company was then called Topanga Unlimited. “In those days, my promise was that I’d do anything you wanted done,” Sherman says. “If I didn’t know how to do it, I’d go to the library and get a book and come back and do the job tomorrow.”

In the early 1990s, a housing developer offered to hire Sherman to install the water mains for housing projects if he would get his contractor license. So, Sherman studied for and acquired a Class A General Engineering license. Since then he has installed “a couple hundred” water mains, primarily in his home territory of Malibu, Topanga and Calabasas.

Before the 1990s, Sherman seldom built septic systems. That changed in 1991 when Malibu incorporated as a city, largely to avoid installing sanitary sewers. Los Angeles County wanted to force Malibu to sewer a 4-mile stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway from the Los Angeles city limits to Malibu’s civic center at a cost of about $50 million. Malibu wanted to stay on septic systems mainly to avoid the explosive growth sewers would bring.


“It would have turned downtown Malibu into Miami Beach,” says Sherman. “The political leaders in Malibu realized that with sewers there would be no way to restrict building in the civic center. The Pacific Coast Highway is the only road in and out, and it was already a nightmare in the summertime.”

The county allowed Malibu to become a city while reserving the right to install sewers if the city failed to clean up its septic systems after 10 years; those systems had been polluting the beach. Environmental groups including Heal the Bay and Santa Monica Baykeeper, along with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, also pressured Malibu into acting.

The city’s newly hired environmental health specialist began introducing ATUs in the city and asked Sherman to get involved with the onsite system improvements, based on his reputation and background. “ATUs have computers, gauges, floats, pumps and controls. Malibu came to me and said, ‘You really should look at doing more septic systems, because you’re the one who understands this stuff.’ So we started designing them, and we’ve designed and built a couple hundred in the last 20 years,” Sherman explains.

Over the years, Topanga Underground has installed ATUs from Jet, Presby Environmental (Advanced Enviro-Septic units), Scienco/FAST - a division of Bio-Microbics systems, and MicroSepTec. Today its treatment systems of choice are AdvanTex systems from Orenco and its local distributor, BioSolutions.


Advanced treatment is essential in Topanga’s area mainly because of proximity to the ocean. “The bulk of Malibu is on the beach,” Sherman says. “The beach properties all had leachfields under the houses. In the 1970s and 1980s, if somebody on the beach called about a failed leachfield, we would pump the septic tank and let the field dry out, then send a crew under the house to shovel the old leachfield over the bulkhead and let the tide take it away. Then we would spread gravel under the house to build a new leachfield in the same spot.”

That, of course, is now unacceptable. Solutions for failed systems, and designs for new ones, are complex and costly. Reliance on soil treatment is locally allowed only where room exists for a drainfield. Otherwise, the septic tank effluent must be pretreated. “Most ATUs put out what looks like tap water,” says Sherman. “In Malibu you have to disinfect it if you’re going to discharge to a pit.”

To illustrate the challenge of building systems, Sherman described a vacant lot where the owner planned to build a three-bedroom house. The site required a seepage pit because it sloped steeply and lacked horizontal space for a drainfield.

Topanga rented a LoDril excavator-mounted drill unit because there was no room to move an actual drill rig onto the site. That unit drilled a 2-foot-diameter test hole; a geologist lowered on a cable logged the soil conditions and determined the groundwater level. Then two more holes were drilled, which the geologist also logged.

“We covered the holes with plywood and soil,” says Sherman. “After five days, we came back and took the dirt and plywood off. The geologist verified the groundwater level. We then sent a crew to backfill all the holes to 10 feet above where we found the groundwater. Then we put a 2-foot-thick bentonite cap on top of the backfill and ran a three-day perc test.

“We hired a water truck because there was no water on site. At that point the bill was nearly $20,000, and we hadn’t done anything yet except prove that the site would perc. Now we’ve got to draw a set of plans and install the system.”

The design included a fiberglass septic tank (Xerxes) and a 600 gpd MicroSepTec ATU at the bottom of the lot. A duplex pump station lifted the effluent to the seepage pit, drilled out to 6 feet in diameter and lined with 5-foot-inside-diameter concrete piping. The total system cost was nearly $60,000 — and that was a simple system by local standards.


On the other end of the scale was a system for the Inn of the Seventh Ray restaurant, less than 50 feet from Topanga Creek. Originally a church, the building was converted to a gas station and service garage. In the mid-1970s a couple bought it and made it into a 50-seat restaurant serving natural foods. Sherman and his team built the original 2,500 gpd onsite system for the restaurant with a drainfield on what had been the service station’s tow yard.

Since then, the restaurant has grown to seat 120 and Topanga Underground has rebuilt the onsite system five times. The most recent rebuild, two years ago, includes a 15,000-gallon grease trap, a 25,000-gallon fiberglass septic tank (Xerxes), and an 8,000-gallon tank split in half as a recirculation tank and a storage tank for effluent to be pumped to the drainfield. The heart of the system consists of three AdvanTex AX-100 units.

“Because of proximity to the creek, we had to build concrete containment structures so that if the systems leaked, they would leak back to the tanks,” says Sherman. “In case the water should rise, the systems are protected from the creek knocking them down. It’s probably the most elaborate system we’ve ever done.” At the cost of a mere $550,000.


Sherman does all the good work with team members who have been with him for years, more than 30 in some cases. Joseph Meisinger is project manager and an architect by education. David Rios is the AutoCAD designer of water mains, septic systems and other facilities. Bookkeeper Carol Montes is assisted by Sherman’s wife, Lyn.

The field team includes Manny Ibarra, field superintendent; Jose Machuca, Jose Umaña, Julio Reyes and Carlos Cardenas, foremen; Jose Merlos, mechanic; and Luis Sura, Hilario Saravia, Oscar Castro, Jose Martinez and Juan Redondo, laborers.

Rather than keep a huge fleet, the company rents equipment regularly — skid-steers, excavators, even asphalt rollers where a job involves breaking and then patching pavement. The company’s main fleet equipment includes:

  • Case and Caterpillar backhoes
  • Two Swinger skip loaders
  • One Smith compressor
  • Seven Ford pickups, utility and flatbed
  • One bobtail Ford dump truck

When not dealing with difficult onsite systems, Sherman and his team can be found performing presale inspections of systems in Malibu or handling renewals for system operating permits. Sherman also does consulting on projects such as water system designs for commercial facilities. In addition, he consults with prospective lot buyers, spelling out the steps they must take to decide to what extent a property is buildable.

Topanga doesn’t maintain the systems it installs. “At my age, I don’t need a phone call at 10 o’clock at night telling me the septic system alarm just went off,” Sherman says.

That’s not to say the company is allergic to emergencies.

“Basically, this is an emergency room half the time,” Sherman says. The company has earned a name for being responsive. Once, the city of Malibu called to report that Cal-Trans drilling test holes on the Pacific Coast Highway had drilled through a 4-inch sewer force main.

“I called my superintendent on his cellphone. He found a crew working at a shopping center and yanked them off that job. They ran down to the site, dug the main up and patched it together. We do a lot of that kind of thing. People call and say, ‘The sewage is running down my driveway — what should I do?’ If need be, we’ll have a crew there in an hour.”


What keeps Sherman going after all these years? “I take after my father,” he says. Hoyt Leon Sherman was a renowned painter and fine arts professor at The Ohio State University. “He worked until one day he was waiting for mom to drive him to school and had a stroke at age 80,” his son says.

Out in California, Richard Sherman practices his own brand of artistry.

Cadillac ranch

You could say Richard Sherman has a soft spot for older cars — and trucks. His favorite ride is a 1970 white Cadillac Coupe DeVille, restored inside and out with a lot of help from a local body shop.

“I bought the car wrecked in 1978,” says Sherman, owner of Topanga Underground. “It belonged to a friend of mine. A drunk hit it and tore up the rear fender on the driver’s side. He parked it and didn’t drive it.

“He passed away and his kids didn’t want the car. They left it parked out in the backyard. I bought it one day for $800. My pipeline welder and I went to the local junkyard, found another 1970 DeVille, and cut it in half with a torch. We picked up the back half with a forklift and put it on a flatbed.

“Then we took that and my car to a body shop and said, ‘Here, fix this.’ They chopped up the other car and spliced it into mine. You can’t find where they put it together unless you look inside the trunk. About 10 years ago I redid the interior and had it painted. I just put in a new stock car motor that’s about 500 hp.” He drives the Caddy mainly for special occasions.

Sherman also has a penchant for old Ford trucks. The newest one in his fleet is a 1992 F-450 with a utility bed. “I’m up to Ford truck number 34,” says Sherman. “All my trucks are lime green. Everybody in town knows us by those trucks.”

His main ride? A restored 1987 Ford Bronco that he bought at a scrapyard for $250.


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