Think Repair, Then Replace, When Inspecting a Failing Septic System

Washington state’s A Advanced Septic & Construction Services focuses on rejuvenation and setting up existing septic systems for easier inspection and maintenance
Think Repair, Then Replace, When Inspecting a Failing Septic System
Aaron Huss, left, and Taylor Beaulieu operate a TerraLift machine from AerraTech to fracture the soil and restore function to a drainfield.

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When Andrew Gunia established A Advanced Septic & Construction Services in 2006, he built a business based primarily on drainfield rejuvenation instead of pumping septic tanks and installing septic systems.

“Our industry was way too quick to decide that a 20-year-old system, for instance, needed to be replaced,” explains Gunia, 55, who owns the Sumner, Washington-based company with his sons, Joshua, 34, and Jeremiah, 33.

“In a previous job, I saw that homeowners often didn’t need a new drainfield, but I felt that no one was taking time to figure out what was needed,” he continues. “There was a piece missing in the equation: Figure out what the problem is before deciding on a solution. So I founded a company that specializes in restoration and rejuvenation and that installs new systems only when all other options are exhausted.”

There are compelling business reasons to take a contrarian approach. For starters, paying roughly $5,000 to rejuvenate a drainfield is much more attractive to homeowners than a $20,000 system replacement. Second, the service generates good profit margins. Moreover, by rejuvenating drainfields, A Advanced establishes relationships that later can lead to pumping business from customers who appreciated how the company saved them thousands of dollars, Gunia says.

In addition, many homeowners in the company’s service area — about a 60-mile radius around Sumner, just outside of Tacoma and 35 miles south of Seattle — don’t have large lots. So rejuvenating an existing system often made more sense than installing a new one. “If the second system fails, there’s not much recourse for customers after that,” he says.

So what does Gunia mean by rejuvenation? Essentially, he says it centers on a comprehensive, end-to-end inspection of a septic system to determine what’s causing drainfield problems. That includes examining inlet and outlet baffles and jetting the laterals to remove any builtup sludge. The company also uses TerraLift machines (formerly manufactured by the TerraLift International Family of Companies but now built by AerraTech) to aerate and renew the soil around the system.

“We can make systems work again through what I call invasive maintenance,” he says.

CHOOSING A FOCUS

When Gunia started out, system rejuvenation generated about 80 percent of the company’s annual revenue. Currently, it stands at about 30 percent, but Gunia says that’s not because system rejuvenations have decreased; instead, the company’s other business segments — especially residential construction and remodeling services — have grown dramatically, which means rejuvenations represent a smaller piece of the overall revenue pie. “We still restore one drainfield a day year-round and sometimes two a day,” he says.

Gunia found his inner entrepreneur in a roundabout way. After dropping out of high school and joining the U.S. Air Force Reserve, he got a job at a septic pumping and utility-line installation company. The owner made a deal with Gunia: In exchange for training to run heavy equipment, which was Gunia’s dream job since he was a youngster, the 22-year-old would run the company’s portable restroom division for two years.

But after 12 years, during which he was promoted to a project foreman and then a job estimator, he decided to strike out on his own. “My lifelong dream (of running heavy equipment) didn’t turn out like I expected,” he recalls. “I realized what I was missing was the game — the game of business … deciding my own destiny.”

Gunia’s decision to focus on rejuvenation as a high-margin niche market was critical to his company’s success. Another key factor: Gunia offers a money-back guarantee on his company’s work for one year. “If you can’t warranty your work, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” he asserts. “Early on, we went back many times on our dime and made corrections as we learned our craft. But now we have it down to a science, and our callbacks are as low as 2 percent.”

CAREFUL EVALUATION

The business also grew because Gunia established a uniform protocol for evaluating septic systems. The procedure is similar, regardless of the many types of septic systems Gunia says he has seen emerge over the decades — from gravity systems with concrete tile pipe to gravity systems with PVC pipe and two-compartment tanks, to pressurized systems with an outlet baffle installed in front of the pump chamber. “Now, about 60 percent of the systems we install are aerobic treatment units,” he says.

The first step is finding out how customers use their systems, followed by a detailed inspection that starts in front of the tank and ends in the drainfield. “We make sure that every lateral is getting its fair share of effluent — that there aren’t any root blockages,” he says. “We also have to make certain no biosolids are leaving to the drainfield, which means making sure that baffles are correctly installed.”

If a system doesn’t have risers, A Advanced installs them to grade as a matter of course for easier troubleshooting and minimizing excavation work down the road. Other upgrades might include installing inspection ports on individual drainfield laterals.

“If the D-box is buried, we install risers there as well,” he says. “We basically do everything we can to restore the system to its original state. We correct things as needed, such as replacing broken or settled pipes and removing root infiltrations.”

But Gunia points out that not every failing system is a candidate for rejuvenation. He says it only makes sense for systems that have worked properly for a long period of time. A system installed a year ago that’s now failing, for example, is probably not suited for rejuvenation. In that case, a bad design is more likely the culprit and system replacement is a logical solution, he says.

“You always have to understand why the system failed,” he explains. “Was it from old age or from the homeowner misusing it? If a system was designed for three people and eight people live at the home, rejuvenation may not be the answer because the system would probably fail again anyway. Or if a homeowner is derelict and pouring grease down the drain constantly, using a garbage disposal excessively, or not pumping out the tank often enough, the system will fail again. In the end, it’s not complicated — it’s all about common sense.”

Another key to the company’s success: kid-glove treatment for customers’ landscaping. “New system installations can result in a huge expense at the end of a project to restore the landscaping to its previous condition,” Gunia says. “But at the end of the day, we work our way out of there and you can’t tell that we’ve been there.

“What we do is a lot like today’s surgeries,” he continues. “The doctor goes in at one location and all you see is a few incisions. My favorite phone calls are from customers who say, ‘I thought you were going to fix my drainfield today, but it looks like nobody was here.’ We even take photos of the work if the customer isn’t home while we’re working so we can prove we were there. At noon, a yard might look like a bomb went off, but by 4:30 p.m., you’d never know we were there.”

PUMPING EFFICIENCY

A keen eye for minimizing expenses also spurred the company’s growth. The firm’s two 20,000-gallon holding tanks stand as a good example. Instead of making a traffic-choked, 3-hour round-trip drive on busy Interstate 5 to Centralia, home to the nearest disposal site, A Advanced trucks off-load waste into the holding tanks. From there, a third-party waste hauler pumps septage into a tanker trailer and transports it to the plant.

“They pick up 8,400 gallons a day and twice on Thursdays and Fridays, so we have enough capacity on weekends — you never know what weekends will bring,” Gunia says. “By hiring out the waste hauling, it’s less wear and tear on the trucks, and it allows our trucks to be out working and earning revenue instead of hauling waste.”

Every so often, the company hauls its own waste, leaving for Centralia at 4 a.m. “At that time of day, it’s only about a 1-hour round-trip on I-5,” Gunia explains.

A Advanced currently runs five vacuum trucks: A 1999 Sterling AT9 built out by Erickson Tank & Pump with a 3,200-gallon steel tank; a 2000 Freightliner C1206 outfitted by FMI Truck Sales & Service with a 3,600-gallon Beall aluminum tank fabricated by Wabash National; a 2003 Freightliner CL120 with a 3,600 steel tank built by Erickson Tank & Pump; and two Peterbilt T-365s (2011 and 2012) built out by Pik Rite with 4,800-gallon steel tanks. All five trucks are equipped with Masport pumps, 50-gallon water tanks and onboard water jetters.

The company also relies on eight excavators made by Kubota Tractor Corporation and Caterpillar; three Freightliner M2 box trucks; and three dump trucks — two Freightliners and one Kenworth Truck with dump bodies made by Sturdy-Weld Equipment & Design, Columbia Body Manufacturing Co. and Reliance Trailer. In addition, the company owns two backhoes, made by Terex and Caterpillar; a John Deere bulldozer; five cart-mounted water jetters made by DEWALT Industrial Tool (4,000 psi at 3.5 gpm); pipeline-inspection camera systems manufactured by Spartan Tool and Vivax-Metrotech Corp.; and a Prototek LF2000 locator.

Depending on site needs, the company uses AfterShock, made by Cape Cod Biochemical Company. This bacteria-based product is designed to help restore drainfields’ drainage capacity. “We got introduced to AfterShock at a WWETT Show,” Gunia says. “Ever since we started adding that chemical to pump tanks or drainfields, our callbacks decreased even further.”

Gunia says every vacuum truck is equipped with a Crust Buster agitator built by Schmitz Bros. LLC, which he credits for reducing employee fatigue and back strain. They also allow trucks’ vacuum pumps to work more efficiently and with less stress, which results in less maintenance, he says. On a typical residential tank, Gunia estimates a Crust Buster saves anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes per pumping.

JOB SATISFACTION

Gunia says he’s surprised that a career he never expected turned out so well. “It’s been incredible and extremely gratifying,” he observes. “We’re solving customers’ problems and saving people money. The ‘game’ of being in business — working with customers, designers and friendly competitors, and all the other components that go with running a business — is extremely fulfilling.”

Looking ahead, he says he firmly believes in the adage that if a business isn’t growing, it’s dying. “There’s nothing in between,” he asserts. As such, he sees more growth in the years ahead, but not the kind of grow-bigger-at-all-costs mentality that would hurt the family-oriented culture he’s worked hard to foster.

“I have no desire to be the biggest game in town,” he says. “That’s corporate America and not a family-oriented journey. If you make the business all about the journey with your team members, you always do the right thing.

“I see my main job going forward as focusing on sustainability,” he continues. “I need to remember to get out of the way because oftentimes I’m the biggest obstacle to growth by micromanaging. I want to ensure that if I’m not here, our 44 team members’ families will still have viable incomes. That’s my job and goal for the future.”


How to eliminate worker turnover

When Andrew Gunia talks about employees at A Advanced Septic & Construction Services — the company he owns with his sons, Joshua and Jeremiah — he refers to them as team members. That may sound like a small thing, but it reflects the kind of family-oriented culture he’s developed over the years.

“We think of our team members as jewels, not tools,” he emphasizes. “That approach has been huge in our company’s success. When someone digs in and wants to learn and grow and is committed to our journey (as a company), they’re a jewel, and we take care of them.”

Gunia says getting young people interested in a career in the onsite industry is hard enough. And it gets more complicated if they also need to obtain a commercial driver’s license and a license from a local health department. As such, it’s important to treat people well, not view them as cogs in a machine.

A Advanced accomplishes that by paying competitive wages and offering benefits such as full medical, dental and vision insurance; reduced-rate cellphone plans; one to three weeks paid vacation; and a 401(k) program with up to a 3 percent company contribution. The company also promotes from within whenever possible and pays for continuing education.

“If anyone does any kind of continuing education, we’ll reimburse them for the cost,” Gunia explains. “All they have to do is bring in a receipt and proof that they earned a passing grade. We want our team members to open up their minds to learning new things. It benefits them, and it benefits us.

“Limiting turnover is a huge component in our success because it promotes consistency,” he adds. “They become familiar with homeowners and their septic systems. Customers are more likely to call us (for repeat business) because of the relationships they’ve established with our route drivers.”



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