Their Onsite Business Is a Family Affair

Three generations of the Stewart family keep, maintain, and build septic systems for their satisfied neighbors in northern Virginia
Their Onsite Business Is a Family Affair
Jerry Stewart Jr. carefully digs a drainfield trench while Bobby Kraft looks on.

Interested in General?

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

General + Get Alerts

Dylan Stewart’s apprenticeship began as a toddler riding with his father and young siblings as the company pump truck rolled out of Herndon, Virginia. When Jerry Stewart Jr. was unable to take his three boys along, they climbed up beside Grandpa Jerry Lee Stewart in his pump truck.

The brothers were following a family tradition. Jerry Lee and his wife, Nancy, formed Stewart’s Septic Services in 1964, and Jerry Jr. was in the passenger seat as soon as he could stand. By age 14, he was helping pump tanks. Dylan was equally fascinated with what his father did. “In high school, when everybody was talking about which college they wanted to attend, I knew my career lay with the family business,” he remembers.

The field was Dylan’s classroom, and his main focus throughout high school was learning the world of pumping and onsite installations. While a freshman and sophomore, he worked weekends and after school with his father. As an upperclassman, the high school’s work-study program released juniors early to work every other day, and seniors worked two full days per week.

“Everything I learned, including how to communicate, came from listening to my dad, my grandfather, and my older brother Austin,” says Dylan, 23, a licensed conventional onsite installer.

“Youth is my biggest problem. People look at me and hesitate to believe that I’m qualified to diagnose their septic problems. I grew a beard, hoping it would make me look older, but it hasn’t helped.”

THREE GENERATION

In 1987, Jerry Jr. officially joined the company and took over pumping and installing in Loudoun County. His parents did the same in Fairfax County from their home in Herndon, 45 minutes from Bluemont. When Austin turned 18 in 2007, he worked exclusively with his grandparents. “Grandfather had colon cancer, but he worked every day until he couldn’t anymore,” Dylan says. “He passed away in August 2011, and Austin ran the company until grandmother turned it over to Dad in January 2016.”

The transition from being in command to second in command was difficult for Austin. With time and patience, the family found their places and once again made team decisions and worked closely together. Austin, 28, specializes in Fairfax County systems, which require alternating pumps and duplex control panels. Dylan and his dad service the western end of the state, covering Loudoun, Clarke, Warren, Frederick, and Shenandoah counties. Most onsite systems there — if they aren’t gravity flow — have one pump.

The brothers are now modernizing the mostly paper-based company. “Dad’s 51, and moving him onto the fast track has been our biggest struggle,” Dylan says. “So far, we’ve replaced the scheduling board in the office with a Google app on our smartphones and taught Dad how to use it. He’s becoming more comfortable with the technology. Mom now works on a computer in our home office. The next step is hiring a website developer who understands our business and how to sell services.”

The family also employs Danny Franks, who has been their vacuum truck driver for more than 20 years; Brian Doucharme, a driver who started in 2013; along with laborer Daniel Johnson, who assists Dylan. Austin’s helper, Ben Forbes, was hired three years ago. “They’re part of our family,” Dylan says. “No one feels more important than anyone else, except for Dad. He gives the orders, yet we’re all comfortable suggesting ideas. We’re a team focused on a single goal — doing the very best for our customers.”

TWISTS AND TURNS

The company generates 60 percent of its revenue by pumping about 200,000 gallons annually. They run two vacuum trucks year-round, both Mack R600s. The 1986 chassis has a 3,500-gallon steel tank with K1200 pump (both Transway Systems), and the 1998 chassis has a 3,000-gallon steel tank (Imperial Industries) and Challenger F360 pump (National Vacuum Equipment). A 2006 International 4000 truck with a 2,500-gallon steel tank (Lely Tank & Waste Solutions) and Challenger F367 pump serves as a backup or travels to properties with restricted access.

A third Mack R600 truck with a 4,800-gallon steel tank (Imperial Industries) and Challenger F360 pump functions as a transfer vehicle when colder temperatures arrive. “The smaller trucks off-load into it,” Dylan says. “If we pump in Loudoun County, septage goes to the Loudoun Wastewater Reclamation Facility. If we pump in Fairfax County, we discharge at the Upper Occoquan Service Authority.”

Topography and distance limit the volume of pumping. Narrow, winding roads in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the west side of Loudoun County range in elevation from 180 to 1,900 feet above sea level. Drivers prefer reversing into most jobs since it’s easier to come out forward with a full load. This often means navigating tight turns on marginal, steep, gravel back roads enclosed by trees.

“Since 2012, new tanks must have risers, but most of the systems we pump haven’t been updated,” Dylan says. “We recommend risers to homeowners and explain pumpouts cost less with them, but the incentive doesn’t always work.”

The average 1,250-gallon concrete tank is often so far downhill that it takes two to three 40-foot hoses to reach it. By then, the truck pump doesn’t have enough vacuum to lift the septage, requiring a WT40 Honda gasoline trash pump connected in the middle of the run to boost the load. The trip to the wastewater plant can take an hour or more depending on distance.

Besides septage, the company used to pump the Loudoun County Public School grease traps until the reclamation facility stopped accepting grease in 2016. “We had to quit because we’re too small to compete with grease-hauling contractors,” Dylan says.

INSTALL CHALLENGES

Pumpouts include a visual inspection of the system, and while technicians see their share of wet spots in drainfields, the most common repairs involve broken tees and distribution boxes. After homeowners sign a repair application, a county inspector visits the site to approve the work and then returns to check that the repair was done properly. Minor repairs comprise 60 percent of the company’s repair work. “We install plastic distribution boxes if the depth is above 30 inches,” Dylan says. “Anything deeper must be concrete, and we use concrete boxes exclusively in areas with horses and cattle.”

The company averages 12 system replacements annually since most drainfields are stone and pipe with a 30-year life span. “Even those from the 1980s are mostly functioning well, which is why designers prefer them,” Dylan says. “Occasionally, they’ll specify EZflow by Infiltrator or their leaching chambers in combination with alternative systems, but mainly it’s stone-and-pipe trenches. On the rare occasion when we do replace an ATU, the engineers usually specify MicroFast from Bio-Microbics.”

The septic code requires properties to have a replacement drainfield area. However, not all homeowners understand or want to remember the reason for the open space in their yard. Such was the case for a three-bedroom home with a conventional gravity system and ponding drainfield in Fairfax County. The replacement area in the back of the 500-foot-long, narrow lot had a building on it. The 400-by-40-foot-wide drainfield with four trenches on 9-foot centers was sandwiched between the main road, a property line, and the driveway. A pipe from the house discharged regeneration water from a water softener directly on top of the first trench.

The design engineer had no choice but to reuse the existing drainfield site. “Excavating the tank holes and house lateral trench was difficult because there was barely any room to maneuver the Kobelco 45 SR mini-excavator and the Mustang MRL 20 skid-steer loader,” Dylan says. ME Concrete Products Co. set the 1,500-gallon septic tank 10 feet from the pumped 1,000-gallon tank, as Dylan and Johnson replaced the cast-iron house lateral with 4-inch PVC pipe. For the next three months, they pumped the septic tank every seven to 14 days while waiting for the loamy sand in the drainfield to dry sufficiently for further excavation.

On the appointed day, the quarry trucked in 90 tons of stone and stockpiled it along the driveway as Dylan and Johnson removed 36 inches of native soil from the existing drainfield and deposited it in two Chevy 4500 dump trucks — one with a 7-cubic-yard McClain Galion box and the other with a 6-cubic-yard Dejana Truck and Utility Equipment box.

“Daniel and I installed the first two trenches with 4-inch perforated corrugated HDPE black pipe, then had them inspected and backfilled before installing the other two trenches,” Dylan says. “It was the only way we avoided encroaching on the drainfield.”

REGULATIONS DRIVE MAINTENANCE

Alternative systems only became a major player for the company after Loudoun County passed its onsite inspection ordinance in 2012. The inspection is separate from the maintenance agreements required by ATU manufacturers. Since the county has 40,000 onsite systems, the health department sends inspection-due letters in March to more than 1,400 random ATU owners. Conventional system owners are on a five-year inspection cycle, and the department sends postcards to 20 percent of them annually.

The Loudoun County website provides a list of licensed operators, of which Austin is one. However, most homeowners wait until the July 1 deadline is almost upon them before requesting an inspection, making it difficult for the Stewarts to stay abreast of other work. Furthermore, they never ask customers to sign service contracts, which would expedite scheduling.

“We prefer to develop friendships instead. That way, both parties are free to part if things don’t work out,” Dylan says. The company performs 150 inspections annually and 90 percent are repeat customers.

For inspections and diagnostics, technicians use three RIDGID K-1500 SeeSnakes and a K-50 sectional machine, two Spartan Tool SparVision 200 sewer cameras, and a Spartan Warrior trailer-mounted sewer jetter. They also use a Sokkia laser level for taking measurements in the field.

The company has a barn for storing supplies and material, and concrete pads or gravel parking lots for the equipment, which includes a Bobcat E35i compact excavator with leveling trenching bucket and a New Holland 565 skid-steer loader and 55E backhoe. Jerry Jr.’s wife, Sue, manages the office in the home.

Dylan enjoys belonging to a family-owned business, even if working six days a week leaves only Sundays to be with his wife and children, who are still too small to accompany him in the truck.

“I see myself advancing customer education, building our workforce, and expanding our territory while maintaining the company’s reputation for quality,” he says. “Dad will probably never retire, but now that Austin is with us, Dad is finally taking some time for himself. It’s been good for him and for us.”


Never stop educating

Unless it’s winter, Jerry Jr., Austin and Dylan Stewart of Stewart’s Septic Services in Bluemont, Virginia, each perform two to three point-of-sale inspections daily. Inspections include pumping the tank, excavating the distribution box, and evaluating drainfield laterals. Owner and father Jerry Jr. has a reputation for honesty and quality work among real estate agents.

“We treat everyone like we want to be treated,” says youngest son Dylan. “If we find an issue, we show it to the Realtor, explain how we’ll word the problem in our report, and describe how we’ll repair it. Communication is about being patient and explaining each scenario in detail.”

Always keen on customer education, Dylan developed a point-of-sale inspection PowerPoint presentation two years ago. It introduces new real estate agents to the process and serves as a refresher course for seasoned agents. “The program covers what our inspections include, what the components look like and their function, how systems are designed, and why they fail,” he says. “We know the common questions Realtors ask, so I took pictures of everything related to them.”

Public speaking was never Dylan’s strong suit, but as his knowledge of the business developed, so did his confidence to articulate it. “When you are passionate about a subject and know it backward and forward, explaining it and answering questions is second nature,” he says. “Sharing knowledge and helping people to understand are the biggest things we can do to extend the lives of their onsite systems.”



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.