A Rhode Island Installer Has Found His Own Path to Success

An appetite for tough installing jobs, a vision for diversified services and a commitment to working smart and safe have steered Joe Procopio toward his small-business goals.

A Rhode Island Installer Has Found His Own Path to Success

John Sgambato, left, and Joe Procopio are shown on the job in Johnston, Rhode Island. (Photos by Stephanie Alvarez Ewens)

As a hardworking 18-year-old entrepreneur, Joe Procopio proved success is built not so much on the equipment you have on hand, but on how you use it. In 2003, he opened J. Procopio Landscaping with a pickup truck and a lawn mower. While he grew the one-man operation, he also worked nights driving an ambulance and earning his emergency medical technician certificate.

By 2011, the demand for backhoe service and light excavation was sufficient enough for Procopio to leave the medical field and open Land Works in Scituate, Rhode Island. “I’ve never looked back,” he says. “We recently subdivided the company into ProSeptic, because 90 percent of our work is onsite repairs, and Joe’s Johns to provide portable restrooms.”

The state’s 2007 Cesspool Act keeps the service board full for Procopio, full-time employee John Sgambato, and occasional part-time help. “Whenever a property sells, either before the sale or within a year of it, the cesspool must be upgraded to an onsite system,” says Procopio, a Class 1 designer and installer. “It sounds easy on paper. Reality is a different story.”

CESSPOOL ISSUES

Approximately 150,000 households, or one-third of the state’s population, have onsite systems. Another 70,000 homes have cesspools, many within 200 feet of wells or bodies of water. It’s not unusual for Procopio to find more than one cesspool on lots that are often long and narrow. Such days usually begin with a call about water bubbling up in the yard.

In one case, Sgambato pumped the cesspool, but effluent kept flowing in. “The owner said it was connected to another cesspool, which we found and pumped, and the same thing happened,” Procopio says. “Sure enough, there was a third. As each cesspool failed, they added another.”

Because the cost of connecting to the sewer was unaffordable, Procopio scheduled annual pumpouts. “We see this frequently with the elderly, who are unconcerned because the cesspool backs up only once or twice a year,” he says. “However, these people usually have wells. We explain that they are exposing themselves to the risk of drinking what was just flushed down the toilet, but it is met with resistance.” Pumpers complete a manifest but are not required to submit anything to the state.

When the inevitable replacement looms, homeowners often worry about what their yards will look like afterward. Procopio’s expertise as a landscaper leaves yards hydroseeded and frequently looking better than when he arrived.

“I don’t want the job if customers refuse loam and seed,” he says. “If we leave a mess, any passerby will have seen our trucks there and think this is the type of work we do.” Procopio even cleans mud off the road with a broom or blower before leaving sites.

PLAN AHEAD

Constrictive lots aren’t his only headache. In a classic case of putting the cart ahead of the horse, contractors paved the driveway of a home before the replacement onsite system was installed. The property had a cesspool serving the kitchen and another for the bathroom. “We weren’t allowed to damage the driveway, new patio or a Japanese maple tree,” Procopio says.

First, the rubber-tracked Bobcat E63 excavator hit boulders too large for the machine to move, and the John Deere 120C steel-tracked excavator was too large for the site. Procopio rented an Elco/Darda rock splitter from Sunbelt Rentals, then he and Sgambato drilled and split the boulders until they were small enough to stockpile. “The hard granite was a beautiful shade of pink and gray,” Procopio says.

An expensive dwarf Japanese maple tree grew on the edge of the system’s footprint. “Avoiding the driveway and concrete patio and meeting the 10-foot setback from the tree made the installation tricky,” Procopio says. They installed a 1,000-gallon concrete septic tank (United Concrete Products) with gravity flow to an In-Drain B43 GSF geotextile sand filter (Eljen). Afterward, the owner asked Procopio to arrange the split granite around the perimeter of the Japanese garden.

A TIGHT SQUEEZE

Built-out lots often require replacement systems with secondary treatment to reduce the system footprint. Procopio’s go-to combination is AX20 AdvanTex aerobic treatment units with Biotube pump vaults (Orenco Systems) discharging to a bottomless sand filter. A typical example was a five-bedroom summer home with a large cesspool near the Atlantic Ocean. Two fences, pine trees on the property line, and the house with deck constricted the work area.

The 13- by 7- by 7-foot-tall 2,500-gallon H-20 traffic-rated precast septic tank with risers fit between the deck and fence, while the two AX20 units were in a box off to the side. “Often the only way to make a system like this fit the site is to stack the ATUs on top of the septic tank, but we didn’t have enough depth for that,” Procopio says. “Just the tank excavation was already below the water table at 16 feet.” The men built a straw wattle filter and dewatered the hole as the delivery truck driver set the tank. The truck barely fit on the driveway or in the yard.

Sand was delivered in the company’s Mack RD688S 10-wheel dump truck with 18-cubic-yard Bibeau Hardox box. Using pressure-treated 6-by-6-inch landscape timbers, the men built a box for the ATUs and a 35-by-7-foot box for the sand filter. “Because of the high water table, we had 6 inches of filter in the ground and 23 inches above grade,” Procopio says. “By the time we were done, there was just enough room to swing the excavator around to get out.”

LOVES A CHALLENGE

Even new constructions don’t guarantee an easy installation. One job became a horror show for Procopio. It began when the general contractor built the house from plans that differed from the onsite engineer’s plans. When Procopio arrived, he noticed the 1,500-gallon, two-compartment precast tank would sit under the home’s front concrete steps, the tank was too close to the sand filter box, and there wasn’t enough room for the components.

“I called the engineer’s staff, twice, pointed out the discrepancies, and was told to ‘do it as we drew it,’” Procopio recalls. “At some point the engineer reviewed the situation, but not before we set the tank. We probably lost two days on that job while the engineer redrew the plans.” The revisions switched the standard septic tank to an H-20 traffic-rated tank and relocated it under the driveway.

Despite the occasional toss-and-turn nights, Procopio thrives on challenges — the trickier the better. His goal is to become the premiere full-service septic company in the state. To that end, he refurbished a Mack RB688S 10-wheel vacuum truck with 3,300-gallon carbon steel tank (Andert), 50-gallon freshwater tank, and Jurop/Chandler R260 vacuum pump last year. He also installed a Vacu-Fresh vacuum pump exhaust deodorizing system (Walex Products) that passes exhaust from the pump through a liquid deodorizer. A dedicated exhaust stack vents vapors 7 feet above the ground.

“I’d been using a local pumper until I realized it was silly,” Procopio says. “Owning a truck enables us to respond rapidly to emergency calls and be the first company on scene to solve the homeowner’s problems. Furthermore, repairs are faster because I no longer have to wait for the pumper to arrive.”

The business pumped 120,000 gallons in 2017, off-loading at the Lincoln Septage Receiving Station or Veolia Water Technologies Cranston Water Pollution Control Facility.

ADDING SERVICES

To expand into jetting, locating, and inspecting, Procopio turned a pressure washer with 13 hp Honda engine and 4 gpm pump into a jetter, and he purchased a Gen-Eye camera (General Pipe Cleaners/General Wire Spring). Then the next expansion was a fluke.

“Nothing is more unprofessional than men relieving themselves behind sheds or tramping into the customer’s bathroom, so I bought a couple of PolyJohns,” Procopio says. Then friends asked him to buy some units for their job sites. Ray Luden, Procopio’s PolyJohn representative, recommended purchasing more units than Procopio thought he’d need. “Last year, we ordered 10 PJN3 portable restrooms, then four PJP3s, and a wash sink and opened Joe’s Johns,” Procopio says.

To service the portable restrooms, he repurposed a Ford F-350 by adding a flatbed, 300-gallon waste and 150-gallon freshwater aluminum slide-in tank (Robinson Vacuum Tanks) and Masport pump. Sgambato drops a unit at each onsite job site. “We never want to leave customers without a bathroom if we run into a snag and the repair takes longer than anticipated,” Procopio says.

Nowhere was this professionalism appreciated more than at an art camp held at a customer’s home. On the day of the repair, almost a dozen youngsters and some parents were on the premises. Told they couldn’t flush the toilet for four hours, an adult asked Procopio if the portable restroom was clean. “Not only was it clean, it was brand new,” he recalls.

WHAT’S NEXT?

To keep track of the portable restrooms and pumping, Procopio installed ServiceCore business software in 2017. “Our receipts have a mini inspection checklist on the bottom for effluent filter, tank material, riser to grade, etc.,” he says. “Having this information in the computer enables us to remind customers when pumpouts are due. The service has been well-received.”

Procopio recently rented a new shop and shares a 2,500-square-foot bay with David Walch, owner of D.J. Landscaping and Procopio’s subcontractor. Within the next 10 years, Procopio plans to have five or six full-time employees, two or three vacuum trucks, and one full-time portable restroom truck servicing 200 to 300 units. However, growth must never exceed his capabilities to maintain a family company or restrict his time in the field.

“The way I see it, the average age of most septic installers and pumpers around here is late 40s to 50s,” he says. “Some are even older. When they retire, I want to be in a position to fill the void.”


Stay clean, work clean

Joe Procopio considers laundering family clothes with work clothes soiled by human waste unacceptable. “No spouse or partner should have to deal with it,” he says.

Procopio hired UniFirst to supply and launder coveralls, pants, shirts and jackets. “Everyone looks more professional in uniforms,” he says. Procopio and full-time employee John Sgambato change clothes daily. Their work boots, hard hats and uniforms are on a rack at the shop.

Procopio also adopted safety procedures he learned as a former emergency medical technician. He sanitizes tools and trucks with VitalOxide (Vital Solutions), a hospital-grade disinfectant. “Every truck carries a spray bottle of it,” he says. “We spray the dashboards, and John pressure-washes the trucks with hot water. Inside and outside, they are clean and safe.”

Besides uniforms and hard hats, Procopio buys high-visibility vests, different types of gloves, medical gloves to wear beneath them, and safety glasses by the dozen. “A pair is $2 wholesale,” he says. “I’d rather have my guys wear disposable glasses than to have something fly into their eyes.”

Procopio leads by example, teaching working clean and safe. “No one goes down 10 feet without a trench box,” he says. “I’ve worked on jobs where we were told to do it and I refused until they brought the box.

“Safety equipment is cheaper than someone being injured. I don’t want to live with the knowledge that one of my guys lost his life or body parts due to something preventable.”




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.