Western Septic & Excavation Finds Its Niche in Onsite Specialty

When the Unruh family construction pros settled on wastewater-related services, consistent revenue started rolling in

Western Septic & Excavation Finds Its Niche in Onsite Specialty

Maynard Unruh makes a call during a service stop to pump a septic tank. The truck in the background is a Peterbilt 357 built out by Advance Pump & Equipment with a Progress tank and National Vacuum Equipment blower.

When the economic recession rolled across the country a decade ago, Kendall Unruh, his brother Brandon Unruh and their father, Maynard Unruh, were engaged in custom homebuilding in Buhl, Idaho. The town got hit hard and construction and remodeling work dried up, putting the Unruhs’ 20-year-old business in jeopardy. The family knew they had to do something different. Fortunately, they had equipment and expertise that offered a solution.

“We had a backhoe and a mini-excavator,” Kendall Unruh says. “I was doing the excavating side of construction, and through that, I had gotten my septic installer’s license so I could install systems on the houses we were building.” They formed a new company named Western Septic & Excavation and began installing septic systems. Over the next few years, they added related services — pumping, drain cleaning, camera inspection, hydrojetting, trenchless repair — to become a full-service provider and avoid facing another potential crisis should one aspect of the industry slow down.

They originally operated out of Unruh’s home and a nearby shop on his 40-acre farm, but in 2018 they remodeled an old house on the property near the shop, turning it into an office and break room. He mostly works in the office doing bidding, estimating and general management. Brandon Unruh heads field operations, and Maynard Unruh drives a vacuum truck and performs maintenance around the shop. The rest of the team includes Kendall Unruh’s wife, Michele Unruh, who handles bookkeeping and office work, and technicians Chad Goossen, Carlo Schmidt, Ryan Wiebe and Rustin Koehn. The company works within a 60-mile radius.


In the early days, as they were building the septic specialty, the company took on unrelated excavation jobs, most involving digging basements and foundations for a local builder. As that builder’s business grew, so did the company’s involvement with them but at the expense of their own business. Finally, by 2017 they realized they had gotten off track and decided to give that work up completely.

Unruh says despite losing nearly half their business overnight, they never noticed it.

“That made us realize how much work we had been letting fall through the cracks,” he says. “Since that time, we’ve been focused 100% on septic, sewer and water.”

Today septic installations and sewer and waterline repairs account for about 60% of their work. Excavating equipment includes a 2005 Case 580 Super M Series 2 backhoe, a 2006 Kubota KX121-3 mini-excavator, a 2017 Kubota KX040-4 mini-excavator, a 1985 Ford LTL‑9000 company-built dump truck with a Heil 12-yard dump body, and a 1996 Volvo Autocar 12-yard dump truck with a Williamsen-Godwin dump body.

Unruh says the challenge in their area is shallow soils. “There are a lot of places here where you can’t dig more than 2 feet,” he says. “It’s just solid rock. That can be real challenging for us to come up with a decent solution.” They typically do mound and capping fill systems. They’re currently looking at the Oscar‑II system from Lowridge Onsite Technologies, which has a low profile requiring a shorter mound. Unruh says there hasn’t been a lot of call yet for advanced treatment systems in their area: “We do a lot of just the old-style perforated pipe and rock.”

The company does about 50 installations per year. Work is mainly residential, but they have a few commercial accounts, one of which is a fish processing plant where its most recent project was putting in a new drain system in the middle of winter when the plant’s system failed. “That was an extra drain rock project, trenches with low-pressure distribution,” Unruh says. “It was miserable, but we got it done.”


Pumping: Within a year of getting started, the company added septic pumping, which now accounts for about 25% of its work. They have two vacuum trucks. The smaller one, a 1992 Ford F‑800 built out by T‑Line Equipment with a 2,300-gallon steel tank and Battioni MEC 6500 pump, was their first truck, purchased in 2010, and is now used as a backup and for tight spaces. After realizing they were spending more time traveling to and from dump sites 35 to 40 miles away than actually pumping, in 2017 they bought a larger truck — a 2001 Peterbilt 357 built out by Advance Pump & Equipment with a 4,400-gallon waste and 200-gallon freshwater aluminum tank (Progress Tank), National Vacuum Equipment 4310 blower and jetter from Advance Pump & Equipment. Disposal choices include a municipal landfill with drying cells, two treatment plants and two land application sites. They also use a Crust Busters tank agitator.

Drain cleaning: By 2011 the company added drain cleaning. A 12-foot Pace American enclosed trailer houses their equipment — a Jetters Northwest DrainJet 4000 jetter, a RIDGID K‑60 drain cleaning machine, a Duracable DM30 cable machine, and several cameras (MyTana, RIDGID SeeSnake full-size reel and a RIDGID micro-reel). They also have two flex-shaft drain cleaners from Renssi Finland Oy, a fairly new tool for them but one that’s had a big impact.

“You can send a camera down with it and actually watch what you’re doing because the outside of the cable is not spinning,” Unruh says. “And you can really descale pipes well with it. It’s really simple to look at, but it’s actually cutting edge.”

A lot of their drain work is for dairy farms. “The dairies spread straw in the corrals, and when the cows come in, they’ve got this straw in their feet and frozen manure and you name it. So they have a real problem with barn drains plugging up.” Another focus is farmers’ irrigation canals, which tend to clog with debris. “Our average annual rainfall is 7 to 9 inches and they’re trying to raise a crop, so if they can’t have their water, it gets serious fast,” Unruh observes. For these larger drain and pipeline cleaning jobs, Western Septic & Excavation uses a Jetters Northwest Eagle 600 trailer jetter that produces 18 gpm at 4,000 psi with 600 gallons of water on board.

Trenchless repair: By 2012 the company was doing trenchless work, utilizing a 14-foot Wells Cargo enclosed trailer for its equipment — a TRIC Tools V24 pipe bursting setup, a GF Piping Systems pipe fusion machine, a Source One Environmental PipePatch system with different sizes and lengths of packers, as well as small water-powered and air-powered boring tools.


Unruh is conscious of the importance of maintaining a professional online profile. In the beginning, the company hired a website designer but soon had some concerns. “I just had a bad experience,” he explains. “That’s my online reputation and I wasn’t willing to turn it over to just anybody to make or break our reputation. So, I decided I’d just take it in-house and figure it out.”

He used WordPress software and says it was a bit of a trial-and-error process, although he’d had a little experience building websites for some of his hobbies. He worked hard on the professionalism of it and says people often tell him it doesn’t look like a do-it-yourself site.

He also maintains the company’s Facebook page, which he thinks is a great way to reach people. “I spend quite a bit on advertising dollars there — more for branding than actual instant business.”

In 2017 the company started using Smart Service software from My Service Depot for job scheduling. Technicians use the accompanying iFleet mobile app.

“When I schedule a job on their calendar, it syncs to their device,” Unruh says. “They’ve got all the customer information, GPS navigation to the job and a time clock. They can clock in and out for the day on their iFleet but also clock in and out of each job. Any document I need them to have, like permits or drawings, I upload to the customer record at the office and then they’ll have it on their device.”

The program also syncs with QuickBooks. When the technician closes out a job, it lights up on the scheduler back at the office to show it’s complete and with a couple clicks it gets pushed over into QuickBooks as an invoice.


The company continues to look at other opportunities for expanding its role in the industry. Along those lines, in early 2018, Unruh was appointed to a position on the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s Technical Guidance Committee, which handles the review process for approving products based on their conformance to the state rule book. They meet quarterly and pass along their recommendations to the department.

The variety of possibilities in the industry is what keeps it interesting and exciting, Unruh says. “I like the fact that you can be diversified in the business and still be focused on the wastewater niche market. There are a lot of different things you can do and still be just septic and sewer guys.” 

Offering onsite financing

Kendall Unruh says Western Septic & Excavation technicians occasionally find themselves in situations where they service someone’s system, see that it actually needs a major repair and the homeowners can’t afford to do it.

“So we’re sitting there limping along and we’re out there servicing, maybe pumping their tank every month or two,” he says. “The homeowners can’t save up for a new system because they’re spending it all on pumping. And we don’t want to just waste people’s money.” As a solution, the company thought about offering financing to its customers.

They decided to sign up with the Service Finance Co. The enrollment process involved filling out an application and providing financial statements. And the approval process for homeowners is done on the spot and couldn’t be simpler.

“There’s an app on my phone,” Unruh explains. “You just go in there and fill out all their information and scan in their ID card. It goes to the Service Finance Co. and takes like two minutes for them to approve or disapprove it.”

The company is just getting started with this idea, and so far, the first couple applications were declined. Unruh was not surprised because the homeowners were in bad shape financially. He is not discouraged and still believes he’ll be able to help people out and at the same time possibly sell more work for the company. “I don’t know if it will or not, but that’s the idea.”


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