Customer Friendships, Smarter Regulations Build a Wastewater Business

Nebraska needs to approve more alternative septic solutions to serve customers better

Customer Friendships, Smarter Regulations Build a Wastewater Business

Kelly Tucker

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In States Snapshot, we talk to a member of a state, provincial or national trade association in the decentralized wastewater industry. This time we visit a member of the Nebraska On-site Waste Water Association.

Name and title or job description: Kelly Tucker, service tech, master onsite wastewater pumper and installer, master plumber, journeyman licensed electrician, HVAC tech.

Business name and location: Anderson Bros. Electric, Plumbing, & Heating Inc., Kearney, Nebraska.

Services we offer: Electric, HVAC and plumbing services and septic installations. We mostly do Infiltrator Water Technologies systems with FRALO tanks.

Age: 57

Years in the industry: 38 — since 1983. It was hard to get work back in the 1980s and I was laid off a couple times, so I decided I was going to learn everything I could about the industry. Anderson threw me into electrical, plumbing and septic, which is how I got all my licenses.

Association involvement: I’ve been a member of the Nebraska On-site Waste Water Association for 10 years. I’ve been a board member and Region 5 director.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Keeping educated and current on regulations and products is one of the main benefits. It also puts us in contact with homeowners as we answer their questions and educate the public on what happens in a septic system and what are the do’s and don’ts. We also work with legislators.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Public awareness is probably our biggest issue. Homeowners or contractors who don’t get licensed still do things illegally or try to get in under the wire or they don’t know what they’re doing, and that can affect the groundwater. 

Our crew includes: We have about 65 people in the company but on the septic side, in addition to myself, we have Ben Vavra and Derek Vavra, both master installers. 

Typical day on the job: I work on all sides of the business, but as far as septic work, I help design systems and oversee the work. I resolve issues on failed systems and new installations. 

The job I’ll never forget: Back in the late 1990s we installed a system for a four-bedroom, two-bathroom home with a whirlpool and a garbage disposal. We sized according to Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services Title 179 regulations, which at the time figured off of number of bedrooms and bathrooms. We put in an Infiltrator system with a FRALO tank. 

About six weeks later we got called because they had water flooding out of the ground. I wondered how that could be because we used the book and sized it accordingly. The customer was upset because they thought we didn’t do the system right. Come to find out, there were actually 16 people living in that four-bedroom house. The homeowner was a minister and he fostered kids. His wife told me she was doing 16 loads of laundry a day. 

It would have been nice to know all that information beforehand. By the time we got everything figured out and calculated, I had to add another 500-gallon tank and more leachfield. Their whole front yard and back yard was leachfield. And I had to put in a diverter valve so when one side of the house would fill up the flow could be diverted to the other side. They had to do that every six weeks. The key to a successful system is to ask the homeowner lots of questions and see what they really have and what their issues are.

My favorite piece of equipment: My iPhone. It makes it so much easier to communicate. Back in the 1980s we had to use a pager and a radio. And if I want to look up information, I can go to Google and get answers right away or technical support. 

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: I got a call on a system that had water leaching out of the ground. It was a six-bedroom, three-bathroom home and they had a 450-gallon whirlpool bath that had to drain into the tank. When I dug up the end pipe I found they didn’t put in a drop box, they just put in a diverter box so all that pressure and volume was actually pushing all the way to the end of the leachfield and pushing it out on the ground. 

We re-perc-tested the ground. It was perking less than three minutes an inch. That was like perking in sand. It was telling me I needed to put in a barrier to slow that water down. But it was clay soil, and I knew clay doesn’t perc that fast. It’s more like 20 to 30 minutes an inch. That’s when I called up the city inspector and asked him what he thought. As it turned out, over the years topsoil had blown in and laid on the old grass. The roots on that old grass died and left little veins in the ground all the way down. So, as the clays would swell, it would perc slower. 

The design was telling me to put in a liner. We chose not to do the liner; we chose to calculate it at 30 minutes an inch because we knew that once those clays would swell up that soil would perc slower. That meant the leachfield had to be bigger. I put in a water baffle so the water pressure couldn’t push through the drop box to the end of the line and would actually fill up in the drop box and then it would divert as the leachfield would fill up. I also put in an effluent filter to slow flows coming out of the tank to go into the leachfield. That’s a high-maintenance item — they have to clean that filter every six months. In the 15 years since, they haven’t had a problem.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: A customer asked why he kept smelling rotten cabbage in the house. I went and looked at it. Come to find out, the owner was a cancer doctor and was putting leftover medications down the sink. Those cancer chemicals will knock a system out. You’ve got to keep those bugs alive or they don’t break down the solids.

I told the customer to call a pumper from a toxic waste center to have his tank pumped. They took the waste to Oklahoma to have it burned, which cost him a lot of money. It took almost nine months before that tank really started to work right. He learned a lot about septic systems. But one way or another we do have to deal with chemicals that go into our water system. The more we can keep those hazards out of the system, the cleaner our water will be.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: I would like regulators to make it easier for us to put in alternative systems, rather than just keeping us in a little box of “this is all we can do.” There are issues we could address if we had more alternative solutions. It’s just more difficult to put in the alternative systems. We have done them and the state approved it, but it’s a permitted system so there are rules you’ve got to follow over a two- or four-year plan. We’re doing better on the mound systems — they’ve opened that up a little bit more — which works really well. Alternatives are young in the system so we haven’t had them out there long enough to see how they actually function and I think that has a lot to do with what holds it up. Once some time has lapsed and we see we can get 30 years out of a system, then I think we’re going to see more approval.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: Customers don’t always know what they’re really asking for but if you can keep them happy you have a friendship for life. It’s not so much a service-to-customer relationship, it’s more of a friendship relationship. They get pretty partial to you and they brag you up to their friends. That friendship is very important and if you can see that, in the long run you’ll have a successful business.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I always wanted to be an airline pilot. My dad used to fly and my middle son flies. He’s a flight instructor so he could teach me but I’ve never cornered him to do it.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: It’s about taking care of the water. We’re all in the same drinking glass and we all need to realize what we’re doing after we get done with that glass of water. As long as we keep educating, I think taking care of the water will come. 


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