Texas Wastewater Pros Seek Effective Balance of Industry Regulations

A serious approach to rules and a boost in professionalism are on the top of the list for gaining more respect for Lone Star State pumpers and installers

Texas Wastewater Pros Seek Effective Balance of Industry Regulations

 Megan, Al, Vonda and Eric Bob with dog Sassy 

In 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 Texas On-Site Wastewater Association.

Name and title or job description: Vonda (Sissy) Bob, chief financial officer and office administrator 

Business name and location: South Texas Aerobics, Caldwell, Texas

Services we offer: Pumping, installation, inspections, repairs, tank sales 

Age: 50

Years in the industry: 20 years

Association involvement: I am currently serving on the Texas On-Site Wastewater Association (TOWA) board as co-chair of the enforcement committee and chair of the scholarship committee. I also am chair of our local Brazos Valley Chapter of TOWA. 

Benefits of belonging to the association: I really enjoy being able to help people. We have installers who need help with disputes with a permitting authority and authorities who need help with a homeowner or with installer-maintenance provider issues. Being on the TOWA board helps me stay on top of the latest rule changes so I can share this information where it needs to go. 

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Finding the delicate balance between not enough regulation and too much regulation. I have found that when you deal with different people, locations and situations, they may look similar on the surface but one rule will not be what is right or the best solution for the problem. A rule is a rule, but local authorized agents are given the option to enhance what is written so they can apply it in a more specific way that meets the need in their area. Sometimes this is a benefit and sometimes a hindrance, so best judgement is what I will normally advocate. 

Our crew includes: My husband and co-owner Al handles all our installs, pumping and tank deliveries. Our son Eric, who helps to pour tanks, handles all the service calls and inspections and most of the time will do the final inspections with the counties. Daughter Megan is our administrative assistant.

Typical day on the job: I open the office at 7:30 a.m. and begin by scheduling the day for both Al and Eric, assigning where they will be working for the day and what is required for them to do their jobs. I handle all the paperwork, permitting, scheduling, inventory, job preparation, filing, job bids, customer interaction and will usually take lunch to the job site while out picking up materials or going to different counties to file for Authorization to Construct. I also help with installs occasionally to stay on top of how they put the systems in so that when a customer calls with a question I can answer it intelligently and help them feel more at ease about something the average person has very little experience with. 

The job I’ll never forget: We were installing a three-tank aerobic unit in the side of a hill with a 45-degree slope and had to “bunny hop” the tanks up the hill one at a time to get them in. Several installers had already looked at the job and told the builder to call us because Al would be the best person to handle such a difficult site. We are going on 12 years working for that builder now and have done several more jobs for him that have required “special” practices to put them in. 

My favorite piece of equipment: That would definitely be my computers. I keep two desktops and four monitors active so that all my programs can be active at the same time. I have a maintenance tracking program and a scheduling and notification program that also tracks my tech out in the field so I know where he is in case of emergency calls. My email and my accounting software are always open. I have always found it to be a little frustrating to have to toggle between screens. And since I do a lot of my work online or with fillable documents, this saves me time. I can be opening a ticket with Texas 811 (“Call before you dig”) while sending in a contract to a county or replying to a customer’s email. 

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We installed an aerobic drip system on a site that was basically a rock hill. The area where the house sits had to be jackhammered out and three 15-foot retaining walls, 60 feet long and 24 inches deep had to be installed behind the house. A pool was also installed in the backyard and a three-car garage in the front. By the time we were called to the site, a drip was the only option. The levels of the retaining walls each have three to five lines of drip running the length of them, and every other square inch of the property that was not already concrete is drip area. We used our mini-excavator to keep the trencher from falling off the side of the hill while trenching lines. It’s a one-of-a-kind install and a very happy customer allows us to have people out to show the system. 

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: I was approached by someone to do an install for (a major railroad company) on the new rail yard. I quickly found out that working with an entity this large was a pain in the neck. Certain parts of the job that impacted an onsite system had already been done to Michigan code and explaining to the powers that be that it would not pass inspection here in Texas was frustrating. I was at the point of walking away from the job myself when (the company) decided not to complete the project. Lesson learned. I was out time but luckily nothing else, and I don’t think I will waste my time with a corporate entity such as this again. I have plenty of work from people who know I will guide them in the right direction for their job and site. 

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: A customer in a community where every home was over a half-million dollars asked me if they would get a discount on their renewal contract because we serviced several of their neighbors in the same subdivision. I immediately asked if I got a discount on my physicals (he is a doctor) as he had more than one patient. Yes, they found a new maintenance provider and I am okay with that. Still cracks me up.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: This is a hot topic for me. It has to do with homeowner maintenance. In our company, we hire out a registered sanitarian to do all our site/soil evaluations, not because we would not be competent at doing them — we do give suggestions because we dig these holes every day — but because it is a second opinion that is independent. We know that by having a registered sanitarian go out and meet the property owner, he/she will discuss the options available to them and help the customer decide what works for them and their site. I believe maintenance should be done by an independent person who does not have a direct stake in the functioning of the system. We are not allowed to inspect and DOT-certify our trucks, and we are not allowed to notarize our own affidavits. We are trained not by taking a class but by performing this type of work eight to 10 hours a day six days a week. I understand there could be extenuating circumstances necessitating someone doing their own service, but even then there should be a yearly follow up by an industry professional to make sure everything is working as it should be and there’s no risk to the safety of anyone downstream. 

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: A customer told me to raise my prices and weed out the high-demand people that do not appreciate what we do. We have been very lucky here since we form personal relationships with almost all of our customers. We do a homeowner walk-through with all new installs. Literally over a thousand people have my cell phone number. It’s rare for us to lose a customer for any other reason than they are looking for someone cheaper or one or two from personality conflicts. We mainly operate in a high home turnover area because it’s a college town and when we have an owner move out they almost always leave word for the new owners on which contractors to keep for services. Treating your customers with respect will earn their respect in return. They are not just a dollar sign. 

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: Become a dive instructor in the tropics. I have been scuba diving for the past five years and have been working on my certifications. My daughter and I have attained instructor level so now I can teach others to dive. Not only do I enjoy the outdoors but it fills my need to be helpful. I have always tried to be environmentally responsible and enjoy showing others ways they can help too. Plus traveling to exotic places to dive has enabled me to see parts of the world I probably would not have been able to see otherwise. 

Crystal ball time — This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I would like to see more professionalism in the industry. Throughout history it has been well documented that the pathogens in wastewater cause all types of diseases for humans and animals alike. As our population grows, the available area for treatment and disinfection, if needed, has been reduced. Add to this the more resistant strains that have developed over the last century and we may be in trouble in the future. As anyone in the industry can tell you, “It all goes downstream.” It’s up to us to make sure that proper installation and maintenance procedures are followed to protect our neighbors downstream. After all, we are all downstream ourselves. How much faith do you put in your neighbor? 


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