This Mainer Is Always Down With a Date For Digging

After years installing cell towers, Matt Dow found his passion underground building onsite systems

This Mainer Is Always Down With a Date For Digging

  The Dow Excavating team includes, from left, Keith Good, Lewis Anderson, Larry Leighton and Matt Dow. 

Matt Dow started his construction career in 2005 after graduating from high school. As an employee for a couple of companies that built cellphone towers, he excavated tower foundations, built roads over mountains, graded for drainage, ran conduit — basically doing everything except install the electronics.

It was a great life until it wasn’t, says Dow, 35. “I was travelling all over New England, and I bought a house and had my first son. I did not want to live my life on the road.” 

That was 2013, and he realized he needed to change his life. For about two years he welded and built dump truck bodies while he thought about what to do. At about the same time, his own home needed an onsite system. As he watched a contractor put in his system, he was intrigued with the onsite industry. After taking the necessary training, he was performing both inspections and installing work.

“I worked part time with a couple different contractors, and I found I would rather be doing installs. I like to have a finished product and have results, and I just wasn’t getting the satisfaction from doing the inspections,” he says. 

All of his experience came together in 2019 when he formed Dow Excavating based in Hollis, Maine. As an inspector he had formed relationships with many real estate agents. He let them know he was starting his own installation company, “and that really helped me get started.” 

Gravity rules

Most common in his corner of the world are gravity-fed septic systems, with the addition of a pump station if gravity flow won’t work.

“We do a lot of Eljens. I’d say like 80% now are the Eljen-style leach beds,” he says. Stone-and-pipe drainfields are still popular where there’s enough space and the soil is acceptable. Infiltrator Water Technologies chambers and some concrete chambers round out the solutions employed in his area. 

There are two reasons for the widespread Eljen use, he says: poor soil and small lots. “I feel they’re putting septic systems in places that years ago they wouldn’t put them, and these Eljens and chambers are allowing that,” he says. 

Work takes his company east to Portland and Biddeford, Maine. Public sewer covers much of the developed land, Dow says, but on the outskirts of these cities are areas utilizing private onsite systems. 

His most memorable projects are the those from his first year when he was working alone. “It was much harder work when I was working by myself,” he says. 

“I would get out of the machine and rake, get back in the machine,” he says. “I can remember raking out a stone bed trying to get pipes to lay flat, and inch-and-a-half stone does not shovel well. It does not rake well. It was 100 degrees outside. That one’s always stuck out in my mind because I was by myself and never thought I was going to get to the end of the pipe run.” 

A continuing challenge is rock ledge. “I’ve had different jobs where I’ll get a drawing and try to dig, and we can’t get deep enough. And then we have to have the system redesigned,” he says. 

In other cases, a hammer works. For a small tank installation, that would be an electric jackhammer. For more extensive digging it’s a hydraulic hammer on the end of a big excavator he’s rented. 

Dow’s other common obstacle is water that fills holes and makes jobs harder as the crew tries to fill a septic tank excavation with a level bed of stone. Standard equipment on his truck are pumps, both submersible electric and gas-powered. When a hole needs to be drained, Dow drops in a 5-gallon bucket drilled full of holes and filled with stone to act as a sump.

Installs rule 

By 2020, the company installed one to two systems per week. In addition there was repair work from pre-sale home inspections done by other people who found crushed pipes, damaged or crushed d-boxes, and old cast iron pipe. 

About 50% of his work is installations, he says, 10-15% is repairs, and new-house packages are about 35%. Included in those packages is an onsite system and other excavating work such as foundations.

The pandemic was not a problem. In the early days there was a lull in work while officials figured out who could work and who couldn’t. Dow communicated with the state, which designated him and his team as essential workers.

“The housing market was still booming right through the pandemic, so a lot of the referrals and work — it just never slowed down,” he says. 

His part of Maine is fairly well settled, and he’s only half an hour from Portland, the state’s largest city. What he experienced was the trend that followed the pandemic: When companies closed their offices and asked people to work remotely, those remote workers realized they were then free to live where they wished.

“A lot of out-of-staters from Massachusetts,” Dow says, “they have good jobs down there, a higher pay scale down there. Once they went virtual they were able to move, still make the same money, and buy houses up here. The real estate market’s been crazy with the lack of inventory.” 

Seeking work 

To start his career, Dow became certified through the state’s wastewater disposal class. Certification provides an option to skip the first of two required inspections of the systems he installs. The first inspection is called the “horizon inspection,” and it is done to ensure an installer has scarified the bottom of a hole using the excavator teeth and then mixed sand with the native heavy clay to ensure water will move into the soil. 

Because he’s been certified, Dow can fill out an affidavit attesting that he did the procedure properly, instead of waiting for a town inspector. Only the final inspection of the installed components requires a town official.

“Some towns like to see the horizon anyway, but in other towns, if you work with the town a lot and they see what type of work you do, a lot of them will accept the affidavit,” he says. 

For Dow, marketing is limited mainly to social media presence with a Facebook page and Instagram account, the Facebook-owned, visual-focused site. 

“I don’t do any ads anywhere. I sponsor my son’s Little League team and try to do things in the community — when there’s a community event and they ask for sponsors,” Dow explains. “I sponsor a couple of race cars of friends just to get my name out there. Other than that, I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t needed to do anything else.” 

Dow says he would like to do more marketing to round up customers, but he’s a tricky point with the business right now. 

“With the workload right now, I’m busy enough that I really need to hire another operator,” he says. One of his two present employees drives the dump truck and helps with installs. The other is a laborer. If Dow hires another operator to run equipment, he would have time to do estimates and other necessary tasks, and he could also create two teams, one doing repairs and the other focusing on new-house packages. 

“But then that ends up with needing another dump truck. I’m trying to figure out how big I want to get in taking that next step to keep two crews running,” he says. 

The economy may make that decision for him. High costs of building material took away some house package work when homebuyers backed out, but he says he’s still leaning toward hiring that extra person.

Machine matters 

To handle his onsite work, Dow depends on:

  • 2019 Bobcat E50 tracked mini-excavator
  • 2017 Link-Belt Cranes Spin Ace 145 full-size excavator
  • 2012 John Deere 323 tracked skid-steer
  • 1988 GMC General 10-wheel, 14-yard dump truck 
  • 2013 Chevy 1-ton truck with a Reading dumpbody
  • 2005 Eager Beaver 20-ton equipment trailer for the big excavator
  • 2019 Sure-Trac 8-ton tilt trailer for the skid-steer

While he has a stable of equipment now, Dow didn’t buy machines when he started the company. “For the first six months I rented an excavator from a friend who doesn’t make a living with it but has one for his property,” he says. 

Dow rented by the day to start. Then he bought his Bobcat mini-excavator new. The rented excavator was a 10,000-pound Kubota. He learned it was a bit too small for his work, but he knew he wanted a zero-swing machine. 

The Bobcat rubber tracks are useful, he says, for example to minimize damage to paved driveways. Size is important for jobs in small yards. But the Bobcat isn’t quite large enough to reach into the big dump truck and load or unload material, he says, and the limited reach of its arm means dirt must be moved in stages instead of once.

His solution was the Link-Belt excavator. It’s zero-swing, but he wishes it had rubber tracks because as it is his crew must lay plywood to protect pavement from the machine’s metal tracks. 

“In this industry it always seems like you need more and more equipment. You never have the right piece of equipment for the job. I feel like it’s a never-ending balance of having everything you need for everything you do.

“It’s an expensive industry to get into. You can get into debt really quickly,” Dow says.

Instead, he says, he took a slower approach: Buy the basic equipment he needed and try to make that work for every job. 

Helping hands 

Joining Dow in making the business run are employees Lewis Anderson, Keith Good and Larry Leighton. Another worker who recently joined is Dow’s wife Malerie, who handles bookkeeping and payroll. She owned a day care for a decade, Dow says. The pandemic came, and she closed it in March 2020. For the next year she home-schooled their three children: Brody, 10; Ily, 8; and Colter, 4. 

One of the struggles for Dow’s new business is trying to keep to a schedule and keep customers happy. 

“It’s very hard. You get rain days, and things don’t go as planned. You can get scheduled out weeks for people who think you’re going to be there a lot sooner,” he says.

Each year, it seems, his schedule is filled earlier. And it’s hard to pass on work, he says. 

Too many subcontractors he’s observed will promise to arrive on a certain day but will then change that and change it again. He says his solution is to be as upfront and as honest as possible with customers, keeping them up to date on changes. 

It’s the kind of solution that may carry this new business a long way. 


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