Horrible Soil Is the Canvas for Installer Artisans Al and Sissy Bob

South Texas Aerobics finds solutions to building effective long lasting septic systems in a landscape dominated by heavy clay

Horrible Soil Is the Canvas for Installer Artisans Al and Sissy Bob

 Al, sitting, and Eric Bob work on the installation of a Solar Aerobics onsite system at a convenience store. South Texas Aerobics cast the tanks and risers and lids are from TUF-TITE. 

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The soil is poor and the summers are brutal, yet it is in this part of Texas Al and Vonda “Sissy” Bob have built South Texas Aerobics into a thriving business. Based in Caldwell, about 100 miles northwest of Houston, the company is so successful that the couple often refers customers to other onsite professionals, and they don’t need to advertise at all.

Business is about evenly split between new system installations and replacements, Sissy says. 

“We do probably 85% aerobic around here simply because the soil is horrible,” she says.

Sand is rare. What they have on most sites is clay called black gumbo, she explains. “In the summertime we get cracks 2 to 3 inches wide.” When it rains, the soil forms clumps that stick to everything. 

Their second-most-used technology is low-pressure dose. Next are drip systems. To work in such soil, any conventional system must be very large and very expensive, she adds. Occasionally they do install a conventional system when the soil is right. The company also pumps the tanks of systems they installed, and they do repairs. Aerators are a common failure in summer, Sissy says. Temperatures hit 100 degrees, and components running 24 hours a day can’t withstand that stress.


Most of their work is in Brazos County where College Station and Texas A&M are, she says. The county’s population swelled 20% between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of that is not from people moving out of a city but from retired A&M alumni (Aggies, they’re called) moving back and buying homes near their old college, she says. Lots are getting smaller while homes are getting larger. “And you end up putting in a drip system so they have some kind of driveway and some kind of green grass in the yard.” 

Other people move on quickly because of job changes. Some systems that South Texas Aerobics installed 18 or 19 years ago have had eight or nine owners since, she says. Turnover brings another challenge: owner education as people from urban areas grapple with the idea of onsite wastewater treatment.

“And aerobic systems, even though they’ve been around for 35 years or more, they still freak a lot of people out because they have a red light and an alarm,” she adds. 

For new construction, customers can request a walk-through of their system to learn how it works, what the alarm sounds like, where sprinklers are, what products not to use in the house, and so on, she says. 

Customers get Sissy’s cellphone number. As a licensed installer herself, she says, she can answer almost any question on the spot. “And I tell them, ‘Don’t hesitate to text me after hours. Call me if it’s an emergency, but if you just have a question, don’t hesitate because I’d rather answer it for you right then than have you worry about something all weekend long.’” 

Answering a text message, even on the weekend, has the added benefit of reducing Monday morning phone calls, she says. 


Despite the broad range of work, the team at South Texas Aerobics is small. In addition to Al and Sissy, there are son Eric, who is full time, daughter Megan who works part time, and Brady Hodges, recently hired as a full-time maintenance technician.

To do their work, the team relies on: 

  • 2002 Freightliner FL70 with a 2,500-gallon steel tank, built by Al, and a Jurop 360 pump. They bought the cab and chassis in Kansas, and one feature is a Garnet SeeLevel gauge with digital readout to the gallon. 
  • 2015 Kenworth carrying a Fassi 40,000-pound knuckle boom crane. The crane was purchased separately and installed by Al.
  • 2016 Chevy Express service van
  • 2011 Chevy 3/4-ton truck for repairs and installations. Al built a custom rack for it that can carry 20-foot lengths of pipe
  • 2013 Chevy crew cab 4WD 1-ton truck to move equipment 
  • 1997 3/4-ton Ford to haul gear
  • 2020 CASE 590 Super M 4WD Extendahoe
  • 2020 Takeuchi TL8 skid-steer 
  • 2012 Kubota KX71 tracked mini-excavator
  • 2001 John Deere 4700 4WD tractor
  • 1997 John Deere 544 wheel loader
  • 2018 Ditch Witch walk-behind trencher 

The Ditch Witch is the tool for installing all the dripfields, Sissy says. “We don’t use a vibratory plow. It doesn’t work in this soil.”

Another consequence of the soil is tank choice. Fiberglass or poly tanks are usable in only a few places in their part of Texas, she says. In most of their territory, the drastic expansion and contraction of the clay soil crushes anything that isn’t concrete. “It crushes them pretty quickly, too. It takes less than 10 years,” she says. 

And that is part of the reason why South Texas Aerobics makes its own tanks.


The Bobs entered the wastewater business because Al wanted to stop working inside a welding shop all day every day and be outside working with heavy equipment. As he worked toward his state license, he helped installer friends with jobs, and one day he went to pick up a set of tanks. The owner of the precast company was so impressed by his truck driving skill, Sissy says, that he offered Al a job. And that is why South Texas Aerobics has the ability to cast its own tanks.

The Bobs built molds for state-approved concrete tanks. Al bought steel for the molds, had it rolled and welded it. They started making individual round tanks but added one-piece units as well. Round tanks are easier to move, she says, and they can be sold to people who pick them up for do-it-yourself installations. The smallest one-piece weighs 16,000 pounds. 

“When we got into the one-piece units, we’re like, OK, time to get a crane truck. You cannot set them with a backhoe, and you can’t break them down,” she says.

They tried using dry-mix volumetric trucks as their source of concrete, she says, but they didn’t like the quality of the concrete. The Bobs now buy concrete primarily from Knife River Corp. in Bryan, Texas. They made the connection because an onsite customer happened to be a salesman for Knife River. He looked at the tank being installed and offered to create a custom mix for South Texas Aerobics. 

“We have our own special mix that they build just for me, and it produces a tank that will withstand 5,000 psi,” Sissy says. State minimum is about 4,000 psi, she adds. Tank bottoms are about 4 inches thick, and the walls are 3 inches. “We wanted ours stronger because of the soil expansion, and we wanted our tanks to last.”


Both Al and Sissy contracted the COVID virus, and looking back, she can see benefits to the pandemic. 

First, she says, many people with systems on the verge of failing were forced to upgrade when they saw the result of having an entire family at home all the time. At one point their waiting list was five to six months long, she says. 

Also, people paid more attention to health information. “I think more people took more of an interest in bacteria and viruses,” she says. “We can tell people all day long, ‘You have to put bleach in your chlorinator. Every virus and bacteria will stay alive in that tank. It’s 72 degrees all year long. You’re not putting in bleach, you’re spraying that out on the ground. Your dog is drinking it and then coming inside and licking your baby’s face.’” 

They saw an increase in the number of people maintaining their chlorinators, she said. At one point, the supply of sanitizers dried up along with the supply of many other goods. Her advice to customers was to keep grass mowed so the UV light from the sun would kill microorganisms. 

Another benefit of the pandemic, Sissy says, is that some counties began accepting plans electronically, and some are also looking into accepting payments electronically. 


Sissy had her own technology idea and worked on it with a programmer. What they developed is a way to simplify the paperwork for maintenance calls. The key problem, she says, is the need to prove a technician did the work. Without that, a company could face fines, even the loss of its license.

A technician goes on a job with nothing but a cellphone or tablet. The customer receives an electronic alert specifying approximately when the technician will arrive, and another alert when the technician is en route. The technician can photograph anything broken, and, most importantly, will photograph the system’s maintenance tag. 

“That’s a huge thing. If the maintenance doesn’t get marked, you were never there,” she says. Each maintenance tag photo carries a time and date stamp and the customer’s name and GPS location. “And then we can send that photo to the county proving we were there, and we can send that photo to the homeowner proving we were there.” 

Because it’s all online, there is no danger of losing records to a crash, she adds. 

COVID also temporarily made it almost impossible to dump septage. City wastewater plants cut the number of people on shifts, she says. Plants ran with one person, or maybe no people, and there was a very narrow window when haulers could dump.

“Which means no transporters could bring in their sewage and dump. It literally shut down the pumping industry,” Sissy says. 

A friend, whose entire business consisted of pumping eight to 10 tanks per day had a two-week backlog of pumping customers, in some cases systems with pumps that needed replacing, she says. Because treatment plants weren’t accepting wastewater, it was running over the ground at some sites. 

Sissy says she called a county commissioner whom she has worked with and told him of the environmental danger from untreated wastewater. And it was summer, she adds, and in summer rural kids look for a river or creek to jump in. She explained that kids would be downstream of overflowing systems. “The very next day he calls me, ‘Wastewater treatment plants are open for all transporters. Please let them know.’” 


South Texas Aerobics doesn’t need to advertise, Sissy says, and Al is known as a person who can solve the worst problems. The company pumps its own customers’ tanks, but they have enough of that work, too, so they won’t accept cold calls for pumping service unless it’s a referral from a current customer. 

Over the years, the Bobs have established relationships with other pumpers who will do the job well. She refers cold calls to these other companies. In all the years of referring business to other pumpers, she adds, she’s never had someone call back to complain of poor quality work. In return, if the other pumpers spot a problem, they refer work back to South Texas Aerobics.

Like other installers over the age of 50, the Bobs have begun talking about their future and the future of their business. They’re debating their choices: letting their son take over the company or selling it. Daughter Megan is 24 with her own career, Sissy explains, and while she helps out, she has no interest in being a partner. 

Son Eric is 22 and just received his installer’s license. “He’s trying to decide whether this is an industry he wants to be in,” she says. “It’s a very hot, physical job doing installs. It’s also a hot job doing repairs and maintenance.” He is the company’s primary repair and maintenance person. 


If they retire, when they retire, they could spend more time scuba diving. It’s a family pastime. 

Al and Eric are certified advanced divers. Sissy is a certified instructor. Megan is also an instructor and works full time at a dive shop. For their pleasure diving they travel — to Roatan, Honduras; Cozumel, Mexico; the Bahamas; and other Caribbean destinations. But they never travel all together because Al or Eric has to stay home and mind the business. 

“I can do most of my job from my phone and my computer that go everywhere with me,” Sissy says. She carries an internet hotspot connector that works on cellphone networks, too. And with online software, she can even issue work orders for whomever has stayed behind, she says.

“We do enjoy the business that we’re in,” Sissy says. And she knows very well what the industry means, even if many people don’t. “We help protect the environment, and since we’re divers, we’re all about protecting that ocean.” 


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