Practice Makes Perfect for Roe-D-Hoe Contestants

The finalists in the NOWRA skills competition have logged thousands of hours at the controls of excavation equipment

Practice Makes Perfect for Roe-D-Hoe Contestants

 The late James Cruver of SALCOR (third from left) is pictured with finalists in the 2022 Roe-D-Hoe. The competitors included, from left, Albert Breech, Josh Reading, Adrian Keiper, Abraham Rhoads and Justin Rozendaal. (Photos courtesy of NOWRA)

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The Roe-D-Hoe competition at the WWETT Show has always fascinated me. While most of the trucks and machines are on static display in the cavernous Indiana Convention Center, the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association clears a large space for equipment operators to show off their skills. 

This year they were invited to the controls of 301.5 and 301.4C mini-excavators to take on operation challenges that test fine motor skills. They involve moving small objects — including golf balls, basketballs and bowling pins ­— through an obstacle course in timed events. This year more than 200 operators competed for the $1,000 first prize and a trophy belt.

Following the trade show, I talked to Roe-D-Hoe finalists about how they became proficient in operating excavators. I also asked them to share their tips for aspiring equipment operators in the onsite wastewater field. I hope their words inspire more young people to come into the wastewater industry. With housing and commercial development continuing at a breakneck pace combined with an aging installer workforce, we need all the skilled hands we can get!

The NOWRA competition, sponsored by SALCOR UV Disinfection, continued through the run of the WWETT Show, giving these finalists ample opportunity to improve their times in front of crowds of onlookers. Congratulations to these finalists:

First place: Josh Reading

Company: M&J Underground, Monee, Illinois.

Age: 42

Years operating machines: 30

Favorite piece of equipment: Caterpiller 336 excavator

Advice for the new operator: “The only way you are going to be proficient is to put in the time to hone those skills sitting in the seat and performing the work.” 

Time to complete challenges: 1:19

Prize: $1,000 and a Roe-D-Hoe belt buckle

Josh Reading would come home from kindergarten and play on his grandfather’s excavation equipment. Way back then, machine safety requirements weren’t like they are now and he could actually get the booms to move a little when he pulled the levers. That experience cemented his career path. He had to work with machines. 

“I’ve had a fascination with heavy equipment my whole life,” Reading recalls. Then when he was 12 or 13 years old, he started helping his father on septic system installations. 

“I wasn’t physically mature enough to shovel the rock all day, so Dad taught me how to run the backhoe. He would dig the trench and I would run the backhoe,” Reading says. 

Learning excavation skills from an early age, it’s no surprise Reading took home the $1,000 top prize at the Roe D Hoe. It probably also helped that Reading has entered the competition at the WWETT Show many times over the past 20 years, making the finals several times. 

Reading obtained a college degree in management, and also joined the Operating Engineers Local 150 union. He has logged many hours in Caterpillar excavators, and in recent years has spent more time managing the company than behind the controls.

“I still get out there and dig once in a while. It’s like riding a bike for me. … It’s in my genes,” he says. He always saw mastering the hydraulic excavator “as a work smarter kind of thing. I want to be the one pulling the levers on the machines rather than using the shovel.”

For the aspiring equipment operator, nothing beats seat time to develop proficiency. Reading likes to invoke journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s quote about mastering any craft: “10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness.” In other words, you ought to spend 10,000 on a machine to reach your full potential in the field.

“You have to address downtime too and make it a hobby more than a job,” he says. “Don’t jump around to 10 pieces of equipment. If you want to be proficient on an excavator, stay on the excavator. It comes down to hours, basically.”

Second Place: Abraham Rhoads

Company: B&K Lehner Excavating, Delaware, Ohio

Age: 34

Years operating machines: 18 

Favorite piece of equipment: Caterpillar D6 dozer

Advice for the new operator: “Don’t wear the dirt out. Make money moving it once; break even moving it twice, and third time lose your profit.”

Time to complete challenges: 1:24

Prize: $500

Coaxed by his boss to enter, first-timer Abraham Rhoads did great to finish in second place at the Roe-D-Hoe, and he thinks he can grab the top spot if he returns at the 2023 WWETT Show. 

He completed the challenge of dropping a golf ball onto a traffic cone in a blistering 8 seconds, and said he would have beat everyone if he hadn’t messed up with the bowling pin challenge. He said the key to winning is staying calm and not worrying about the clock.

“Don’t think about being timed. You have to get good before you can get fast, so don’t worry about the time. Just go enjoy yourself and don’t let your nerves get the best of you. I think that’s where everybody messed up,” he says. “Don’t get flustered or aggravated or your brain won’t be in the right place.”

Rhoads started out working for a neighbor in the earth-moving business while he was in high school. He’s found great satisfaction in taking an empty piece of ground and using a variety of machines to finish out building sites, whether it’s site prep for a house or creating ditches or road beds. 

Rhoads said younger equipment operators should be like a sponge and soak up important lessons from veterans in the field. “If somebody’s been in the field 30 years, he’s got to be good at what he does,” he says. Rhoads feels like “a big kid working in a sandbox” doing excavation work, mainly from the seat of Cat or John Deere machines.   

“Not everybody knows how to move dirt. You have to know how to run the machines and make it efficient and effective,” he says.

Third place: Albert Breech

Company: Breech Septic and Excavating, Lucasville, Ohio

Age: 46

Years operating machines: 25

Favorite piece of equipment: Komatsu PC 400 excavator

Advice for the new operator: “Go through an apprentice program because you learn much more than yanking levers.”

Time to complete challenges: 1:26 

Prize: $200

Albert Breech is an old hand at the WWETT Show Roe-D-Hoe. He’s placed three times in the competition, finishing third in 2018 and this year, and second place in 2019. He said the skills challenges mimic the work he does as an installer and pumper.

“A lot of the things I do daily are similar,” he says, such as pulling and replacing lids from septic tanks. “I take as much work off the labor as I can. I set it in the hole to keep them from having to lift it off concrete boxes.”

For someone reluctant to enter the excavator contest at first, Breech has had a successful run. “The first time I went down there I’d never been in a competition. I wasn’t going to do it, but my wife talked me into it,” he says. This year he was in first place during qualifying rounds. “It took them two days to knock me down.”

Breech has owned his own excavating business for 11 years, and recently bought out a septic tank manufacturing company. He came up through a union apprentice program, which he says was a top training ground. The company uses union operators and he endorses that type of training background. 

“With the union, you don’t just learn one way to do a job. You learn 50 different ways of doing something because you’re working with different companies,” he says. One of the larger companies he worked with had a safety specialist, and that helped him immensely. “Once you learn safety and learn productivity, you don’t have to cut corners. Apprenticeship programs teach you with safety in mind.”

Honorable mention: Adrian Keiper

Company: Keiper Excavating, Wadsworth, Ohio

Age: 27

Years operating machines: 20

Favorite piece of equipment: Link Belt 145 X3 Spin Ace excavator

Advice for the new operator: “Slow down. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

Time to complete challenge: 1:56

First-time Roe-D-Hoe entrant Adrian Keiper is joking when he says he could probably operate equipment before he could walk. But that’s not far from the truth. The third-generation worker at Keiper Excavating says he was a little boy when he grabbed his first excavator controls. 

“I was that annoying kid underfoot saying ‘Let me do it, let me do it, let me do it!’” At 11 or 12, he was already going out and making septic system repairs on his own. “I guess you could say it’s all I’ve ever known.”

Keiper says his company is known for taking on the jobs nobody else wants to touch. An example is when a homeowner planned to build a house 1,000 feet off the road down a 10% grade and Keiper made the site prep happen. 

For Keiper, the toughest part of the Roe-D-Hoe was swapping out machines halfway through the challenges. He wasn’t familiar with the Caterpillar excavators in general, and found it difficult to move from the D Series digger to the Next Gen Series between events. The machines had different controls and the hydraulics were different, adding stress to the competition.

Keiper puts in plenty of hours on Link Belt excavators, which the company moved to years ago. He says the Link Belt units are as smooth as silk and efficient to operate. 

“If you don’t learn something in a day, it was a day wasted,” he concluded.


Congratulations to all the operators who grabbed the controls during the Roe-D-Hoe. How many of you will show up next year to try and beat the scores of these winners? My guess is you’ll have plenty of seat time this summer to sharpen your skills and shoot for the prize money and bragging rights on the WWETT Show stage. 


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