Let’s Teach How to Extend the Life of Onsite Systems

Tell homeowners about proper maintenance — and preach getting rid of garbage disposals

Let’s Teach How to Extend the Life of Onsite Systems

Mike Sample - I’m the owner and president of Sample Excavating. I’m also a service technician for Onsite Septic Inspection & Services.

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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 Maryland Onsite Wastewater Association.

Name and title or job description: Mike Sample. I’m the owner and president of Sample Excavating. I’m also a service technician for Onsite Septic Inspection & Services.

Location: Glen Arm, Maryland

Services we offer: At Sample Excavating, I install systems and do design work for innovative and alternative systems, and I’m a stocking dealer for Hydro-Action. At OSIS we service, inspect and maintain Best Available Technology systems and answer alarm calls. That also gives us a chance to educate homeowners, which I think is one of the most important things we do. I talk to people for as long as they want to listen about simple care and maintenance.

Age: 64

Years in the industry: I’ve been a licensed disposal contractor for 44 years, but I think I probably put my first septic system in when I was 16. My father was in the excavating business and I was the backhoe operator. I would get subbed out to do digging for plumbers and get left on jobs by myself, doing the whole project. One day the light bulb went on and I thought maybe I should go into business for myself.

Association involvement: I joined the Maryland Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association about 15 years ago, not long after it started. I’ve done some volunteering and been involved in panel discussions, and I usually have a vendor booth at the conferences.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Training and education are key benefits. It also brings together all the different branches of the wastewater industry — pumpers, installers, regulators — to share ideas and have a voice in the formation of policies and regulations. And what really sparks my interest is they’re getting ready to build a training facility where they’re going to have all the different treatment technologies and disposal systems (drips, mounds, pressure dose systems) on site and working. I’d like to see it opened up to the general public as well, to educate them because people don’t want to get away from the old-time technology.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Keeping the membership and getting more people interested and involved. I wish company owners would get their employees involved. I’d also like to see the association put out public messages on how to take care of a system — simple things that can make it work properly and prolong its life, and alternatives to things that cause problems like quilted toilet tissue, wipes and detergent pods.

Our crew includes: At Sample Excavating, I’m basically a one-man operation. I still do some of the physical work but I sub out a lot of the excavating to other installers and mostly concentrate on designing. At OSIS I am part of a really good team — three other service technicians, a great office staff, and the owner, Nancy Minahan — one of hardest-working people I’ve ever worked with, but always fair and supportive. I’ve worked for them for about eight-and-a-half years. Going from being a one-man show to being part of a group is very rewarding. You’ve always got somebody watching your back. We help one another and take turns being on call.

Typical day on the job: Every day is different. I might be doing a layout on an innovative system, delivering a pretreatment system, working with an installer, operating equipment. A typical day with OSIS is doing service visits (checking the sludge levels, changing filters, making sure systems are working properly, fixing what needs to be fixed) and reviewing everything with the homeowners.

The job I’ll never forget: I design a lot of drip disposal systems. A couple years ago, I put one in, it was working and everything seemed fine, but the filter would get clogged every week. It was driving me crazy. The woman and her adult son were very cooperative. They didn’t have a garbage disposal, weren’t flushing whatever. I scraped some of the crud off the disc filter and laid it on top of the manhole to take a picture of it, just to see if somebody else had an idea. When I blew it up it looked like grass seed. Then I saw it moving. The system had old terra cotta pipe and it was overwhelmed with drain flies. It was their larvae that were clogging the filter. The owner flushed all her drains with vinegar and baking soda to kill them off and then I strapped a couple bags of moth balls around the recirculation pipes and they haven’t had a problem since.

My favorite piece of equipment: I love my mini-excavator, a Yanmar ViO35. I wish I’d had that 30 years ago. We’d get on tight sites and I’d end up digging pipe repairs with a shovel rather than listen to a homeowner gripe about lawn damage from a big backhoe. There are a lot of jobs we used to do with a big rubber-tired backhoe that can now be done with a mini-excavator. They can be used to set pre-treatment systems, which are fiberglass, not concrete. Tracked skid-steers are another thing that really made the world better.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: A few years back, I designed a low-pressure dosing system on a lot where the septic reserve area was in a triangle shape. Pressure-dosed systems have to be balanced so there’s even distribution over all the trenches — which was difficult because I had one trench 40 feet long, one 80 feet, and one 60 feet. It was one of the hardest challenges I’ve had, to work out all the calculations to get that water to dose the whole system evenly. But it was rewarding to turn the pump on and see that each trench had the same pressure. 

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: Any time I broke away from the onsite septic trade — doing construction management, using my equipment for something else — I ended up thinking, “What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?” The worst thing I’ve gotten into was digging graves. I had done a cemetery expansion where you put the crypts in. It was proposed to me that it was just like septic work because you’re excavating the site and setting concrete vaults. So that wasn’t bad, but afterwards I started doing the grave openings and that was something I was real sorry I got involved in. It’s not something you can plan ahead of time so you might get pulled off of another job. They don’t cancel funerals because of bad weather and I had some terrible situations — 5-inch rainstorms, frozen ground. And you have to set up the tent and the lowering device, and then coordinate with the funeral director who has to be present for the lid closing. You basically spend your whole day there.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: I’ve had everything from, “Can we flush stink bugs?” to people asking me to cheat on perc tests by digging the holes ahead of time and filling them with good material. What I get all the time is people asking if they can build decks over their systems — which is fine if they listen to me when I say no but nine times out of 10 they don’t.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: Prohibiting garbage disposals in private residences, or, if permitted, that it be mandatory to have a grease interceptor on the kitchen waste drain.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: Early on I’d complain about tough sites and things, and one of the old pumpers told me, “The only people who don’t have any problems are the people who don’t do anything.” I took that as, “You’ll figure it out, just do it.” I also take inspiration from a quote in Proverbs: “Entrust your work to the Lord and your plans will succeed.” I try to live like that.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: When I retire, I may continue to do design consulting but I’d like to get involved in some kind of organic food-producing sustainable agriculture. It’s basically working with the same principles — taking care of the soil, the water, what Mother Nature gave us, in a way that the next generation can use it. That’s how I look at the septic business. I’m more of an environmentalist than a businessman.

Crystal ball time — This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: What I’d like to see is advanced treatment technologies, aerobic treatment technologies, drip dispersals, become the industry standard, not something considered “alternative.” For a few years in Maryland around 2014, they were requiring all new homes to have a BAT system, and then we had a political change and it got kicked back so now those systems only go into areas with poor soil conditions or where it’s close to a body of water. But knowing what I know and seeing all the different systems, it’s like, if you only knew how much of a difference it makes.


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