North Dakota Expects a Long-Overdue Septic Code Rewrite

Wastewater professionals organized a trade association a few years ago, hoping to update onsite rules and protect the environment

North Dakota Expects a Long-Overdue Septic Code Rewrite

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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 North Dakota Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association.

Name and title or job description: Bruce Ellingson, owner

Business name and location: Ellingson Construction, Park River, North Dakota

Services we offer: We do septic installations — a few mound systems but with our soils we can get by with conventional systems. We also do inspections and repairs.

Age: 63

Years in the industry: 46

Association involvement: I was one of the founding members of the North Dakota Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association in 2019. I was appointed by the governor to serve as vice president. One of the reasons we formed was to help rewrite the septic code, which we’re going through now and trying to update. It hasn’t been updated since the 1990s. We want a uniform set of rules because the different health departments in the state all have different rules.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Education and networking are the big ones, connecting with other contractors who have had similar problems as yours and hearing how they solved them.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Getting young contractors involved in the industry and the association has been a huge problem. We also need to educate the public and our customers about how our industry is changing and how regulations dictate what we can and cannot do. This used to be a wide-open state as far as rules and regulations, but there has been so much change in what I’ve seen happen, from all rock-and-pipe drainfields to chambers. And I was one of the hardest guys to get to change because none of us likes change. But the chambers are really a benefit to us all because you have no cleanup.

Our crew includes: I am a self-employed sole operator. But I do hire a couple of part-time workers during the busy season. I used to have 24 men working with me when we did earth-moving. I’m not retired by any means, but I have scaled back. And it’s been hard to get help.

Typical day on the job: My day starts around 6 a.m. and I’m usually done around 8:30 at night. I probably spend 20 to 30 hours a week on bidding and paperwork, and then 40 to 50 hours in the field during the work season. Winters are brutal here so the season is short. It’s nothing to put in 80, 90 hours because come winter, I’ll be sitting in a rocking chair. I also do inspections if somebody has a problem with their system. I analyze it and let them know what I suspect is the problem. The biggest problem with inspections is the system is underground and you really can’t tell until you open it up — and then you might be opening up a can of worms.

The job I’ll never forget: I worked on a nearby [American Indian] reservation for a summer doing installations. I learned how different the soils can be over just a few miles’ distance. An installation on one site would not work on another site. I learned that no two sites are the same and you always have to be ready to change and adapt.

My favorite piece of equipment: I like my excavators and the small dozer. I have a Bobcat E50 mini and a Hitachi EX200 for bigger jobs, and a John Deere 650 dozer. The excavators are great because of the reach and the lifting capacity if you have the room to open it up. I like the dozer more than a skid-steer — probably because I’m used to it, and it can float better.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: I was working on a project in a farmyard. I dug three or four test holes and none of them worked. I took one last test in a spot where I said it would never work — and it worked perfectly. Just goes to show, you never know what’s under the topsoil.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: On one of my first jobs, I listened to the customer who wanted it done their way. I knew it wasn’t going to work and should have stuck to my guns but “the customer is always right.” Well, he wasn’t right so it froze up. It was too shallow, he didn’t want to use enough overfill, it was too late in the day, too late in the year, he wouldn’t let me put straw in the drainfield. It was a disaster waiting to happen. In January, he called and said, “Your system didn’t work. Come out and fix it.” So I went back and fixed it in -10 degree weather. We used to do all drainages eight or nine feet deep to stay out of the frost, but you were down there in the water so that wasn’t working. On repairs, I found some people used straw as the drain material, and in one case I found a car. So, regulation is needed.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: “Do I really need a drainfield when there are those trees right over there?”

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: I believe the water usage rate is set too high, so the sizing factor and footprint is too large. They’ve got it here at 150 gallons per day per bedroom and that is way too much. Sometimes when you go back and inspect a system after two or three years, some of the chambers are dry — never had fluid in them. It’s a waste of money, a waste of footprint. I think the theory on doing it that way is they’re thinking of weddings or graduations when you have 40 people at your house. But I think it’s wrong.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I’d love to be working on a beach somewhere as an old lifeguard. But I’ve been in this industry all my life. It’s been very good to me. I wish young people would be more interested in getting into it. It’s hard work and long hours but it is rewarding and it’s so needed. But, meanwhile, I got into something that’s really kooky — goats. I’ve got about 40 of them. They’re a lot of fun. I take them out to the woods where they can browse on the trees and it makes it look like a park when they’re done. I raise them for meat and a lady milks them and makes cheese and soap.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: As all of us get educated, we’ll see how very important this industry is. There are a lot of people in North Dakota on septic systems but we get very little funding, education or government support. But I see that changing — partly by keeping our association alive.


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