Surprise! We Found an Area Where Installer Numbers Are Rising

Northern Idaho’s Panhandle Region has 150 new onsite installing professionals since 2020

Interested in Business?

Get Business articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Business + Get Alerts

There’s a story I recall from covering agribusiness for a newspaper many moons ago that in simple terms explains the concept of supply and demand through fluctuations in the price of pork. It’s stuck with me for 30 years and it can be applied to the sustainability of most any business. It goes like this:

When the market price for hogs goes down, frustrated farmers sell off their stock and vow to never raise hogs again. This creates a shortage of pork, raising the price for hogs to the point that farmers see an opportunity, can’t help themselves, and jump back in. Then, of course, the price goes down again. This cycle repeats over and over again and explains why farmers often like to complain even though they get to spend their days outside in the beauty of nature. Given the apparent nationwide shortage of onsite installers, I haven’t considered the pig farmer analogy would apply to the wastewater industry. But after a recent conversation with Idaho onsite regulator Jason Peppin, I have to recognize it’s possible for installers to rush into a fast-growing area, creating some supply and demand or — more likely — quality control issues.

Peppin, environmental health section manager for the Panhandle Health District, wrote a recent guest editorial in his local paper, the Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press, that did a great job of educating septic system users about proper care of their systems. He outlined information about protecting the freshwater resources in the Coeur d’Alene Lake watershed in Northern Idaho, one of the fastest-growing parts of the state. He offered basic consumer tips, which I will include separately here and that you are free to share with your customers.

Based in Hayden, Idaho, the Panhandle district covers five counties that have been flooded by new residents, particularly since COVID-19. Of the seven health districts in the state, Panhandle issues the most septic system permits, about 25% total permits and 33% of complex system permits, and had approximately 1,500 new systems installed in 2022, according to Peppin. This is for a region with a population of 262,000.

As you might expect, the increased demand has prompted more folks to try their hand at system installation as a business. But more on that later.


You might associate northern Idaho with its beautiful natural assets and pristine waterways, but there are many challenges to protecting the features that attract so many visitors and new residents, Peppen explains. A history of mining operations and decades of development, especially around the popular lake areas, threaten the aquifer. Also, many antiquated onsite systems and a reluctance for cities to extend their municipal treatment to developing rural areas encourage wastewater officials to become proactive about onsite rules.

The state has some of the most stringent drainfield setback requirements near water, up to 300 feet depending on the soil type on permitted properties. The setback for clay soils is 100 feet, loamy soil 200 feet, and sandy soil 300 feet. To protect the aquifer, the health district is accepting of new treatment technologies, with advanced products including Eljen and Presby Systems being utilized frequently.

In addition, the state has approved the use of whole-home wastewater incinerators as an alternative solution. A riverfront motel/restaurant was the first property to receive a commercial incinerator from ECOJOHN. Installing incinerators could cost roughly 10 times as much as a conventional septic system, and you have to add on top of that much higher operational costs. So Peppin says they are being considered more for commercial projects or multimillion dollar vacation homes where cost isn’t a factor.

“Out of necessity, we really take a proactive look at technologies with extensive review and testing. It’s a very robust process and it’s easy for manufacturers to get in here,” Peppin says.


It’s interesting to learn about efforts to advance decentralized wastewater treatment in Idaho. But one statistic Peppin shared concerned an explosion of licensed installers in the region. While in other parts of the country, installers are scarce and the workforce is aging, the Panhandle District has 350 licensed installers — and each of them may have multiple crews working under the same licensure.

The numbers have risen steadily over the past decade, and 150 newly minted installers have been added since the pandemic started in 2020. Many of them have never operated an excavator or installed a system. This is a cycle Peppin has seen before. He started in 2004 and saw boom days before the real estate collapse of 2008 and 2009, when the number of installers fell precipitously.

“In the last several years we’ve been inundated with new installers,” Peppin says. “With this new batch of installers, we’re noticing people who haven’t previously worked under other installers. There’s usually a natural progression and they’ve worked in the industry in the past and are very experienced. With this new wave, there’s a lot of people that have never installed a septic system. It’s definitely more of an issue now with the growth.”

To ensure a qualified installer workforce, the health district has relied on required refresher training every three years. Through this training, they share information on new technology, product approvals, and reviewing issues they see in the field. However with COVID-19, they haven’t been able to conduct in-person training for three years, and consequently there are more problems getting systems to pass final inspection, Peppin explains.


“We see across-the-board issues — installing systems too deep, not reading the permits, installing using unapproved components and systems they are not licensed to install. We don’t know any of that until final inspections,” he says. “Problems stem from a lack of asking questions. Lately there’s been a reluctance to ask questions and they’re just installing the systems incorrectly.”

Compared to some states, Idaho has minimal requirements to obtain an installer’s license; for example there is no required classroom training or apprentice process. Applicants must pass a test and have certain types of bonding. And the majority of systems do not require a designer or engineer, so the lack of experience can really show through.

As a result, it’s not uncommon to put final inspection approvals on hold until problems are corrected. This can mean ripping out and reinstalling systems, moving locations, hiring an engineer or choosing a different technology. This adds to cost and frustration, and customers aren’t happy about it.

“Idaho in general advertises itself as the least-regulated state in the country and a lot of people moving here expect there are no rules. They’re coming from areas that are tightly regulated,” he says. For these newcomers, Peppin explains, “It’s almost like there is a magic black box in the yard that takes care of everything. They have no idea. And even just trying to get them to understand when we’re looking at a tank and drainfield, there is no understanding. If we do our jobs right, we’re regulating through education.”

I expect the growth will continue in Idaho and hopefully there will be ample work to keep the growing number of installers busy well into the future. It also seems like health officials in the state are welcoming to the advanced solutions being presented by industry manufacturers to protect the environment and allow for further development. And lastly, officials like Peppin appear to be on the right track with refresher training to keep the local installing community up to speed with emerging technology.

All of that’s good news, because I don’t want our installers to end up in the same endless boom/bust business cycle as the pig farmers.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.