Inspections, Repairs and New Onsite Systems Drive Jon and Gale Houseknect’s Growing Business

Nearing 30 years of serving neighbors in northwest Indiana, Sunset Septic dropped its website, doesn’t advertise and thrives on great word-of-mouth recommendations

Inspections, Repairs and New Onsite Systems Drive Jon and Gale Houseknect’s Growing Business

Left to right, Cody Houseknecht, a delivery driver and Jon (right) Houseknecht maneuver a septic tank into place during a recent install project. Gale Houseknecht, far right, observes. (Photos by Mark Lebryk)

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When Jon and Gale Houseknecht bought a stagnant pumping business in 1995, they set about streamlining it for a new world.

They disposed of several old vacuum trucks and put their pumping equipment on a truck tractor-pulled semi-trailer that could be easily unhitched for other duties. As the years passed, the business grew and grew.

Today, the couple’s Sunset Septic in Rolling Prairie, Indiana, continues to adapt. They run the business with their son Cody, and Jon has become involved with the Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association and its efforts to improve the industry.

About half of the company’s revenue comes from installing, system repairs and onsite inspections. The other half comes from pumping.

Sunset Septic used to be on the internet. That lasted for only a year or two, Jon says. They had so much business that they didn’t need the website. Also, the website brought work from nearby counties, but the quantity of work didn’t support the cost of travel, Gale explains. Most jobs now come from referrals, and also from people seeing the company’s brilliant yellow trucks.

On the company’s newest truck, they made a major change with the lettering. In the past, Gale says, trucks had the company name, phone number and a list of services. She’s reduced that to only name and phone number. For a motorist or anyone seeing the truck at a glance, name and phone number are what people need, she says. Later they can call and learn specific services the company provides.

Other marketing tools are small promotional items given to customers: pens, business cards and magnets shaped like the company’s new truck. “Everything’s yellow, of course,” Gale adds. 

“With the house market the way it was the last couple years, we were doing a lot of septic property transfers,” Gale says. Coupled with those inspections were repairing a large number of problems revealed during inspections. 

SYSTEM REPLACEMENTS

Like onsite contractors in other parts of the country may be seeing, Jon says his crew encounters many metal tanks in older systems. “We’ve run across a lot of old houses where they’ve had metal tanks, or sometimes they have a septic tank and they’re direct discharging into a ditch.”

In addition to metal tanks, they find others built of cement blocks. Upgrades to 50-year-old systems due to a property transfer have been driving the business recently, Jon says. They comprise 35% to 40% of the jobs.

Replacements are typically standard gravity systems. About half use Infiltrator Water Technologies chambers in the drainfield, Jon says, and the other half use technology from Presby Environmental, an Infiltrator Company.

Property transfer jobs often become complicated, Gale says, because both the current homeowner and the new homeowner are involved. “We get a lot of people moving from Chicago out here,” she says. Downtown Chicago is only 70 miles away. “So they’ve never had a septic system, don’t know how they work, so we have to educate them,” she says.

Buyers also have to be prepared for the mess that ensues during system replacement. Jon says he always tells people that in the middle of a project, the yard will look like a war zone. That helps especially for people coming from the city, Gale adds.

“What I do now — and this has all been trial and error for us — we involve both the seller and the buyer,” Gale says. “We never used to. When we started doing this, it was just the seller because they were paying for it. But we have found the buyer needs to know what’s going on as well, what’s going to be installed, what the process is. We’ve found there’s a lot less issues when everybody’s involved, everything’s aboveboard, everybody knows what’s going on.”

Aerobic units have a place along the Lake Michigan shore where it’s common to have large houses on small lots. Sunset has also picked up some maintenance jobs for aerobic systems.

One of those, Cody says, was advanced for a residential system because it used aerobic treatment with drip irrigation disposal. Sunset was called in because the system wasn’t working. A well ejector pump sent water into the drip system, Jon says, and the impeller fins had broken off and plugged the flowmeter. That system also had other issues, Cody says. It was a three-to-four-day job while they worked through the system piece by piece, waiting for a new pump and for a particulate filter that should have been in line after the pump, but wasn’t.

Inspections often take more time than pumping, Jon says. There’s a lot of diagramming and measuring involved, Gale says. If there’s no diagram of a system on file with the health department, they’ll make one and file it with the county. Sometimes there’s a diagram but no indication of northerly direction.

They also like to dig up any distribution boxes and check for condition. “We had one this week, a concrete septic tank and a concrete distribution box. We looked at the distribution box, and the lid was cracked on it,” Jon says.

Repairs like that will often be done later. The cracked D-box, for example, will first be reported to the buyer and seller, and then there will be negotiation over who will pay, Gale says. Easy repairs, such as a missing baffle, they do at the time of service, and it saves the owner the charge for a separate trip, Jon says.

ADDING A VACUUM TRUCK

The newest addition to the fleet is a 2012 Kenworth T660 converted box truck. It has a 3,600-gallon steel tank from Du-Mar Welding and a Jurop/Chandler pump. The Houseknechts built the truck themselves and cut 4 feet off the frame to install the tank. This truck has an onboard jetter, a 3,500 psi pressure washer installed in a box under the hose trays. Slides allow the jetter to be pulled in and out for access, and next to it is a hose reel with 200 feet of 3/8-inch line. A 125-gallon tank provides water for the jetter.

From a company leaving the pumping business, the Houseknechts bought an older Ford L8000 vacuum rig with a 2,400-gallon steel tank and Masport pump.

They still have the 1993 Kenworth T600 tractor that pulled the pumping trailer and now moves lowboys and dump boxes. The trailer holding the pumping equipment was old and deteriorating, Cody says, and it’s easier to maneuver a straight truck in and out of people’s driveways.

“We either needed to upgrade the trailer or go to a truck, and we decided to go to a truck,” he says.

“It limited us having only the one semi,” Gale says.

“This way, we have a truck we can haul equipment on, and if we need to pump a tank at the same time, we can do that,” Jon says.

Also in the Sunset Septic inventory are:

  • 2019 John Deere 317G skid-steer
  • 2005 Takeuchi TB125 mini-excavator
  • 2005 John Deere 410G backhoe loader
  • 2012 Link-Belt 145X3 excavator
  • 2000 John Deere 450H bulldozer
  • 1978 International 3588 farm tractor for land application
  • A Spectrum laser level
  • A 20-foot trailer from Steel Trailers in Indiana, holds tools and pipe fittings
  • A 5,000-gallon Houle (GEA Group) spreader with an injection unit for land-spreading septage.

SEASONAL PUMPING

The land spreader is not used during winter because land application is forbidden when the temperature is below freezing, so septage goes to the local wastewater treatment plant.

Only about 10% of the tanks pumped by Sunset Septic are disposed of through the municipal plant, Cody says. When the temperature falls below about 25, Gale adds, they don’t pump because people don’t plow snow, the back end of the truck freezes and everything takes longer. “So a lot of our clientele, we try to do before the first of the year,” she says. After Christmas is the usual time for snow and severe cold, and that’s when they do maintenance, she says.

In the busy seasons, the Sunset Septic team will pump four to six tanks a day.

SERVING THE INDUSTRY

Jon is past president of the IOWPA, and he is involved in the work of advancing IOWPA and the industry.

“We’ve hired a legislative liaison, and our intention is to promote IOWPA statewide and get our name out there for the legislative branch,” he says. “We’d like to have legislation saying all property in the state of Indiana would have to go through a property transfer inspection. It would be a huge shot in the arm for our industry because any property that sells would have to go through the IOWPA process.”

At the moment, he explains, requiring time-of-sale inspections is done county by county.

If this goes through, Indiana will need a lot of certified inspectors to provide the service, Jon says. That’s why IOWPA is also pushing education, he adds.

Another piece of legislation IOWPA favors would establish some kind of organization to govern the onsite industry. As in other fields, there are a few onsite people who don’t follow the rules, Jon says, and it would help the industry to have a licensing authority like the boards that license real estate agents and electricians.

There are other state proposals that IOWPA is not on board with, Jon says. One is a proposed requirement for a perimeter drain around septic systems instead of a curtain drain. Sometimes, he says, there just isn’t enough space on a lot to install a four-sided perimeter drain, but a one- to three-sided curtain drain would meet setback requirements.

ONSITE TRAINERS

The Sunset Septic team has become certified through IOWPA to do onsite training. They started this work in 2015 at the invitation of state health officials, Gale says.

Jon says the first class’s attendees included real estate agents and other people unfamiliar with the components of an onsite system. “The next day we loaded up a bunch of distribution boxes, different styles of piping, chambers and Presby pipe,” Jon says.

Gale demonstrated how to do interviews to gather information, and Jon and Cody demonstrated tool use. They’ve trained people in their own LaPorte County, next door in Porter and Marshall counties, and in Brown County about 220 miles south.

Real estate agents in their county opposed time-of-sale inspections, Gale says. So they did a training just for people in real estate.

“That probably was one of the hardest things to overcome was the real estate agents because you’ve kind of thrown a monkey wrench in their system,” Jon says. “The agents who are really top notch will actually promote the septic inspection.”

Neighboring Porter County doesn’t require inspections, he says. But the company has performed several inspections there on the referral of real estate agents who believe in their advantages. “It puts customers at ease because they don’t have to worry about buying the house and a few months later having to install a $20,000 system,” Jon says.

LOOK TO THE FUTURE

The Houseknechts are at the age when retirement is becoming a possibility, but it’s not something they’ve actively looked at.

“We really need to sit down and think about that and visualize how it all plays out,” Jon says.

“We’re too young to retire,” Gale says. “We like what we do.”

Whenever they decide to walk away from the wastewater industry, they will leave a legacy of good service and a business that is more sunrise than sunset.



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