It’s About Time Government Invests in Septic System Infrastructure

The designers at Penn’s Trail Environmental go beyond the drawing board to lobby legislators for support of decentralized wastewater

It’s About Time Government Invests in Septic System Infrastructure

Adam Browning of Penn’s Trail Environmental in Hatfield, Pennsylvania.

(Photos by Hannah Beier)

Interested in Business?

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

Business + Get Alerts

When Piedmont Environmental dissolved in 2008 during the Great Recession, three employees bought the assets of the Pennsylvania company. They formed Penn’s Trail Environmental, and after 15 years the business has grown and expanded into design and consulting work in two states.

Those three people were Paul Golrick, Maureen McDermott and Jack Dudish, says Adam Browning. Formally Browning is manager of the wastewater division, but he acts as operating officer for the company. Dudish is a macrobiologist, Golrick a professional geologist, and McDermott a wetland scientist. In both states, Penn’s Trail provides a wide variety of services reflecting its founders’ expertise including environmental assessments, geology and onsite design.

A couple of years after its founding, the company expanded into Maryland. The northeastern corner of Maryland is about an hour’s drive from the Penn’s Trail base in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, and the expansion happened because of a manufacturer’s rep, Browning says. “He brought us down to assist with a drip dispersal design. That was about 12, 13 years ago, and we never left.”


Although Penn’s Trail technically covers all of Maryland, Browning says, they don’t do much work on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. “As far as soils are concerned, the majority of the inland side of Maryland is very similar to Pennsylvania. Both lie primarily on the piedmont geologic formation, so the soils are very similar. Once you get to the eastern shore, it’s sandy; it’s completely different. The need for our services isn’t nearly as prevalent as it is on the dry side of the state.”

Onsite design standards in Maryland and Pennsylvania are similar, he says. “They’re all based off the Wisconsin mound system. However, Maryland is closer to the Wisconsin mound in its design details. Pennsylvania devised its own version of the Wisconsin mound.”

Yet Pennsylvania’s version is more designer-friendly, Browning says. For example, lateral spacing and hole spacing on laterals are fixed. In Maryland, he says, the size of the mound dictates hole spacing and lateral spacing. For perk tests, Maryland requires open holes and infiltrometer tests. Pennsylvania requires perk tubes for sand mounds and in-ground systems, he says.

There is some seasonal slowdown in the business, he says, but you can look at soils at any time. “In fact, the last couple years, the way housing has been going, we barely saw a difference in business when winter came through,” Browning says.

The far northwestern and southern corners of Maryland are about a four-hour drive from the Penn’s Trail headquarters. Browning splits his time between the two states. “I’m usually in Maryland one to two days a week, and I’m doing soil testing, infiltration testing, that kind of stuff, to support a design.”

The rest of his week is spent in the office. He maintains compliance documents on several systems that require regular samples. “What I like about my job is there’s not a lot that’s typical about it. In general I’m designing and doing infiltration and soil work daily, but it does vary.”


Personally, Browning says, he produces three to four system designs per week on average. The company’s other designer outputs about the same.

Penn’s Trail services don’t break down into clean categories, Browning says. Everything is interrelated. Most of the soil work leads to design work, which in turn leads to compliance and maintenance work. Sewage-related services make up about 65% of the business, he says. Environmental disciplines such as site assessments account for the rest.

Because of the high skills of its staff, Penn’s Trail tends to take on more complex jobs, he says. The company has done several multi-lot community systems and small-flow systems serving welcome centers.

When he talked to Onsite Installer, Browning was on the site of what would be a convenience store and next to a commercial complex the company also designed.

The commercial complex produced about 3,800 gpd and was served with a subsurface low-pressure dose system. The convenience store has a design flow of 3,000 gpd. On the same property is a liquor store with 400 gpd, and the system will use advanced treatment.

Membrane bioreactors have come up in conversation, he says, but he has yet to use one in a design. The technology does result in better soil loading rates, he says, but in the case of projects like the commercial complex, state regulations would require a licensed operator to be at the work site daily. “It just wasn’t financially feasible for that particular project,” he adds.

His largest project was a 28,000 gpd drip-irrigation field for a residential development of about 105 homes.


In Maryland the company designs a mix of systems using mounds or drip irrigation. For new construction, most systems use septic tanks and trenches although there is an increase in sand mound use, he says. Drainfields are typically hard pipes on top of aggregate and using gravity distribution. Chambers are used when access limitations make it difficult to bring in the stone for trenches.

“I’m not a fan of gravity. I would always prefer to have a pump in a system. Equal distribution is kind of my thing,” Browning says. Gravity distribution doesn’t work that well, he says, because the first couple of holes in a lateral will receive all of the water until they start to plug. So in a gravity system, a homeowner who paid for 300 feet of trenches is really using only 15 or 20 feet of them at any given time, he says.

Any time a pump is added to a system, such as to move water from a septic tank to a drainfield on a higher grade, it makes sense to eliminate the D-box, pressurize the whole system, and use the entire drainfield, Browning says.

Obviously, all the company’s projects are controlled by soils on site, he says. “Where we’re located in the southeast region of Pennsylvania, geologic formations clash so we have a mix of everything from really deep, well-drained soils to stuff that you can barely get a fork into.” 

Developers in his area would like to see more municipal sewer system extensions, Browning says, but municipalities balk at the cost. “The biggest problem where I am is that the majority of the sewer is so old that the money goes to upgrading what is already there.”


Because the company’s dirt work is limited, the list of heavy equipment that technicians use is short. A pair of John Deere 32G mini-excavators, one a 2021 and the other a 2019, handle any digging. Other equipment is much smaller.

Permeameters from American Manufacturing Company Inc. measure soil loading capacity.

“We’ve just recently purchased GPS surveying equipment. Although we’re not surveyors, it’s beneficial to us to be able to provide solid GPS coordinates to our clients,” Browning says.

For design work, the subcentimeter accuracy of their Emlid surveying gear gives very precise locations of wells, property lines and other factors, which makes plans more accurate and designing easier, he says. All design work is done with the drafting software AutoCAD.

“With the GPS I can pick up every point I want to use. So home locations, locations of the corners of my septic system, test pits, perk holes, that kind of stuff can all be collected with the GPS unit. It’s directly put into an AutoCAD-friendly format so I can bring that information into AutoCAD and have it placed accurately on a plan in a matter of seconds. What it’s done for us is cut down what used to be a two- or three-hour process on site into 15 or 20 minutes, and it increased the accuracy pretty substantially.”

Exact information can also be transferred to engineers or surveyors who need to look at a specific location, he says.

In addition to the principals, the Penn’s Trail team includes Terry Harris, Devon Tarantino, James Haklar, Cody Kline, Shannon Petrillo, Abigail Stauffer, Marcy Witt and Holly Berryman-Moss.


Each year, Browning says, he joins the NOWRA fly-in day to Washington, D.C., where he and other onsite advocates try to redirect some of the money that traditionally has gone to municipal wastewater projects. “We have also been pushing [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to investigate the environmental benefit of using onsite systems over public sewer even where public sewer is available. We haven’t gotten that through the feds yet, but it’s been talked about the last four or five years we’ve been down there. I think we’re getting closer to it.

“Our potable water sources are depleting quickly, and septic systems are the No. 1 recycler of groundwater,” he says. 

“I certainly think we’re getting noticed. We had success in this recent infrastructure budget. We were able to get what seems a quite large amount of money set aside for onsite systems. Up until that point, the money we got from the Clean Water Fund was about 1% of one-tenth of the overall funding. Countrywide, 30% of us are served onsite systems, and 80% of the country could only be served by onsite because the big pipe’s not out there yet.”

Browning says he also sits on the Sewage Advisory Committee in Pennsylvania. It’s a stakeholders group that helps legislators review and write legislation. At the moment the Legislature is rewriting the section of law governing onsite systems. Two laws passed the Legislature to allow some newer onsite technologies, but the state Department of Environmental Protection did not interpret them as legislators or stakeholders intended, he says. The coming draft rules will supposedly remedy that, he adds. By the end of the year, he says, his advisory committee expects to receive the draft rules, and hopefully they will be ready for public comment early in 2024, he says.


Browning is a certified sewage enforcement officer in Pennsylvania. “I don’t necessarily have to be for what I do,” he says. “Everybody in our office are certified sewage enforcement officers, more for the education that came along with it and to understand the program we’re dealing with.”

To earn the certification, Browning says, he attended a seven-day program. Recently he took a course that will enable him to train new sewage enforcement officers. “I want the industry to continue to advance as much as possible.”

The same goes for the Pennsylvania wastewater operator’s license exam, he says. He took it to inform his work, but he’ll never qualify for a full license because he has no opportunity to acquire the necessary hands-on operational experience.

“For me to be at the top of my game, I need to be aware of everything that’s going on, so I make it a point to involve myself in anything and everything I can,” he says.

Browning did not grow up in the wastewater industry. “I come from heavy construction. I paved highways, built buildings, ran machinery, pretty much since I was 12 until I was about 21, 22 years old.”

At the time he owned his own paving/excavating company, but he grew tired of the hustle. To an excavator friend he mentioned a plan to go back to school for another career. The friend worked for Piedmont Environmental. “About 20 minutes later he waved me over and said, ‘You have a job starting tomorrow if you want it.’ So I took the job, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Browning says he’d always been interested in design work and learned about automated design during 18 months in community college. Everything he’s learned, he’s learned on the fly, he says, “which I think in certain aspects I’ve benefited from because it wasn’t being told to me. It was, if you want to know, you have to go find it, and you appreciate what you’re finding a lot more when you’re the one digging.”

Construction experience makes him a better designer, Browning says, because he can allow for problems that someone without his experience won’t foresee. For example, he will understand from the outset that heavy equipment won’t be able to fit a small space to place a concrete tank, and he’ll design for a plastic tank. That’s minor stuff, he adds, but it’s the kind of minor stuff that can make or break a project.  


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.