Surrounded by Water, All New Systems Are Interesting

Ben and Seth Miller apply innovative treatment technologies and alternative drainfields to deal with challenging soils and compact sites on Whidbey Island

Surrounded by Water, All New Systems Are Interesting

Seth Miller connects PVC piping to a new concrete septic tank during a residential installation job. (Photos by Stephen Brashear)

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Ben Miller gives an interesting description of the soils on Whidbey Island, located north of Seattle in the Puget Sound, where he and his brother Seth operate their onsite installation business.

“I like to refer to it as Neapolitan ice cream,” says Ben. “You dig a hole in one spot and it’s nice sand. You go five feet to the left and it’s hard-packed clay right at the surface.”

Variable soils are just one of the challenges that often confront the brothers, who own Whidbey Septic based in Oak Harbor, Washington. Systems for beachfront sites need special care to avoid polluting sensitive surrounding waters. Slopes can be steep. In some areas development is dense, lots are tiny, and access for machinery and tanks is difficult.

Despite it all, the brothers so far have made a success of their business, which they have owned for four years. They thrive with a mix of system installations and repairs, system inspections for property transfers and maintenance on aerobic treatment units. On the installation side they need to be adaptable in their choice of machinery and the types of solutions they deploy, from conventional systems to aerobic treatment units and innovative drainfields.

VETERAN OWNED

The brothers came to the business after serving in the military, both in the infantry, Ben in the Army for six years including deployments to Iraq in 2009 and Afghanistan in 2013; Seth in the Marines for four years with deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013.

Both grew up on Whidbey Island and returned after military service. Ben went to college but left after a semester and worked on various jobs. His father, a real estate agent, referred him to Reed Tacia, an excavation, site development and septic system contractor who was working alone, nearing retirement and looking for help.

Ben recalls, “In 2016 I got a job working for him on Fridays for the first couple of months. I discovered that it was pretty interesting and started working for him full time.” Meanwhile Seth left the Marines, married Rebecca and earned an online degree in business communication from DeVry University. In 2017 he joined Ben on the onsite business.

Tacia taught the brothers how to operate equipment and the basics of installing onsite systems. “Eventually we got our installer’s licenses so that if our boss decided to go to Alaska for two weeks he could leave us behind without having to worry,” Ben says. Tacia retired in early 2020 and the Millers took over the onsite portion of the business.

ISLAND CHALLENGES

Whidbey Island, comprising nearly 170 square miles, is home to some 70,000 residents. Cities including Oak Harbor are sewered, but most of the island is rural land served by septics. “We’re on mainly glacial till,” says Seth. “It’s a lot of gravels and sands. There are also areas of hardpan, bedrock, and unperkable clay.”

Protecting water resources is critical. The northern half of the island has water piped in from the mainland, “But everybody else relies on groundwater, so if we start polluting it with our septic systems, we’re in trouble,” Seth observes. Ben notes that pollution from failing septic systems at beachfront homes has caused shutdowns of shellfishing in some areas.

The brothers have installed about eight onsite systems per year but expect that to increase. They inspect about 30 systems per month, getting leads from their father and two brothers who are real estate agents, and from other area Realtors. “We hope to connect with all of the Realtors on the island,” says Seth. “We’re already in with most of them, building good relationships.”

On the maintenance side, they service a variety of ATUs and a few larger community systems, such as mobile home parks.

Installations are trending away from conventional systems. Sites with favorable soils are becoming scarcer, and sites that a few decades ago were considered unbuildable on septics now can be developed using alternative technologies including ATUs. For drainfield media Whidbey Septic prefers chambers (Infiltrator Water Technologies).

The company buys precast concrete tanks from Berg Vault and uses plastic tanks (Infiltrator) for hard-to-access sites. Tank replacements are common as concrete tanks installed in the 1950s and 1960s break down and inspections reveal their condition. Inspections also find some interesting homemade innovations.

About a year ago they found a “tank” that someone had built out of cinder blocks. “You can imagine how well that worked,” says Ben. “It was just leaking out the sides.” Seth recalls, “My favorite was a pipe coming out of an old farmhouse going straight into an old fiberglass boat that was filled with gravel. That was their drainfield.”

FITTING THE SITE

When called on to install complete systems, Ben and Seth work with a number of local designers who perform perc tests, take soil borings and prescribe the type of treatment. “The county health department is building relationships with all the onsite contractors,” says Ben. “They’ll come out to the site and work with the designer. They’re making it really easy.”

For advanced treatment the brothers rely mainly on NuWater ATUs (Enviro-Flo). “I like that everything including the air pump is contained in one tank,” says Ben. “The NuWater system has a separate little chamber that the air pump sits in. The whole unit is a bit smaller than the septic tanks we use. That makes it easy to set it alongside a septic tank and a pump chamber, all in a small footprint.”

OSCAR systems (Lowridge Onsite Technologies) are becoming popular on the island as alternative drainfields. They are flexible and can readily fit on space-constrained sites. The basic system consists of a 6” of sand placed on the ground surface with coils of drip irrigation tubing (Netafim) placed on top. That is covered by another six inches to a foot of sand.

Systems can be irregular in shape. An absorption area of about 400 square feet can serve a typical three-bedroom home. Typically, OSCAR systems receive pretreated effluent from an ATU, which can be an XO2 system from Lowridge.

Tiny lots are a frequent challenge. “Probably our biggest problem for repairs and doing maintenance on things that are broken is working in already developed areas,” Ben says. “You’ll have a house, and 20 feet to your right is another house. Trying to get machinery and equipment in and having enough working room is a real issue.”

Small lots also tend to rule out systems like large conventional drainfields, sand filters or mounds: “We have to try to shrink everything down, install an ATU and an OSCAR, and try to fit everything in without taking up the entire property.”

COMPREHENSIVE SERVICE

On the installation side, the brothers pride themselves on doing a thorough and turnkey job. “We like to get everything in correctly so it’s working the first time and we don’t have to come back when something fails within the week,” says Ben.

“When everything is said and done and the system gets installed, we’ll clean up the whole area nice and pretty, so the owner doesn’t have to hire someone else to level out the yard where the drainfield is. We don’t sod, but we do seed, or we’ll add a thin layer of topsoil and then seed it.”

While septic tank pumping business on the island is fairly competitive, fewer companies offer inspections. Seth observes, “We get a lot of customers saying we’re the only ones that answer the phone.”

Since starting the business, some established installers have moved out of state or retired. “A few new people have started up, but we do notice a lack of younger people coming into the business,” says Ben. “So there is definitely going to be a gap at some point. That’s an opportunity for us.”

One of their goals is to establish regular maintenance contracts for conventional systems and ATUs and hire a team to service them. “We would like to get a service going where we can have annual and tri-annual contracts to go out and inspect all these houses,” Seth says.

One obstacle to that is the high turnover of properties on the north end of the island where Naval Air Station Whidbey Island is located. Service members are reassigned frequently and many are unwilling to sign contracts.

ENGAGING CAREER

Looking back, both brothers are well satisfied with the career choice they made. “I like how complex it can get,” Ben says. “It’s not a monotonous job where you just go and switch out a pipe. It requires some thinking, puzzling; a troubleshooting kind of feel. It keeps me engaged.”

Seth adds, “I never thought I would work in the septic industry, but after seeing most other construction jobs, and knowing I liked to work outside and work with my hands, I’d rather operate a machine or install a new system than be roofing a house. Like my brother, I couldn’t work inside an office. I’d go crazy.”

Ben and Seth would advise younger people to consider careers in construction, even if not in the onsite business. Says Ben, “I think many don’t want to get their hands dirty. They don’t want to be out in the sun or the rain. But they want to make a lot of money.

“I would tell them, if that’s what they want, that it’s easy to work your way up in the construction field, or to start something yourself,” he says. Of that, the owners of Whidbey Septic are living proof.  



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