Tighter Regulations are Only a Matter of Time

Advanced treatment will become commonplace in every corner of the country, so wastewater professionals need to get on board with new technologies, says a NAWT board member

Tighter Regulations are Only a Matter of Time

The Michigan Septic team includes, from left, Roger Gustafson, Trae Smith, Cole Sworden, Matt Gustafson, Ethan Gustafson and Casey Fiedler. Behind them is a 2022 Mack MD6 with a 2,500-gallon aluminum tank and National Vacuum Equipment VE blower.

Name and title or job description: Casey Fiedler, co-owner with Matt Gustafson

Business name and location: Michigan Septic LLC, Mason, Michigan

Services we offer: Everything septic — design and installation of conventional, advanced and alternative systems, maintenance, repairs, pumping. We do inspections for real estate transactions, operations and maintenance, and advanced and alternative systems. We don’t do design work in-house but we work with outside engineers for that.

Age: 33

Years in the industry: I grew up in the business. My father, Terry Fiedler, bought Jerry Shunk’s septic service in 1990 and sold it in 2018. I ran that business its last three years then started my own company.

Association involvement: I’ve been a member of the National Association of Wastewater Technicians for about five months and sit on the board of directors as the state representative for Michigan. I also sit on the board of directors for the Michigan Septic Tank Association.

Benefits of belonging to the association: In areas where there is fragmented oversight of the industry, such as Michigan, where we have disagreements between counties, and some counties have no oversight at all, a national organization gives you the ability to standardize a set of protocols and routines so everyone is speaking the same language and is on the same level of understanding. And it makes it so you can communicate among professionals and with homeowners without sounding like a bunch of idiots arguing with each other.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: An issue that faces the industry as a whole is trying to consolidate organizations. We have a lot of different organizations at regional, national and state levels that are all putting a lot of energy and effort into basically the same thing and not communicating. And one of the biggest challenges for NAWT and the industry is open communications between organizations — local health departments, state regulators, nonprofits with educational missions in the septic world. They’re all pulling the industry forward but in slightly different directions.

Our crew includes: My co-owner, Matt Gustafson, does our site work and most of our estimating. His son, Ethan Gustafson, is our service tech and does technical troubleshooting. Matt’s father, Roger Gustafson, is 72 and will not stop working. He works circles around everybody else. Cole Sworden works with Matt doing site work and putting systems in the ground. Trae Smith is our main pump truck driver.

Typical day on the job: We get together at the shop about 7:15 a.m. and do a quick team huddle. I brief everybody on anything coming up that might be something to watch out for. Guys are usually on the job site by 8 or 8:30. I do all our inspections, usually in the mornings. I drive water samples to the lab, which is not nearby so I grab some lunch on the road. Then I’m back in the office by early afternoon and get to all the phone calls and emails and follow-up inspection paperwork.

The job I’ll never forget: When you do inspections you have to walk into people’s houses and you never know what you’re going to find. I showed up to a job and a piece of paper taped to the door said, “I’m on a Zoom call, let yourself in.” I opened the door and the house smelled terrible. I went into the kitchen to get the water running so I could get a water sample and there were used, open needles everywhere. Everything was dirty and there was standing water all over. It was the nastiest site visit I’ve ever done.

My favorite piece of equipment: I live and die by my slide hammer probe from T&T Tools and my AMS hand auger. I can do 90% of my inspection work with only those two tools.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We are currently working on a site where the existing drainfield has what was called an under-drain in the 1960s. You’d have your distribution pipes, then your gravel, then under that were other pipes that picked up the wastewater as it came down. In the 1960s they permitted those under-drain pipes to then take it over to the stormwater sewer — which, of course, is no longer allowed. So the county mandated a replacement. The lot we’re working on is postage stamp-sized with a landscaping pond, five mature trees and a well that has a 50-foot encroachment on one side. So we have a small space in which to build the new system. We’re just starting to sink our teeth into that project but it will be some type of non-linear pressure distribution system.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: Most of my frustrations come from inspections that are under a tight deadline. People call up last-minute with, “Nobody else can get to me and I’m closing on my dream house and I’ve got 10 days to do all my inspections.” Those always come back to bite me. The seller wants it to be good, the buyer wants it to be bad, the Realtor wants the deal to close yesterday, and you get trapped in the middle of it. The idea that you can pull off a well and septic inspection in 10 days is laughable between getting records, scheduling, dropping off water samples, waiting for results. And there’s no state-level standardized protocol so I have to compete with people who are not doing any of that. They dig a little hole and say, “Yep, you’re good.”

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: Michigan is the only state without a well and septic program at the state level so every county makes up their own rules. A license is required only for pumpers — not installers or inspectors. So it’s maybe not well thought out where they’re putting the emphasis on education and training. I would love to see a lot more thoughtful approach to unifying the industry and helping educate everyone.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: Don’t cut corners. Don’t try to be a nice guy and overlook something because you’re trying to save the homeowner a big headache. Do it the right way every time because as soon as you give an inch that’s the one you’re going to get a phone call about.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I have a degree in outdoor education and leadership. I was a full-time backpacking guide and alpine ski instructor in Park City, Utah for seven years. If I could, I would still be doing that. It’s a huge passion of mine. But it turns out ski instructors basically sell their kneecaps in exchange for money.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: With conservation of water and the shortages we’re seeing around the country, it’s only a matter of time before the wastewater industry, by necessity, is going to get tighter and more regulated. There will be more reuse and collection and tighter standards for discharges. I see the industry becoming more technical. We’re starting to see chlorine, ultraviolet disinfection, drip irrigation, spray irrigation and pioneering technologies in areas that 20 years ago you’d dig a trench and put a pipe in it. Reuse and conservation practices are on the upswing. Every year we get more complicated, control panels get more buttons and switches and things to troubleshoot. If you’re still just putting in concrete tanks and drainfield trenches, you might want to get ahead of the game because it’s only a matter of time before the more advanced systems find their way into all corners of the country.


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