In Your Words Part 2: Advice and Stories from 2019’s Featured Installers

In Your Words Part 2: Advice and Stories from 2019’s Featured Installers

This industry is filled with hardworking, talented individuals who are proud of our industry, and we enjoy sharing their work with you. 

Every month installers share their best advice, industry insights, the craziest questions homeowners ask them, and the jobs they’ll never forget. We hope you enjoy reading these stories to learn from others in the industry and glean tips and tricks to implement in your own business. 

We rounded up some of the more memorable stories and quotes to share with you again.

The job I’ll never forget: The most memorable job happened when I was about 8 years old on a job with my father pumping out a restaurant customer’s cesspool. We were on the side of a hill. We didn’t have vacuum trucks back then; we had these centrifugal pumps, and if they sucked air, you would lose the load. My father was checking to see how full the truck was, and I was down pumping the tank. I must have lifted the hose out of the cesspool, and as soon as that air went up and hit that pump, it immediately lost compression and suction. The owner was standing on the other side of the septic tank, and suddenly all that product came flying down out of that 3-inch hose. It actually set me back, and the hose lifted and hit the guy and knocked him down the hill. The poor guy, he was just full of sewage.
– Ned Lang, president, Enviroventures, Narrowsburg, New York

We have a rule we try to follow: If we hire you, it’s going to be a lifetime hire. We encourage you to get your septic installation license. When you start wanting to take over a crew, we offer you a slot at the school if you want to take it. With that slot, we pay for your school, we pay for your hotel, we pay for your testing, we pay for everything. And then on top of that, you’ll get a raise because in our minds that means you’ve taken the step: You want to better yourself.”

David Mastin, company manager, KESS Environmental Services, Opelika, Alabama

Garth Millan
Garth Millan
Craziest question I’ve been asked: In the early years, I would have had many answers for this, but in the past 15 years, I’ve learned no question is crazy. If you really listen and ask for more information, you will learn the client’s depth of understanding. What seemed like a ridiculous question was purely the client’s lack of knowledge. It reminds me that before I attended formal training, I only thought I knew what made septic systems operate. It takes years of making your own mistakes to gain knowledge. So I do not judge clients for asking questions, I encourage it. Many homeowners have stated they learned more about their septic system in the hour and a half I spent with them than in all their years of ownership. That is when I know I am doing my job properly.
– Garth Millan, co-owner, JAB Site & Wastewater Solutions, Hornby Island, British Columbia
The job I’ll never forget: Sometimes people don’t think before they do expansions or modifications to their property. There was a job where the owners had put an extension onto their house at ground level, and when the septic tank needed to be pumped, it was found underneath the bed in a bedroom. We had to move the bed, cut a hole in the floor and put the hose in through the window.
– James Baxter, operations manager, Baird’s Septic Tank Pumping, Upper Onslow, Nova Scotia

We’re installing Wi-Fi and Mi-Fi connections and using their routers to email us when there is an alarm condition. The alarms are silenced. When the alarm is triggered, we receive an email and send the pump truck without any phone calls or other interactions. We’re going to put them in wherever we have clients who are struggling with failing systems. We have an area near us that is being converted to sewer, and about 1,000 homeowners are waiting for the sewer line to come in. Some are in dire distress situations where we pump every other week. We’re going to put the Wi-Fi connections in wherever someone needs to get pumped before the liquid rises to the level of the sewer line and causes a backup.
– David DiGregorio, co-owner, Delaware Valley Septic, Sewer & Storm, Springfield, Pennsylvania

When we do an install, we’re back at people’s houses, touching things up, filling in soil when excavations settle or getting grass professionals in to treat the final landscapes. We do whatever is necessary to make sure the product on top of the ground is just as satisfactory as what’s under the ground. [When installing replacement systems] we want our clients disturbed as little as possible. Sometimes we use track matting. When we do deep holes, we put all the soil on a mat and then put it back.  

Most times, clients don’t realize how invasive installation and repair work will actually be. Seeing a design on paper is a lot different than the reality of having your property damaged by all the earth-moving work required to complete a job. We tell our clients their property will look like a bomb hit it for about a week, but then it will all be restored the following week.
– T.J. Dell’Arciprete, co-owner, Delaware Valley Septic, Sewer & Storm, Springfield, Pennsylvania

I don’t play the negotiating game. If customers argue price with me, I give them another phone number and walk away. My quotes are competitive, so why should I lose money to these people? In the end, it means I’ll be unable to pay a bill.”

Willie Brown, co-owner, Black Mountain Excavating, Payson, Arizona
Willie Brown
Willie Brown

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: One was, “Why are all these nonbiodegradable products in my system?”
– Ronnie Thomas, principal owner and consultant, Triple R Construction Co., Manassas, Virginia

We’ve got an abundance of choices. Not every technology, be it aerobic tanks or recirculating filters, will be the right answer for every property. We need to evaluate properties and choose the technology that fits best.

Part of the right choice is what’s going to be the most affordable. Treatment is the first decision, and the second choice is what it costs to install the system and keep it working. That’s the place where the industry is going to learn the most in the next 10 years: What is the real economy around these different technologies?
– Dave Gustafson, instructor, University of Minnesota’s Onsite Sewage Treatment Program

The job I’ll never forget: I was called in to change out a steel septic tank for a concrete one for a person in their mid-80s. It was located “out there somewhere.” Having used all the traditional methods — metal detectors, probes, dye, color of the vegetation — after two hours we started an excavation investigation. As luck would have it, the track on our Case CX50 mini-excavator drove directly alongside the corrupted steel tank, which immediately collapsed. It never happened in 38 years, but it happened.
– Mike Stairs, president/owner, Mike Stairs General Contracting, Lakeville Corner, New Brunswick

This is evidence of the job Mike Stairs will never forget. His Case excavator ran over the location of a deteriorating steel tank and collapsed into the mud.
This is evidence of the job Mike Stairs will never forget. His Case excavator ran over the location of a deteriorating steel tank and collapsed into the mud.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: An installation where I bid the job without looking closely at the numbers on elevation. It was a 25-degree slope, which was extremely difficult. We handled that situation very carefully. I was the only one who ran the machine. I wouldn’t let anybody else on it. We had to find flatter areas on the hillside and traverse back and forth to navigate — and use extra care not to flip the machine. We didn’t flip it, we got it installed and everybody was happy, but it just goes to emphasize — always look at the permit. When it says tank elevation zero and line one is 20 feet away and elevation is 18 feet, you know it’s steep.
– Justin Haynes, president/owner, Southland Septic Service, Hot Springs, Arkansas

I like the fact that you can be diversified in the business and still be focused on the wastewater niche market. There are a lot of different things you can do and still be just septic and sewer guys.”

Kendall Unruh, co-owner, Western Septic & Excavation, Buhl, Idaho

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: After we’ve put in a new septic system, I’ve had people say, “So now I pump this, what — every 20 years?” And you have to educate them on that. And we get a lot of questions asking us if we can retrieve jewelry that’s gone down drains. Every week you get some sort of question that makes you sit there and roll your eyes.
– Paul Mumford Jr., co-owner, Mumford Services, North Kingstown, Rhode Island

The wastewater industry is the most down-to-earth environmental protection industry you could be in. We are the actual boots on the ground protecting groundwater in a significant way through the proper treatment of wastewater. When that is recognized, then maybe changes to our industry will happen much quicker than they are now.
– Jason Holtvogt, owner, Holtvogt Sand and Gravel, Humboldt, Saskatchewan

I’m willing to risk training possible future employees for my competition versus having employees who can’t answer customers’ questions. The first time my guys changed out a programmable logic unit on an Orenco MVP control panel without me standing there was worth whatever I spent to get them to that point.

I’m overqualified to design, install or service wastewater systems, but I’m no longer plagued by questions I had in 2012. What I learned enables me to push the limits of soil and know when to tell clients I can’t help them.

Learning how to say no is a big milestone in business. If you say yes and fail, that’s all people remember. If you tell them what they are asking is unrealistic and explain why, they’ll respect that.
– David Meints, owner, MEINCO Wastewater Services, Alexander, Arkansas

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: The funniest, most unusual one for me was from a lady who had purchased a home and had the alarm go off. I checked it out and it had been a running toilet. We got it corrected, but she asked me, “Where does all the water from that pump tank go?” I said, “Out there in the front yard: There’s a soil treatment area out there.” She goes, “What?! You hillbillies are crazy.” That was where her daughter played. She sold her house and moved back to New York. 
– Mark Burns, president and owner, Triple R Construction Co., Manassas, Virginia

After installing an AquaO2 Wastewater Treatment Systems mound system, the owner told us to move it because it blocked their view of the lake — a $50,000 job. Not happening.”

Charlie Seamon, vice president and owner, Triple R Construction Co., Manassas, Virginia

We’ve had opportunities to work for a guy who (builds) 40 homes in a year, and we always shied away from that. I just never felt comfortable relying on one person. When things are going good, it makes life easy. But we never did that, and when that economy hit, a lot of guys were working for builders who stuck them for tons of money, and they folded up.
– Scott Marut, vice president, Marut and Sons Excavating, Perry, Ohio
The advice that I’ve been able to put into practice and that’s worked for me is to just show up every day and be honest. Sometimes showing up just means getting through a bad day and coming back tomorrow. And if you are honest in what you tell your customers, you don’t have to remember any lies. … You just tell it the way it is and people will pay you for that. Honesty also includes saying you don’t know sometimes.
– Gary Pinkas, owner, Bradford Septic Tank Co., West Palm Beach, Florida

Be clear in your expectations of the people you work with. We put up a sign that’s just for our guys, and it’s my expectation: “Triple R — we do very good work.” They see that sign every day, and I expect them to fulfill it. It’s been a successful recipe so far.
– Mark Burns, president and owner, Triple R Construction Co., Manassas, Virginia 


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