Upon Further Review

Septic sleuth Dawn Long’s documentation of tank conditions is helping the industry better understand system failures

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Helping her then-husband study for his medical exams sparked Dawn Long’s interest in things scientific and channeled her natural curiosity into the field of research. Today, as co-owner of American Septic Service in Sierra Vista, Ariz., Long is recognized as a pumper who studies septic tanks, concrete corrosion and drain flies.

She has presented papers at the Southwest Onsite Wastewater Conference, the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association Conference, and at the National Association of Wastewater Transporters pumper and inspector training sessions. Her seminars have educated Realtors and homeowner associations and were part of the Water Wise program for the University of Arizona.

Long’s studies attracted the interest of other researchers, but their greatest value enabled her to evolve into a troubleshooter for onsite system issues. Long’s photographic record of pumped tanks is a powerful marketing and educational tool. These images better inform homeowners about what is in the ground and provide logical explanations to their problems.

Pumper: What drives your curiosity to the investigative level?

Long: When my husband, Don, and I opened American Septic Service in 2001, we didn’t know anything about the business. After pumping a few tanks, I realized that we should vacuum so much liquid and became curious when not much came out. At that time, pumpers in Cochise County cleaned tanks through 4-inch plastic observation ports. I wanted to know what was going on inside, so we opened every tank we serviced.

The following Christmas, Don bought me a camera and that really sparked my interest. I began photographing all the jobs, first to provide legal evidence should the need arise, then to document the tank interior, the baffles, the scum, the sludge, everything. Whenever I sensed that something was wrong in a tank, I searched further. If I couldn’t find an answer, I’d ask people in the industry. Our workload increased because the word was out that I wasn’t afraid to ask questions.

Pumper: As you documented pump-outs, what patterns did you see emerging?

Long: Something very unusual and unique to Cochise County. Each decade from the 1950s forward had a distinct septic tank design because of different precasters. In the ’60s, tanks had concrete baffles and quartered lids. The ’70s brought concrete baffles, two half-ton lids, and no entrance — only tiny peepholes. In the ’80s, ADEQ mandated a one-compartment tank with poured-in-place 24-inch manholes. In the ’90s, the agency mandated two-chamber tanks with the second compartment one-third the overall capacity.

Pumper: How did this discovery help you become a better pumper?

Long: By determining the date of the tank, we knew where to dig for the manholes or inspection ports, what to expect for baffles, and what problems were peculiar to that design. We began troubleshooting systems rather than just pumping them. For example, backups plagued homeowners with 1980s systems. If no effluent drained back from the leach field as we pumped the tank, it was a clue that 24 inches of sludge was blocking the outlet. They were cast with a longer-than-normal extension, but because pumpers didn’t open tanks until the code changed in 2006, drainfields were blamed and homeowners paid for unnecessary replacements.

When customers call with a backed-up system installed from 2000 onward, I know the reasons were clogged effluent filters and dipped, crimped, or severed inlets and outlets. The damage occurred during backfilling by careless installers. If we’re summoned by new customers who know nothing about their systems, I call the assessor to learn the installation date. If he has no record, I run my RIDGID SeeSnake camera into the tank to look at the baffles. Their design will date the tank.

Pumper: Besides NAWT and NOWRA, what other associations have been interested in your research?

Long: The AZ Water Association invited me to present my NOWRA paper at its annual conference this May. Jack Bale, a founding member of the Arizona Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, used my statistics in his presentation to the Arizona County Directors of Environmental Health Services Association and the AZ Water Association.

Pumper: What caught your attention after completing the septic tank study?

Long: I began seeing deteriorated baffles in the 1970s tanks. The outlet baffle was completely eaten away in the dirtiest ones with the most scum. After many observations and documentation, I concluded there is a direct correlation between poor maintenance and accelerated deterioration. Although the systems are 30 years old, many would have continued to function had the baffles been in place and the solids not reached the drainfield.

Because of my interest, Aaron Ausen, concrete engineer for Dalmaray Precast Concrete Products in Janesville, Wis., recommended me to Roland Bydlon, senior strategist and founder of EYP Advisors. The National Precast Concrete Association hired him to investigate microbial-induced corrosion. Roland used my photos in his presentation to the board of directors. According to Aaron, NPCA will spend about $250,000 in the next few years to research the problem.

Pumper: How does your research help convince homeowners to maintain their tanks?

Long: My goal is to make them better informed and to tell them the truth. I visit their property, tell them the age of their tank, show them photos of tank interiors with their design, explain the design’s pros and cons, and why keeping the tank clean will keep their leach field viable for the life of the home. I do believe that properly maintained systems will last a lot longer than their supposed design life.

Homeowners can’t argue with that amount of physical evidence, and it convinces them that I’m trustworthy. I make recommendations, give them prices, direct them to my website, and leave. Most become customers. After servicing their tanks, I make prints of the photos and enclose them in a thank-you letter with some business cards. I ask them to call with questions and offer to come again gratis to troubleshoot. If this was a point-of-sale inspection and the property doesn’t sell within the six-month limit, I say that we’ll inspect the system again for free in appreciation of their business.

Pumper: How did you become interested in studying drain flies?

Long: We were accustomed to finding drain flies in newer, shallower systems, and I wondered if that was because they were closer to oxygen. We never found drain flies in previously unopened tanks, but they appeared after we installed risers on them. It seems to be an oxygen issue.

Then customers began calling with backed-up systems that were three months old. None of them knew that they had an effluent filter. When I cleaned the screens, I noticed black particles on them, but didn’t pay much attention. One customer called back two months later with the same complaint. Then he called again. This time I disassembled the filter, examined it with a magnifying glass, and saw thousands of dead and dying flies plugging the filter. As I continued my investigation, I saw the same scenario and also noticed that if the filter was totally plugged, drain fly larvae lived at the top where there was no effluent.

The problem appears to be the filter’s design, and Cochise County has mostly one brand. I’m testing filters from different manufacturers in the worst problem tanks and installing more gratis in other tanks to see what happens.

Pumper: What motivated you to publish a quarterly e-newsletter?

Long: I wanted customers to become more aware of maintenance issues and to provide facts that would help pumpers become better service providers. Anyone can subscribe for free at www.americansepticservice.com. The information is general enough to apply to most septic systems. My inspiration began at conferences where I’d hear pumpers say, “We opened the tank and there was nothing in it, not even water, so we didn’t need to pump it.” Well, tanks must have water or there’s a problem. My next newsletter is titled “Let’s Talk Levels,” because that is one of the most misunderstood topics. If it is too high or too low, service providers must find the reason for it. Each tank has an exact static level and won’t operate properly without it.

Pumper: What else is on your educational horizon?

Long: Next year, I want to begin writing a book on septic inspecting and troubleshooting. Pumpers have many questions about those subjects, and while the information may be out there, it isn’t consolidated. When we first went into business, nobody would answer my questions. That inspired me to learn and I want to pass that knowledge to others. I am not a scientist. I’m an observer with my boots on the ground and my head in the tank.

Dawn Long may be reached at 520/378-9569 or septicsleuths@qwest office.net.


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