Pumper Discusses Founding & Operation of Oakland County Septic Installers Association

Concerned about shoddy work and little health department oversight, septic system installers in one Michigan county went after beefed-up regulations and won.
Pumper Discusses Founding & Operation of Oakland County Septic Installers Association
Dave Janette may be reached at 248/685-1948.

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Some contractors in Oakland County, Mich., were installing septic systems without obtaining permits and often used inferior materials. Their actions were illegal in Livingston, Washtenaw, and Genesee Counties, which required permits and contractor certification, but not in neighboring Oakland County, as each county determines its own health code.

Oakland County has more than 80,000 onsite systems, the largest number in the state, and 108 installers. In 2012, they installed more than 470 new systems. “Some contractors were fed up with the situation because it was difficult to bid against those companies and because no one was looking out for the homeowners,” says Dave Janette of Janette and Sons Excavating in Highland. “Tim Brendel, who owns Timothy A. Brendel Excavating in White Lake, and I got 30 contractors together and decided to level the playing field.” In 2008, they formed the Oakland County Septic Installers Association, a group dedicated to making the county better by changing the code. Janette is president and Brendel vice president.

Janette’s family has been a major player in the business since 1952, when Frank Janette began manufacturing and installing concrete septic tanks and drain tile before branching into residential and commercial excavation. Later, Dave Janette became certified to install aerobic treatment units from Norweco and Orenco Systems, and geotextile sand filter modules from Eljen Corp. In 2010, the family bought a 2003 Freightliner chassis, added a 2,600-gallon steel tank with NVE707 Challenger pump, and entered the pumping business.

The county’s health codes, written in the 1970s, have never been revised. Effecting change took years of negotiations. The association realized its first success when the county required installers to be certified as of May 1, 2012. Janette talked to Pumper about the process and the group’s future goals.

Pumper: How eager were contractors to join the association?

Janette: Tim and I worked hard to convince installers outside the initial group to come to meetings. Some guys didn’t join for fear of rocking the boat. I stressed that we were working with Tony Drautz, the Oakland County Environmental Health administrator. We invited him and county board members to every meeting. When they saw the membership united around a common goal, they came and supported our efforts.

Pumper: How did you manage that?

Janette: Numbers speak. At first, the department didn’t know what to do with us. As more installers joined, the agency saw we were serious and coming in force – all 62 of us in a united front. We even attracted the attention of staff from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, who began attending meetings.

Livingston County Health Department revamped its entire health code in six months. I invited department staff and others to meetings to explain how much better off the county was after requiring contractor certification. Unfortunately, Oakland County’s rules do not allow attaching amendments to the code. Our health department had to create a new article just for licensing contractors. It took three and a half years of hard work to reach that point. Then the prosecutor attorneys had to review the new law and that took months.

Pumper: What else did you do to increase membership?

Janette: I invited equipment manufacturers such as Caterpillar, Southeastern Equipment (Case dealership), and Alta Equipment Co. (Volvo dealership) to join the association. They agreed because the size of our membership makes it worth their while to host a meeting once or twice a year. We invited all the installers to our December 2012 meeting in Novi. The manufacturers also give members special pricing on new equipment, a reduced price on parts, and special rates on rental equipment.

Pumper: Who created and administered the certification exam?

Janette: The association helped create the test with the health department, then they held a preparatory class for installers, county health inspectors and homeowners wishing to install their own systems. After taking the test, even contractors who didn’t belong to the association expressed appreciation for what we had accomplished.

Pumper: What was your biggest challenge?

Janette: How our laws are written. For example, surrounding counties bond contractors. We also wanted to be bonded, but the attorneys said the law won’t allow it. Tony Drautz provided insight as to what the department could and couldn’t do, and worked with us to find alternatives. The solution we arrived at was for the county to fine contractors $250 per day for installing systems without a license or permit. If the design is engineered, getting a permit can take up to 90 days.

Slow turnarounds on engineered designs are a big red flag, and the county knows it has a problem. Accelerating the permitting process is the association’s next goal. I’ve begun calling local health departments in other states and asking how long it takes them to issue permits.

Rehabilitating systems is another thorny area. We don’t need a permit to run a new pipe from the septic tank to the header, but we do need one to alter anything in the tank or drainfield. Consequently, most contractors avoid rehabilitations. It’s frustrating, because the county will adopt a new technology in a heartbeat, but take forever to accept proposed rule changes.

Pumper: What other revisions are you working on with the county?

Janette: We are proposing mandatory risers on tanks and Schedule 40 PVC pipe from the septic tank to the drainfield. Our county doesn’t require inspections of septic tank installations, enabling contractors to use less expensive thin-wall pipe. After a few years, the settling soil pops the pipe out of the outlet or flattens it.

Mandatory continuing education for installers is another goal. Michigan State University has an onsite training facility in Novi that has slipped into disuse. I’m talking with Ron Lindzy from Milan Supply about getting it up and running. We buy product from Milan, and Ron teaches certification classes on components at our meetings. We’d like to hold those classes at Novi along with courses that will give pumpers the 30 credits they need every five years. However, instructors from Michigan State must teach those courses for accreditation. Once we find them, we can work on the facility.

This February, the association achieved another of its goals and began teaching free onsite education classes for homeowners in their towns. The county doesn’t have anything like that. We want to help homeowners get every drop of life they can out of their systems.

Pumper: How do you see the future of pumping and onsite installations unfolding in Michigan?

Janette: As long as sewers stay out of here, it will be great. Bringing in city water would open up land for application and onsite systems because we wouldn’t have to worry about potable wells.

I’d love to see the county and state adopt unattended septage receiving stations like the one that opened recently in Livingston County. The 67,000 gpd (design) facility processed 16 million gallons through two PortALogic discharge stations in 2012. We swipe our card to get in and we’re out of there within minutes. In Oakland County, we offload into a hole and are charged by tank capacity. Loads are metered at Livingston. It’s a wonderful clean, warm, dry facility that works well. Many Oakland County haulers are using it for those reasons and because it is closer than our dump station. (www.youtube.com/watch?v=RC_phz-U5jc)


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