Oklahoma's Irwin Septic Promotes Routine Septic Maintenance

Oklahoma’s Irwin Septic promotes the long-term health of onsite systems by stressing routine maintenance and pumping.
Oklahoma's Irwin Septic Promotes Routine Septic Maintenance
The Irwin Septic Tank Cleaning crew includes, from left, Patrick Lemmings, Shane Irwin and T.J. Wolford. The silver-flamed truck behind them is from Progress Tank and the second company rig is a GMC locally built by Standard Steel of Oklahoma City.

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Shane Irwin is fighting a familiar battle to pumpers across the country. The third-generation owner of Irwin Septic Tank Cleaning, Plumbing & Repair in Midwest City, Okla., is constantly preaching the importance of septic maintenance and routine pumping, yet he often encounters woefully neglected tanks on his pumping rounds.

Taking the reins at the family business located near Oklahoma City in 2013, Irwin is making steady progress toward building the maintenance and repair portion of the 43-year-old pumping company. And he supports more thoughtful regulation of pumping and inspection to ensure homeowners get long and effective service out of their septic systems. But he admits that sometimes it seems slow going.

“Oklahoma is far behind a number of states in creating laws that require you to maintain or inspect any septic system,” says Irwin. “A lot of our jobs are emergency calls about systems that have gone way beyond saving through regular maintenance.”

MODEST BEGINNINGS

Irwin’s concern for preserving septic systems is born out of a long family history of customer care, going back to his grandparents, Orvil and Helen, who established the company in 1972.

“My grandpa was a truck driver for Wonder Bread for years and just wanted to do something different,” says Irwin. “Putting a tank in the back of a pickup truck was both familiar and different enough for him to get into the business and stick with it.”

Irwin’s father, Larry, had been an oilfield worker, but he preferred the steady rhythm of septic pumping to the market fluctuations of the energy business. He started working for the company in the mid-1980s and eventually took over operations in the 1990s.

“I’ve been riding the truck from age 4 or 5 on,” recalls Irwin, 34. “I started driving for the family business 15 years ago. When my father offered the business to me, I was definitely excited.”

The business generally operates within a 50-mile radius of Oklahoma City. It employs two people full time. Patrick Lemmings is a driver and service technician who shares duties with Irwin, each covering half the territory on the day’s service calls. T.J. Wolford rides shotgun with either one and helps out as needed.

LOOKING FORWARD

Irwin’s wife, Reina, runs the office, making calls, taking orders and handling paperwork. They’re assisted by son Logan, 11, and daughter Emily, 10, who often ride with their dad.

“I took a longer drive to Bristow, about a two-hour drive away, recently to do an emergency septic pumping job, in part because my son and I could enjoy the drive together,” says Irwin.

Septic systems remain common in the Midwest City area where only part of the city is served by sewers. The area is booming on the back of the oil and gas sector.

“Nearby Choctaw is one of the fastest growing cities in the state and 99 percent of the new housing construction is served by septic,” says Irwin. “About half the systems are traditional septic tanks. The other half are aerobic systems, which are installed because the houses are either built near a water feature or on almost solid clay soil that doesn’t work well for leaching.”

The aerobic systems feature three or four compartmentalized tanks and an aerobic treatment unit. Effluent is aerated and treated with chlorine or bleach. The treated water is then applied to lawns and gardens through sprinkler heads, employing a pump on a timer. The systems require more attention from homeowners, who need to add chlorine and visually inspect the system from time to time.

IMPROVE REGULATION

Irwin Septic provides maintenance service contracts for aerobic systems, but many homeowners choose to go it alone – and fail miserably. Often pool chlorine, which can’t disinfect septic fluids, is substituted for the proper formulation. Irwin has also encountered aerobic systems with compressors burnt out from years of chewing on an overflow of sludge. Other systems haven’t been pumped for as many as a dozen years and are irrigating the lawn with sewage.

“Last year we received a call about a house with a regular septic tank that was having issues with backing up,” says Irwin. “The homeowner told us she hadn’t had it serviced in 15 years and wanted us to snake the line because it was blocked. We told her to go outside and remove the cap of the clean-out and not to flush the toilets, do the dishes or use any water until we arrived. She didn’t listen and by the time we got there, sewage had backed up into the stand-up shower.”

Irwin says he’d like to see tougher rules on both septic tank inspection and maintenance. In the absence of regulations, the company expends considerable effort educating its clientele on the proper care and maintenance of septic systems.

CUSTOMER EDUCATION

“Sometimes it seems like we spend too much time on customer education,” says Irwin. “But most of them know absolutely nothing about their systems, and proper maintenance is as important as regular pumping. We try to show them what their system looks like when we uncover it, what happens when they flush and demonstrate the importance of regular maintenance. We also like to build a reputation for being able to solve the tougher problems. If we can achieve that, it doesn’t matter if we stay a little longer than we think we needed to.”

Irwin Septic also offers system repairs from lateral lines to chamber systems, concrete tanks, tank risers and any component of an aerobic system, from control box to sprinkler heads. While the company sources parts from a range of vendors, Irwin orders risers from Tuf-Tite and Polylok Inc. Compressors are replaced by models from HiBlow or Medo USA Inc., while all aerobic pumps are supplied by Franklin Electric. The company rents a backhoe as needed for excavation.

“We’re seeing a lot of repairs to kinked and broken lines that I believe are caused by minor earthquakes,” says Irwin.

The company also offers a range of pumping services, from swimming pools to ponds, lagoons, lift stations, flooded basements, storm shelters, car wash pits, construction sites, restaurant grease traps and fish/koi ponds.

“A pumper is perfect for emptying a swimming pool filled with mud, leaves and debris,” says Irwin. “We recently pumped out a koi pond that the homeowner had entrusted to one of his friends while he was away. He neglected it and all the koi died. We pumped out three truckloads of pond water and dead fish.”

It’s a two-truck business right now, with Irwin taking one truck and Lemmings the other. A 2002 International 4300 DuraStar is outfitted by Progress Tank with a 2,200-gallon polished aluminum tank and Jurop/Chandler R260 pump. The backup is a 1995 GMC TopKick with a 1,300-gallon steel tank and Wallenstein pump built out by Standard Steel of Oklahoma City.

PROMOTE TO SUCCEED

Irwin promotes his business through his website and also advertises in the local newspaper. But the company inspires a lot of attention with its Facebook presence. The company Facebook page features educational information, extensive photo essays on individual projects and customer testimonials.

“The Facebook page isn’t only to show people our work; it also helps me remember everything we’ve done,” says Irwin. “It acts as a reference page that we can go back to if we want to remember how we handled a particular job. Whenever we get a new customer we ask them how they first heard about us so we know which of our advertisements are working best for us. We also do a lot of local sponsorships, like banners at baseball fields.”

He’s a member of both Business Network International Oklahoma and Oklahoma Acquired Business Connections.

“In both organizations, there’s one member per trade group,” says Irwin. “We’ve received a lot of referrals from members ranging from real estate agents to plumbers and builders. These groups represent a huge part of our referrals.”

The real estate referrals generally involve point-of-sale inspections. The company often gets the contract for the repair work as well.

“We recently checked out a septic tank belonging to a homeowner who hadn’t had the tank inspected before the sale, six months earlier,” says Irwin. “When we went in, we saw that the sidewall of the concrete tank had collapsed. It could have been covered by the seller or reflected in the price if we’d gotten there earlier.”

A BRIGHT FUTURE

With many pumpers in the area nearing retirement age, Irwin is planning to expand the business. He’s looking to buy a bigger vacuum truck when the time is right to meet the demands of a growing urban area.

“We’re also looking to do more full septic tank installations and branching out into storm shelter construction,” says Irwin. “It’s an exciting time for our business.”



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