Linking Pumpers and the Public in the Classroom

Stepping out to educate septic system users will generate more maintenance business and result in happier homeowners.
Linking Pumpers and the Public in the Classroom
Reach Karen McBride at kmmcbride@rcac.org.

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Pumpers can play a critical role in improving water quality in their communities by educating customers about septic system usage and maintenance, but not enough of them are doing so.

That’s the assessment of Karen McBride, a rural-development specialist-environmental for the Rural Community Assistance Corp. (RCAC), based in Sacramento, California. Established in 1978 and supported by federal and state contracts as well as grants and private donors, the RCAC is a nonprofit advocacy group that provides technical, training, and financial resources for disadvantaged, low-income communities in 14 Western states. It helps communities deal with issues such as lending, housing, economic development — and environmental issues, which is where McBride steps in.

An avid Pumper reader, McBride has worked for the RCAC for 20 years. She’s a former vice president of the California Onsite Water Association and also sat on a committee that helped the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency develop its Voluntary National Guidelines for Management of OnSite Systems.

McBride helped establish the Sea Ranch Association Onsite Wastewater Disposal Zone. The creation of the zone and a subsequent operating agreement effectively solved septic system problems in the community of Sea Ranch, an upscale resort community along the California coast in Sonoma County. The problems, which included poor septic system maintenance, were so severe that officials placed a moratorium on future development. But thanks to a program that includes rigorous standards for septic system inspections, operation, and management, the moratorium eventually was lifted.

McBride discussed the role pumpers can play in educating consumers about septic systems and how doing so can benefit their businesses:

Pumper: How does septic system education fit into the RCAC’s mission?

McBride: One of our divisions is environmental, which is tasked with helping communities improve their wastewater and drinking-water quality. We educate them to be more proactive about protecting what they have in terms of community infrastructure, such as septic tanks.

Our funding doesn’t allow us to work with individual homeowners; we have to work with the communities as a whole. We usually deal with communities that are showing signs of environmental or public health hazards … maybe their wastewater systems are impacting their drinking-water systems.

Pumper: How would you rate the knowledge level of the average septic system user?

McBride: I would say it’s limited. I think there are organizations like the National Association of Waste Technicians and other groups — ­such as Pumper magazine — that do a good job of getting the word out. But there’s still a lot of work to do in the trenches — at the community level. I see pumpers being the more in-the-trenches folks. We need to do a better job of educating people about their septic systems.

Pumper: Why is knowledge level so low?

McBride: In many instances, communities have never been educated about how to maintain septic systems. The industry does a good job of designing and installing systems, but then we tend to walk away. There’s not enough emphasis on the importance of maintaining them — how to take care of them. We could do more at the county government level and establish maintenance standards, instead of signing off on systems and then leaving homeowners kind of hanging on their own.

I promote working with local pumpers to see if they’re willing to develop multihomeowner agreements for regularly scheduled pumping. For example, provide a discounted rate if, say, five homeowners band together and commit to pumping every three years. That keeps local pumpers busy, and it also establishes a more proactive mindset among homeowners for keeping their systems pumped out.

Too often we work with communities that are in a crisis mode, where septage is backing up into homes or they’re dealing with surface-water issues. When we do homeowner training, most people say they don’t pump their tanks until septage backs up into their home. It’s always an issue of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. We just need to teach homeowners to be more proactive.

Pumper: In a perfect world, how would you establish better education protocols?

McBride: I would love to see a lot more preventive maintenance programs established for septic systems on a community-wide basis. That way, all homeowners get their tanks pumped every three years, for instance; everything is consistent and everyone is expected to maintain their system to the same degree.

The Sea Ranch maintenance district is a good example. Sea Ranch has its own onsite wastewater disposal zone — a community of 1,500 individual septic systems governed by a homeowners’ association. If you own a house there, you’re required to have ongoing inspections that, in turn, dictate when tanks need pumping. It’s a great program because it gives local residents a lot more reassurance that systems will last a lot longer because they’re monitored and get pumped regularly. There already are some such arrangements but not enough.

Pumper: Can pumpers play an important role in education?

McBride: Pumpers have an advantage because they’re the boots on the ground. They can be a very important part of the process.

If I owned a pumping business, I’d be pitching contracts to get homeowners on routine pumping schedules. Stress to them that regular pumping reduces the odds of any negative environment impact, plus their systems will last a lot longer if they’re properly maintained.

Many pumpers already send out postcards to notify customers their tanks need cleaning, but that allows homeowners to opt out. I’d be a bit more proactive: tell them let’s get a contract signed and make pumpings routine. I’d compare it to maintaining a car — getting the oil changed and tires rotated regularly.

Regularly scheduled maintenance would also make it easier for people to budget for pumping. Many times people complain about the cost of pumping, but they could budget for it better — stick some money away — if they knew it was going to happen, say, every three years.

Pumper: How can pumpers educate customers if they’re not home during pumpings?

McBride: I would definitely work up a trifold brochure to leave behind with customers. And if they are home, I’d make sure customers come out and watch so they can ask questions and observe what’s happening.

Pumper: How can pumpers motivate homeowners that aren’t interested in education?

McBride: There’s an advantage to taking a community-wide approach instead of trying to educate homeowner by homeowner. Most of the communities we deal with are very small — maybe a couple hundred households. So breaking down that wall is easier when you’re work with numbers.

We often host community workshops on a Saturday or a weeknight evening and teach homeowners a little about their systems and how they work and promote the importance of regular maintenance. Attendance varies, but more often than not, people are surprisingly interested. Some may have just moved to a rural area and don’t know anything about septic systems.

But it’s critical to offer a carrot, so to speak. So whenever possible, we invite a pumper to appear who’s willing to give away a free pumping. It helps pumpers promote their business. We also give away free food or maybe hold a potluck dinner along with the community workshop. People like that socializing aspect.

Pumper: Do you think pumpers can use education as a marketing angle?

McBride: Absolutely. If more pumpers did that, it really would benefit their businesses. If they appear at a workshop, the value all depends on getting people to show up. That’s the key thing. That’s why it helps to offer them an incentive to get them there.

Pumper: Where can pumpers get good information about educating consumers?

McBride: We have about 120 people on staff for environmental and housing issues, so pumpers can always call us for tips. Another good resource is the National Association of Wastewater Technicians website (www.nawt.org)
or the U.S. EPA SepticSmart website (www.epa.gov/septic/septicsmart-homeowners), which includes downloadable brochures for homeowners.



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