What’s the Secret to Fighting Fly-by-Night Operators?

More regulations and technician certification may ensure higher profits and discourage low-ball contractors from competing in your marketplace.

What’s the Secret to Fighting Fly-by-Night Operators?

Contact Jim with your comments, questions and opinions at editor@pumper.com

An interesting analysis of wages in construction-related industries has just been released by BuildZoom, one of a number of popular websites that match contractors and customers to help keep the building trades chugging along. Slicing and dicing information about the U.S. workforce from the 2016 American Community Survey (U.S. Census data), the analysis showed, among other things, a wage scale for workers in a variety of trades in various population centers.

Learning the average pay for workers most closely matching the septic service or excavation trades should be sufficient to draw the attention of pumping company owners. However, analysis author Sasha David hit on one trend that I believe is critically important for everyone in the wastewater industry to pay attention to. A key to better higher wages for frontline workers — and consequently prices more reflective of the value of a quality pumping service — lies in training, skills and proven expertise in the field.

“There appears to be … a relationship between an occupation’s pay grade and the level of skill or technical expertise it requires,” David writes. “The highest-paying occupations often require specialized training, licenses or certification to demonstrate an understanding of the trade and command a premium in the market.”

Further, David makes the point that hurdles created by licensing and certification naturally reduce the number of qualified tradespeople — or qualified pumping companies — thus increasing their value in the marketplace. She explains that some of the lowest-paid jobs in construction, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — floor installers, roofers and construction laborers — require no formal education. Once you move up to the jobs with average pay — pipelayers, glaziers, and carpenters, for example — a high school diploma is expected.


The analysis correctly reckons that the construction-related industry is populated largely by small- to medium-sized local companies.

First, let’s look at some numbers. The national median income for the construction trades in 2016 was reported at $40,150. Depending on the region, the jobs most closely associated with septic service and installing fell slightly above or somewhat below that number. Here are four regional snapshots of note:

New York City — Miscellaneous including solar, septic, and sewer, $40,000; construction laborers, $33,000.

Miami — Pipelayers, plumbers, and steamfitters, $35,000; construction laborers, $24,000.

Minneapolis — Pipelayers, plumbers, and steamfitters, $68,000; construction laborers, $40,000.

Seattle — Pipelayers, plumbers, and steamfitters, $60,000; construction laborers, $36,000.

If you want to check out the numbers and job classifications closer to home, see a handy chart here: www.buildzoom.com/blog/?p=11028&draftsforfriends=NlN9o8aTkF7FB0IJxEHpEhS9OJnA3WAh.


My conclusion — and I know some pumpers will and have disagreed with me about this — is that more regulation of the decentralized wastewater industry is generally a good thing for pumping companies and their crews who clean tanks, install onsite systems and service portable restrooms. And tighter restrictions and more required training of workers are also good for public health and our environment.

I recall a conversation with several pumpers from Ohio at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show several years ago. The Buckeye State had just passed new code for the first time specifying mandatory periodic septic tank pumpouts. I thought this was good news for pumpers, creating a more reliable revenue stream as homeowners would be required to pump their tanks.

Heaven knows I’ve heard the horror stories from pumpers tired of showing up to service tanks that had been neglected for 20 years or more. While the homeowner reported they’ve never had a problem with their septic system all these years, the pumper would open the tank to find it packed full of thick sludge and scum. As likely as not, they were also going to find a failing drainfield because proper maintenance was ignored. 

To my surprise, the Ohio pumpers were unhappy about the new regulations. They worried that customers would blame them for being forced to service their tanks. They didn’t want to have to charge homeowners more for the pumping and disposal. They feared “big government” was trampling property owners’ rights.

I have heard the same criticism of continuing education credits among some people in the industry. I understand the frustration: Every hour your crew is in a classroom is an hour they can’t be serving customers and generating revenue to keep the business going strong. And if revenue isn’t coming in, you are unable to give your employees raises or increase their benefits. And if you can’t offer good pay and benefits, how will you retain your best workers?


But I’ll ask you to flip these arguments around and look not so much at how regulations hurt your company, but at how they can help. Consider these points:

Raising the bar to entry.

If you find it’s a challenge to keep up with rising professional qualifications, think of how the fly-by-night operators will meet those standards. Low-ball contractors who jump into the business with a rusty old truck and a Craigslist ad are one of the biggest threats to the viability of well-established pumpers. They seek to drive prices down, while at the same time, they are hurting the reputation of the industry by providing incompetent service. Tougher licensing that requires experience and skills testing will discourage would-be contractors and favor those who have provided quality service with top-notch equipment for many years.

Building profitability.

When you can point to your certified crew and explain how well they’ve been trained, you can command fees for your work that give you a fair profit for the job performed. Better certification programs in your state or county show that you can protect your customers’ property and family. You work safely and know how to diagnose problems that potentially threaten the health of homeowners and their neighbors. You are not just pumping a septic tank. You’re protecting the environment. That provides greater value for the customer and commands higher rates for your work.

Gaining respect for your industry.

There is often a perception that having a septic system is somehow inferior to hooking up to a municipal wastewater treatment system. You’ve no doubt heard some people complain about their onsite system and believe connecting to a sewer would be the answer to all of their problems. It’s just not true.

The key to satisfied septic system ownership is proper maintenance, and industry regulations and certifications are the great equalizer. If your customers’ systems are running efficiently and properly, they will be rewarded with a lower cost of waste treatment over the municipal sewer. With effective maintenance, the general public will start to see septic systems as a viable, permanent solution for handling wastewater.


Do you agree that a thriving wastewater industry depends on stronger regulations and certifications? Or do you see another answer to bolstering profits and ensuring growing wages for your crews? Drop me a line with your thoughts and ideas, and we’ll share them with the Pumper community. 


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.