Benny and Christiane Karnes Provide Peace of Mind for Their Customers

Changing regulations and devastating wildfires spur a growth in inspection work for California’s BDK Septic.

Benny and Christiane Karnes Provide Peace of Mind for Their Customers

Benny Karnes, left, and Jason Karnes use a Kyrie Model 100 camera to inspect the pipe leading to a drainfield during a septic inspection.

California wine country has rolling hills, clear air and plenty of sunshine. If you’re in the septic and onsite inspection service business, it also has twisting roads, wooded properties with little clearance and wildfires to contend with.

BDK Septic Service has been serving customers here for 24 years. During that time, co-owners Benny and Christiane Karnes created a thriving service that survived — even survived the wildfires that scorched thousands of acres in the fall of 2017.

They also survived regulations, if you want to call it survival. Even though California in many ways leads the national conversation about what to regulate and how to regulate it, regulations can open opportunities for new business, and there may even be an opportunity to help shape them.


BDK Septic Service’s business breaks down to 60 percent inspections, system maintenance, and other services and 40 percent pumping. About five years ago, that split was 50-50. The change is due in part to increased recent inspections as people sell properties burned in the 2017 wildfires, but it’s also due in part to changes in regulations.

Increased environmental restrictions on the use of traditional septic systems means those are being replaced. That’s especially true in Pacific Ocean shore communities such as Bodega Bay, Christiane Karnes says. Sonoma County covers 1,576 square miles and stretches, very roughly speaking, about 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean and 60 miles north from San Francisco Bay.

Within the cities of Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Petaluma, there are also isolated areas still served by septic systems. This occurs because two-thirds of residents on a street must agree to municipal sewer hookups when the service comes through. If that threshold isn’t met, the properties stay on septic.

Given changing regulations, when these conventional systems need to be replaced, chances are they will be replaced by advanced technology units, Karnes says. Regulations on ATUs commonly require the owner to have a maintenance contract in place, and this is where BDK Septic Service comes in. If homeowners decide they don’t like the company doing the maintenance, they can look for another provider, Benny Karnes says, and BDK Septic Service technicians have learned how to maintain these units.


California has not created any opportunities with its engine pollution regulations. Some years ago, the state produced a regulation to control particle emissions from diesel engines, and part of that rule requires that by 2023, almost all trucks must have engines of model year 2010 or later.

“See, a lot of us had older trucks that were in good shape and running well. The state changed the law, and we had to get rid of our older trucks. That’s why I have a 2013 vehicle. Now I’ll get to keep my truck for good — until they change the rules again,” Karnes says. “What it has done is create a struggle for the small companies.”

The need to replace the truck fleet has increased demand for new trucks in California, and that demand pushed up prices by 50 percent or more compared to other parts of the country, he says.

Sometimes there is the chance to have a say on regulations. In Sonoma County, Karnes serves on the local land use advisory panel and has for a number of years. When the county drafts an ordinance about onsite systems — maybe it’s about installation or maintenance — it comes first to the advisory panel.

That group has engineers, real-estate companies, contractors and onsite specialists.

“The county tells us what they want to change. We advise them on whether it’s a good idea or how it could be made better. We also advise on wording. A lot of times, the way the county writes something, people don’t understand it, so we try to put it in layman’s terms. That way, when a regulation goes out for public review, people can understand it and give their opinion,” Karnes says.

“Some counties release a regulation and there’s no room for discussion, but Sonoma County has always been open and good about getting information out to people. It’s not an official thing, but the panel helps us keep things running.”

To serve the growing market for advanced systems, BDK Septic Service has gone after special training. Karnes carries a California septic contractor’s license, a step up from a pumping license. He and his son Jason Karnes are National Association of Wastewater Technicians certified septic tank inspectors and service providers for engineered systems. They also have system specialist certifications from Norweco. All these certifications require continuing education to remain valid.


BDK Septic Service operates with essentials. Company equipment includes:

  • A 1,600-gallon vacuum truck with a steel tank, and a Masport H75 pump on a 2013 Kenworth chassis. Benny Karnes built the rig himself.
  • A 2008 Chevy Express van service truck.

“Right now that’s all we have because that’s what my son and I can handle,” Karnes says.

By some standards, the vacuum truck is small, but not in this part of the country.

“It’s called getting your truck into tight spots,” he says. Christiane Karnes adds, “We have a lot of properties that are up in hills or down small pathways in wooded areas. Standard trucks cannot go there. We can.”

Tanks in the county tend to be 800 to 1,500 gallons with the occasional 2,000-gallon. To go back to a property and finish a pumpout is not a big deal, Benny Karnes says. There’s also a safety factor involved in truck choice, he adds. In his judgment, a fully loaded two-axle truck with a steel tank edges too close to the weight limit for that chassis, and he wants his guys to be able to stop safely.

For inspections, BDK Septic Service has a Sludge Judge and a flowmeter to test the flow through leach lines. A selfie stick and an old cellphone take care of photographing the inside of tanks.

He has a jetter, too, which he built along with the vacuum truck.

“I turned a pressure washer into a jetter by getting engineered hoses for it,” Karnes says. It’s particular to engineered mound systems and can clean the usual 1 1/4-inch pipe inside them.

Karnes also built other tools for himself. One is a spray unit that fits inside a two-chamber Norweco filter and washes the filter. Another attachment fits inside the same filter system and cleans the screens. The tools make jobs go faster.

“One customer called Christiane after an appointment and said, ‘They were here only 20 minutes.’ That’s all it takes now. Time is money,” Benny Karnes says.


Keeping the equipment moving requires marketing. In this age, that means digital, and maybe someday BDK Septic Service will even have a website.

“We were going to set one up, but we stayed so busy … ” he says. Christiane Karnes adds, “We never got around to it.”

In the meantime, they found plenty of utility in Yelp (where they have a solid string of five-star reviews) and on Facebook.

“With Facebook, it was so easy to drop content in there, and there are so many people on Facebook and Yelp that the website got shelved,” Benny Karnes says.

Although Facebook has been criticized recently because of its rules protecting information about users, BDK Septic Service avoided that problem. They never opted to use any of the quizzes or challenges that require access to customer information, Christiane Karnes says. The BDK Septic Service page is there only for people to post information, such as the real-estate agent who put up a few pictures complimenting the BDK Septic Service technicians on finding a deeply buried tank. The other use is the message service on the page.

“We do get quite a few contacts through that as well,” Karnes says.

Both new and existing customers use the messaging service, but existing customers especially use it if they’re away from home and learn of a problem. Sometimes these are people on vacation or landlords looking after a property, and they will write asking for help.

BDK Septic Service advertises in the local phone book, both print and online, and sponsors radio ads such as one to combat bullying in schools. They have business cards in local flyers about fire safety. It’s all very local, and they keep it that way because the business is focused on only one county.

Another very good source of business is referrals from real-estate agents who arrange for onsite system inspections when properties are sold.


Because he recently turned 60, Benny Karnes isn’t planning for growth or how to adapt his business so it’s successful during the next couple of decades. He’s done that, and he did it so Jason Karnes can take over.

“I kept my company as a small company so we can be personal with our customers. They know us by name, and we treat them like family,” Benny Karnes says.

In the next few years he sees himself transitioning into retirement. He will become an advisor instead of a manager.

“At that point, the business will be how my son wants it. But he has already told me, ‘You’ll retire until I need you.’”

Working through the flames

When four major wildfires broke out in California wine country in October 2017, BDK Septic Service suffered the consequences at both ends of its business. Many customers were affected by the fires, and Benny and Christiane Karnes spent weeks checking systems and helping their clients recover.

“We were evacuated for a week and without electricity or regular phone service,” Christiane Karnes says.

Equipment is stored at a yard near their home, and the yard had power through the fire but it didn’t do any good because all the roads were closed. They spent the time with their son Jason Karnes who lives nearby.

When they were allowed to return home, Benny and Christiane Karnes went back to work even though the power was off. When the evacuation order came, they had grabbed their laptops and hard drives so all their customer and schedule records were safe. They charged the laptops where there was power and then worked at their home office answering customers’ questions.

Phone service came the very old-fashioned way: from a vintage princess-model, corded, push-button phone they purposely saved. It plugs into an old standard phone jack. The advantage of this type of phone is it draws power from the phone line, not from the grid.

“Your newer phones, they plug into the wall, they have answering machines and all that, but once the power is out, it’s gone. Everybody wants to get off the landline because the cellphone is easier, but when the tower is down, you’re down,” Benny Karnes says.

The cost to keep a regular business phone line running into the building is minimal.

Because of the risk of earthquakes in their part of the country, Benny and Christiane Karnes already had an emergency box with windup radios and flashlights. Their emergency plan worked about the same way for the fire, only they had to leave the property instead of sleeping in a tent in the yard.

Of the four fires that struck in October, Sonoma County was burned by two and part of a third. One of those, the Tubbs Fire, grew to cover more than 36,000 acres. In California fire history, it ranked third worst in terms of lives lost and by a wide margin is the worst in terms of structures destroyed.


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