‘Are There Leeches in the Leachfield?’

New Hampshire wastewater pros work with state officials to improve industry regulations and look for opportunities to educate an uninformed general public.

‘Are There Leeches in the Leachfield?’

From left to right: Eric Johnson, vice president; Greg Wells, pumper; Paul Johnson, president and CEO; and Jake (dog), mascot. Fleet, from left: 2016 Chevy 1-ton with Best Enterprises tank and pump system; 2000 International F4900 with an Amthor International tank and Battioni pump; 2005 International F7600 with Tri State Tank (Progress Tank) and Battioni pump; 2007 International F7600 with Com Vac Systems tank and Battioni pump; and 2017 Dodge Ram 5500 with a KeeVac Industries tank and pump system. (Photos courtesy of Darlene Johnson)

Name and title: Darlene Johnson (corporate secretary, treasurer and chief operating officer) with my husband, Paul Johnson (president, chief executive officer, driver, maintenance coordinator)

Business name: Best Septic Service, Loudon, New Hampshire

Age: 55

Years in the industry: 28

Association involvement: I’ve been a member of the New Hampshire Association of Septage Haulers for 28 years. Our company’s original owner was a founding father of the association so we had no choice but to slide right in. I’ve held the positions of secretary and president and am currently secretary and Department of Environmental Services of New Hampshire liaison.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Staying connected and informed on regulatory changes at state and federal levels, idea flow between members, and camaraderie. We are not there to discuss or fix rates, which some folks think, but to share experiences, discuss new technologies or changes, assist colleagues on large jobs or when a truck is down, and find good referrals out of our service area. As one example of something we’ve done, there’s a law on the books that says each town must provide access to septage disposal (either their own treatment plant or arrangements with a neighboring town), which the state wasn’t enforcing. So we took them to task. We hired a lawyer, created a task force that rewrote the regulation and hired a septage coordinator at the Department of Environmental Services. Currently we are working on an outreach program to educate residents on the benefits of clean groundwater and their responsibility to keep up with maintenance. This will involve a media blitz, so it should be beneficial to all our pumpers and we hope increase membership. And we are awaiting our state’s approval to allow us to buy into the health insurance arena as a group, which will hopefully give our business owners much-needed financial relief.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: When our state was having disposal troubles and going through massive rule changes, our active membership was at its peak. But now that things are going along status quo, our membership is low. Although we represent roughly 26 percent of our state’s licensed haulers — a good number by many standards — the core of active members is small. We try to bring things to the table for all the haulers, like Department of Transportation training, rule education, commercial driver’s license drug regulations, insurance information, safety training, etc. So I hope these will get other folks to join.

Our crew includes: Our son Eric Johnson is in charge of portable restrooms and the land-spreading operation, Greg Wells is our right-hand man and truck operator, our son Tim Johnson is a part-time truck operator, and Sandy Wesoja handles customer service, dispatch and receivables.

Typical day on the job: I spend my time handling office operations, bookkeeping, billing, assisting with customer service and dispatch, and rearranging schedules as emergencies come in. I’ve got many irons in many fires and am constantly jumping around like a pingpong ball.

Helping hands – Indispensable crew member: Eric Johnson is our go-to guy for everything. In the office he can do everything from making appointments to payroll. He can pump septic tanks and shuttle 40-plus restrooms out and about in a weekend. He seamlessly slides from one job to the other when needed and always goes above and beyond with his effort, including spending extra time to make sure things get done. He is the future of Best Septic Service and will do a great job when he has the reins.

My favorite piece of equipment: The one thing we all love — and we all hate — is the cellphone. It keeps us connected, emergencies can be dispatched with ease and efficiency, site photos can be taken and shared, it’s easy to communicate with customers and the office, and it assists in locating unfamiliar addresses or checking on traffic conditions. In some cases, you can see what a house or driveway looks like before you get there. The “hate” part is that it can be invasive. When it rings, it’s like, “Oh, no, here we go. Here comes the monkey wrench.”

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We have a lot of old homemade systems around here and camps that have been retrofitted to permanent residences. We have one residence that has a floor trap in the dining room. And sometimes we have to climb under houses and decks to get to septic tanks. You might have 4 feet or you might have 2, so how do you get a stiff hose in and around? The guys usually use a sewer spoon or Crust Buster but you can’t put any of that stuff down there when you don’t have the space.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: “I’ve lost my dentures down the toilet, can you come fish them out? I have to go to work this afternoon.” Eric Johnson was asked if there were leeches in the leachfield.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: Right now there’s nothing. We’ve worked so closely with the state over the years. They’ve listened and been open-minded enough to understand that they can’t put in a rule that just prohibits business because they know they want the septic tanks to be maintained. They realize it’s a give-and-take. They have to regulate, but they also have to let us run our business and do what we need to do.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: Do the job well and as promised, have open communication with customers and set a fair price. But my favorite is “Being in business is a huge responsibility, it commands lots of time and devotion, but remember to step away and make time for yourself and family.” This was dispensed by our company’s founder, Harold Colby. He worked two or three jobs when starting his business and spent so much time away from his family that it became the one thing he regretted in his later years.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: Be doing something creative. I’ve started to paint, do crafts, build things, make cards. The only class I ever failed in high school was typing. I took small engine repair and drafting and was not going to be the person sitting behind the desk — but here we are.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: The industry has come a long way from the grungy pumper days. I hope to see it continue on the path of professionalism and promoting education. As stewards of the environment, we can help maintain clean and safe water for all as long as we share what we know with those who don’t, leading to maintenance of onsite wastewater systems that keep our groundwater safe and plentiful. My hope is to see more free-standing septage-only wastewater treatment plants that will replenish local aquifers rather than dumping at municipal plants that shed water into the rivers.

- Compiled by Betty Dageforde


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.