Tyson Koehn Knows Word-of-Mouth Advertising Is a Pumper’s Friend

Customer loyalty plays big in Idaho’s logging and farm country. Palouse Valley Septic Service locks it in with high-quality service delivered with integrity.

Tyson Koehn Knows Word-of-Mouth Advertising Is a Pumper’s Friend

Tyson Koehn uses a John Deere 50D excavator to dig a trench for a new septic system drainfield.

The forested country on Idaho’s panhandle is home to many old-line logging and farming families with deep ties to the area. That’s where Palouse Valley Septic Service delivers pumping, onsite installation and inspection. The people there appreciate good work and reliable service, and that’s what Tyson Koehn commits to provide.

“Word-of-mouth is huge in this area,” says Koehn, who owns the business with his wife, Mashala Koehn, and his younger brother Travis Koehn as his sole employee. “This area is very loyal. There are lots of old family names from way back. If they like you, they’re going to tell their friends and family about you, and they’re going to use you no matter what.”

Tyson Koehn has tapped into that loyalty to build a business in which he pumps about 200 septic tanks per year, installs about 20 new and replacement onsite systems and does an assortment of general excavating jobs. After seven years in business, he’s looking to buy a bigger vacuum truck to replace his 1994 model and enable him to serve his territory more efficiently.


Koehn is among a minority of pumpers who get their start without any family ties to the industry. He and Travis Koehn grew up in south-central Kansas, working around their father’s tire and mechanic shop and their grandfather’s farm. At age 20, Tyson Koehn went to work for a family-owned excavating company, where he learned the tricks of the trade, but he had his sights set on different geography.

“I had some extended family in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, and growing up I always had a dream to move northwest somewhere,” Koehn says. “After I got married, I told my wife, ‘We’re going up there to look around sometime.’ We came here, snooped around a little bit and fell in love with the place.” So he came back and looked for a job in excavating.

In 2007 he went to work for a solo contractor in Princeton. “He was a little older,” Koehn says. “By 2010, we were doing quite a bit of repair work, replacing old septic tanks. We were always calling the big pumping company from 50 miles away to pump the tanks. I told my boss, ‘You should buy a pump truck. We’d pump our own tanks and pump a few for the neighbors here and there.’ He thought about it for a few days and then came back and said, ‘Why don’t you buy a truck?’”

Koehn wasn’t sure how to make that work, especially the meshing of schedules with his employer. But after a little encouragement, he made the investment using the Pumper classifieds to locate a truck in northwestern Wisconsin. He spent a weekend with noncompeting pumper KG&T Septic in Bonners Ferry to learn truck operations, then flew to Wisconsin and drove the truck home.   


The 1994 International 4900 Series with an International DT466 engine and a six-speed manual transmission carries a Moro USA pump and a 2,000-gallon waste and 250-gallon freshwater steel tank. “We’ve done a lot of work on it to keep it looking nice,” Koehn says. “It has aluminum wheels, and it has been repainted. We do most of our own maintenance and mechanical work. If it’s a major issue, a local mechanic takes care of it.”

At first, the arrangement worked out fine. Koehn did pumping mostly on evenings and weekends. But by early 2014, “I was getting so busy that I couldn’t work around him,” Koehn recalls. “All of a sudden I’d have an emergency service to do, and I couldn’t make it all work anymore. We had a sit-down and decided it was better for both of us if we’d part ways. His son had moved back home and was helping him. We parted on good terms.” 

About two years later, Travis Koehn came on board. Tyson Koehn handles the office work, but the two share much of the remainder. “I do most of the excavating equipment operation, but he does quite a bit too,” Tyson Koehn says. “We install together. We both work in the shop. He has quite a few years of painting, bodywork and detailing experience, so he does that if we need it.”

They serve about a 50-mile radius from headquarters in Princeton, about 3 miles from Potlatch. That includes crossing the state line to serve Whitman County in Washington. The work includes roughly 60% pumping, 35% installations and 5% excavation and dump truck contracting.

Potlatch used to be a logging company town, built around the Potlatch Lumber Co. mill, which was torn down in 1983. A number of timber barons from the East worked in the area, and Potlatch and nearby towns still bear their names.  

Meanwhile, the area is growing. The University of Idaho is about 20 miles away; and Washington State University lies 11 miles beyond the state line in Pullman. In addition, an electronics manufacturer in Pullman is a major employer. Beyond that, people from California, Washington and Oregon are moving to the area and building houses on septic systems.  

“A lot of older homesteads are being sold,” Koehn reports. “The money is right and the children and grandchildren are selling those places off. There’s quite a bit of work in updating those septic systems. In Idaho, no law says that when you sell the house you have to update the septic, but that comes up through banks with mortgage loans and with home inspections.”


Some old houses have no septic systems but instead discharge directly into a ditch or a creek. In addition, from the 1940s to the 1960s, many 500-gallon steel septic tanks were installed. Now they are rusting through: “They look like Swiss cheese when you pump them out. They’re all full of holes.”

All that adds up to ample work for the pumping and installation sides of the business. For installations, Palouse Valley Septic Service installs mostly concrete septic tanks with drainfields using Quick4 Plus low-profile chambers (Infiltrator Water Technologies). Pipe-and-rock systems work fine in the local soils, but chambers have clear advantages where the terrain is rolling and steep.

“You dump your rock and park everything above the house or out beside the road, and then you have to cart everything down the hill, so you get a lot of labor and machine time involved with pipe-and-rock systems,” Koehn says. “With chambers, we carry them in or drag them down the hill. In our wooded areas, we can bend the chambers around hillsides and obstacles.” Some steep sites also lend themselves to 1,000-gallon IM-1060 plastic septic tanks (also Infiltrator).

The company installs some pump-to-gravity systems but no advanced systems with aerobic treatment units: “There’s hardly any call for that here. Almost every place has room for a conventional system, and we have mostly very good soils in our area. The Palouse region is very fertile farm ground. There are some places in Washington where the topsoil can be 40 feet deep. Then the next place on the top of a hill, you’ll hardly have any topsoil.”


Quality work has been the cornerstone of success for Palouse Valley Septic Service. “Where I came from in Kansas, it was dog-eat-dog,” Koehn says. “Here, people are willing to pay a little extra for honesty and a good job.”

Because the area is rural and home to many older residents, telephone directories are still effective for marketing, although traffic on the company’s website has taken off. Competition comes mainly from a large franchise operation about an hour to the south, but people have been supportive of Palouse Valley Septic Service as a small, homegrown business.

Part of doing a quality job is showing up when promised. Others are quality materials and informing customers upfront about what to expect from the process. “On installations, we do everything with a laser level,” Koehn says. “We use materials that are heavy duty and well built. We pay attention to details. We clean up and rake the job site when we’re done. It also makes a difference that the owner shows up on the job.”

Go-to machines are a 2012 John Deere 50D rubber-tracked mini-excavator and a 2015 Caterpillar 259D compact track loader with snowplow, brush mower and grapple attachments. Koehn’s pride and joy is a 1967 Kenworth dump truck that he meticulously keeps in running shape. The general excavation side of the business includes mostly basements; driveways; water, sewer and electric lines; and drainage work.

When pumping, “We wash down the tanks when we’re done. Everything is inspected and cleaned. We do any baffle repairs and other repairs at the time if we can. We go the second mile with keeping tanks and septic systems in working order.” Risers are included with all new systems, and the brothers try to sell risers as part of repairs and after pumping.

The risers consist of 24-inch corrugated plastic culvert topped by 24-inch heavy-duty lids (Polylok): “We’ve installed many of them. A lot of people don’t know that they can put a riser and lid on their tank. When you lay it out for them and show the difference in price for pumping once they have a riser, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.”


Tyson and Travis Koehn have set themselves up for growth by acquiring training at vendor seminars, health department programs and, in 2014, a visit to what is now the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show. Tyson Koehn holds the relevant licenses for pumping and installation in Idaho and Washington. They tightened their focus last year by ending an experiment with portable restroom rental.

For the near future, Koehn looks toward buying a newer vacuum truck with a 3,500- to 4,000-gallon tank. That will enable him to reduce travel to and from the field to unload. He’ll keep the existing truck as a backup. As for installations, “There’s a lot of ground that could be coming up for sale. People are developing 1-, 5- and 10-acre parcels.

“We want to continue in the same line: keep on providing excellent, honest service. People here really want to know you’ll do exactly what you said you were going to do. Win them over and you’ve got friends and customers for life. This business has been quite a faith venture, and our success would not be possible if not for many prayers for help sent up.”

Disposal: No problem!

Palouse Valley Septic Service in Idaho doesn’t have to deal with land application site permitting, long septage hauling distances or high tipping fees.

The company has arrangements with two local wastewater treatment facilities, just 3 miles apart, that charge reasonable rates. “My dump costs are so low that I haven’t pursued any alternatives,” says Tyson Koehn, owner.

At Potlatch, a community of about 900 people 3 miles or so from home base, Koehn can empty his truck at a manhole near the city shop: “I dump into a stainless steel grate and keep track of my gallons.” 

His other site is in the unincorporated town of Princeton that the company calls home. “They have a two-cell lagoon there, and I dump right over the lagoon berms,” Koehn says. In both cases, he keeps a log and reports monthly on gallons discharged; the communities bill him on that basis. He has a written contract with Potlatch and a less formal arrangement with Princeton. Both sites require annual filing of basic paperwork with the county Health Department.

While the arrangement is satisfactory, Koehn has given some thought to dewatering septage at some point. “As you go south and east of us, you get into real heavy clay soils, and topsoil in those areas is a precious commodity,” he says. Composted septage could be an attractive product for landscapers.

One thing gets in the way: A climate that often includes wet, mild winters and heavy spring rainfall. In those conditions, the composting site would need to be covered, at considerable expense. So at least for the immediate future, the compost idea is on the back burner.


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.