Tim Kettler Lobbies Government and Plans Earth Day Celebrations to Raise Wastewater Awareness

Action Septic promotes better septic system maintenance as a way for homeowners and businesses to help the environment in Ohio’s Appalachian region.

Tim Kettler Lobbies Government and Plans Earth Day Celebrations to Raise Wastewater Awareness

Tim and Roberta Kettler have operated Action Septic for more than 30 years. (Photos by Amy Voigt)

It's a given that the wastewater business helps protect the environment and public health. Tim Kettler of Action Septic Service in Warsaw, Ohio, knows that. Many people know that. But Kettler takes it a step further. He has pushed for better government policies and makes a point of sponsoring an Earth Day celebration in his area in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s all part of his concern over the quality of the water that he and everyone else in the world must have to live. And it’s a way for him to connect with customers and help the diverse wastewater business he started 34 years ago.


About half of the Action Septic workload is handling commercial wastewater treatment systems — running them, monitoring them, and handling reporting and compliance. Three company employees hold Ohio Environmental Protection Agency wastewater operator licenses. The rest of the work is pumping, and that is also split 50-50: half related to routine septic pumping and the other half is emptying neglected systems for inspection and repair. Essentially the company does any kind of wastewater work short of installations, Kettler says.

The commercial operations can mean some long trips. Technicians will drive down to Newark, a city of about 50,000 people that’s 37 miles away on the outskirts of Columbus. They’ll drive to the Cleveland area, about 100 miles. But for the most part, service is within a 50-mile radius of the base. “Our goal is to fill in the space between eventually,” Kettler says.

It’s important for any pumping company owner to realize that wastewater services exist in an ecosystem, Kettler says. “If you want to do anything springing up out of septic tank cleaning, the opportunity is great. You might be excavating, replacing sewers, cleaning drains, fixing aerators. There’s a lot of opportunity there if you’re paying attention,” he says.

Operating commercial systems offers great opportunity for learning and revenue. “It’s the minute-to-minute biologics that wastewater uses,” he says. “Anywhere there’s a septic tank, if there’s a rural business, chances are they’re going to have a small onsite wastewater treatment plant required to have an EPA permit.”

Treatment plant operation is not done remotely — a technician sitting in front of a laptop and issuing commands over the internet to a system somewhere. It’s hands-on work and is based on observations, Kettler says. “It’s a scaled-up version of a home aeration system. The theory and the processes and the biology are the same. It’s much larger and more compartmentalized; the different phases of the treatment are much more isolated.”

Ohio operators are required by law to be on site two or three days every week, depending on the size of the plant, to do the regular monitoring.


Changes in wastewater regulations in Ohio create a lot of work for onsite industry contractors, Kettler says. Over the last 10 years, many of these plants that should have been regulated slipped through the cracks. Then the EPA pushed for enforcement, and the state, after a few years, created state standards. Yet those have not taken hold everywhere because, under Ohio law, the economic impact of regulations must be taken into account, he says, and in Appalachia there is little money for extensive repairs or replacements.

Yet pulling formerly unregulated systems into the regulatory system has created other work for Kettler. He consults for business owners about what they need to do in order to comply with the law. “It’s a real niche market. There’s a real need for these operators, and the thing is it’s a very graying industry,” he says.

It’s harder to develop a septic service business in a rural area, he says, because pumping is not considered essential. “If you own 40 acres, you can always go dig a hole in an emergency,” he says. And so developing such a business with a sense of the environment is a social project as much as anything else.


Although Action Septic is specialized, the company still requires a considerable list of equipment to do its work. The team depends on:

• 2004 International truck with a 2,300-gallon steel tank and Masport HXL75WV pump from Marengo Fabricated Steel

• 2019 Ford Transit connect van for wastewater service work

• 2016 Dodge 3/4-ton utility truck for general service work

• 1999 Terramite backhoe (TerraQuip Construction Products) and Appalachian Trailers utility trailer

• RIDGID locating equipment

• Electric Eel Model C sectional drain cleaner

• RIDGID K-50 sectional drain cleaner

Kettler’s part of Ohio is old and very rural. There are old septic systems with outflow at the level of basement floors. Tanks are buried so deep, and typically without risers, that they’re basically lost, he says. Locating equipment and a backhoe take care of finding tanks and installing risers. Usually this kind of work leads to other discoveries, such as a need to pump and make other repairs.

The drain cleaning machines are increasingly useful. Action Septic is doing more and more sewer and drain cleaning and is seeking to develop that service, Kettler says.


Kettler is serious about the effect his business has on the environment. From being a fringe movement a few decades ago, environmental concerns are now at center stage. People may not agree, but they are talking about the issues, he says.

For Kettler, the immediate problem is the threat posed to water by the oil and gas industry. This business generates a lot of wastewater, but the industry had no plan to deal with it, he says. Either it goes into injection wells or it’s spread on the land to suppress dust or remove ice, he says.

Coshocton County sits on the Utica and Marcellus shale deposits, and oil companies wanted to tap that resource. What’s underground is mostly natural gas, and there is a proposal to build a plant in Ohio to turn that gas into plastics, he says. As to the wastewater that will be a byproduct of the plastics business, that would go into some injection wells proposed for Coshocton County, Kettler says. He’s not a fan.

“We have such a wealth of good water here it’s unbelievable,” Kettler says.

“To me, if anybody understands surface discharges and the importance of separation between groundwater tables and type of wastewater, residential pumpers should know this. Residential installers should know the importance of controlling surface discharge. And everything that pumpers do to protect water quality is being undone by the indiscriminate disposal of oil well wastewater,” he says.

“So I see my role as a wastewater operator and an environmentalist — and as a small-business person who cares about his community beyond making a profit — as being instrumental in communicating this,” he says.


Good communication is key to helping the community understand clean-water issues, he says. “For mom and pop businesses, standing in somebody’s backyard and talking is a really important communication tool. You can’t buy a phone book ad that will ever do that.”

Ideally, he says, talking to people regularly will help them understand water-quality problems and how their actions matter. Then they’ll call Action Septic because they want to do the right thing.

“You know, for most people, we have to talk them into doing the right thing,” he says. “I literally have had to argue with people to not dump their septage on their alfalfa field illegally.”

Kettler hasn’t stopped at only personal contacts. He’s run for political office twice as a third-party candidate and lost both times. Anytime you run outside the two-party system, it’s a challenge, Kettler says. It forces you to really talk about the issues, and it teaches you to talk to people, including those who disagree with you, he says. And if you can talk to an adversary without being adversarial, without trying to win, both of you benefit, he says.

He helped start a tax-deductible organization called Coshocton Environmental and Community Awareness. Originally it began as a way to gather and distribute information when the oil and gas industry began moving into the area. Historically the local economy has depended on farming, tourism and its white-tailed deer herd. The oil and gas industry threatened all of those, he says.

After lying dormant for a while, the organization changed direction and grew when Kettler’s wife asked why the community didn’t have an Earth Day celebration. So they started one. There are activities for kids and environmental demonstrations. One year they invited some climate scientists to speak. Another year there was a program on Ohio’s bobcat population. In 2018 some falconers came to talk about, and fly, their birds of prey.

“It’s just something we do in celebration. We don’t do any edgy, activist type of work,” he says. “There’s two sides to environmentalism. One is somebody hammering at you all the time about recycling and cleaning up and doing all that. But the other side of it is the celebration that we often overlook.”


Action Septic began in Cleveland and then moved south. “When I first came to Warsaw as a very young man, the very first thing that came into my mind was, What am I going to do for work? I lived in Cleveland, but I wanted to live in rural Ohio. So I thought, Well, I’m going to have to start a company and move it down there. I didn’t know I was going to fall in love with all the people we work for so much that I was never going to tear myself away.”

Even after the move, Action Septic kept many contacts and customers in Cleveland.

“Our business is built in a very community way, and it’s very difficult to leave those folks who depend on us. Frankly we’re spoiled by customers who say, ‘Just send me the bill’ or ‘If you have to raise the price we understand’ or ‘We’ll leave the house open, just lock it when you leave,’” Kettler says.

“We have three young guys who are in their 20s, and I’m trying to teach these guys to be entrepreneurs on their own,” Kettler says.

Since he bought his first dump truck at age 26, Kettler has been mostly self-employed. So he encourages his young crew to start learning wastewater plant operation early and get their operator licenses so they can take advantage of opportunities.

But expanding in Appalachia is a very slow process. In Cleveland, people are more environmentally conscious and have budgets for system maintenance, he says. “It’s easy to make profit preaching to the choir,” Kettler says. “But if you’re really environmentally oriented, then your mission is beyond survival and a fair living wage for you and the work you do. It’s also trying to contribute to the community. It cuts into your profits, but we’re OK with that.”


To his employees, Kettler offers good pay because it’s the right thing to do. “We’re almost a living-wage company. We’ve almost got everybody at $15 an hour. Where I live, that’s a good job,” he says.

There is also a clear challenge ahead. American Electric Power will be closing its Conesville Power Plant in Coshocton County in 2020. It’s part of the diversification to solar and abandonment of coal power that has been a recent trend in the utility industry. But American Electric Power is the largest customer of Action Septic.

Kettler says his son, Malcolm, 28, has been doing a lot of work on recruiting new customers to replace lost revenue from the power plant. “It’s just going to force us to get smarter, get tougher and get leaner,” he says.

All along, Kettler resisted tying Action Septic to a few large clients. He likes diversification. It helps the business remain stable, and it also fits his idea that everything is connected. It’s the same idea that he tries to educate his customers about, because if they see the connections, they’ll understand both the importance of taking care of the Earth and the importance of the services Action Septic offers.

Cleveland customers are still connected, and Kettler is seeking other connections in and around Warsaw. It’s all about growing like nature grows.

“I started this business with the idea of cleaning a few septic tanks and living in a rural area,” he says, “and it turned into this adventure.” 


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