North Dakota’s New Association Aims for Unified Regulations

A fledgling group of wastewater professionals looks to work with government on sensible rule changes and utilize industry innovations.

North Dakota’s New Association Aims for Unified Regulations

Tom and Peggy Schimelfenig stand by a 2000 International 5500I tri-axle dump truck with a 16-foot Ox Bodies insulated box, a 2002 Felling Trailers FT-50-3 trailer and a 1998 Caterpillar 446B loader backhoe (as well as Casey the dog).

Name and title or job description: Tom Schimelfenig, owner

Business name and location: Tom Schimelfenig Excavating, Bowdon, North Dakota

Services we offer: I do building site prep work, which requires installation of sanitary sewer or onsite wastewater septic systems. I also do wetland restoration for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and various other excavation work.

Age: 65

Years in the industry: 42. In 1978, I started an excavation business, and septic was part of it.

Association involvement: I am the founder and president of the North Dakota Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association. I started the association in 2019 because I thought we needed to unify as a group and as a profession. In 2018, I brought up the idea with several guys when we were in Fargo for training. They thought it was an excellent idea so I pursued it. I went to Minneapolis for the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association Mega-Conference to learn about it. That was an experience I’ll never forget. NOWRA really offers a lot to the contractor. We started assembling the association in February 2019. There had been a group of us who got together before that, and we started reaching out to other contractors through email and at training conferences. We are growing slowly and steadily.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Before we formed the group, contractors had no place to go for questions when they had issues or about how things needed to be approached. We needed to have a unified group to work on various issues and to combat some of the overregulation. We were ending up with many different types of rules and regulations coming from every different health unit across the state.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Getting the code set up in just one house in the government and getting it implemented right. The present system is in many sections of the government — the state Plumbing Board, the state Department of Environmental Quality, the North Dakota Department of Health, as well as 10 or 11 different health units across the state, which all have their own set of rules and their own opinions about how things should be done. We’re trying to bring it to where everybody operates the same across the state. We were making good progress until the coronavirus hit, and that put an end to all meetings.

Our crew includes: I work by myself. I hired a guy last year, but he quit before Thanksgiving because he couldn’t handle the cold weather. This job is not for everybody. It’s stressful and labor intensive. I do all the invoicing, job planning and bidding. My wife, Peggy Schimelfenig, helps with the office work.

Typical day on the job: Every day is different. No two jobs are alike. I don’t care where you go or what you do — everything you encounter changes your day. It could be the weather or a customer who has a different idea about what they want. You have to be flexible. My bookwork gets done in the evenings or on weekends.

The job I’ll never forget: I’ve done a lot of septic systems in my life, and every one is a challenge — meeting the requirements, sizing it right. Sometimes property owners want to add something to a project that isn’t on the plan you bid on and at the end of the job some of them don’t want to pay for it.

My favorite piece of equipment: When I was a kid, my dad moved a house on his farm; I watched a guy run the backhoe and I said that’s what I want to do someday — just run a backhoe. I never dreamed I’d be running all this equipment — scraper, dozer, excavator, road grader. I like to sit on the dozer (D61 Komatsu with low-ground pressure tracks), and I love running the excavators, too (CASE 9030B and Caterpillar 304 mini).

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: The soils around here vary — clay, clay loams, sand, gravel, scoria in the western part of the state and shallow shale in the east — so the challenge is assessing the situation and using the right system. In the area I live in, getting a soil scientist is very expensive so I do all of it. If I run into a snag where I can’t figure it out, I rely on Allen McKay, a guy who was an environmental health officer and is now a district health administrator. We use a number of systems, depending on the setback from the water table. The two main ones we put in around here are mounds where it’s too wet to put anything else in and a system from Infiltrator Water Technologies with serial distribution. When we get into clays, we use very large systems to get the water to soak away into the soil and get treated properly.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: I’ve had a lot of challenging projects, but I never had something I wished I hadn’t done. If I see something isn’t going to work, I’ll stop and change it. You have to be flexible.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: The question I get asked is why the systems have to be so big. People around here are used to what we did 30 years ago where you’d put a septic tank in and probably 100 feet of leachfield. Now we’re putting systems in that are four, five and six times that size.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: Everything that’s out there is based on science and there is data proving effectiveness, so I haven’t found a regulation that isn’t protecting everybody’s safety. Some of it may be overdone or is too tough on things, but that’s just my opinion.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: That comes from my mother. She told me to know what you’re doing and be consistent so people can rely on you.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: In my last three years of high school, I was in architectural drafting. But I’m the type of guy who likes to be outdoors, and I really didn’t want to go to college. Now I wish I had because the architectural drafting part of it is what carries me through this industry because I know how to draw things out and how to read blueprints.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry:

• Education is the key — this whole industry is all about education. One of our association’s goals is to educate the people involved in this industry — contractors, homeowners, regulators and legislators — on how (onsite systems) work and what it takes to maintain them. I go every year to our training conference because there are always things I pick up that are new. You need to have an open mind when you go. As far as training new people coming into the industry, some contractors think we should go back to apprenticeship programs.

• Regarding drainfield material, I think chamber systems have really been a game-changer. It makes these systems more doable, gives them longer life and opens up the door for many different ways to put in a drainfield. And we’re using nature more in doing it. We aren’t doing the old rock-and-pipe thing; I don’t think we got the life out of that product that everybody was thinking we would get. And aggregate supplies in this country are showing signs of being short.

• Another issue for the future is getting new people involved in the industry because 80% of us are going to be retiring in the next few years.  

- Compiled by Betty Dageforde


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