How Can Pumpers Combat Rising Disposal Fees?

So your local treatment plant just doubled the bill for dumping septage? Here are a few tips to prepare for the next inevitable price hike.

Wanton septage disposal rate increases by cash-strapped municipalities continue to point to an inevitable change in the private wastewater sector: More and more pumpers will be encouraged to address the problem on their own terms — maybe by handling it themselves.

I was visiting a pumper’s shop the other day to take some photos. We were leaning on the bumper of his service truck when the talk turned to market conditions in his area. Business has remained brisk, he was about to have a new tank put on his reliable rig, and the cost of business — as it always does — was on the rise. That’s to be expected, he said.

What wasn’t expected was that one of the area treatment plants located near many of his customers just raised its disposal rate about 10 cents per gallon, close to doubling his dumping fees. Officials were blaming their rising costs for treating wastewater. They had to pass those costs on to the ratepayers. And now my pumper friend was going to have to pass the septage-dumping fees along to his customers.


It’s a common story these days, but one you don’t want to hear. When you tell your customers to expect a higher bill this time around, it’s one of those “don’t shoot the messenger” moments, for sure. When they give you that sideways look and a grunt of displeasure, well, it might as well be you causing all the trouble — not the friendly neighborhood treatment plant.

I expressed my concern to our pumper friend and asked if he was thinking about building his own dewatering facility. He said that’s been on his mind and he’s looked into doing just that. After all, you can’t expect the dumping fees are ever going to go down at the municipal plants, he said, and he figured it was getting expensive enough to warrant another look at his options.

After commiserating some more about the challenges facing small family pumping businesses, we parted ways and I returned to the office. I opened my Google Alerts and found the same type of story happening halfway across the country in Washington state.

This time, Island County, on Whidbey Island near Seattle, voted to raise septage-processing rates from 15.5 cents to 27.9 cents per gallon. According to a news story in the Whidbey News-Times, Bill Oakes, the Public Works director, blamed increased wastewater handling costs on the county. And the county hadn’t raised its rates in 10 years, said Oakes.

“Maybe we should have been raising the rates each year so that it’s not such a shock,” Oakes told county commissioners.

Oakes went on to explain that the treatment plant is operated as an enterprise fund. That means it’s expected to be self-sufficient, with fees covering costs. He said the county general fund had to subsidize the facility by $500,000 over the past two years.

As a result of the increased fees, Oakes estimated the average septic-pumping bill would rise $100. In an effort to blunt that bad news, he explained that a homeowner would have to set aside only $1.67 per month over five years to cover the cost increase.

I bet that $1.67 per month argument won’t go too far with your customers. They’ll most likely focus on the extra $100 on your invoice and see it as unfair, even price gouging.


As municipal plants are squeezed by a combination of smaller budgets and increased demand for their treatment capacity, pumpers will face situations like this more often. I’ve heard of some plants shutting their doors to pumpers entirely, though more often they are raising rates to a captive audience of the 25% to 30% of the public who rely on septic systems. These are your customers, and they desperately need a place to take their sludge.

You know the old adage “You can’t fight city hall”? That’s probably true when it comes to fighting these rate increases. But I have a few suggestions to get proactive when facing rising disposal costs:

Work with your treatment plant

Start to approach your treatment plant operators more as partners than adversaries. If you don’t already, call for regular meetings with public works leaders and local pumpers to help plan for more challenges in the future. Seek creative solutions for a growing demand for septage treatment. You might know more about dewatering septage than the plant operators. Talk to them about some of the technologies and equipment you’ve seen put to use in the wastewater industry. As the Whidbey Island plant operator mentioned earlier, ask your plant operators for a forecast of increasing costs and see if they can be rolled out slowly rather than once in 10 years.

Build your own treatment plant

Do you handle enough gallonage to warrant setting up your own dewatering plant? It depends, of course, on the cost of your local treatment options, but if you currently dump more than a million gallons at the treatment plant, one of the new small-scale technologies may allow you to efficiently and cost-effectively process waste at home. Of course there is another benefit besides per-gallon cost to treating your own waste. That would be saving all the time, wages and fuel you expend getting your truck back and forth from the treatment plant. The National Association of Wastewater Technicians, a trade association for pumpers, can help you determine if building your own plant is a good financial move. Your state association would also be a good place to start: Many members have experience in this area.

Consider a regional private approach to treatment

Though I’ve heard some horror stories, I know many pumpers get along fine with their competitors. And if you do, it could be time to consider forming a consortium of septage haulers to fight this battle together. Several pumping companies could form a cooperative to operate a joint treatment plant that serves all of their needs. Of course, there would be a lot of legal and logistical moving parts with this type of arrangement, but it could work if you all have one goal in mind: reducing disposal costs in the future. An alternative would be for one pumper to pledge to build a facility with the understanding and hope that others would use the plant as long as it was more cost-effective than a public option.

Work on customer messaging

A boss a long time ago taught me a valuable lesson. He learned of a mistake I made at work from someone in the community. “I don’t care so much that you made a mistake,” he said. “But I really hate surprises. Always share bad news with me before someone else does.”

What does this have to do with the homeowners you serve? Customers are your bosses. They don’t like surprises either, especially when it hits them in the pocketbook. Try to pass along price hikes in small increments so they don’t get hit with that $100 increase mentioned above. It’s always good practice to remind customers to expect rising costs that will allow you to continue to provide excellent service and stay profitable. Folks usually like to support local businesses, and they will understand that you need to raise rates to put food on the table and hopefully pass along your business to the next generation of pumpers.


Buried under the bad-news headline of a major price hike is the good news for septic system users. Sure, they might face a $100 increase to a modest bill of several hundred dollars every three to five years. Compare that invoice to the $50, $100 or more monthly sewer bill for folks tapped into the big pipe. Several hundred dollars versus several thousand dollars every five years? Put it that way and your customers are getting an incredible bargain.  


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