We Need to Educate Rural Customers and Promote the Onsite Industry

Indiana installer Andrew McAfee networks with other professionals, constructs a system in Haiti and adds a pumping service.

We Need to Educate Rural Customers and Promote the Onsite Industry

Name and title or job description: Andrew McAfee, owner

Business name and location: L.A. Brown Inc., Bluffton, Indiana

Services we offer: We’re most known for installing septic systems and working on sewers. We also do residential drainage work and trench footers for buildings.

Age: 30

Years in the industry: I started working for L.A., the guy who started this company, when I was 16. In 2019 I bought the business from him.

Association involvement: I’ve been in the Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association about four years. I’m currently on the board of directors. After L.A. sold me the business, he wrote an article for the spring 2019 issue of the association’s newsletter about how it was for him going from being employer to employee, and then in the next issue I wrote about how it went for me doing the opposite.

Benefits of belonging to the association: The biggest thing is the installer certification. Most of the county health departments either recognize that certification or require it. Having that certification means I don’t have to take local tests or register with all the different counties. I just send them my certificate. Also valuable is the networking we get in the association.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: We have about 1,000 members and 75% are installers and pumpers. The rest are regulators, a few soil scientists and a few people from academia. Having an organization that includes installers/pumpers, inspectors and regulators creates some unique challenges and the need for a balance. Installers and pumpers sometimes feel the State Department of Health holds more power in the organization and some would like this to be an organization just for contractors. But contractors have a lot going on just to keep their businesses running and don’t always have the time or desire to do the work that’s required in our organization — serving on committees, planning the conference, etc.

Many of those jobs are being done by people from the local health departments and the State Department of Health. So it’s a little bit of a balancing act between the segments of our membership. We’re also in a transition period with the board of directors and management, with some people leaving, some people coming in, so it’s a challenging time. And we have other pressing issues, like working on our website (which seriously needs an overhaul) and running the day-to-day business.

Our crew includes: L.A. is semi-retired now but helps out. There’s also my brother-in-law Jacob Gerber and my dad Sam McAfee. We’re mentoring a young kid, Micah Gilly, to hopefully work for us one day. And we would be lost without Cathy Noble, our bookkeeper. Here in Bluffton we work with about five other excavation companies, each with their own niche. If somebody needs something — stone hauled, a machine to borrow, help on a job — we call on each other.

Typical day on the job: I start the day reading and responding to emails. Then I get the equipment, trucks and materials ready. I get to a job site and do everything from laying out what we need to do to running the machines to shoveling. I take phone calls in between and meet with customers in the evening. After a full day’s work, I go home and spend time with the family and maybe do some paperwork.

The job I’ll never forget: A small town upgraded its wastewater treatment plant. A 6-inch line fed into a 15,000-gallon settling tank. During construction, they put in a test plug to bypass that line so they wouldn’t get the water in there. The ball went flat and went down the pipe towards the settling tank. On the outside of the tank it turns to a 4-inch pipe. So there’s a 6-inch plug up against this 4-inch pipe. All the companies on the job talked about it at lunch for several days, brainstorming how to get it out. We ended up just having to reach back in there and cut it out using a utility knife, a drill with a long bit and a pair of pliers. The worst thing was that it had many thousands of gallons of water behind it. It was back in there just far enough to where it was up to our shoulders so all that water was spraying back at us while we were working. It took about two and a half hours.

My favorite piece of equipment: Just a good old shovel. But not just any shovel — a particular shovel. When I trained on the job, we never had the shovels you buy at the hardware store. The heads are way too big. We have heavy clay dirt in our area and you’d have to be a man-and-a-half to run one of those shovels. So we have the smaller ones. It’s a Jackson Professional Tools J-250. The head size is zero, two sizes smaller than the hardware store models. I just really enjoy shoveling when I need to.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We installed a septic system in Haiti. The Loving Shepherd Ministry in Bluffton, which does a lot of mission work there, was building a vocational school and wanted to do a septic system. There are no regulations at all in Haiti. Most people just let the sewage run in the street and over into the ocean. They wanted to set an example and be environmentally conscious. We helped them with the design, the material list, the sizing, we donated material, and got some of our suppliers to do the same. They sent the material to Haiti in a shipping container, then a few months later I went down there with a couple of friends.

The job site was about a four-hour drive from the airport in Port-au-Prince. It was a very challenging site. There was a big wall, like a barrier fence, around the school. We had to get a pipe underneath the wall into their septic tank, which they were using like a privy with six holes for girls, six holes for boys. We had to get the pipe through the block wall and then over to the field. There were plenty of shovels but no backhoes, hammer drills or electricity, so it was all manual labor. And it was very hot down there. But there was a good group of locals that worked on it with us and we got it done.

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: It’s embarrassing but a while back we had to set a plastic septic tank three times because it floated out. We set it, backfilled it, but obviously didn’t put enough water in there for counter buoyancy. It rained and it floated up out of the ground. We reset it two more times. We had put stone around it and then the stone gets mixed in with the dirt and there’s water in the hole and then it’s mud. It’s a nightmare. Now we put water in every one of them, it doesn’t matter.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: We were asked if we could move a cinder block septic tank that was in the ground.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: We are required to backfill perimeter drains with stone. We have some systems that we’re putting just as much stone in the perimeter drain as in the leachfield fingers and we just think that’s kind of crazy. The soil scientists say putting stone in the trench is worse than just putting dirt back in but the state says it’s needed to act as a curtain drain. So I’d like to see some adjustment on that rule. It is needed in some areas but not on everything. Another thing — we’re not allowed to put any pumps in perimeter drains, they have to be gravity. So if there’s a site you can’t get a natural gravity drain to, you can’t put a septic system in. If they would allow pumps or pump assisted, just like a sump pump on a house, it would give us a lot more options.

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: A friend recommended we raise our rates a little bit every year, rather than a lot every few years. If you wait too long, then you’re like, “Man, am I going to raise my rates that much?” or, “Everybody is so much higher than us.” It’s better to just keep a steady increase.

Planning for the future: We just got a vacuum truck to start offering pumping. My dad retired from his city job and wanted something to do.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I’ve worked for the railroad, I’ve done welding and I’ve been in the military (I’m currently in the Air National Guard), so I’d probably be doing one of those or something in construction. I’ve always wanted to operate a tunnel-boring machine.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater 

industry: I hope to see rural homeowner attitudes change. We’re in an agricultural area and farmers complain about having to put in these “stupid septic systems that don’t work anyway, and what was wrong with the old tank-to-tile that goes to the ditch.” They see it more as government telling them what to do than something that will help keep the water of the state and the country clean. 

- 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.