They Didn’t Pay, So We Dumped It Back in the Tank!

What’s the outcome when the unthinkable response to a non-payer becomes reality? Hint: There’s no happy ending.

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Well, it finally happened. After years of hearing pumpers joke around about the ultimate way to punish customers who don’t want to pay their bills, one of them finally put the waste back into the septic tank. And not at all surprisingly, it didn’t work out too well for the pumper. And the story hasn’t been good for our wastewater industry either. 

Unhappy pumpers like to blow off steam on social media. I get it. But I certainly don’t endorse some of their ideas. For years I’ve seen online posts from small-business owners complaining about customers who question septic service bills or flat-out refuse to pay for charges they don’t understand or accept. Like all local service contractors, pumpers work to put food on the table, save for retirement and send their kids to college. You do a tough job and deserve to be paid for your labor and your expertise.

Most of the time, pumpers are paid. On time. And by customers who are grateful someone is out there performing this difficult and dirty work. In fact, I bet if you pump a thousand tanks a year, only a handful of customers seriously question your charges, … and only a fraction of those who ask about the bill also refuse to pay it. Sure, the give-and-take with those few folks can have an outsized impact and ruin your day. But luckily, they represent a small minority of your customer interactions. 

So what happens when you take a billing dispute to the next — and I would argue absurd — level? We now know the answer to that question, thanks to the actions of a pumper in Massachusetts. 

THE BIG DUMP

Recently this pumper — who will go nameless for the purposes of this column — responded to an emergency service call where he removed almost 6,000 gallons of waste from several tanks at a residential property. A week later, after failing to collect on the invoice given to the homeowners, the pumper returned and pumped 2,000 gallons back into one of the tanks before police intervened and told him to cease and desist.

The police were called about suspicious activity at the residence. It was clear there was a dispute over the bill for the previous septic pumping. The homeowners said they were unable to get an explanation of previous work performed and a report about the pumper’s diagnosis of the situation. 

At a town meeting following the incident, the homeowner reported having “zero communication” with the pumper up until that point. Also at the meeting, health department officials noted that the septage put back into the tank was not the same waste removed earlier, which could lead to other questions or issues. 

The local board of health took a dim view on the pumper’s antics. According to media accounts, the health department agent deemed the pump-back to be an illegal action. On a unanimous vote, the board fined the pumper $500 and issued a 15-day suspension of his town septic permit. The health agent wanted to send a strong message to the pumper. “It’s clearly not the way to do business,” he said, according to a news account. “And if those things continue to happen, it’s going to result in some sort of mishap that is, you know, beyond repair — either environmentally, or from a human health perspective.”

A health board member responded that “It’s inappropriate and wrong to put septage back into a septic system. We have to try and make it clear that was the wrong thing to do, and that no one else should ever consider doing that … again.”

TAKE IT TO COURT

The somewhat minor infraction — based on the penalty alone — drew significant commentary on local news sites. Most of the reaction cast the pumper in a poor light, and that light reflected badly on small business contractors in general.

One poster said the pumper’s action “was small-minded, stupid, ignorant, dangerous and illegal. First and foremost, they should lose their septic hauling license, forever. Intelligent, civil people settle payment claims in court, not by exposing delinquent customers to other people’s [waste]. For openers, there should be criminal charges of trespass and dumping.”

“This action speaks volumes. As a small-business owner myself, dealing with the occasional unreasonable customer unfortunately is part of the deal. This was an immature move that says something about the company and its people. I will look for alternatives next time I need my tank pumped,” said another.

One poster questioned how quickly this situation was escalated by the pumper. “The retribution was exacted eight days after the service. In the universe I’m familiar with, paying an invoice within 30 days is considered on time. The customer should not be insulted with public accusations that ‘they did not pay their bill.’ Comes across like they were punished for disputing the bill.”

Some in the court of public opinion sided with the pumper. 

“Homeowners should educate themselves and see what it takes to do emergency calls, backhoe work, roofing, ditch digging and so much more. Spend a day in the shoes of the working stiff and see how much effort it takes to get the job done correctly.”

And, “As a business owner, I have seen many customers find any reason not to pay their bills. It’s really unfair. Our only recourse is to go to court, which costs us money and time. We all have families to feed and bills to pay, too. Yes, perhaps he stepped over the line in returning the ‘product’ in question, but the customer has responsibilities too.”

FIND ANOTHER WAY

I sympathize with folks in the pumper community who encounter difficulty getting paid. Profit margins can be slim, and capital outlay for equipment and workforce get steeper all the time. Running a successful small business is a tremendous challenge without worrying about collecting on invoices. 

But that doesn’t mean we can throw professionalism out the window. And in my estimation, that’s exactly what happened here.

First off, I am growing weary of inappropriate joking I see in any number of social media groups. And I’m not singling out wastewater group pages. The internet is awash with people sharing stupid commentary on vast arrays of topics. But I have to say that I have seen this pumper’s very solution suggested numerous times on social media. However, that someone actually followed through with it is quite astonishing.

Do I really have to say it? Dropping a load back into a tank for payback is wrong. To quote George Costanza from the sitcom Seinfeld after being fired for an obviously grievous infraction: “Was that wrong? Should I not have done that? I gotta plead ignorance on this thing, because if anyone had said anything to me when I started here that that sort of thing was frowned upon …”

What this pumper did is frowned upon. It should never have happened. His actions were irresponsible, could have caused environmental harm, and opened the entire septic service industry to criticism. What purpose did this impulsive act serve? Does the pumper believe this is the best way to get the bill paid and satisfy a customer? Clearly, dumping septage back into someone’s tank would not accomplish either goal.

There is a silver lining to be found in the reporting about this incident. The health department official said it was only the second time he’s seen such violations in 24 years, and they were committed by the same contractor. I guess that shows that while many pumpers might want to seek retribution for non-payment, all but a few rely on their better judgment and seek more reasonable solutions.

YOUR INPUT, PLEASE

What do you think? What is your standard operating procedure to a customer who questions your bill or refuses to pay? How do you avoid an escalation of hard feelings, secure payment and preserve customer relationship? Share your advice with me at editor@pumper.com and I will pass it along to readers. 



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