Is It Time to Take the Shovel Out of Your Customers’ Hands?

A tragedy in Michigan makes me question the wisdom of allowing homeowners to become part of the septic service process.

Interested in Safety?

Get Safety articles, news and videos right in your inbox! Sign up now.

Safety + Get Alerts

As pumpers, you often encounter do-it-yourselfer homeowners looking for ways to shave a few dollars off of the invoice. I imagine many of you oblige by encouraging them to do the site prep, including digging out the tank lid. Over the course of a busy day, it’s nice to arrive at a few jobs with the tank exposed so you can dip the hose, flip the switch on the pump and keep ’er movin’.

But something happened recently that’s making me rethink the wisdom of encouraging homeowners to get involved in the pumping process. Maybe the suggestion should be to leave every aspect of a service call up to the professionals and explaining that customers might actually get ahead by sitting back and enjoying an iced tea on the front porch while the guys and gals with strong backs and expertise do all the work.

I’m sure you wouldn’t want what happened to Ronald J. Sweeney of Bad Axe, Michigan, to happen to any of your regular customers. The 72-year-old retiree, known affectionately as “Grumpa” to his four grandchildren, was one of the can-do folks I respect and admire for wanting to help out a pumper with sweat-inducing site prep. Sweeney recently had an appointment with his pumper and spent the hours before the service call digging out the tank lid.

Tragically, digging the hole was the last thing he did in life. According to news accounts, a lifeless Sweeney was discovered in a deeper-than-usual excavation by the contractor who arrived to pump the tank.

“It appears he may have been reaching into the hole while kneeling to pull the cover out and possibly lost his balance. There was no ledge or handholds to steady himself. It is also possible he may have had a medical emergency from the exhaustion of digging the hole earlier this hot day, or he may have injured himself by the way he was partially wedged in the hole,” said local Sheriff Kelly Hanson, reported by the website. 

Stories about the mishap said Sweeney was not submerged in the tank. 


On its surface, it seems like there’s no harm in a homeowner participating in the pumping process. Everybody understands the term “sweat equity,” and I’ve often heard pumpers voice appreciation for the thoughtful gesture of digging up a tank lid. But wouldn’t we trade all of those pre-dug holes to bring back Mr. Sweeney and have him around to provide service to for years to come? 

Perhaps what happened to Sweeney should prompt us to adopt the mantra of “safety first” when we encounter customers who want to get their hands dirty, whether it is to save a few bucks or lend a helping hand on a job site. Pumpers should take the lead in promoting full service from the shovel going in the ground to cleaning up the sod over the hole when the job is done.

Come to think of it, name another trade where the customers are eager to pitch in and encouraged to do so by their contractors. 

When I call the electrician, I never think to offer to remove the cover from the breaker box to save a few bucks. And if I did, the electrician would think I was nuts and would discourage me or refuse to do the work. The same goes with my plumber. I’ve never said to him, “Hey, I need a new drainpipe for my tub and shower. Will you knock $30 off the bill if I shut off the water and cut off all the old pipes?”

My plumber and electrician expect to show up, do the whole job from start to finish, and send me a bill for all labor and materials. There is no haggling over price. It is assumed the tradesman or woman is certified, will work safely and cleanly, and I will keep at an arm’s length while they do the job. 


The horrible death of this retiree in Michigan brings home the point that pumpers should always conduct themselves the same way as electricians and plumbers. For a number of reasons, I would argue that pumpers should stop encouraging or allowing customers to infringe on the job in any way. If Mr. Sweeney’s pumper would have discouraged him from this backbreaking work, he might still be alive today.

The next time a homeowner wants to get involved in a service call, consider these factors impacting your business and maybe decline their help.

The best interest of your customers.

In everything you do, you are looking out for the welfare of your valued customers. Your pumping service protects homeowners from the dangers of wastewater exposure. Through proper septic system maintenance, you are looking out for their pocketbooks and helping them avoid costly system repair or replacement many years down the road. 

The same way, you know that well-meaning elderly customers could become injured or even die, in the case of Mr. Sweeney, if they pick up a shovel. Even many healthy young people could overdo it slinging dirt out of a hole. These days, one trip to the doctor for a strained back will throw any potential savings they would realize straight out the window.  

On the other hand, you know what it takes to work safely during any excavation. Your body is conditioned to do the work. You have quality hand tools at your disposal for digging and lifting heavy lids. Or you can offer a mini-excavator for the tough jobs. You also know and respect the inherent dangers of working around an open tank. You know not to walk away after the hole is dug and leave it exposed for a passerby to trip into. Do your customers respect an open excavation or uncovered tank the same way?

Give it some thought and you may determine it’s just not smart to encourage or allow homeowner participation on a service call.

Are you opening yourself up to liability?

We live in a litigious world. Every day, small business owners are being sued for some infraction they’ve never considered in the past. Whether it’s true or not, a guy with a shiny vacuum truck can be perceived as having deep pockets just waiting to be picked. Let’s say you allow customers to dig up their own lids and you tell them how to do it. Go to your insurance carrier and ask them if you could potentially encounter liability issues if someone is hurt. 

You may reduce or eliminate any question of liability by adopting hard and fast rules prohibiting customers from taking part in the job in any way. That includes site prep work or cleanup. With these professional standards in place, there will be no opportunity to argue or plead over the boundaries of the services you provide.

Don’t leave legitimate revenue on the table.

Why look for ways to shortchange yourself with every customer on your route? Contrary to inviting customers to dig up their own lids, you should consider this job as one of a variety of upcharges that actually serve your customers well. 

If buried tanks are a common issue with your customers, be sure to offer to add a riser to bring access to the surface. Tell them about the many cost and maintenance advantages of this solution. If they insist on keeping the buried access, outline a set fee structure for your digging services. 

Inspection and filter cleaning are areas where you may still want to encourage homeowner participation. It’s good for users to understand their septic systems and know when it’s important to call you for service. But be sure you properly educate them on safe procedures for testing the depth of sludge and scum layers or how to clean an outlet filter. But also offer the alternative of a six-month or annual professional inspection service, which many customers may take advantage of. 


The story about the homeowner who died while digging out his tank is a sad one indeed. Given the opportunity to go back in time, his family would have gladly paid the pumper to complete the task. Sweeney’s obituary in the local paper said his most recent joy was in attending his young grandson’s baseball practices. Think about how many more family events Sweeney may have enjoyed if he hadn’t grabbed that shovel.  


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.