Celebrating 50 Years Poking Around in Septic Systems

It’s been a privilege to watch the onsite wastewater industry grow in technology and professionalism. Thank you for working with me.

Interested in Business?

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

Business + Get Alerts

Have you ever stood in the field looking at a system and said to yourself, I can’t believe what I am looking at, and now I must have seen it all? I think if you have been in this business for any length of time you have had multiple experiences like this. And just when you think there is nothing new, there is!

Over the years of writing this column, I have recounted several of my experiences like this and used them as examples or lead-ins to discuss different aspects of good practices. Some of these have happened with people reading this column.

A couple of my favorites include:

  • A homeowner telling me they went to the butcher shop, bought a 100 pounds of spoiled hamburger and put it in the septic tank to make sure it got a good start.
  • The time a service provider told me it was OK that water was standing in the sewer pipe from the house to the septic tank because the pipe was only half full.
  • And my all-time favorite was when a friend of mine opened a plugged tank to find that before the house was occupied and the system was used, rattlesnakes decided this was a good place to den up for the winter!

I could recount more, and I always enjoy talking with service providers about both the crazy and the mundane they encounter.


I was very fortunate to start my “career” in the industry in 1970 as a graduate student working on the small-scale waste management project at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I got to work with the people who became known as the premier researchers and pioneers in the industry. After leaving Madison I have worked with great people across all aspects of the industry.

They all helped educate me about how systems work or don’t. I am forever indebted to the contactors in Minnesota who put up with me for 35 years telling them how I thought they should do things; yet had the patience when I was off base to show me what they knew. I would be remiss if I did not recognize my predecessor in this column, Roger Machmeier, professor and Extension specialist at the University of Minnesota. He took a young guy fresh out of school and gave him a whole new perspective.

Over 50 years, I have observed significant industry trends and aspects worth mentioning. First, over this time the industry has moved from a time of systems based on old wives tales (see the tank starter above), to hearsay (see the half-full pipe) to science-based system design, installation and maintenance. This would not have happened without the industry’s commitment to continuing education and research to provide better and more consistent systems for the homeowner.

I have always been impressed with the commitment of the state and national organizations established by and for service providers and installers to promote and establish professional standards. There has been no limit in members’ pursuit of finding and then educating members and clientele about what they determine works; it is impressive and deserves recognition.

In the past two decades, the acceptance, use and development of technology to improve system operation and treatment has been amazing. I remember seeing a talk at one of the trade shows about 25 years ago that new product development and the internet was going to change how we did everything.


At the time I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well that may be, but I probably won’t see that happen before I leave.’ How wrong I was! Within five years after that discussion, the industry had gone from primarily using rock in trenches and beds to other types of trench media; combined with increased pretreatment systems with pumps, and with remote operation, the systems installed were changed dramatically.

If you have read any of my recent columns, you will see reference to continued changes in the ability to monitor and service systems using wireless technologies connected to the internet. The homeowner still relies on their pumper to take care of their system the way you do and the tools at your disposal have changed significantly! There is no foreseeable ending to this trend.

To paraphrase a song, “Everyone’s ending is someone else’s beginning.” This is the last column I will do as the Answer Man. Thank you for reading; thank you for sharing your stories with me over the years. Thank you to COLE Publishing for allowing me to write this column. Keep up the good work and we will see each other down the road.


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.