Certified Installer Becomes Local Septic System Specialist

Whether for new systems, replacements or repairs, Steve Buttermore performs a thorough evaluation to make sure the customer gets the right solution.
Certified Installer Becomes Local Septic System Specialist
The Buttermore’s crew installs a Geomatrix GST leaching system with a 1,000-gallon concrete septic tank from Jolley Precast. (Photography by Vincent Scarano)

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Successful onsite system repairs are built on an understanding of the "what" and "why" of the problem. "Without this understanding, I will not start a repair job," says Steve Buttermore, owner of Buttermore's Septic Service. His approach is similar for new and replacement systems: A thorough site assessment comes first.

Buttermore strives for professionalism in every aspect of his business, from customer interactions to the appearance and performance of his employees. These attributes set his company apart from competing installers and pumpers.

Working in a 50-mile radius from Gales Ferry in southeastern Connecticut, Buttermore's is locally known as the septic system specialist. "Onsite systems are all we do," Buttermore says. The firm specializes in repairs on constrained or soil-impaired sites.

New installations and repair work, driven by his vacuum truck service, keep the company forward-focused and busy even in slow economic times. Inspections for estate transfers generate business too – all in one way or another related to onsite systems. It wasn't always that way.

Things evolved

"I got started with a grass-cutting business in high school," says Buttermore. "As soon as I graduated, I bought a backhoe and dump truck and expanded into landscaping, and then hardscaping." By 2004, after expanding into utility installation, he was looking to continue the evolution. When a friend asked him to install an onsite system for his new home, he agreed.

To prepare, he studied onsite systems and state regulations, and he completed the Connecticut Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association installer course. "I had local installer friends willing to help me through the apprentice phase of credentialing so that I could become a certified installer," Buttermore says. By 2005, credentials in place, he focused his business entirely on the onsite market. In 2008, he added a vacuum truck, installing a used 2,000-gallon tank and a used Jurop R 260 pump on a 1997 International 4900 chassis.

"The vacuum truck let us add an obviously complementary line of service," he notes. "Pumpers or plumbers are the first to get the call for help. Homeowners don't think they have a septic system problem – they think they have a clogged drain line." Often, plumbers call him when they find the problem is beyond their scope.

"Our vacuum truck operator finds the problems, and then our repair crew fixes them," Buttermore says. This cycle opens countless doors. Baffles, faulty or absent effluent filters and risers are big opportunities: they are legitimate repair issues that generate revenue and, more importantly, build relationships.

Today, pumping and related management services comprise 30 percent of the business. New systems and replacements account for 60 percent, and the balance comes from system inspection, waterjetting and miscellaneous services.

Understanding why

Educating customers is the company's most important job. "Homeowners like to learn about their systems," says Buttermore. "When they understand how it works and why it failed, they are better customers and more responsible system users." Asking probing questions about unusual events – big parties, a newborn, an elderly family member – all contribute to a better understanding. It also tells Buttermore what the owner expects the system to handle.

"I use the problems I find as teaching examples when talking to the customer," he says. "I tell them a failed system is a condition. Next, I explain the cause. The openness builds a sound bond between my company and my customer."

First and foremost a learner, Buttermore continually takes whatever training he can. As new system types come along, continuing education also qualifies him to install or service them. "Aerobic treatment units are not currently allowed in Connecticut, but when they are, I'll be registered for the first class on them," he says.

Listening to the system

Onsite systems have a lot to tell Buttermore, and he has learned to be a good listener. "You must open the main tank access and look inside," he says. "The liquid level says a lot about the entire system, not just the tank. Overfull tanks are that way for a reason." The first potential cause is an effluent filter clogged from lack of maintenance. If that isn't the problem, then it must be farther downstream, he reasons.

When there are no obvious problems, Buttermore asks the basic questions about water use and the home occupants' behaviors. Ponding on top of or downslope from an absorption area is another red flag systems display. "It could be intentional and unrecognized excessive water use, a faulty distribution box or unsuitable soils," he says. "I don't know unless I recognize the flag's message and look for the underlying cause.

"I have excavated a trench parallel to the edge of an absorption area to better understand the soil next to a ponded area. Sometimes, though, it's necessary to excavate within the absorption area to find the problem."

On one site, he encountered alternating dry and saturated areas. "There, we discovered an aggregate alternative made by surrounding a perforated pipe with a geotextile. The geotextile had clogged, slowing the rate at which liquid could move out into the environment." What he found ruled out a soil issue. Inadequate tank maintenance, a garbage grinder and lack of an effluent filter all became potential suspects.

Buttermore calls the failure of a system with less than 20 years of use "premature." He has traced many such failures to the inappropriate discharge of water softener backwash to the septic tank. "In Connecticut, there are no regulations governing the disposition of backwash water," he says. He believes these flows are not addressed in current system sizing regulations. His practice is to redirect this water to a separate, purpose-built chamber absorption system.

First contact

The tone of the problem-solving process is set the moment a customer calls. "Customers should be greeted by no voice other than mine," says Buttermore. He's available to every customer – new or returning. Whether he's on a machine, driving a truck or in the office, all calls reach him.

He assigns work to his employees for follow-up. His wife and office manager, Diane, dispatches the vacuum truck and helps coordinate materials orders. Their daughter, Danielle, 14, helps her mom with data entry and website administration. Technology plays an important role in the call management plan, and Buttermore realizes that as the company grows, he may have to delegate first-contact duties.

"Something as simple as caller ID lets me know whether to break away from a task or wait to handle the call during a slower moment," he says.

Trained and focused

Confidence in well-trained employees has a freeing effect on Buttermore. Joe Wessel, a licensed installer and equipment operator, carries out assignments with limited oversight. Buttermore's son Grant, a senior at the local technical school, works as a laborer and installer apprentice. At 17, he is already well on his way to obtaining his pumper and installer credentials. "He is my right-hand man," says Steve. "In a period of transitioning personnel, he has picked up the slack and lightened my load."

Licensed installers in Connecticut can design new onsite systems and repairs for existing systems, except for systems proposed in areas of special environmental concern. In these areas, an engineer must design the system. In his designer role, Buttermore takes full advantage of the site. "I never like to design a system to the minimums," he says.

"Whenever I can, I work to educate the owner as to why bigger than minimum is a good thing," he says. His preferred option is to maximize a new system's footprint without taking reductions for alternate media. When designing repairs with limited space, he tries to use all the available space. The process is a balancing act, and it includes consideration to preserve some space on the site for yet another repair, should it be necessary.

As jobs demand, employees can rely on an equipment fleet that includes three dump trucks, a 1996 Case 9020B excavator, a 1998 Bobcat 331 mini-excavator, a 1999 Bobcat 873 skid-steer and a 2007 Bobcat 337 excavator. Supporting the pumping operation are a 2005 International 4300 vacuum truck, a Vivax-Metrotech inspection camera, and related special tools.

While on site with sanitarians for site evaluations, Buttermore discusses location and other configuration options. "Before we part company, I want my concept to get a preliminary OK from the sanitarian," he says. "Back in my office I'll convert that concept into a design."

Promotion happens

Buttermore's business is growing at unexpected rates in an economy that, at best, is holding its own. A small Yellow Pages ad, a website and a Little League team sponsorship make up the company's formal advertising. The website, with its comfortable red-and-white calico background, presents useful information in a low-key, informal manner. Phrases like "We've been digging around town for over 25 years," and "The clean, green pumping machine" say what needs to be said.

Word of mouth is Buttermore's best business generator. He builds that by successfully completing jobs, solving problems and answering homeowners' questions. Realtor referrals for inspections are common, as his inspection reports are factual statements of performance milestones, rather than cold pass-fail conclusions.

Everyone in the company is responsible for every positive outcome: It's a shared responsibility that has led to success Buttermore very openly shares with all he encounters.


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