Septic School: 40-Year Installer Molds Future Onsite Community

For 40 years and counting, Ray Erb has been helping build the knowledge and professionalism of Pennsylvania’s onsite installer and pumping community.
Septic School: 40-Year Installer Molds Future Onsite Community
Thomas H. Erb & Sons, Inc. has been solving Pennsylvania homeowners' septic issues for 43 years. Here, president Ray Erb (right) and his song, vice president Tom Erb, are shown at a work site with their workhorse Case 580E backhoe.

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A high school introduction to ornamental horticulture proved useful when an abrupt detour in Ray Erb’s career routed him into the onsite industry. After working 12 months at a nursery, Erb decided his dad was a much better boss. In 1974, the 19-year-old returned to Thomas H. Erb & Sons, a pumping company in Lititz, Pa., and never left.

Thomas H. Erb III began the business in 1970, assisted by his father, Thomas H. Erb II. “My parents called me Ray because the mail was already too confusing,” says Erb, who now owns the company.

In 1988, Ray Erb joined the Pennsylvania Septage Management Association, a decision that launched a parallel career when he volunteered to serve on the group’s Education Committee. Elected its chairman in 1998, Erb was instrumental in developing onsite inspection guidelines recognized by Pennsylvania courts as the industry standard, and the vacuum truck training program – later adopted by the National Association of Wastewater Technicians.

In 2006, PSMA created the Ray Erb Leadership Award to honor his accomplishments. He remains the sole recipient. In 2013, NAWT leaders and Bob Kendall, cofounder of COLE Publishing, presented Erb with the industry’s prestigious Ralph Macchio Lifetime Achievement Award.

An onsite heritage

Returning from the Korean War, Erb III worked for excavating firms until a pumping company that was going out of business offered its customers to him. A relative of the owner sold Erb an International tank truck with a Gorman-Rupp centrifugal pump. Within four months, he had enough work to become a full-time pumper. His father rode along to prime the pump and help expose 5-foot-deep tank lids with a pick and shovel.

In 1972, the brutal labor ceased when Erb bought a backhoe.

“Customers began asking Dad to install conventional systems or to replace their drainfields,” says Erb. “We got some how-to books from Penn State University and one from the federal government, then learned by doing.”

The township’s sewage enforcement officers occasionally helped the family by sketching how to install a system and explaining the rules. Ray Erb became an SEO in 1994. “I learned mechanical drawing, landscape design, erosion control and how to grow grass in my high school vocational classes – all disciplines that easily crossed over into working with onsite systems,” he says.

His mother, Joan, was as much a driving force in the company as her husband. She brought her bookkeeping skills to the business, then became an IRS Enrolled Agent. In the late 1970s, she suggested the younger Erb grow a beard. Employees and customers had confided that her son looked too young to be in charge of anything. Erb has worn a beard ever since.

Today, pumping accounts for 60 percent of revenue. To transport 3 million gallons of septage annually, Erb prefers Peterbilt rigs. His newest is a 2007 tandem-axle chassis with 4,000-gallon aluminum tank and National Vacuum Equipment 607 pump purchased from Imperial Industries. The 2000 single-axle truck has a 3,000-gallon aluminum tank and Demag Wittig vacuum pump (Gardner Denver). A 1990 tandem-axle rig with 3,500-gallon steel tank and Utile Engineering Co. pump from Eldredge Equipment Services completes the trio. A 1993 Peterbilt 378 semi-truck pulls the 6,000-gallon stainless steel Polar tank trailer.

Also in the company’s equipment inventory are a Case 1840 skid-steer, Gehl 383Z mini-excavator, Caterpillar 312B excavator, Case 580E backhoe, Electric Eel sewer and drainline cleaning equipment, a FallTech confined-space tripod and T&T hand tools for subsurface locating jobs.

Maintenance and repair 

The company’s five-member onsite installation crew also breaks into maintenance and repair teams. Installations and repairs generate 40 percent of revenue, but new installations account for only 2 percent of the work. “Our goal from the beginning has been to focus on repairing residential systems,” says Erb.

As other contractors gravitated toward easy repairs, Erb saw a window of opportunity open. He built the company’s reputation for innovative solutions and tenaciousness by targeting challenging repairs. A recent example involved a three-bedroom home in a development with natural springs. During heavy spring rains, the five-year-old elevated sand mound resembled a spring. Multiple companies had failed, because the problem would solve itself, then reappear.

“Analyzing where the water entered the system was frustrating,” says Erb. “The water table changed quickly from low to high and vice versa, and it happened sporadically.”

Over three months, the team hand-dug 6-inch diameter test holes to evaluate the soil and identify water patterns. They also pumped the septic tank as needed. By returning during downpours, they noticed groundwater wicking up and filling the sand berm.
The solution was a curtain drain installed 15 feet above the mound. The team dug a 5-foot-deep trench 100 feet long, bedded it with stone and laid a 4-inch PVC perforated pipe draining to a stream. “That solved the problem,” says Erb. “During wet periods, hydraulic pressure on the full pipe sends the water shooting out.”

Inspection connection

In the late 1980s, a new challenge appeared. An escalation in court cases involving buyers of homes with failed septic systems prompted mortgage companies to request onsite inspections. Acknowledging the need, Erb, two other members of the PSMA Education Committee, and Curtis Eldridge as the lead met with Paul Robillard, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, College of Agricultural Sciences, at Penn State University to develop an inspection program.

“We searched across the country to see if any organization had some kind of inspection program – and found nothing,” says Erb. “A few members were doing inspections on their own, so we incorporated their methods. We looked at state or local health department regulations for how they wanted systems inspected, and gleaned what was applicable. Then we compiled everything and introduced our guidelines in 1989.”

The new program encountered some resistance. When people made negative comments, the team asked to hear their solution to the problem. “The strategy worked, because many of their ideas had merit,” says Erb.

Every three years, the team reviews and updates the guidelines, then develops training manuals that reflect the changes. Although the courts recognized the guidelines as the industry standard, the state never adopted them into law. New Jersey, however, modified the PSMA standards and passed the document into law.

Training efforts 

“By 2006, the inspection program had become so successful that companies wanted PSMA to develop a vacuum truck training course for new hires,” says Erb. “Gil Longwell, PSMA executive secretary at the time, and I did it. It was a neat but time-consuming adventure.”

The course, available year-round through NAWT or PSMA, also is available online courtesy of the National Environmental Health Association. “I feel honored to have been involved with it, and interest keeps growing,” says Erb. “Nova Scotia recently required pumpers to be licensed, and the provincial government adopted our vacuum truck course.”

Erb also helps coordinate the PSMA annual Spring Training Event focusing on inspections for real estate transactions. “We offer Beginners 101, Advanced 102, and SR1, a standards refresher course,” says Erb. “More than 120 people registered this year.”

The Pennsylvania College of Technology grades the exams and returns certificates with the Penn State logo. “That logo elevates certification to a whole different level of professionalism,” says Erb.

To organize the field work associated with the course, Erb solicits help from an inspector or PSMA member in the area. That person finds a suitable location, then the event team visits the site to evaluate the system. “We offer the course throughout Pennsylvania in July and September,” says Erb. “The inspection program takes a lot of everyone’s time and is exhausting work.”

Looking ahead 

In 2010, Erb became the liaison representative between PSMA and the Pennsylvania Association of Sewage Enforcement Officers. His first success was arranging for each organization to provide the other with a free booth at its trade show. “The next objective is combining the two annual conferences, which would greatly benefit vendors and attendees,” says Erb. “Finding a compatible date has been the major obstacle, but I hope we’ll see it happen in 2015.”

Erb also would like PSMA to work with NAWT to bring its Designing Systems course to Pennsylvania. “NAWT debuted it as part of Education Day at the 2013 Pumper and Cleaner Environmental Expo,” he says. “Some PSMA members enrolled, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.”

Although Erb appreciates state and national recognition, the high point for him and his wife, Sharon, has been watching son Tom, 36, and daughter Caitlin, 29, mature into great people. “Tom supervises our excavating and repair crew and will eventually take over the business. Caitlin gave us our first grandchild, Claire, last April,” he says.

Erb finds his greatest personal satisfaction in the little rewards of jobs well done. “Helping homeowners solve difficult onsite problems is my favorite way of making a difference in the industry,” he says.


Electric Eel Mfg. - 800/833-1212 -
Eldredge Equipment Services Inc. - 800/220-2052 -
FallTech - 800/719-4619 -
Gardner Denver - 217/222-5400 -
Gorman-Rupp Company - 419/755-1011 -
Imperial Industries, Inc. - 800/558-2945 -
Mustang-Gehl Company - 800/628-0491 -
National Vacuum Equipment, Inc. - 800/253-5500 -
Polar Tank Trailer, LLC - 800/826-6589 -
Prototek - 800/541-9123 -
RIDGID - 800/769-7743 -
T&T Tools, Inc. - 800/521-6893 -


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