How to Handle DIY Homeowners

Be prepared with thoughtful answers when homeowners ask whether they can replace or repair their own onsite systems.

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Can I install my own system?

This is a question professional plumbers and installers sometimes hear from homeowners who are faced with a costly system replacement. This question can arise from at least two very different groups of homeowners.

One group we would characterize as being “other professionals.” These may be well-meaning onsite industry members who value the work of installers, but look at a septic system and say, “How hard can it be to dig a hole, throw some stuff in and cover it back up?” Or they may be professionals outside the industry who place no value on what we do. The other group we would characterize as homeowners who are always in the “do-it-yourself” mode and look at this as just another skill to master and a project to accomplish.

The simple answer to this question in most states is yes; in some area of state law, homeowners are allowed to install their own system. In Minnesota, for instance, this permission is granted in a statute outside the current code governing septic systems. In other states, the provision is found in the septic code. Some states spell out the requirements in their statewide code and expect it to be followed at the local level. Specific requirements governing installation are often left to the most local government unit with permitting authority.

Cracking the code

How this often works: Yes, you can install the system as long as you meet all of the requirements in the state code. This includes obtaining a permit and paying the appropriate fees, evaluating the site for limiting conditions, having an approved site-specific design, maintaining all setback distances and following all installation requirements in the code. It is left to the local authority to determine how they will monitor or inspect the site for a correct install. Additional inspections – with additional fees – are usually conducted at various stages of construction.

Most local regulators who get involved with do-it-yourself projects will say it usually becomes a huge headache for them; they end up being way more involved than they should in both the design and installation processes. Often after they encounter one of these systems, the procedures are changed requiring a professional to sign off on the plan to verify compliance with current code. Situations like these tend to put the local regulator squarely in the installer’s corner.

So when confronted with the “do-it-yourself” question, how do you handle it? Here are a couple thoughts and ideas:

The customer may not be right

For “other” professionals who do not respect everything that goes into a quality, long-lasting installation, an approach is to turn it back around and ask them how they would respond if the question involved the professional service they provide. “Even though I do not know anything about it, I think I can do just as good a job,” a prospective customer might tell them.

There are a number of professional skills and services that need to be performed beyond physically installing the system. This includes engineering and soil professionals, as well as your own installation skills that get the job done quickly and without any additional problems such as having to redo a part of the installation when it comes time for the inspection.

In the case of DIY’ers, start by explaining the professional tasks involved just to get started on the system replacement. Discuss the design and site evaluation work required before the project can begin. This helps because it explains some of the costs that get wrapped right into the price you charge. It helps to highlight that the extra inspections also have a cost and are time consuming, meaning their yard is going to be in a state of disrepair for a much longer time; and there is no guarantee the system will meet standards required by the local permitting authority.

Make your opinions known

One last note that goes hand-in-hand with the question is: If you work in a state where the rules or codes are silent on what an installer’s qualifications should be, you should become active with your state association to change this. There should be education and experience requirements to become an installer and maintain a license. This makes the discussion with a homeowner easier if they are contemplating installing their own system. They need to hear that it takes a lot of time and effort to get up to the point of being able to install a system.

The professional credentialing also helps discourage every unqualified person who owns a backhoe from putting out a sign announcing they are an installer. This is part of raising the professional bar for the industry. Not every person can or should be able to install onsite wastewater treatment systems.


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