Pulling Together

A thorough approach and a collaborative style help a Missouri regulator foster respect for her work and improve cooperation among local installers.
Pulling Together
St. Charles County wastewater system inspector specialist Sandy May monitors drainfield trenching and pipe installation at a home in Defiance, Mo. Matt Hauser from Jody Schmidt Well & Sewer Service sets the grade in the trench. (Photography by Tom Tu

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An engineer in St. Charles County, Mo., hired 18-year-olds to do his percolation tests, designed the onsite systems on his kitchen table, and charged homeowners $1,500.

In the drainfield, he used a land block system, which fills the first trench until hydraulic pressure forces effluent through a 90- or 45-degree solid elbow to the second trench, where the process repeats. The system leaves the upper runs saturated while the lower ones receive little or no usage.

County wastewater system inspector specialist Sandy May was furious when she found out and suggested to her boss that the $1,500 would be better spent paying for onsite components. He agreed, and told the recently hired May to do whatever was necessary. She did.

Since 1993, May has developed her own educational programs for contractors and third-party inspectors and has established the county’s onsite inspection program. She and co-workers in the Community Development Department contributed language to ordinances passed by the county council mandating time-of-sale septic system and well inspections, the licensing of inspectors and installers, and the requirement that they carry a $10,000 performance bond and $500,000 of liability insurance.

First viewed as the enemy, May won over the contractors with her fair, no-nonsense attitude, then formed them into a cohesive group of professionals who support each other and often serve as her eyes and ears. May’s concern for the interests of homeowners led practitioners to think of her not as a meddlesome bureaucrat but as a welcomed adviser and even a friend.


Winds of change

May, who has a restaurant/hotel institutional management degree from Purdue University, was running a restaurant for Arkansas State Parks when a health inspector’s visit altered her course. “I liked the idea of being in the office for a few hours, then out in the field for the rest of the day,” she says. May returned to the classroom for the required 30 hours of science, then trained with the health inspector for six weeks in a seven-county area before joining the Arkansas Health Department in Hope.

She spent four-and-a-half years there before her husband’s job dissolved and they moved to St. Louis in 1992. She immediately found a job as an environmental sanitarian for the St. Charles County Health Department.

For six months, she did food inspections and responded to septic system complaints, which she turned over to the Building Division. “I talked to the director and learned they didn’t have a good sewage program,” she says. “People didn’t know what they were looking at. In February of 1993, I moved to the Building Division, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Out in the field, May found contractors in surrounding rural areas doing percolation tests and slopping in drainfields in the rain. “I had 80 hours of training in soils with professors from the University of Arkansas,” she says. “We had 10-foot-deep test pits and Munsell color charts. We learned how to evaluate soils, and I could see these installers were ruining every system.”

Instead of making contractors call 24 hours in advance to schedule an inspection, May asked them to phone the day of the inspection, enabling them to work in a part of the county where it wasn’t raining. She also replaced percolation tests with soils permeability testing methods.

St. Charles County, once one of the fastest growing in the state, has 7,300 onsite systems. May and assistant Dan Walker did 15 to 25 inspections per day. When the county council passed an ordinance requiring time-of-sale inspections, the additional workload overwhelmed them.

The state Health Department responded by training and licensing private or third-party inspectors, but there were problems. “I had inspected many systems when the homes were built, and the paperwork some inspectors were submitting didn’t agree with what I knew was in the ground,” says May. “I asked them to get additional training or they would no longer be doing inspections for us.”

However, the state’s one- and two-day classes fell short of May’s expectations. Lacking alternatives, she developed her own, based on seminars she attended at association conferences and training centers. “People must touch components and see them to understand how they operate,” says May. “Sitting in a classroom or reading a book doesn’t cut it.”


Upgrading performance

Her Field Day Workshops involved three contractors installing an alternative system, then leaving it open so that May could discuss it with inspectors and installers from St. Charles and other counties. To force attendance, she promoted the ordinance requiring third-party inspectors to be licensed.

The professional installers then approached May, saying they wanted to be licensed, bonded, and insured through the county to knock out fly-by-night companies. The ordinance passed in 1995, but it didn’t stop contractors from badmouthing each other in hopes of getting more work. The unprofessional conduct irked May.

At a meeting, she told the installers that if they were not working, they needed to pound the pavement harder — jobs were everywhere. May welcomed installers into her office to track them down.

“I let them look at new construction and system repair permits, and copy soils reports and homeowners’ phone numbers,” she says. The strategy worked, and the badmouthing stopped. The meeting also started the contractors on the path of cooperation, and they began treating May with guarded acceptance. Eventually, the companies even referred jobs to other licensed contractors if they were too busy.

May also met with Realtors in the field, educating them about the onsite systems on the properties they were selling. Heavy turnover among agents meant spending too much time repeating the same message. So, to multiply her efforts, May began attending real estate meetings to discuss onsite ordinances and distribute handouts.

“The state code allows county health departments to set their own regulations, so we have 114 counties all with different rules,” she says. “The lack of consistency is a big nightmare for everyone, including real estate agents.”

In 2009, May gave her first presentation to the Missouri Board of Realtors, and drew more than 200 members.


Regulations and reality

The state Health Department allows counties to enforce stricter codes than the state code, enabling St. Charles to become a leader in safe onsite system practices. For example, the state does not require timed dosing, but St. Charles County does.

The state setback for drainfields is 10 feet from the property line, but in St. Charles County it is 30 feet. State and local codes require 450 feet of drainfield in 100-foot runs for three-bedroom houses where soils are suitable; otherwise, the homes may require alternative systems. May saw no logic in having four 100-foot laterals and one 50-foot run, so she increased the requirement to 500 feet for a uniform footprint.

The county requires homeowners to have a septic system operating permit with an inspection every two years. It is the only county that requires systems with pump tanks to time dose the drainfield. “Timed dosing is an efficient, economical solution, and my contractors love it,” says May.

She tells of an estate with a stable and restroom all served by an aerobic treatment unit, a 1,000-gallon on-demand pump tank, and a Wisconsin mound that was ponding. May talked to the wife and learned that she laundered six to 10 consecutive loads of horse items per day. The on-demand pump cycled repeatedly, overloading the uppermost laterals. May recommended that the installer put a timer on the pump to spread out the doses over 24 hours. The quick fix solved the overloading problem and saved the owners from remediating the drainfield.

May’s job often involves troubleshooting, which she relishes. One site had an older system with ball valves instead of a distribution box and a conventional drainfield that was ponding. Rather than replace the system, May suggested upgrading the 500-gallon pump tank to a 1,000-gallon tank and time dosing the field.

“We had room for another 200 feet of laterals, so I suggested tilling topsoil into that area and installing chambers in 3-foot-wide trenches,” she says. “That took the load off the overloaded and leaking upper lines.” The fix worked.

May prefers flow-diversion ball valves over distribution boxes because hydrogen sulfide gas corrodes the baffles in the boxes and causes system failure. Ball valves are activated by water pressure. Each time the pump cycles, the valve rotates to the next zone. They are installed 10 inches deep in a sprinkler valve box, but above the sewage level in the drainfield.

May requires that installers avoid disturbing the ground when they set the ball valves. “I have them tee off the pump line, come up above the sewage level, turn 90 degrees over the valve, then turn 90 degrees back down and run the rest of the line to the trench,” she says. “Now they never have to stick their hands in sewage to adjust a valve.”


Guiding hand

May enjoys designing repairs on existing systems, and especially figuring out how to fit components into tight places. The soil test tells her the most suitable site for the drainfield. She determines the size of the septic tank and absorption bed from the number of bedrooms. An engineer in the office supervises May on new residential construction. Only designs for commercial systems require an engineer.

May depends on contractor suggestions to optimize and finalize the designs. Homeowners may choose the kind of system they want from her list of options. If they have never owned an onsite system, May starts talking.

“They don’t know the difference between a recirculating sand filter and a MicroFast aerobic treatment unit from Bio-Microbics,” says May. “If I have a young couple with kids facing that choice, I tell them that the first place their youngsters will play is in the filter’s pea gravel. For slightly more money, they can purchase a system with enclosed components.”

May explains that the different prices on bids are mainly driven by product differences, such as a pump with a one-year warranty versus a five-year warranty. “I tell homeowners that if they are going to have an issue with a sewage pump, it will happen during the first two years,” she says. “Once they realize that the $300 difference is the cost of a five-year warranty, they choose quality over less expensive.”

May also helps buyers through short sales and foreclosures. The county ordinance requires sellers to pay for septic systems and well inspections. “I urge short sale buyers to have the septic system inspected,” says May. “Repairs on a failed system will cost them $5,000 to $8,000. Knowing that, they can renegotiate the deal with the bank. Most buyers are oblivious to this issue.”

Since inspectors cannot stress-test systems on houses vacant for years, the county attorney drew up a notarized affidavit. “The buyer states that he or she will have the system inspected after 30 to 45 days of occupancy, and assume responsibility for upgrades to the septic system or well,” says May.


Same book, same page

It took all of May’s experience, and her philosophy that one is never too old to learn, to convince homeowners and contractors to work with her. Training and education, the keys to her approach, taught the parties to support each other and not fear new technology or approaches.

For May, the rewards are many. Homeowners welcome her onto their properties and call with concerns or questions about their systems. The contractors, now a cohesive team, are helping her find and evaluate some 3,650 undocumented systems.

“They are a good group that takes pride in what they do,” she says. “In unity, we benefit homeowners and the environment instead of throwing money away by doing things wrong.”


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