Eyes on the Future

Alex Mauck takes pride in staying ahead in the business, and his industry service activities help move his state’s onsite profession forward
Eyes on the Future
Subcontractor Richard Lowes uses an excavator to add pea gravel around a newly installed onsite system. (Photography by Tim Batchelor)

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Reputation is everything,” says Alex Mauck, third-generation owner of Goodman Sanitation in Troutdale, Ore., a suburb of Portland. “As customers get smarter, they seek out and build durable relationships with established businesses. It is hard to beat the reputation of a 64-year-old family business.”

Mauck started riding in a vacuum truck with his dad when he was 4, and he has since learned to use every piece of equipment in the company’s job-focused fleet. The company still pumps three to four septic tanks per day, but it’s not pumping that brings the greatest rewards or challenges to Mauck, who operates in a 50-mile radius from Troutdale.

The company installs and services onsite systems and also performs repairs and system inspections for real estate sales. Mauck approaches every facet of the business with an eye toward establishing long-term customer relationships.

 

Down the road

Mauck’s grandfather, Earney Goodman, started out hand-digging cesspools in 1946. When Alex’s dad (Albert) took ownership in 1959, the company had begun installing septic tanks. “We used a Case 580 backhoe that was the first one sold in Oregon,” recalls Mauck.

By 1996, when Mauck bought the company, it was headed toward a major equipment refocusing, this time away from the rubber-tired backhoe to a tracked vehicle with significantly less soil loading.

“Like my predecessors in this business, I am always looking for innovative things to keep us ahead of the industry,” says Mauck. Until about 1981, lagoons were used to treat septage. Suddenly, lagoons were outlawed, and the City of Portland refused to treat septage. The pumpers refused to pump tanks until the city opened its facilities to septage. About that time, Goodman Sanitation built its own septage treatment facility. Today, Mauck has several thousand acres preapproved for land application of treated septage. More important, he now has options.

“With diesel at $4 per gallon, we either land-apply on 15 permitted acres nearby or unload at a city-owned plant,” he says. “There is an economic disincentive to move septage over 100 miles for land application, even if the application cost is fractions of a penny per gallon.”

Mauck has seen a major shift in the role of onsite treatment. “Onsite systems, once seen as an interim treatment technology, are now long-term solutions,” he says. He sees a need to teach homeowners to focus on the long-term needs of systems. He believes teaching basic do’s and don’ts should continue, “but homeowners need to learn to develop a relationship with their system, an awareness of the components and their respective management needs.”

Teaching awareness brings business opportunities: It is a door that opens to new customer relationships, the kind Mauck values and nurtures.

 

Situational awareness

Mauck looks at essentially every new technology that comes along. It need not be high-tech, reduce his costs or simplify an installation. If it lets him and his crew deliver a better installation, he’ll give it full consideration. Driving his evaluation processes is attention to detail in three overlapping areas, all viewed through the window of future maintenance needs.

First, the technology must be designed to facilitate and simplify maintenance. Complex technologies that require complex servicing are less desirable than those that deliver the same results but are easier to service, or that perform well with longer maintenance intervals.

Second, the product’s workmanship must match the workmanship he builds into every installation. The device must reflect the value his company places on quality performance.

Third, the system must interact well with the site and give service technicians easy access to components. Risers, for example, eliminate digging for service, facilitate access, cut time on-site, and reduce customer charges.

Modern components may be a bit more expensive, but the price of avoided installation and maintenance costs must become part of the decision to use them or not. “This is the customers’ decision,” Mauck says. “It is my responsibility to empower their decision-making.”

 

Not making work

Situational awareness makes every pumpout job an opportunity to identify other income opportunities. “Our drivers are trained to recognize problems, speak knowledgeably to the owner about their findings, and offer solutions,” says Mauck. “Pumping lets us find work, but we do not use pumping to make work that is not needed. Likewise, we do not want to repair anything until we fully understand why it is not working.”

Similar restraint is necessary when conducting presale inspections. “When we are hired to assess a system, we have no expectation, no predisposition toward a positive or negative finding,” Mauck says. “We report what we find. Written standards and a systematic process go a long way to maintaining balance among all parties involved in an inspection transaction.” Whether his customer is the buyer or seller, the report’s conclusion will come out the same.

Before offering technology solutions or designs, Mauck poses a question to himself: “What would I do in this situation if this were my property and I would be dependent on the system? I constantly balance cost to my customer with the system’s expected service life.”

Mauck believes the industry responds to customers’ desire to get the cheapest system possible without regard for long-term costs. Some competitors sell cheap systems to stay in the market. He often hears them say, “Just one more backhoe payment and I can cut my prices.”

“Most likely, the fellow who thinks that way has no real idea of whether he is making money or not,” Mauck says. He uses the word “affordable” in every conversation – he has removed “cheap” from his vocabulary.

“It is just plain dumb to end a tank installation without installing an effluent filter,” he says. That is just one of many lessons his family has learned over the generations, and he does his best to incorporate all his lessons into every design. “Sand filters taught us the value of time dosing, but this adds costs and gets right back to the price vs. longevity tension,” he says.

 

Contributions and rewards

Mauck has found success by wearing many hats in the industry as pumper, treatment facility owner, system installer, inspector, manufacturer of innovative onsite components, trainer, industry spokesperson and innovator.

A founding director of the Oregon Onsite Wastewater Association, he helped coalesce the industry in his state and opened a dialogue with the Department of Environmental Quality. He helped introduce the predecessor of the EZflow engineered geosynthetic aggregate (now made by Infiltrator Systems) across the Northwest, and he manufactured the product for about 10 years. His company also installed one of the first AdvanTex AX-20 units (Orenco Systems) in the state.

“If you are considering a ‘box technology,’ where all of the work is done inside the box, no matter where the box happens to be, there is no validity to the idea that the box must be tested all over the state,” he says. He believes this adds needless costs, delays introduction of proven technology, and is frustrating.

To bring consistency to the technology approval process, he challenged the DEQ in court and won. To the credit of all parties, his action was seen as principled, not personal. “DEQ was not happy, but they could see that my intent was to better the industry, not my wallet,” he says.

Shortly thereafter, he was invited to serve on the DEQ’s Onsite Technical Review Committee, where his voice supports regulatory reform, consistency of approach, and mandatory training for onsite professionals. Mauck is an outspoken advocate for a national technology verification process that applies in every state. He has also served on the DEQ ad hoc onsite rules committee. “If we can have national building and plumbing codes, why can’t we have a single set of regs and a single validation process?” he ponders.

Mauck gains greatly from his contributions, and he contributes plenty. The rewards are priceless: Professional networking, credibility with installers and regulators, and a reputation for being approachable all help him to be a better installer, colleague and respected competitor.

 

Mechanical advantage

With all that, the business is on sound footing. The equipment, while not brand new, is bought and paid for, well maintained, and reliable. The fleet includes a vacuum truck with a 4,200-gallon aluminum tank on a 1995 International chassis, and a single-axle pumper with a 2,200-gallon tank on a 1994 Ford CF 8000 platform. Mauck likes the cab-forward design because it can get into tight spaces where competitors’ bigger trucks can’t go.

For digging, he can deploy a 1996 Case 580 Super E backhoe or a 1998 Komatsu PC 75UU2 trackhoe. A 1984 Chevy 1-ton pickup with a service body supports the crew, and a 2003 Duramax flatbed truck is on hand to haul equipment and supplies and pull trailers. His 1984 Mazda pickup has lots of life in it, and it meets his need to get from job to job.

Senior installation technician Mike Clark, pump technician and salesperson Colbey Browne, and office manager/job expediter/facilitator Teresa Hutchens, work with Mauck to keep operations moving smoothly. Mike Taylor performs equally well on the pumping and installation sides of the business.

Being comfortable speaking in a wide range of venues, Mauck is a vocal proponent for onsite systems as long-term treatment facilities. Whether in septage management, treatment technologies, operation and maintenance or homeowner training, Mauck constantly looks for opportunities that will keep him 10 years ahead of the industry.

In the meantime, while some take pride in installing the cheapest, Mauck takes pride in installing the best, and if that also makes his jobs more expensive, so be it. He knows that today’s good reputation came from the good work of many yesterdays.



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