Where's the Fire? Firefighter-Turned-Installer Takes Charge of Onsite System Maintenance

Never satisfied, Dart Kendall modifies equipment and installation techniques to save time, cut costs, and deliver reliable, long-lasting systems.
Where's the Fire? Firefighter-Turned-Installer Takes Charge of Onsite System Maintenance
Cliff Kendall cuts pipe in the back of the 20-foot Haulmark auto hauler that serves as a customized warehouse on wheels. It carries most supplies and has enough space to carry the Vermeer LM42.

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For 30 years, Dart Kendall worked as a firefighter with the Cobb County (Ga.) Fire Department – 24 hours on, 48 hours off. He filled his spare time remodeling homes (including the lieutenant governor's), building and landscaping high-end houses, and installing septic tanks.

In 1985, he opened his own business in Acworth. The uncertain construction industry pushed Kendall into specializing in installing and repairing residential and commercial onsite systems. It also prompted him to name the company Advanced Septic. As drip emitter systems replaced gravel-and-pipe drainfields, he kept a log detailing installation problems, then used the patterns he saw to change installation techniques, increase efficiency, improve peace of mind, and make customers happier.

During slow periods, Kendall, wife Becky, and son Cliff brainstormed about how to work more efficiently. They rearranged trucks, modified equipment, or custom-built machinery so that they could install a complete drip system in one day. When that work slowed to a crawl, they turned to pumping tanks and repairing systems to stay busy.

An opportunity to install 20,000 gpd or larger systems in east Tennessee helped Kendall diversify into a wastewater utility called Aqua Green Utility. "I was raised to always prepare for bad times, then do the best I could to get through them," says Kendall, 56. "That training enabled me to survive when so many others have not."

Roller coaster

As environmental issues gained traction and onsite systems became more complex, Kendall enjoyed the challenge of finding proper solutions. He spent days at trade shows talking to vendors and taking classes on new technologies and products, then upgrading the business. Kendall earned state installer licenses for residential, commercial and drip emitter systems, and received Pumper I and II licenses.

"We did a lot of new construction during the housing boom because it was easy, profitable and fast," says Kendall. "I'd bid a subdivision, the developer would fax eight or 10 permits, and we would install the systems – a 1,000-gallon tank with 250 feet of drainfield."

When the advent of aerobic treatment units (ATUs) enabled developers to build on sites with too much clay for conventional drainfields, Kendall chose geosynthetic aggregate from ICC Technologies and became a certified installer and distributor for Delta Environmental Products (Pentair). He even bought molds and precast tanks to ensure structural and watertight integrity for ECOPOD or Whitewater ATUs.

Pumping helped the company bridge the hard times. Kendall bought a 1994 GMC vacuum truck with a 1,800-gallon steel tank and Becker pump from Keith Huber. "Branching into a pumping enabled us to pay bills during the worst slowdowns," he says.

Fighting back

As the housing bubble exploded in late 2008, Kendall listed upcoming jobs on a board in the shop to apprise his eight employees of the situation. "They talked up business and kept us going a lot longer," says Kendall. "When the work ran out, I had to let them go. That really hurt." He also sold off excess equipment and made the last payment on a new backhoe, entering the recession debt-free.

Kendall and son Cliff, who joined the company in 2002, expanded into installing drip emitter systems for large warehouse complexes. The work lasted 18 months. They returned to residential pumping and system repairs, growing both businesses. "In 2008, we were installing eight residential systems per week and three commercial systems a month," Kendall says. Today the company installs only 10 residential and two commercial systems per year, and those numbers could have been even lower. Some of the current work is a result of competitors going out of business.

In 2009, Kendall branched into installing 20,000- to 50,000-gpd systems for schools and exclusive subdivisions in Tennessee (see sidebar). The massive scale of the projects enabled him to hire Barry Little, who had lost his job at the local wastewater treatment plant. Kendall designs the systems with engineer of record Bob Faulhaber, P.E., of Faulhaber Engineering & Sustainability in Cookeville, Tenn.

Today, onsite installations account for 70 percent of annual revenue, system repairs for 25 percent, and pumping for 5 percent.

Innovation rules

Over the years, father and son kept rearranging the box trucks pulling the Caterpillar 420 backhoe and 226 skid-steer with a Bradco trencher until they were loaded with everything to install or repair systems for four-bedroom homes except the septic tank. They built pipe racks under the boxes and mounted toolboxes inside to organize components. "We don't ever want to stop working to visit a supply store," says Kendall.

In truth, the supply store travels with them in one of eight enclosed trailers. A customized 20-foot Haulmark auto hauler serves as their warehouse on wheels. On one side, Kendall and son built shelves and pull-out drawers to organize 200 or more drip system components. The other side stores 100 sticks of 20-foot-long 1.25- or 1.5-inch pipe.

"We have another enclosed trailer just for new construction," says Kendall. "Becky often hauls material all day with it, enabling us to install a system in one day." She also runs the office at home.

Kendall has a 6,000-square-foot shop with two service bays and two loading docks on 8.5 acres in Acworth. "The docks are necessary because materials arrive by the tractor-trailer load," says Kendall. "Buying in bulk saves money, and paying on time puts my company at the top of vendors' lists for better deals. I can buy $5,000 worth of fittings discounted 70 to 80 percent."

Production investments

Upgrading equipment also improved efficiency. "Before I bought the RL-H4C laser (Topcon Positioning Systems) and Bullseye 5+ machine control laser receiver (Apache Technologies), it took four people to install a gravel drainfield using a transit," says Kendall. "Now it takes two, working faster and with perfect accuracy."

Kendall bought a Vermeer LM42 walk-beside vibratory plow with 50 hp turbo diesel just to install drip tubing. Because many drip fields are on wooded sites with 60 percent slopes, Cliff mounted dual wheels on the downhill side of the plow for added stability.

Initially, tubing connectors couldn't slip past the blade on the machine. Feeding in a new roll and splicing it to the installed tubing left hundreds of 20-foot-long pieces of scrap. Cliff fabricated a larger trenching blade that allows connectors to slip past, saving them thousands of dollars in discarded material.

To install tubing between tightly spaced trees, they modified a 16-inch disc-cutting saw powered by a 6.5 hp chain saw engine. They also radio-controlled a 2,000-pound, 8- by 4-foot trencher with 3-foot-diameter saw for working on steep slopes. "Chips fly at the operator when the saw hits rock," says Kendall. "It's much safer operating it remotely." The prototype uses scale boat or aircraft servos and radio equipment.

Digging with care

To keep trash from entering pressure supply mains during installation, Kendall mounted screw-down caps on the ends, removed them to flush the pipe when the system went online, and replaced the caps. "That eliminated trash blocking the pressure-relief valves, K-Rain indexing valves, and pressure regulators," he says.

They initially used nipple couplings to attach drip lines to supply lines, but some always broke off during settling in the rocky soil. Kendall switched to compression couplings from the drip irrigation industry. "If they settle too much, the tubing pulls out," he says. "We just cut it, add an extension, and shove it into the coupling. It's an easy fix."

Careful trench excavation ensures that soil supports the tubing as it leaves the supply lines, reducing the chance that it will come out. Kendall also uses flexible tubing for air lines because it bends instead of breaking as it settles around ATU tanks.

To keep inlet and outlet tees from twisting or breaking off during settling, the crew members level the bottoms of tank holes with the laser to ensure that the tees align with the pipes. Then they excavate the trenches, leaving the virgin soil supporting the lines. They also excavate smaller tank holes to reduce backfill settling.

"I don't mind fixing something, but it's a point of pride to do it correctly the first time," says Kendall. Advanced Septic has won two customer service awards from Angie's List.

Stepping stones

Early in his career, Kendall joined the Georgia Onsite Wastewater Association to get as much training as possible and to network with experts. Eventually, he was asked to give presentations at onsite conferences and to serve on the GOWA board of directors – he became president in 2012. With association lobbyist Bruce Widener and Assistant Environment Protection Division Director Jim Ussery, Kendall is working to reverse revenue-killing restrictions on land application of septage.

"Joining their state onsite association is one of the best things contractors can do to improve business and stay in business," says Kendall. "The day they think they know everything is the day they begin falling behind."

Meanwhile, Kendall coaches Cliff, 31, for the day when he assumes responsibility for the company. "I stress planning for when things go from bad to worse," he says. "It's not how fast you leverage yourself. Sustainable growth is through steady plodding."


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