Are You Losing Money on Septic Tank Pumping Subcontractors?

When the housing market slowed, some installers added pumping and maintenance to their menu of services. The move may have been a good one, and here’s why.
Are You Losing Money on Septic Tank Pumping Subcontractors?
Is your company among those turning to pumping or system maintenance for a lifeline during slow periods?

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Occasionally I talk to onsite installation professionals who say they’ve come out from the cab of their trusty earth mover and bought a vacuum truck to pump the septic tanks they’ve installed. I’d say I heard more of that after the bottom dropped out of the real estate market in late 2008.

At the time, with home starts dwindling to a trickle, a number of contractors figured there wouldn’t be much dirt to move so they migrated – at least temporarily – to a septic service model. They knew homeowners would be more apt to stay put in their older homes rather than start a construction project.

A robust industry

That caution among homebuyers would mean an uptick in maintenance work rather than contracts for new systems. Homeowners with older systems would plow money into repairing and restoring, and the front end of many repairs would include pumping the septic tank.

The strategy seems to have helped some installers weather the economic downturn and emerge with a good fiscal outlook as the housing picture improves. I’ve heard from a number of installers this spring who are pleasantly surprised to be busier than they’ve been in years. The backlog of jobs might not match the watershed years of the mid-2000s – we may not see that frantic pace of building for some time – but the outlook is definitely much-improved.

So what’s happening with septic pumping, service and repair these days? Interestingly, a recent study by CNN Money listed septic service as one of the industries with the lowest unemployment rates in America. In fact, if you’re not a highly trained astronomer, physicist, or biomedical or petroleum engineer – at the top of the low-unemployment list – being a septic service technician is about as good as it gets.

According to the study, septic tank servicers and sewer pipe cleaners enjoy a tiny .9 percent unemployment rate, compared to the national average that’s been hovering in the high 7 percent range for the past year. It tied with information security analysts, nurse practitioners and earth drillers at just under 1 percent.

Why add pumping?

Though septic service can seem like a crowded sector, depending on where you operate, the unemployment figure seems to indicate there’s ample room for hardworking, skilled contractors to make a living. In recent months, I’ve written about lagging infrastructure improvements and an aging housing stock pointing the way to opportunities in repair work, replacement of onsite systems and the maintenance that’s crucial to upkeep of existing systems.

Besides a soft economy, installers might move into pumping to:

Build stability in their business

Any construction-related business is going to have periods of feast and famine. When you’re backed up with several months of excavation work in a new subdivision, you’re not thinking about the lean times. If you’ve been in this business long enough, you can remember points when you scraped by to meet payroll or had to lay off a good employee because there wasn’t enough work.

Pumping can take up the slack when things are slow or Mother Nature won’t cooperate and let you get in the ground. A service business related to your main focus can moderate those business ups and downs and keep your crews busy more weeks of the year.

Grab a bigger piece of the pie

Some installers have a valued pumping partner and they wouldn’t think of picking up a vac hose and hurting that relationship. That’s great, and there’s something to be said for focusing on doing what you do best. But there are others who feel they’re leaving revenue on the table by subcontracting out part of a repair or maintenance job.

Landing a valued customer is half the battle, and one axiom of small business is that if you have a customer who is happy with your work, capitalize on that relationship by providing as many services as possible to that customer. Pumping can become a natural service extension to your main business if you enjoy the work and are skilled at it.

Gain better control over workload

Let’s say a customer’s system is overloaded and they call you on a Sunday night. You could get out there first thing Monday morning to investigate, but you can’t promise that a local pumping contractor is available at the same time to empty the tank so you can get started.

If you had your own vacuum truck, you would be less reliant on another contractor and feel confident committing to emergency service. The same holds true for scheduling any service that requires a vacuum rig.

Smooth the transition into O & M

More and more, consumers value the idea of one-stop shopping. If you install their onsite system, there’s an excellent chance they’d welcome you remaining involved as a system maintainer. And you’d probably feel better about the long-term viability of your new systems if you can monitor them yourself.

Think of it as insurance for your installation work. As systems become increasingly complex to meet environmental demands and challenging site conditions, O & M is going to become more necessary. So if you envision yourself heading in that direction, the vacuum truck helps you provide those services seamlessly.

Is your company among those turning to pumping or system maintenance for a lifeline during slow periods? If so, how has the diversification gone for you? And as the installing business becomes your bread and butter again, will you keep on pumping tanks as a hedge against up-and-down demand for your construction-related services? Post a comment below.


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