Seeking Higher Ground

Gulf Coast Plumbing deals effectively with challenging soils while building a business based on friendships with customers
Seeking Higher Ground
Owner Woody Watson, left, and technician Phillip Butler inspect the placement of an aerobic treatment unit from Delta Environmental. Gulf Coast Plumbing has provided reliable service for 26 years around Belle Chasse, La. (Photography by Sean Gardner)

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There isn’t much high ground south of New Orleans. Contour lines on topographic maps are far apart, and the water table is always close to the surface.

In an area where 15 to 20 percent of newly installed onsite systems fail due to high-water issues, Woody Watson has been successfully installing for 26 years. His company, Gulf Coast Plumbing of Belle Chasse, La., serves customers in five parishes (counties) in a 100-mile radius. Regardless of the terrain, he has positioned his business on higher ground.

That means working hard to solve challenging site problems for new installations and replacements. It means getting the job done completely, through full site restoration, for a fair price. And it means working with people so that they become not just customers but friends.


TLC yields success

The first few minutes of a telephone conversation with Watson seldom address the person’s reason for calling. Watson or his wife and partner Audrey answer the business line, and they always begin with a “How you doin’?” or a similar opened-ended greeting that sets the tone for a call with a friend.

“People want a relationship, not just a system,” Watson believes. “People want to talk about their situation. They want to talk about more than just business.”

They also serve as educators. “Homeowners don’t read the do’s and don’ts booklet,” says Watson. “It seems like they do all the wrong things — they just don’t seem to care!” He attributes some of that to experience, where they could flush more or less anything without concern because they were served by municipal sewers. There is frustration in his voice.

Being a resource for customers and friends, Audrey finds her experience enables her to answer most questions. “She is good with people,” says Woody. Occasionally, when they get a question and can’t answer, they tell the caller they don’t know. “Then we get the answer and call back,” says Audrey. “People want TLC, and we give it to them.”


First a plumber

Starting out in the plumbing business, Watson, a master plumber in Louisiana and Texas, learned aerobic treatment systems first from the plumbing installer’s perspective. In the early days, when contracted to install an ATU system, he hired an excavator to prepare the site and install the absorption area while he focused on the plumbing and wiring.

“I saw how much of the job I was giving away and decided I was missing an opportunity,” he says. After qualifying for the appropriate installer’s license, Watson refocused on installation work.

When he didn’t get the support he expected from the local aerobic treatment unit dealer, he contacted the manufacturer. After meeting with top management at the plant, he was offered the local distributorship. “It was hard to qualify,” he says. “To be a distributor, we must stock a sufficient number and variety of parts, be available to our customers to help solve installation issues, troubleshoot problems, and provide training.”

Until about two years ago, he was installing about four treatment units per week. Now, it’s about one a week. He attributes this to the decline in the new housing market: The focus these days is on less-than-whole-system repair work.

Before selecting Delta Environmental as his preferred ATU manufacturer, Watson did a lot of homework on the treatment process and the components. “Our soils are so fluid that they exert significantly more compressive force on tanks than you see in drier environments,” he says. “Delta’s cylindrical tank delivers far greater crush resistance than a square tank.

In addition, the effluent quality from the units helps Watson offer viable solutions for sites with shallow water tables where septic tank effluent simply cannot be discharged, and where direct discharge to surface waters may be the only alternative.

“Aerobic units require ongoing maintenance, and the state makes sure that every system with an ATU is covered by a contract,” says Audrey. Gulf Coast Plumbing has about 150 systems under contract. Rather than go into the pumping business, they rely on a network of pumpers across the service area.


Water and soil

High groundwater is a persistent issue. “You can’t put water into saturated soil and expect treatment,” says Watson. “I’ve been digging long enough to know how different soils will perform as soon as I see them.”

In Louisiana, each county health department sets the parameters for system design to match site conditions. Site testing includes soil evaluation to identify water table elevation, along with perc testing. Together, the results determine the treatment technology and absorption area (filter bed) selection and sizing. Using these parameters, the installer designs the system and prepares a permit application appropriate to the site conditions.

In the early 1990s, the law was changed to require any failed system to be replaced with an aerobic treatment unit and appropriate dispersal system. In addition, the use of tar-coated metal treatment tanks was stopped. “I’ve seen a lot of those tanks where the baffles rotted off and the absorption areas were plugged tight with solids,” says Watson. “It is not enough to teach homeowners what not to flush. They must also be taught how to maintain their system.”

The list of approved treatment and absorption area technologies is not long. Aerobic treatment units are the norm. Gravelless chambers are a common absorption area technology where water tables are not too close to the surface. When the water table is high, the treated effluent is chlorinated before discharge to the chambers.

Based on years of observation, Watson believes he has identified a correlation between septic tank effluent and very slowly permeable soils. He believes these two conditions promote the accumulation of sludge in the chambers’ void space as that microenvironment becomes anaerobic. He supports aerated treatment and effluent disinfection before discharge to chambers.

Spray irrigation is another option for final effluent management, but it, too, has drawbacks. “I have encountered many spray heads that were clogged,” Watson says. “The clogging results from fine particles that escape the treatment tank and become lodged in the tiny hole in the nozzle.” There is also the “ick factor” when the lady of the house understands exactly what the spray heads will discharge in her backyard.

At some sites, the only alternative is to discharge ATU-treated and disinfected effluent to a road ditch or a natural waterway.


Wild wildlife

While ill-informed homeowners create challenges, nature itself creates others. “Just keeping the grass cut around control panels, compressors and pump housings is far more critical in this environment than elsewhere,” Watson says. “Homeowners seem to forget this.”

Heat and the moisture associated with tall grass create an attractive habitat for red ants, which invade control panels and any enclosed place they can get to where heat builds up. Their presence alone can ruin equipment by preventing heat from dissipating. “Aside from the nuisance of killing them and removing their dead bodies, when they are alive, they can deliver a nasty bite, and it seems you never get bitten just once,” Watson says.

Four-inch-diameter air vents in pump enclosures must be equipped with a vented cap — which allows ants to enter but defeats the inquisitive and problematic armadillo. These animals try to enter the dark, warm, enclosed space, where they may roll into a ball and get stuck in the unprotected vent pipe. Armadillos have also been found in effluent discharge lines, creating such a tight seal that the entire system backs up.

Working within the business environment also means getting along with all the parish sanitarians who oversee their work. Watson’s role as a Delta Environmental distributor assures that he cooperates with other installers, who may be both customer and competitor.

“Periodically, I put on a training session for entry-level sanitarians from the parishes in which we work,” he says. “Anybody is welcome — new sanitarians, experienced sanitarians, and my Delta customers, too.”


Plenty of work

With Audrey (vice president) managing the office and handling the daily phone traffic, Woody is in the field as crew leader and equipment operator. Joining him in the field are technician Phillip Butler, replacing the late loyal employee Tommy Bailey, and helper Joe Bobb. They’re supported by a pair of Kubota trackhoes, a 1989 KX91 and a 2004 KX41. A 2005 Kubota 3240 tracked front-end loader is equipped with a box blade.

“We charge a fair price for what we do,” says Watson. “We do not gouge. We stay on a site until the job is done, and we never, never leave before there is complete site restoration. People see this and tell their friends.

“We are busy — even in this economy, we are busy. Our relationships with customers result in very positive word-of-mouth advertising, and because of what is said about us, we have more work than we can handle.”

The Watsons have seen installation customers naturally evolve into friends and, in many cases, system management customers. It’s a natural progression built upon that first greeting: “How you doin’?”


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