Hack Into Onsite Installation With This Plumbing Pro

Every time Indiana’s Hacker Plumbing and Drilling supplies a new onsite technology, customers emerge to demand more work from the family operation.
Hack Into Onsite Installation With This Plumbing Pro
Owner Mark Hacker

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Attending one of the first Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expos in Nashville, Tenn., was a turning point for Mark Hacker, co-owner of Hacker Plumbing and Drilling in Vincennes, Ind. It convinced him to concentrate more on the onsite industry.

“We had installed conventional gravity systems since the late 1960s, but it was more of a sideline to the well drilling business,” says Hacker. “I saw the future at the show, and it was advanced secondary treatment and commercial systems.”

While the center of Vincennes is sewered, many of its 25,000 residents have onsite systems with failing drainfields and limited space for replacements. Hacker’s quest for alternative technologies quickly established him as a leader in onsite repairs. Working with local regulators, Realtors, business owners and plumbers soon gained him a reputation as a problem solver.

Hacker has been an early adopter to a variety of onsite technology, including a recirculating gravel filter with drip irrigation, and the Fusion purification tank imported from Japan by Zoeller Corp. He credits much of his success to the benefits derived from membership in the Indiana Onsite Wastewater Professionals Association and what he learns at the Pumper & Cleaner Expos.

REPAIR AND REPLACE

While older brother Tim managed the well drilling branch of the company, Hacker, 50, built the onsite side through referrals from business associates, suppliers, county sanitarians and plumbing contractors. His parents ran Delbert Hacker Plumbing & Heating for 28 years, creating a great referral network.

Much of the work focused on repairs, as the agricultural community lacked large tract housing developments. In the late 1990s, Hacker enrolled in onsite courses, and joined IOWPA and the National Association of Wastewater Technicians to become better versed in his profession.

“Indiana doesn’t have a state licensing program,” says Hacker. “It’s up to counties, which began requiring contractors to be licensed in the early 2000s. I wanted certification to prove I was a professional.” He works in seven Indiana counties and four in Illinois.

Hacker doubled annual onsite revenue for the first three years by installing advanced treatment units and repairing troubled drainfields. Space limitations were his main challenge. He read everything he could find on alternative technologies, and certified through manufacturers to install them.

SHOW AND TELL

While literature from various agencies helped Hacker explain the need to fix ponding drainfields correctly, his biggest challenge was convincing homeowners to spend the money. Another concern was having their property torn up. Hacker’s installation of the RGF broke the dam.

“Although I had an alternative space, I installed 1,224 feet of Geoflow drip tubing in my front yard,” he says. “In two months, all signs of the burial disappeared.” The strategy converted reluctant homeowners.

Hacker turned the RGF installation into a field day for IOWPA members, and invited state and county health department regulators from Indiana and Illinois. When the Zoeller representative arrived with the components, he had a Fusion tank in the back of his pickup truck. After it was unloaded, Hacker climbed up a ladder, looked inside and knew the perfect place for it.

After only six years, effluent was ponding at an upscale home with a conventional system. “The small lot had very poor soils, and replacing the drainfield would use up the remaining back yard,” says Hacker. “Mike Beaman of the Knox County Health Department was at the Field Day and granted permission for me to install the unit.”

Hacker convinced the owner to accept the product. “I’ve been certified to install Zoeller systems for years, and felt confident in guaranteeing the unit would extend the life of his system tenfold,” says Hacker. “It is still working flawlessly.”

The installations had a ripple effect. Homeowners with septic problems began calling Hacker. Local sanitarians and health departments approached him for advice and solutions. “We were well on the way to becoming recognized as onsite specialists,” he says.

LOTS OF CHANGE

The road to that point began in 1965 when Delbert and Mary Hacker opened their business. Delbert’s brother joined them in 1973. By 1993, the company had 26 employees and offered plumbing, heating, air conditioning, irrigation, swimming pool, electrical and well drilling services. Then the brothers went their separate ways. “It was like a storm roaring through the forest knocking down dead wood,” says Hacker. “We abandoned avenues that weren’t making money and concentrated on well drilling, plumbing and onsite systems.”

Just as the dust was settling, the second shoe dropped. One Saturday morning in 1993, Hacker met his brother in the office for their weekly meeting with their father. When Delbert joined them, he threw a contractual agreement and his shop keys on the desk. “Dad announced that he needed a heart transplant, offered to sell us the business, said he was going to Florida for 30 days and walked out the door,” says Hacker.

The brothers bought the company and renamed it Hacker Plumbing and Drilling. Mark Hacker had worked in the shop while earning a two-year associate’s degrees in business administration from Vincennes University. He joined the company as a plumbing and service technician in 1982. Older brother, Tim, who had worked there since 1976, was a rotary drill rig operator and Master Certified Groundwater Contractor.

Today, 40 percent of the company’s annual $1.4 million revenue comes from onsite, 10 percent from pumping and the remainder from well drilling. It has six full-time employees and two seasonal workers. They average 20 residential installations per year and 25 repairs. “Our record year was 2011 with 30 installs and 30 repairs,” Mark Hacker says. “Many contractors took their excavators to the rapidly expanding coal mine fields that year, and they either referred their onsite jobs to me or turned over the workload.”

The brothers operate out of a 13,000-square-foot shop with eight service bays and 3,000 square feet of office space on 10 acres. They also have a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. “We keep our equipment inside as much as possible, and have a full-time and part-time mechanic to service it,”
says Hacker.

CUSTOM PACKAGES

The company branched into commercial onsite systems after Hacker installed a mound system for the local John Deere dealership. “We realized small commercial systems could be just as lucrative as residential ones, especially if they required a maintenance contract,” says Hacker.

Hacker develops the designs, then works with Scott Rexroth, P.E., president of Clear Water Environmental Systems in Noblesville, who finalizes and stamps the plans for systems greater than 2,000 gpd. The association enabled Hacker to offer customers complete packages from design to maintenance.

The state mandates maintenance contracts for drip irrigation, advanced treatment units and commercial systems. Hacker received his operation and maintenance certification through NAWT, developed a three-year service contract, and today averages 75 contracts that require biannual visits. Most customers renew on schedule.

Repairing and maintaining systems led to sewer and drain line cleaning and inspections using a RIDGID SeeSnake system. Most service calls involved blocked laterals that couldn’t be cleaned until the septic tanks were pumped. The money lost waiting for the pumper to arrive convinced Hacker to buy a used 1978 GMC vacuum truck with 1,200-gallon tank and Masport pump. In 2009, he upgraded to a 2006 International with 2,300-gallon steel tank and Battioni pump built by Wee Engineer.

LEARNING MATTERS

Like his father, Hacker believes in education. “My dad said that if you’re going to keep chopping wood, you have to stop occasionally to sharpen your ax,” he says. “We did that by attending product training sessions.”

Today, Hacker and his crew earn half their CEUs during Education Day at the Pumper & Cleaner Expo and half through IOWPA’s annual conference. The association also offers a voluntary installer certification course accepted by more than half of Indiana’s counties in lieu of their own licensing programs. “This has been a tremendous cost and time-saver for installers,” says Hacker. “One of my biggest business challenges is the time I spend recertifying in the different states and counties.”

Hacker’s father also told him that if he joined an organization, he’d get out of it only what he put in. When Hacker joined IOWPA in 1998, he couldn’t sit in the back of the room. Before long, he was helping organize Summer Field Days, then leading an occasional event. He worked on conferences, was elected to the board of directors and became its president in 2007. “The contacts and friends I’ve made over the years, the business advice I’ve gleaned and the networking have repaid my membership dues tenfold,” he says.

Hacker also sits on the Indiana Environmental Health Association Wastewater Management Committee. IEHA represents county and local health departments. “The committee is the liaison between IEHA, IOWPA and the state health department,” he says. “We enjoy a great working relationship.”

EXPANDING INSPECTIONS

One example of that relationship is the development of IOWPA’s inspector certification course. “The state has no mandate requiring onsite inspections for transfer of property,” says Hacker. “That interest is driven by buyers or financial institutions, but county inspectors were checking only the septic tanks.”

Hacker, a NAWT-certified inspector, argued that such inspections were not doing justice to the buyers. His message received a lukewarm reception until he held an information luncheon for Realtors in 2009. After he explained the inspection process, the terms and why inspectors needed to be certified, his audience wanted thorough inspections.

IOWPA rose to the occasion and began developing the necessary certification and testing. When state health department officials learned of the effort, they helped bring it to fruition. The program should roll out before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Hacker continues to embrace new technologies, such as the Advanced Enviro-Septic system from Presby Environmental. “The treatment pipes have been the only answer for some really tight sites,” says Hacker. “They saved homeowners from buying additional property that may not be accessible from their lot for the replacement drainfields.”



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