By Sue McCraven
Should precast concrete producers take the initiative to promote an industry-wide warranty for septic tanks? While there is no consensus among longtime septic tank manufacturers, there are growing regulatory and marketing incentives for precasters to consider in making a case for product warranties. This article presents the current status of septic tank warranties across the industry and looks at a rationale for written product guarantees in an increasingly competitive and environmentally regulated market.
SEPTIC TANKS: THE BIG PICTURE
Most of us do not want to discuss how human waste is processed or where it ends up. We tend to ignore septic tanks and issues associated with them not only because of their unpleasant function, but also because we don’t see them; septic tanks are buried in the ground, conveniently out of sight. Unless there’s a malodorous overflow nearby, we are not eager to see, smell or discuss septic systems.
Before we can decide whether precast tank warranties are important, we need some septic tank perspective. The reality is that effective treatment of human waste is critical to maintaining clean drinking water, human health and a clean environment. While the tank itself may never receive a standing ovation (see the sidebar “The Down and Dirty on Septic Tanks”), septic tanks are in the spotlight – all-star players, if you will – in the big scheme of things. Here are some relevant facts for the United States and Canada:
1. Septic tank systems are used by almost 30 percent of North Americans.
2. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that due to inappropriate siting, design or inadequate long-term maintenance, malfunctioning septic systems are the third-leading cause of groundwater contamination.
3. More than 40 percent of Americans and Canadians depend on groundwater for drinking.
4. Human waste contains viruses, bacteria and protozoa that can enter groundwater and lead to disease, including cholera, e-coli, hepatitis A and typhoid.
5. Currently, American septic tank installation and testing regulations are not nationally comprehensive and vary greatly from state to state and even among one state’s county, municipal and health agencies. In Canada, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) is in the process of rewriting the septic manufacturing guidelines (CSA B-66) and a new national guideline for installation of effluent treatment systems (CSA B-65); individual provinces can choose to adopt the CSA guidelines or institute regional codes.
6. In the United States the EPA is elevating standards/requirements for protecting groundwater quality and for on-site wastewater primary and secondary treatment.
7. Successful functioning of a septic tank depends on a structurally adequate watertight design and construction.
8. Many septic tank manufacturers are not regulated or inspected for quality production practices.
WHAT PRECASTERS HAVE TO SAY
NPCA’s Septic Tank Committee members are the impetus behind this article, because they believe product warranty is an important issue to the industry. Precast Inc. magazine asked some NPCA members and industry inspectors for their thoughts on septic tank warranties.
Florida Septic Inc., Hawthorne, Fla.
Vause explains that “customers are now demanding quality precast and are more interested in installation and product warranties. Advanced treatment systems for septic systems come from manufacturers who require precast tank warranties. In Florida, 20 percent to 30 percent of our installations are now using secondary or advanced treatment systems.” Vause believes that as wastewater treatment technology advances along with more stringent regulatory requirements, precasters will find that tank warranties will enhance business. “I fully expect that changes are coming that will require precasters to provide warranties.”
Wieser Concrete Products, Fond Du Lac, Wis.
“No, we do not currently have a written warranty. Wieser stands behind its products, period. More importantly, we are there during installation to make sure proper methods are used to set our tanks,” says Wieser. One of the reasons why many precasters do not provide warranties is that, unlike Wieser Concrete, they do not monitor installation and have no way of knowing how the tank is handled after delivery. Besides lack of proper long-term maintenance, improper installation is a major factor leading to septic tank failure.
Mayer Brothers Inc., Elkridge, Md.
“While the discussion has come up, most precasters don’t have warranties,” says Mayer. “But I think it’s on the horizon; new environmental regulations and advanced technologies in add-on treatment systems will increase pressure on precasters to provide warranties.”
Flemington Precast & Supply LLC, Flemington, N.J.
“Testing basically guarantees structural integrity and watertightness in the septic tank market,” explains Hoffman. Flemington Precast provides a five-year warranty, which is in writing to the end user, and provides vacuum testing services (see the sidebar “How to Write a Product Warranty”).“Some precasters are afraid to undertake routine watertightness testing, but I believe precasters would be pleasantly surprised at how little time and cost is involved in vacuum-testing in the field,” adds Hoffman. “The precast industry needs to keep in step with its competition in the marketplace, and testing and warranties are part of being competitive.”
Kon Kast Products (2005) Ltd., Kelowna, British Columbia
In Canada, “the regulations and septic systems vary greatly from province to province,” says Stowell, “as there are wide temperature variations and soil conditions from the East Coast to the West Coast. We warranty our septic tanks for one year for manufacturer’s defects with replacement of septic tank only. Although in practice, we stand behind our tanks much longer than one year.”
The regulations for septic systems in British Columbia have changed quite dramatically since 2005. “We now use two-compartment, trickle-type septic systems with a filter on the outlet. The minimum septic tank size is 750 imperial gallons (900 U.S. gallons).” The tanks must have two risers to grade at a minimum diameter of 20 inches, and lockable or child-resistant lids over the inlet and outlet. The distribution boxes must have risers to grade as well.
Capital Precast Ltd., St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
“Regulations for private sewage disposal systems in this province have not changed in living memory. And from a review of other provinces and states, we have a lot of catching up to do,” Blundon reveals.
“Single compartment, 500-gallon steel tanks have long been the standard here, but I introduced concrete septic tanks to the province a few years ago after giving presentations to the government on the failure of steel tanks to meet their own standards. We manufacture precast concrete tanks to meet the CSA standard and are a CSA-certified plant. We have three audits per year and our own on-site testing laboratory and quality control department that performs daily inspections and testing of all our products. We have taken precast concrete tank orders for all of our 2009 production, which shows people will make the right choice when given all the facts.”
Hausner’s Limited, Durant, Okla.
“Watertight testing will make it a whole new ballgame in our Texas market,” reports Engle. “It is my understanding that, as of January 2009, all Texas counties will require an installed wastewater tank to pass a field watertightness test. In the past, there have been a handful of Texas counties that require such a test. However, with this new regulation, future business will definitely favor the precasters that are building a good product.”
At this time, Hausner’s doesn’t use a written warranty on its wastewater products, but it does assume responsibility for any failure due to a production problem. “With our guaranteed 6,500 psi concrete, we have always felt confident that we are producing a good product that exceeds industry standards in most cases. The quality of our product is respected by inspectors in our sales region. With our market covering the southern region of Oklahoma and the northern region of Texas, we have to be able to meet the ever-changing environmental standards of each state,” says Engle.
Anchor Concrete Products, Ltd., Kingston, Ontario
“New Canadian standards are currently being revised for both septic tank manufacturing and for installation of effluent treatment systems by the CSA,” explains Bradfield. “If adopted by most of the provinces, this will bring us as close to a national standard as we have ever been.” In Ontario, the current requirements for manufacture of septic tanks fall under the Ontario Building code, which is overseen by the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH).
“MMAH and the Concrete Precasters Association of Ontario worked together to design a product testing and inspection program, which includes yearly submissions and physical tests. Because we have to meet these standards, few precasters offer warranty on their tanks. A warranty is implicitly implied by meeting the yearly testing and remaining on the approved manufacturers list.”
Shea Concrete Products Inc., Wilmington, Mass.
Flores says that his company “will warrant a watertight tank if certain conditions are met, including proper site preparation, installation and watertightness testing.” Watertightness tests, whether by vacuum or water pressure testing, are specified by ASTM C1227.
“Many towns in our area are now requiring vacuum testing at the time of installation,” explains Flores, “and as a result, we offer job-site vacuum testing as a service. We also offer vacuum testing prior to delivery at a lower cost to the customer and will provide certification to the Board of Health or health inspector requiring it. We feel this (vacuum-testing service) has benefited our company by not only increasing profits but also increasing positive product exposure to inspectors as well as engineers.”
TANK INSPECTORS WEIGH IN
Bill Cameron, a designated representative for a northern Texas county, enforces TCEQ (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) regulations for on-site sewage disposal. “The State of Texas has a published set of requirements, or rules, governing the on-site sewer industry,” says Cameron. “Local governmental bodies may be granted authorized-agent status (rule-making authority) under those rules to perform required inspections. The local entity may make stricter rules, but must comply with the state’s minimum septic tank requirements.” He says that’s why requirements may vary greatly depending location. As of September 2008, leak testing (at the discretion of the permitting authority) may include using water filled to the inside of the tank lid or to the top of the riser(s).
Cameron hopes this helps to explain why there isn’t just one set of rules in Texas. “Septic tanks are the first unit in the wastewater treatment and disposal process. If the tanks are faulty or allow intrusion or leakage, the entire process fails. So we want to make sure tanks are watertight and structurally sound; how an individual inspector determines compliance is also not consistent across Texas. If the precast industry doesn’t step forward and address this watertightness issue with a standard test procedure, then some local authorities will – and I suspect with mixed results.” Cameron stresses that “precast producers are in the best position to certify that the tanks are sound and watertight, and if they do not, then I expect the tanks to be replaced.”
Aimee Killeen is now a senior environmental scientist with Providence Engineering and Environmental Group in Baton Rouge, but was previously an environmental scientist for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, Office of Environmental Services-Water Permits Division. “In Louisiana, each Parish Health Unit has requirements for septic tank installation and inspection. Permits are issued for installation of treatment systems based on a preapproved list of septic systems and providers,” says Killeen.
“Because Louisiana has a high water table and unsuitable soils in large portions of the state, traditional septic systems are being replaced by more advanced treatment options with a surface discharge,” she says. “These ongoing water quality problems and concerns mean that regulatory agencies will be forced to consider greater regulation of these individual systems via the NPDES-permitting (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) program in the future.”
WHAT THE COMPETITION IS DOING AND WHAT EXPERTS SAY
Three materials are used to make most septic tanks: polyethylene or plastic, fiberglass, and concrete. Polyethylene and fiberglass septic tank manufacturers are capturing increased market share. It is important to note, therefore, that the polyethylene/fiberglass manufacturers routinely warrant their products for a minimum of three years; some plastic tank producers offer 10-year and longer warranties against system failure.
There are some precasters who do not view warranties as valid marketing tools; however, business and marketing experts say that product warranties provide several benefits:
1. Warranties provide customer protection and assurance and manage user expectations.
2. Customers view warranties as indications of product quality, especially where customers (including regulatory agencies) have difficulty assessing product performance – for example, concrete compressive strength.
3. A written warranty reminds customers exactly what is guaranteed – and what is not – by the manufacturer upon delivery.
4. Warranties establish manufacturer liability limits and can protect manufacturers from baseless legal action.
5. Warranties are used as effective marketing/advertising tools, differentiating a product from the competition.
6. Unlike long-established concrete tanks, newer products (like polyethylene and fiberglass septic tanks) incorporate warranties at the early stages of product development.
7. Demands from customers, add-on technology manufacturers and regulatory agencies for septic tank warranties are increasing.
8. As technologies for septic treatment continue to advance and septic systems become more complex, the need for product warranties becomes critical.
9. In a more competitive and global marketplace, warranties are key elements of comprehensive product support in both pre- and post-sale services.
PRECAST QUALITY MERITS WARRANTY
Precasters are often the most knowledgeable people on regional issues related to septic tank requirements, product quality, watertightness testing and structural durability. In fact, many regulating counties, health departments and municipalities turn to their local precasters to answer questions about water quality, septic tank system installation and inspection.
While the regulatory agencies in each state are still interpreting federal environmental rules, precasters have a real opportunity to influence how future regulations will be enforced. Precasters have the chance to establish their industry as the go-to source for proven, high-quality, warranted wastewater treatment systems that can comply with or exceed all existing environmental regulations. When there is confusion or misunderstanding about an issue or product, there is the opportunity for leadership by those who best understand the issue.
Most precasters believe in the quality of their products and are willing to stand behind them. “With ever-increasing pressure from competitors and a tight market, the need for precasters to stand apart has never been greater,” says Nancy Mayer. Ellen Vause emphasizes that “wastewater treatment in a quality precast septic tank is key to proper treatment and environmental protection.” Quality precast concrete tank manufacturers already stand behind their products; a standard product warranty will send that message, loud and clear, to customers and regulators.
Sue McCraven, NPCA senior technical consultant, is a civil engineer, technical writer and editor, and environmental scientist who has contributed numerous articles and studies to prominent scientific journals.