Business Profile: A-1 Septic has expanded services, increased jobload

R. R. Branstrom | Daily Press In a backyard in Wells, A-1 Septic owner Robert LeDuc — operating the backhoe — and two employees work to install a septic system and drain field.

EDITOR NOTE: The Daily Press will be featuring a series of articles on local businesses, highlighting their history and what makes them unique. The series will run on a regular basis in the Daily Press.

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ESCANABA — A-1 Septic has been under the LeDuc management since 1984. In the time since, they have expanded the services offered, increased their jobload several times over and relocated from Rapid River to Gladstone.

In 1959, Don Waters founded A-1 Septic. He sold the business in 1971 to Mike Donovan, who ran the operation for 13 years.

Rob LeDuc said that he was exposed to the work when he was a teen, both from Donovan — who was a neighbor and family friend — and from Rob’s own cousin, who he said had a similar business installing septic systems and had a pump truck for a while.

“At the age of 13, on the end of a shovel, I was working installing these systems,” said Rob. “And I’d go pumping with Mike on a pump truck sometimes.”

Rob was a young adult working for Gene’s Tree Service when he heard that Donovan was selling A-1 Septic.

“In 1984, I bought it at the age of 24 years old,” said Rob LeDuc. “Originally, it was just pumping.” He said that at the time when he acquired A-1, the company was taking on about five jobs a week. Now, he says, they sometimes get eight a day provide a much broader range of services. Dawn, Rob’s wife, coordinates.

“We pump septic tanks. We install drain fields and septic systems. We do city sewer lines, city water lines. We have a drain-cleaning business, full-time. We install sewage pumps. We rent port-a-johns,” Rob rattled off. “Shortly after I bought it, I started selling septic systems, and then all the other stuff added as the years went on.”

Primarily, their geographic service area is tri-county, encompassing Delta, Alger and Schoolcraft Counties. They also do some work in Menominee and have travelled to the far eastern end of the Upper Peninsula.

“If they want to pay the mileage, we’ll go there,” said Rob. “We’ve had the Coast Guard call us up; we went to Sault Ste. Marie for the Coast Guard ships. We’ve gone to St. Ignace.”

A-1 completes work wherever needed, from residential to corporate to city infrastructure. Residences, especially those with small yards, can be tough to work within, since there are regulations to make sure living spaces are protected. Referring to installation of a septic tank and drain field at a residence, Rob explained, “We have to be 10 feet from the property line with the drain field, 50 feet from the well, five feet from the house with the tank, 10 feet from the house with the drain field.”

One of the most difficult parts of doing what they do, said Rob, is coping with the water table.

“We get areas where basically it’s a swamp, and we have water standing, okay? And we have to put in a septic system. So you dig a hole, and water’s just gushing in, and we’re trying to set a tank like this,” said Rob, speaking with the Press while he and a small team worked in Wells on a job that, in contrast, was in cooperative dirt. “And water’s just flowing, flowing, flowing. And then you take one scoop; three come back from the water bringing the dirt in. So you’re bailing as fast as you can go and hurry up, drop the tank in, and bring it up to level. It’s challenging.”

When asked if A-1 every had to turn down jobs when the landscape was too difficult to work with, Rob said, “Well, you’ve got to figure out the solution. Some stuff is almost impossible, but you’ve got to find an alternative way to do it.”

Another challenge that looms over jobs like theirs involves buried utility lines. Rob said that lines are marked before each job begins, but that doesn’t remove all risk.

“I was on some main street, and I called Miss Dig to mark the gas lines,” Rob began. (Miss Dig 811 is a free service that locates and flags the underground utilities in Michigan.) “There was a main gas line in the area I was digging. And they marked it wrong.” Fortunately, in that particular case, it was only a close call; Rob said his backhoe just grazed the pipe of the main gas line.

Responsibility for hitting a line falls upon whose error it was. If utilities are marked properly and still get cut, the party conducting the dig foots the repair bill.

“If you hit a fibre optic when you’re digging, you might as well file bankruptcy and leave town,” Rob said. “If you take out one of those, you could take out cell phones and communications from here to Green Bay.”

Rob continued to say that overall, the work he does is easy. It involves accessing existing systems, installing new ones properly by following simple rules — lateral pipes four feet apart in a drain field, perfectly level, with holes along the bottom at five and seven o’clock, six inches of stone underneath, two inches on top, a layer of four-millimeter landscaping felt above that. Those steps prevent dirt aggregate from blocking the flow of water.

Filters A-1 installs in drain field baffles prevents — or slows — the buildup of “biomat,” a tar-like substance that accumulates in soil where waste is discharged. Some of the biomat is composed of essential bacteria that helps break down other matter. However, it isn’t the most permeable material, and too much can cause blockages. Rob said that their filters extend the lives of drains by 50% by trapping a large amount of solid particles and reducing biomat accumulation.

While timing may vary based on the size of a tank and frequency of use, all septic tanks need to pumped regularly. Especially given the sheer number of clients A-1 Septic handles, keeping track of the schedule is a hefty chore, but Rob said that Dawn has a system.

A thick, organized book holds information on when services are due. Dawn, who works out of the home handling calls, setting up appointments and more business-related duties — in addition to taking care of eight-year-old twin girls — uses the book to issue reminders to customers whose systems are due for work.

Both LeDucs commented on the sheer quantity of jobs they complete and said that things can be tough at times, but “I thank God every day for the work we got,” said Rob.

They said they have a group of employees who are reliable and hard-working, but need more. Rob said they pay competitively. In the spring in particular, said Dawn, A-1 will be looking to hire CDL drivers.


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