Homeowners Are Urged to Make Educated Choices When Choosing a Contractor for Their S.T.E.P. Project
INDIANAPOLIS, Jan. 26 — Approximately 700 more Indianapolis homeowners with septic tanks will shortly be asked to "step up" and connect to the public sewer system through the S.T.E.P. program. S.T.E.P. stands for Septic Tank Elimination Program. It was started by the city of Indianapolis several years ago to convert more than 20,000 homes in Marion County from private septic systems to the public sewer system now maintained by Citizens Energy Group. According to Citizens' Web site, homeowners in four areas of Indianapolis will receive letters shortly from both Citizens and the Indiana Department of Health informing them that the main in their area is ready, and it's time for them to have their septic tanks filled in and tie their homes into the public sewer system. The letter from the Department of Health will say they have six months from its date to comply. After that, homeowners will face heavy fines for non-compliance. The areas currently in this "construction" phase are: * 62nd Street and Lafayette Road; * 77th Street and Hoover Road; * Earlham Drive and Thompson Road, and * Morris Street and Tibbs Avenue. Other areas that will follow later include: * 71st Street and North Ralston Avenue (early design phase); * Madison Avenue and Lilac Drive (projected for summer of 2016); * 74th Street and North Ralston Avenue (early design phase), and * 75th Street and Keystone Avenue (early design phase). One company that encourages homeowners to get the project underway sooner rather than later is Lamb Contracting, a full-service residential contractor based in Speedway that has an excavating division fully in tune to the S.T.E.P. requirements. "With average complete project costs around $5,500 to $6,500, it's a substantial expense for homeowners, and it's important that they work with a contractor that they trust will do a good job," said Geoff Dodge, the Lamb Contracting co-owner who heads the company's excavating division. "Permits are part of the cost no matter who does the work," he said. "There's a $2,530 tie-in [connection] fee, and a lateral construction permit that costs $236. The sewer connection fee and lateral construction permit have to be paid before construction permits are issued. "There are a lot of things that homeowners should be aware of," he said. "The average residential septic tank varies in size from 750 to 1,500 gallons, and it's about 8 feet long and 5 feet deep and 5 feet wide," he noted. "They're usually made out of cement, steel or fiberglass. To fill it up, somebody is going to be digging a big hole in your yard. We highly recommend that homeowners get at least three proposals, and we'd like to be one of those three." Dodge said one thing to look for immediately is if the costs of the permits are included in the proposal, because the permits can be about half of the cost of the job. "On average, I would say the cost of a contractor's portion of the work, excluding the permits, is going to be between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the specific situation," he said. "One of the biggest areas that affects residents is not the actual tying in of the line, but the customer experience and the restoration of the property afterwards," he pointed out. "Does the contractor show up when he says they will? Does the crew clean up after themselves? These are the things that homeowners need to learn through interviews, word of mouth, on-line recommendations and reviews. "After the work is done, the ground needs about six months to settle back to its natural state," he added. "That means you're going to have a big mound of dirt in your yard for some time, and then it will need to be smoothed out again. Some contractors will lead you to believe that's included, but then getting them to come back is a challenge. We believe you should pay when you get the work done. I'll lock in a price now to come back and smooth out the area, but our customers aren't billed for that part of the job until it's complete." What does a complete job include? "In general, there should be a specific agreement for the on-site preparation, like removing a fence, removing any trees that are in the way, etc.," Dodge said. "The proposal should list what's included and what's not in detail and in writing, so there are no surprises. "Second, there should be a description of the actual work to tie into the system, and what's included there. Some people want to know all those details and some don't, because the Citizens inspector has to make sure it's done to code anyway. "Third, the work of abandoning the septic tank should be spelled out in writing," he continued. "We will have to pump it out first, and then fill it. It has to be properly abandoned, because if it isn't it could collapse sometime in the future and someone could fall in, or it could cause a sinkhole in the yard." Dodge said that sometimes a deck or a patio is built over a septic tank, and in these cases contractors have to see if they can work with that situation so those structures aren't damaged or destroyed. "In most cases where the tank is readily accessible we just use excess dirt to fill the tank up," he said. "The extra dirt is made available by the installation of the stone pipe bedding required by code above, around, and below the pipe. "If it's under a deck or patio, we can use flowable fill to prevent a complete tearout," he explained. "It costs about $360 for a truckload of flowable fill, but that is usually less expensive than tearing up a deck made with pressure-treated lumber, or a paver patio." Dodge warned homeowners to beware of hard sales tactics. "Take your time in choosing who you want to do the work," he advised. "We recommend you get estimates from at least three companies, but definitely don't sign with anybody until you've seen more than one. Do your due diligence. Are they willing to put their proposal in writing? If it's written on paper you have a record; if it was verbal you don't." He also suggested homeowners ask if the contractor or plumber will provide a warranty. "We offer two," he said. "The basic warranty is for five years. We also offer a lifetime warranty where we'll use a higher grade of pipe so it will be less likely to have a problem later." Another thing that complicates the process is if the job requires a lift station or not. "It's not common, but if you can't get gravity service to the new main you'll need a basin and a pump," he said. "That's usually $4,500 to $5,500, plus the costs of the permits, so that nearly doubles it right there. "That's just another reason why it's important to have a contractor that you trust," Dodge emphasized. "When you get your estimates, before you look at the prices it's wise to evaluate which contractor you would want to do the work if the prices were all the same," he added. "Then look at the prices and see if there are any big discrepancies. You might have to pay $500 more for the contractor who was your first choice, but down the road that could be a very wise investment. If you have to fix the pipe later, the average sewer repair job on a S.T.E.P. installation will start around $2,000 and go up from there, so you want the job to be done right the first time. And if everything is done right, the job should last a long time." Most S.T.E.P. projects take about two days, including the inspection. Lamb Contracting says its average S.T.E.P. job requires a crew of two plus one excavating machine. "We typically utilize a mini-excavator to dig S.T.E.P. jobs as opposed to a backhoe," he said. "The mini-ex is light on its feet, which minimizes damage to the ground while affording a more efficient digging platform and a lot more versatility working in tight spaces." Lamb Contracting will allow up to three neighbors to bundle their jobs together if they'll all agree to have the work done at the same time. "It has to be in the same project area, but if they come to me with a plan to put two or three jobs on the schedule at the same time, I'll do a $100-per-house discount, up to $300," Dodge said. Dodge said that the work can usually be done year-round. "In extremely cold temperatures we can't set pipe and it's inefficient to dig when it's too cold, but usually we can work year round," he said. "Winter is often better than the spring, because as you know the ground in Indiana gets soft and muddy in the spring, and that can have more of an impact on a property. "We wouldn't want to dig with a lot of snow on the ground, but luckily that hasn't been the case too long in Indiana in recent winters," he noted. "There are a lot of workable days for us in the winter. "I'd encourage people to get going on it as soon as possible, and get it on the schedule," he added. "If you wait until spring you might not get the contractor you want or the scheduling that you were hoping for. Don't wait until the last minute. You're going to have to do it, so it's better to get it out of the way. "Citizens has information on its Web site about an installment plan to pay for the connection fee over time if you qualify based on income," he added. Dodge said that Lamb Contracting wants to do an excellent job with homeowners' S.T.E.P. projects so they'll think of his company for other jobs in the future. "Besides S.T.E.P. and sewer repair services, we do drainage and water remediation, grade work, driveways, additions and garages, egress windows, patios and retaining walls, and a full range of kitchens, bathrooms and other normal residential contracting work," Dodge said. "We're a full-service residential general contactor and we want long-term relationships with our customers. Call us at (317) 762-5262 for a free estimate on everything from homes to hook-ups to hang outs!"