Management Lessons from a Septic Tank

Another installment in my series of management meditations from household projects

by Dave McKenna May 9, 2019

Something about home ownership makes me philosophical. Here’s another installment in my occasional series on management insights gained from my even-more-occasional household projects.

Mr. Darcy, our big fluffy-white dog came in from his routine backyard patrol with a sticky black under-carriage and smelling like a stockyard after the 4H Bovine Finals.

Turns out the septic tank had overflowed, forming a sewage pond the size of a Home Depot parking stall in our backyard. Better yet, our disgusting Coton-de-Tulear dog was lapping it up all morning. No more kisses for you Mr. Darcy!

The septic company soon discovered that our new pool line had been laid directly over the septic cap. Something had to be done! I don’t even want to think how badly that could go south in the summer!

Good news is that the pool line is just PVC pipe. And I know how to do PVC. The Adventure begins.

Do What You Never Did

I discovered there is more to repairing a pool line than gluing PVC together. I received an instant lesson in hydrodynamics and the concept of latent water pressure when I took a hacksaw to the pipe. I learned it is not just the pump that pressurizes the line. Twenty thousand gallons of water in an elevated reservoir pressurizes the system too. There’s nothing like a geyser of pool water reflooding your back yard to focus the mind. I eventually figured out I could isolate the line using the routing valves to the pump. The moment of crisis and the knowledge there’s no going back helped me find a solution to an unexpected problem. This is familiar to me in my professional life too. Sometimes to accomplish something, you have to risk breaking something along the way. If you’re too afraid of the geyser-moment, you will never really understand what those valves are capable of doing.

Don’t Be Too Good to Get Dirty

There’s nothing dirtier than digging a ditch by hand in sewage-saturated ground. Really. Nothing. It also has the affect of giving you a very good idea of the issues invloved. By excavating the line myself I was able to assess the level of tension on the pipe and to get a sense of the slope it was laid on. I didn’t know it at the time, but those observations helped my in the final fitting process for the new line. If I had hired out the work, I would have missed that. I have found this over and over in my career. If you really want to understand a problem, you have to put your hands on it. At one time in my life I was responsible for a group that had to implement large software programs. I personally performed every task at least once to get a sense of the process. We then reengineered the entire activity and cut the time to complete the jobs in half.

Make a Map

Here’s a fun math puzzle: if n = the count of the PVC pipe segments you have, and n = 4, how many 90-degree elbow joints do you need to reroute a pool line into a square bypass? Hint: the answer is not n – 1 elbow joints. I don’t know where I got the idea that the answer is n – 1, but that is how many elbow joints I purchased. Three (4 – 1 = 3). Very happy with my quantitative and systematic approach to a concrete problem, I began gluing my new line together. The error in my logic became clear when I applied the last perfectly cut section into place. One $.45 elbow joint short. Back to Home Depot. Don’t fall into the fallacy that quantitative is true. Get a sanity check, make a map, draw a picture, before you commit to anything that is purely abstract. It is possible to be too clever for your own good.

Ultimately, I learned a lot about how my pool actually works, about water pressure, and septic tanks. But most of all I remembered that trying new things and learning as you go is how you master most things in life and career. It also makes for much better stories.