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Posts Tagged ‘civil engineering’

Top 5 Red Flag Warnings about Septic System Design Engineers

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

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Here are the Top 5 warnings why you should not hire an engineer to design your septic system:

#1. He will beat any other engineer’s price by $100.00!

#2. He has a contractor that will give you a combined price for the  engineering and construction and furthermore, that contractor will beat anybody’s price!

#3. He can do the job cheaper than any other engineer because he has worked in your neighborhood before!

#4. He gives you a very simple keyword outline fee proposal that does not actually describe the engineering services to be performed!

#5. His fee proposal is only for the septic system design and does not include the fees for work that he has to perform during construction!

Your septic system is having problems or it has failed. You have been told that you need to hire an engineer to design a new septic system.

international-symbol-label-sym6-a-smIf during this hiring process you hear any of these Top 5 reasons, consider it to be a Red Flag Warning!

You are about to be fooled into spending more money than necessary and adding a considerable amount of aggravation to an already stressful problem.

Red Flag Warnings?

#1. He will beat any other engineer’s price by $100.00!

Isn’t that great? You do not have to do any further searching for an engineer. You don’t need to know about his qualifications or what services are to be performed by him, because this guy is saving you money (well at least $100.00). Engineering design services are not like buying a bag of cement at Home Depot. The fee for engineering design services is based on the amount of time being used and the staff that is performing these services. How can he guarantee that his fee will be lower? What is he not doing? Maybe he is not doing a design that is best suited for your property? Maybe he is using his standard design regardless of the construction cost?

#2. He has a contractor that will give you a combined price for the  engineering and construction and furthermore, that contractor will beat anybody’s price!

They must be psychic! The size of the leaching system is based on the results of the percolation test and the number of bedrooms in the house. The amount of excavation depends on the depth of the “good” soil (determined by the deep hole soil evaluation) and how much sand (if any) needs to be brought in to construct the system. The groundwater also causes an impact on the elevation of the system and the high groundwater could add a pump chamber to the system design.  How can a contractor know how much the construction will cost without actually having the holes dug and the design plan prepared? As for beating everybody’s price, what corners are being cut to do this?

Also, when its the contractor who hires the engineer, who does the engineer really work for? Not you! When it comes time during the construction of the system and the engineer has to go out to the site to observe the contractor’s work to confirm that it is properly built, does he represent you if something is wrong? If he is teamed up with the contractor, he is not going to mess-up his deal for future work with the contractor. Can you say, “Conflict of interest”?

#3. He can do the job cheaper than any other engineer because he has worked in your neighborhood before!

Knowing where you live does not really change the amount of work that the engineer needs to do in order to design the septic system. Does this sound like the gypsy work crews sealing driveways who are in your neighborhood and happen to have extra materials that they can sell you cheap, since the neighbor already paid for it? If he has records for your property lines, then this information will assist him in doing his work. He may have worked in your neighborhood, but did his previous plan have any problems with its approval? Check him out at the local Board of Health office and take a look at his work. Ask the neighbor about their experience with him and did he ask for extra fees once the project started.

#4. He gives you a very simple keyword outline fee proposal that does not actually describe the engineering services to be performed!

We don’t need no stinking paperwork!  You have to give him credit for trying, when the scope of his services just states, “Design septic system”! Well? This is what you want him to do, right? Will that design include the soil evaluation & percolation testing, existing conditions topographic survey and determination if wetlands issues will require other permits, location of your existing system and elevation of the pipe leaving your house, determination of the best technology to use at your property and possible local upgrade approvals to minimize impacts and construction costs? How about the testing fee and plan review fee that is typically paid to the Town? What about the cost of the excavating contractor to dig the percolation test hole and the deep holes for the soil evaluation?

If you hire this engineer, you can be assured one thing, that you will be told, “Oh, that was not part of my scope of work and it is an extra fee.”

#5. His fee proposal is only for the septic system design and does not include the fees for work that he has to perform during construction!

If you do get a defined scope of work, be sure it includes construction phase services. During the installation of the septic system the engineer (in Massachusetts) is required by the State Sanitary Code to make multiple site visits to view several stages of construction and to make measurements necessary to prepare a plan of the constructed system (this is called an “As-built” plan). When the system is elevated above the natural grade or additional filling is needed for Sanitary Code compliance, a topographic survey is performed after the system is back-filled /covered. This is called a “topographic  as-built” plan. The final as-built plan is submitted by the engineer to the Board of Health with a document that states his opinion that the system was constructed in accordance with the design plan and the permit issued by the Board of Health. This step is needed so you can get your Certificate of Compliance. There is a cost / fee associated with these construction phase services. If you do not have these construction phase items as part of your agreement, then you know you are going to pay more, especially if he cut his fee for the design phase.

international-symbol-label-sym18-a-sm But I need to hire a civil engineer to design my septic system.

What should I do?

The best advice to follow is to spend a little time and understand exactly what services your are buying and what costs are associated with those services. It is only human nature to want to follow the easier path (have someone else do the work for you). When it come to a septic system repair project, you could end up spending much more that was necessary. A little time spent now could mean larger savings for you in the future.

  • Be sure that the engineer has a good reputation and the quality of his work is also good. The local Board of Health is a good source of information, especially about engineers whose plans are always being returned for corrections and revisions before being approved.
  • The internet is a good research tool. If the engineer has a web page, review the information on septic system design.
  • When you call the engineer, do you get to speak with him and if you leave a message, does he promptly return your call?
  • Be sure to talk with the engineer to discuss your needs and project completion requirements. Ask him to send you a complete proposal. Don’t be intimidated if it takes several pages to describe the services. Take the time to read it and call the engineer back to ask your questions. Even visit his office to go over the scope of services and fees. This visit will also give you the opportunity to see the office.
  • Ask the engineer about other septic system projects that he has designed in your town.
  • Ask the engineer about his design approach. Does he design each system based on the individual property conditions or does he limit his designs to a few types of systems.

It you have any reservations about hiring a particular engineer, then don’t hire that engineer!

Before making calls and talking with an engineer about your project, you may want to get a better understanding about the process of replacing a failed septic system.

A straight forward description of this process is available free to download and it is called, “Valuable Information on Title 5 Septic System Perc. Testing, Soil Evaluation & Design Engineering.”

Do you have any other Red Flag Warnings to add to this Top 5 list?

You can comment and add them to this blog for all to see.

 

How to design a Septic System – Understand the Sanitary Code

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

Since the late 1970′s, as a Civil Engineer, I have been involved with the design of Septic Systems, including the training of other young engineers.

If I was limited to only one piece of advice, it would be:

Understand the Sanitary Code!

In Massachusetts, the Sanitary Code was issued in 1978 under 310CMR15.00 and commonly called “Title 5″. A major revision took place in the mid 1990′s with further revisions during the last few years. In addition to the Code changes, the State has been issuing “policies” that clarify the Code and allow for the use of various “innovative and alternative” systems and components.

I have never subscribed to the “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” mentality. As each Code revision is published, I and my staff of civil engineers become familiar with the changes and new requirements. As new technologies are approved (for both remedial and general use) we get technical data from these companies, including in-house demonstration seminars.

I can’t understand how a designer will insist on using a conventional pipe and stone leaching system when there are so many choices available that would reduce the cost of the system. Well, maybe I do understand, they either don’t want to change, or, they are cutting their costs & fee and limiting the time spent on preparing the design plan. Some people like vanilla, but there are other flavors available and while you might pay a little more, there are added benefits in the long term.

Think of this as a round peg in a square hole. Depending on the size of the peg, you might be able to make it fit. But one size does not always fit all!

Do you remember Mission Impossible? At the beginning of the program, the team is selected from the stack of available members. While the design of a septic system is not an impossible task, having the right “team” of system components should be the ultimate goal.

In order to select the “team”, you need to understand the Code!

How to backfill a Septic Tank with style!

Monday, January 18th, 2010

A bagpiper was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man.  He had no family or friends, so the service was to be at a pauper’s cemetery in a remote location in the country.

The bagpiper was not familiar with the area, and got lost. Being a typical man, he didn’t ask for directions. He finally arrived an hour late, and saw the funeral director was already gone, and the hearse was nowhere in sight. There were only the diggers and crew left, and they were eating lunch.

Bagpiper

Bagpiper

The bagpiper felt badly and apologized to the men for being so late. He then went to the side of the grave and looked down and saw that the vault lid was already in place.

Not knowing what else to do, the bagpiper started to play.

The workers put down their lunches and began to gather around. He played out his heart and soul for this man with no family and friends. He played like he never played before for this homeless man. As he played his last song, Amazing Grace, the workers all began to weep.

When the bagpiper finished, he packed up his bagpipes and started for his car with his head hung low and heart full of emotion.

Septic Tank

Septic Tank

As he opened the door to his car, he heard one of the workers say, “Sweet Mother, I never seen nothin’ like that before and I’ve been putting in septic tanks for over twenty years.”



What qualities do you look for?

Friday, January 15th, 2010

You have finally decided that it is time to replace your old septic system. You have been told by the local Board of Health that you need to hire a Civil Engineer and a bunch of other stuff that you forgot as soon as you left the office.

Your friends aren’t much help either.

What are the qualities that you are going to look for as part of your decision to hire a civil engineer?

Price?  Reputation? Knowledge? Recommendation? Local Firm?

Are you going to just hire a contractor and let him hire the engineer? oops! you may not want to do that, especially if you are concerned about the Price!

There is a regional furniture store that has a marketing jingle, “Quality, comfort and price, that’s nice”?

So tell me, what qualities do you look for?

“Do-it-yourself” Septic System Design

Wednesday, January 6th, 2010

Having trouble with your Septic System? Can’t take a shower and run the washing machine at the same time without having to clean-up a system back-up? You have a nice wet green area in your yard when the rest of the lawn is brown? Do you think it is time to replace the old Septic System?

Why not “do it yourself”?

While some of the following information could apply to other States, the focus of this Blog is to address residential septic systems in Massachusetts.

The first step is to understand what is a Septic System, which is also known as an on-site sanitary wastewater disposal system. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MA DEP) maintains a website with lots of information. The trick is navigating through the site (link to the main DEP Septic System page)  to find the answers you need. In Massachusetts, the design of septic systems is controlled by the State Sanitary Code (310 CMR 15.00) which is also known as Title 5 which can be obtained at this MA DEP Septic Systems/Title 5 link . Each community can also establish local regulations that have to be followed. You should check with the local Board of Health office.

Before you get started using the Code to do the design, let’s become familiar with the basic septic system components.

Septic Tank & Pump Chamber

Septic Tank & Pump Chamber

Sanitary wastewater leaves the house through the building sewer and flows by gravity into the Septic Tank. In some instances, the design requires a pump to move the septic tank effluent to the leaching system (also know as the soil absorption system or SAS)

The effluent leaving the septic tank and/or pump chamber has to be piped to a Distribution Box (“D” Box) before entering the SAS. The Distribution Box  is designed to allow the effluent to be distributed evenly into the leaching system by gravity (there are pressure dosed systems that do not use a “D” box).

Gravity Distribution Box with a force main inlet pipe

Distribution Box with force main inlet pipe

Distribution boxes are typically made of concrete and are available with multiple pipe openings and sizes.

The SAS or “leaching area” allows the distributed effluent to pass into the ground.

There are multiple types of systems and components that have been approved for general use in the design of this system component. The decision to use a pipe and stone leaching field, pipe and stone leaching trench, chamber system or other type of system should be based on the specific site conditions and property constraints.

No Aggregate Chamber Field

No Aggregate Chamber Field

The MA DEP web site also published a series of technical design documents that are available at this Guidance and Policy link.

Now that you are more familiar with the systems components and have copies of the regulations, there are a few more steps that need to be accomplished before you can work on the design. You will need to prepare a plan of your property to show the existing house as well as the site features, such as the driveway, trees, swimming pool, etc. This plan needs to show your property line (your deed will describe your property and may even reference a plan that shows your lot lines). This plan also needs to show topography (your town may require the topography to be based on a national datum and not an assumed elevation) and spot elevations at certain locations.  It is also helpful to know the location and invert elevation of the building sewer pipe at foundation as well as the location of your water service and other utilities (gas, electric, CATV). If you or your neighbors have a well (drinking water and or irrigation well), then they (all the wells) also need to be located and shown on the plan.

Topographic / Existing Conditions Plan

Topographic / Existing Conditions Plan

Do you have wetlands within 100 feet of your property or where the new septic system would be installed? Then you will need to have the edge of the wetlands determined, located and shown on the plan. Some towns have local Wetlands By-laws & Regulations which are more stringent that the State Regulations, so it may be best to contact your local Conservation Commission office.

Now that you have your worksheet plan, you can determine what area is available to locate the new septic system. The Code has a list of set-back distances that need to be followed, such as 10 ft. off the property line, etc.

The next step will require the services of a MA licensed Soil Evaluator to perform the official soil evaluation and percolation testing. This testing is witnessed by the local Board of Health and typically involves submitting an application along with a fee payment. The testing will involve the excavation of several deep (10 ft. plus) holes in the proposed system location, so you will need a larger backhoe.  You (or your excavating contractor) will need to obtain a “dig-safe” number and a Trench Permit (issued by the town).

Soil Evaluation

Soil Evaluation

The soil evaluation will determine the depth and suitability of the soil, the elevation of the estimated seasonal high groundwater and the percolation rate. These items are all used in determining the elevation of the system components as well as the size of the SAS.

If you have a property that has high groundwater and the good soils are saturated (can’t perform the percolation test), then a soil sample can be taken to a State Certified Soils Lab to perform an analysis to determine the classification for establishing a percolation rate. This is only allowed for system replacement when no increase in flow is proposed.

Speaking of flow, the Code requires you to use a design flow based on the total number of bedrooms. If you have a house with more than 10 rooms, you are required to do a mathematical calculation to arrive at the bedroom count. The Code uses 110 gallons per day per bedroom with a three bedroom minimum design. Some towns require a higher design flow amount.

Now you can take all of this information and do the design for your septic system! The Code has a listing of all the items that must be presented on the design plan and some towns have additional content requirements.

In Massachusetts, the final design plans that are submitted to the Board of Health for approval must be prepared by a Registered Sanitarian or a Registered Professional Engineer.

Maybe the “do-it-yourself” method is not a good idea.

However, by knowing what is involved with this process and the multiple options for replacing a failed septic system, you can use this knowledge in hiring the Sanitarian or Professional Engineer who will work closely with you in preparing a final plan that is best suited for your property.

Municipal Consulting – Roadway Construction

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

The process of converting land into residential house lots along new roads involves months of planning, engineering, permitting and construction. When design plans are first submitted to a Planning Board, they typically are presented in a “preliminary plan” format to allow for initial comments that will guide the project toward the next step. Municipal consulting peer review services at this phase are just not confirming technical compliance with the Planning Board’s Regulations and local Zoning By-law requirements, but should also include suggestions for the Developer and his design professionals to follow in preparing the Definitive Subdivision Plan.

The Definitive Plan phase is where the more detailed engineering plans are presented to the Planning Board. The peer review at this step is to confirm that the plans meet the standards and regulations before they are approved.

Even with the approval of the Definitive Plan, the Developer still needs to obtain other permits associated with the project.  For example, the proposed roadway and lot development plan has to be submitted to the local electric & telephone companies for the design of their utilities. If a site will disturb more than 1 acre, then a Notice needs to be filed with the EPA under the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) and a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) prepared. Some properties, due to nearby wetlands, are within the jurisdiction of the local Conservation Commission and require permitting approval.

When the Developer decides to actually begin the construction of the roadway, notice is given to the local Planning Board and other local agencies. The Board’s consultant typically works closely with the Developer and the other local agencies to provide construction observation services during critical phases of this process. For the most part, these observation services are performed on an on-call / part-time basis to document the proper construction of the various project components.

Not every project moves quickly from start to finish. As an example, a small two-lot project in Abington Massachusetts required the construction of a short road with a Cul-de-Sac along with a stormwater management system as well as various utilities.

Final Paving in Cul-de-Sac

Final Paving in Cul-de-Sac

The original Developer started the project, constructed the new roadway improvements through the base course of pavement and then abandoned the project.

A new Developer purchases the subdivision after the project is left untouched for several years. Before this Developer begins working, a review is performed by the Planning Board’s engineering consultant to determine the condition of the project and prepares a list of the repairs, etc. that needs to be performed.

Compacting Process for new pavement

Compacting Process for new pavement

These repairs and long overdue maintenance items are performed by the new Developer and confirmed by the Board’s engineering consultant. Close coordination and communication at this phase of work is very important.

Double curb inlet catch basin

Double curb inlet catch basin

For this particular project, the Developer wanted to complete the majority of the required roadway construction before asking the Planning Board for the release of the two lots from the development “covenant”. Pavement activities are observed by the Board’s engineering consultant on a full-time basis since the proper placement and compaction are critical.

Final Roadway Pavement

Final Roadway Pavement

When a Definitive Subdivision in Massachusetts is approved and the plans are recorded at the Registry of Deeds, a signed “covenant” is also recorded. The covenant is a binding legal document (same term as in the Bible) that clearly states that the Developer can not sell the lots or get a building permit until he completes all of the construction improvements as shown on the subdivision plans. There is a provision to get a “release” from the covenant if the Developer is willing to post some form of surety to cover the costs for completing the project. One of the other duties of the Planning Board’s engineering consultant is to establish the list of outstanding construction items to create the “Bond Estimate” for the Board to use in determining the amount of the surety that the Developer must provide before he can get the formal release documents (which are also recorded at the Registry of Deeds).

The more work that is performed and completed by the Developer prior to the creation of the Bond Estimate results in a much lower surety amount.

The Developer of this project decided to install the final paving surface before the two houses are started. The Bond Estimate will include provisions for the repair of the pavement should damages occur.

At the end of the project, the final conditions will have to be observed by the Board’s consultant, necessary corrections and repairs made and confirmed before the Board can decide to release the surety.

(Since 1997,  Michael E. Perrault, P.E. and P.M.P. Associates, LLC has been providing professional consulting services to the Town of Abington Planning Board)

Is new housing construction still alive in Southern New England?

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

I’m sick of hearing and reading all the negative news about “the housing industry”.  Every day there are more and more articles and news stories blasting out “doom and gloom” predictions with so-called experts lamenting about the “crisis” in the housing market.

In 1938, Orson Wells, presented an adaptation of H.G. Well’s novel, “The War of the Worlds” on the CBS Radio Network and caused thousands of listeners to panic. Seventy years later, our media outlets have perfected the science of creating panic. For example, when a New England weatherman is predicting a 1″ to 2″ snowstorm, they hype it up to sound like the second coming of the Great Blizzard of ’78! On those days I stay away from the local supermarket in fear that I would be seriously injured by the little old ladies clearing the shelves of bread and milk.

Tell the truth! Do the “media” people have any idea what happened to all the general contractors, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. that work in the housing industry? They didn’t just vanish, did they? No!

In direct contradiction to the naysaying media, I say that there is new housing construction in Southern New England.

As a civil engineer involved with land development design, I get invloved with different types housing projects, right from the very beginning when a builder wants an evaluation of the development potential of the raw land. Before a single board can be nailed on a new house, the raw land has to be converted into building lots, which involves a permitting process that could make your saintly grandmother swear.

When you consider the cost of the raw land, engineering, permitting, local & state fees, roadway & utility construction costs and then the actual house construction with the lot improvement costs, it is no wonder why new housing costs have been so high.

Just last year I had the opportunity to design a five duplex-lot residential subdivision in Bridgewater, MA. My client was experienced in house construction and with my assistance, received an education in subdivision design and permitting. Upon approval from the local planning board, he proceeded with the roadway construction and then the development of the first of five duplex units.

Definitive Subdivision Plan

The construction of the new duplex house is allowing this developer to keep his crews employed during the slow winter months. One of the units will be used as a combination temporary sales office and model unit. The developer is incorporating “green” components into his construction and plans on having a variety of options available to customize each unit to the buyer’s specifications.

Since this location in Bridgewater (off High Street, just west of Route 18) has a public water supply but not a municipal sanitary sewer system, the individual lot designs needed to include an on-site sanitary wastewater disposal system (commonly know as a Septic System). The developer has elected to have each unit in the duplex served by their own individual system (Septic tank and leaching system).

Here is a photograph of the duplex unit that is under construction on Lot 3.

New duplex house in Bridgewater, MA

The developer is Mr. Michael Cochrane with Home Town Construction Co., 204 Court Street, Plymouth, MA 02360

These two units are now being listed and shown by  Keller Williams Real Estate. The developer is planning on starting the next two units this Fall.

Spring is near! Time to repair the old Septic System

Friday, February 20th, 2009

What a long cold winter! The snow is finally melting and I can actually see some lawns.

How do you know that Spring is near?   The Red Sox are in Ft. Myers?   The St. Patrick’s Day decorations are available in CVS & Walgreens? The pot-holes in the street in front of your house resemble the Grand Canyon?

I know that Spring is near when septic system contractors start constructing replacement septic systems. All those designs that were completed before the ice-age hit last December became “shovel ready” over Winter. Homeowners living with a failed septic system just want to get it fixed so the yard will be normal come Summer. The same applies for those people trying to sell their homes. They want to get the new septic system installed and the yard restored thereby eliminating last minute construction before the closing.

Checking the Excavation

Just this week construction started on one of our septic system repair design projects. The septic installer coordinated the construction with our office and the Board of Health to confirm that we would be available to perform the multiple construction phase tasks. For example, once the excavation is completed, the design engineer has to visit the construction site to observe and confirm that the unsuitable soils have been removed and that the excavated hole is ready to be backfilled with sand. The Health Agent also performs his own observations as the work progresses. The contractor had already installed the new 1,500 gallon septic tank and 1,000 gallon pump chamber in order to provide a temporary holding storage while the replacement system was being constructed.

Vented Distribution Box

Once the sand had been placed, the septic contractor installed the leaching chambers, distribution box and connecting pipes. Since this system will use gravity flow from the distribution box with a pump chamber to lift the septic tank effluent to the distribution box elevation, the distribution box and the chambers are designed with vent pipes. To help reduce the overall construction cost, our design used a chamber system that does not require any washed stone according to the State approval documents. The completed leaching area is also covered by a geotextile filter fabric. The State Sanitary Code requires the design engineer to observe this construction, make sufficient measurements to confirm that the components were properly installed and then prepare a plan showing the constructed system (This is called the “as-built” plan). The as-built plan is submitted to the Board of Health with a letter signed by the professional engineer, which states that the system has been installed in accordance with the approved plan.

Now that I have proof that Spring is near, what proof do you need?

How about some good news?  The cost of replacing a failed septic system is low. The slow down in construction has increased competition and reduced the costs. So now may be the best time to get that failed septic system replaced.

Is there bad news? Yes, be sure to investigate the qualifications and reputation of the “lowest price” contractor and carefully read the contract for items that are not included.

The Secret to Success in 2009

Thursday, January 1st, 2009

Do you want to be successful?

Would you like to know a secret?

Here it is………….. “To be successful, hire successful people.”

Here is a true example on how to be successful in Land Development, without having to be in the land development business.

A couple owned a single family house on several acres of land in southern Massachusetts. They assumed that the vacant land had some value, but did not how to go about the process. They hired a real estate professional that was experienced in land development to make an initial determination to see if their assumption was correct.  When he confirmed their assumption, he suggested that they hire a civil engineering & land planning consultant. This couple knew the “secret” and selected an established civil engineering consultant who was not only experienced in land development projects, but also had a good reputation. Based on the advice of their civil engineering consultant, the couple first had an initial due-diligence study performed. This study established the multiple development constraints imposed by the shape of the property, wetlands, State Codes, local Zoning Laws and local municipal regulations. This study also resulted is a conceptual development plan with recommendations for a step by step approach for the permitting process. The couple now had a full understanding of the process to convert their vacant land into new residential house lots. They authorized their civil engineering consultant to proceed with this “step by step” process and converted their property into five new house lots plus a lot for their own house.

The couple knew that their success was strongly dependent upon the performance of their hired consultants. Knowing that there are no guarantees in a land development project, the couple understood that by using a team of successful professionals, they increased their chances for a successful project.

The same “secret” applies to the real estate professional and the civil engineering consultant. By working to make your client successful, you increase your chances to be successful.

Do you want to be successful?

Then you should not only hire successful people, but you should also do everything you can to be sure that they remain successful, since your success depends upon them.

Free Engineering may be costly

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

It may be human nature to want to get something for nothing. Free samples. Free trial services. Free membership. Buy one, get one free.

With tough economic times, why not try to get something for free or a a great discount? Comparison shopping is becoming the rule and not the exception. There is nothing wrong with this.

What about free engineering or discounts for engineering services? Does the consumer really get a discount or engineering services for free? A favorite author of mine used the acronym “TNSTASFL” (There is no such thing as a free lunch). I am a firm believer that when it comes to professional engineering services, there is no such thing as free engineering services.

For example, a potential client will call to request a proposal to provide engineering design services for a replacement septic system. During this call, we listen to his request, ask specific questions to gain a better understanding of his needs, answer his questions and based on his request and generally describe the professional engineering services that we offer. We then follow-up with a detailed written proposal outlining our services and associated costs that are specific to the potential client’s property and situation.

Since this process of engineering and replacing a failed septic system can be overwhelming, we contact the potential client to discuss the proposal and answer any questions.

This is where the concept of free or discounted engineering services enters.  The potential client has a family member or friend that told him that our prices are too high and he knows a guy that will “do it” at 2/3 of the price, or some other low number.

Are the services being provide by the “guy” the same? Are they clearly spelled out in a written contract?

What I have found, when I have lost a client to the “guy” with the discounted price, is that he did not include the construction phase services and had to charge extra. The “guy” never returns a telephone call or is hard to contact. The “guy” takes “forever” to complete the design. In some instances, the “guy”, in order to reduce his costs, he provided the client with a standard minimal design, even though it may not be suitable for the individual property.

To perform services at a reduced cost, the amount of time being spent has to be reduced (no one works for free). When this happens, the quality of the design is compromised. The reviewing authority may question the design and require revisions prior to approval (careful, these revisions may be charged back as an extra). While the basics are provided on the design plan, the details, specific to a client’s property may not be clearly shown.

Maybe the “guy” has reduced overhead costs and can pass these savings onto his clients. For example, the “guy” may not have any Professional Liability Insurance or General Liability Insurance.

So the client now gets a set of plans at a discounted price, then asks several contractors for a bid price for the installation. While contractors know the costs for installation of various components, each design for an individual property needs to be reviewed and priced. When the plans are vague and the details are not really or clearly presented, the contractor will need to include extra costs in his bid. A complete set of plans that are well presented will minimize the need for a contractor to include a large contingency in his bid.

What was “saved” on the design plans can easily be spent during construction. So much for a discount.

There is noting wrong with comparison shopping among qualified engineering consultants. The consumer however, may not find out until it is too late, that the discounted price actually cost him more.