Raising the Grade

As our nation’s infrastructure is aging, we can act to ensure a bright future for the onsite industry.

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Onsite system installers will be in the thick of some of the most important challenges to ensuring the continued health and prosperity of people across North America. I know that sounds pretty dramatic, but clean water and effective wastewater treatment are basic necessities for societies to advance.

Many millions of people in the U.S., Canada and Central America rely on decentralized wastewater systems to process waste and ensure our shared drinking supplies are not contaminated. We know these systems – many built in the first decades after World War II – continue to operate beyond their expected lifespan. That so many onsite systems chug along well past their projected expiration date is a testament to the ingenuity of the designers and installers of the past.

But we should be prepared for an onslaught of work as these older systems will fail in greater numbers. We’re at the crossroads where components are crumbling and government clean-water regulations are strengthening. If we look for more evidence of a looming system replacement boom, a recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers sounds a warning.

The ASCE recently released its “2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure,” which, while confined to the state of public water and wastewater facilities, certainly reflects the state of private infrastructure as well. The report gives American drinking water and wastewater systems a poor grade of D. When combined with other infrastructure including dams, roads and bridges, the overall grade rises to D+.

Investments needed

“A D+ is simply unacceptable for anyone serious about strengthening our nation’s economy; however, the 2013 Report Card shows that this problem can be solved. If we want to create jobs, increase trade, and assure the safety of our children, then infrastructure investment is the answer,” ASCE President Gregory E. DiLoreto said in the report summary.

“We must commit today to investing in modern, efficient infrastructure systems to position the U.S. for economic prosperity,” he added. “Infrastructure can either be the engine for long-term economic growth and employment, or it can jeopardize our nation’s standing if poor roads, deficient bridges, and failing waterways continue to hurt our economy.”

As for public wastewater infrastructure, many of the 700,000 to 800,000 miles of U.S. public sewer lines were installed right after World War II, so they are about 75 years old and failing fast. The inadequate system is responsible for the discharge of an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated raw sewage annually, the report states. Further, 85 percent of all money spent on the wastewater system today is to restore these pipes.

There must be a strong correlation between the aging of public and private wastewater systems. We know many conventional septic systems were built with less durable materials than are available today, and that many simple gravity systems designed 30, 40 or 50 years ago certainly wouldn’t pass muster with regulators today. When you think of plat after plat of suburban neighborhoods across the country that were built with septic systems, the potential for upgrades will be immense for decades to come.

Sending a message

What can installers do to help ensure these upgrades are made and housing and commercial development can continue where decentralized systems are the best wastewater answer? Here are a few starting points:

Help drive better regulations
Don’t think of the onsite industry as an individual sport where you duke it out with county health and environment officials. Think of it as a team sport, where when all parties work together, everyone wins. When there’s a discussion of expanding the reach of the big pipe or in some way restricting property owners from building, get involved and propose ways to make a decentralized system work. Join a committee or task force considering expansion of rural development and be the expert groups turn to when wastewater issues are discussed. Be proactive and extend your influence when new system codes are considered.

Stress the importance of routine inspections
Extend your role in the industry beyond installing new and replacement onsite systems. Ride the O&M wave to new revenue for your business and strongly promote routine inspections. A trouble-free septic system at installation isn’t enough to ensure your continued great reputation. You have to follow up the install by offering to keep that new system in tip-top operating condition for its entire life. After all, your value as an installer is determined by the long-term performance of the system, not just the first few years it’s in the ground.

Work with manufacturers to advance treatment technologies
Industry manufacturers are your partners in providing the best solutions for customers’ most challenging situations. Keep in regular contact with sales reps for companies that supply your system components and consider any training or demonstrations that are offered. Look to embrace new technologies that improve treatment quality or help you make better system repairs. Ways to keep on top of the latest advances are to network with other contractors in your state trade association, attend the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo International, and visit the websites of industry manufacturers in search of new product offerings. Reach out to your local, county or state regulators and inform them about new systems that might contribute to positive development in your area.

Enhance professionalism to promote the industry
Look sharp, use clean and modern equipment at the job site, and put your best foot forward with customers every day. Professional installers are well-respected partners in a movement to promote a clean environment. The more knowledge you can share with regulators, legislators and the general public, the more likely onsite systems will gain acceptance as a good, solid alternative to extending municipal sewer service. We know onsite systems play an important role in the overall wastewater system… we just have to keep spreading the word!



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