This Installer Continues to Pioneer New Technologies

Canada’s OSI set itself up as the champion of the tough job, finding ways to install effective systems on sites with marginal soil conditions.
This Installer Continues to Pioneer New Technologies
Shaun Pattenden (from left), senior planner, Ryan Parker, manager, and Trefor Digby, managing technician, look over a map of a development site where Onsite Systems Inc. will perform routine maintenance. (Photos by Abigail Saxton Fisher)

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When Ron Parker started working in the onsite wastewater industry, his focus was on overcoming site challenges for property owners in western Canada; the bigger the challenge he met, the more he prospered. After 21 years, the company he runs with his son, Ryan, is built on the idea of overcoming any obstacle to build and maintain quality onsite systems.

Their company, Onsite Systems Inc., concentrates on site evaluation and onsite system design, installation, maintenance and the sale of related technologies. Ron, a professional engineer, and his wife, Pat, are the owners; Ryan manages day-to-day operations.

Based in Duncan, British Columbia, about 55 miles due west of Bellingham, Wash., and about 40 miles southwest of Vancouver, all of Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast is their service area. They will travel up to two hundred miles for a job.

SITE LIMITATIONS

In 1992, with the germ of a business idea planted in Ron, the family traveled across the border to learn about the more advanced technologies being used in the states. It was the start of a technology drive that has never stopped for OSI.

“Overcoming shallow soil site limitations was what drove us to Washington State,” says Ron. “We went there for onsite system training. We learned about the advanced technology they were deploying.” Among the products they learned about was the Orenco sand filter, which expanded their design horizons in the cramped Canadian areas where they worked.

When they started OSI, onsite systems distributing septic tank effluent were not permitted on sites with less than 18 inches of suitable soil. Parker believed improved effluent quality could change that dynamic and allow for safe and successful application on sites with marginal conditions. It turned out he was right, but as with anything new, regulators had to become familiar with the technology, its capabilities, limitations and the opportunities it created. The higher treatment achieved allowed the use of traditional absorption area designs to reintroduce effluent to the environment. In a few cases, the treated effluent has been discharged to the ocean.

Subsurface sand filters were well known in British Columbia and their performance became a benchmark for evaluating other technologies. These new systems did well, and the provincial siting and design regulations were eventually modified to include this technology and others identified later. Over the years, OSI has become a distributor of many treatment products, including those from Orenco. Orenco products were the first branded treatment technology the company was involved with and the ones they have stayed with.

PRODUCT PRESENTATIONS

Introducing new ideas and products to a community is challenging, and best accomplished through individual learning experiences during group events. “For our sales to grow, we recognized that installers needed to understand the technologies and products we sold. To enable these colleagues, we first had to help them understand their new opportunities,” Ron says.

“We found our own skill sets – site evaluation, design, installation, and operations and maintenance or O&M – all growing,” Ryan adds. Evaluating soils is the first step to match a technology to a site; next comes the design. The province-issued permit follows. During every step, the company’s capabilities, confidence and value to others in the industry grew. “We traveled the province teaching what we had learned,” said Ryan.

The more they learned, the more they could share. Learning, sharing and deploying new technologies became a cycle that continues today. Soon it was apparent that – while important – education was not and should not become the focus of their business.

“It was in 1998 that Dave Jackson, a former employee, and I founded the BC Onsite Sewage Association,” Ron explains. BCOSSA has taken up the primary task of basic and continuing education of onsite professionals. This frees the Parkers to focus on product-specific training delivered primarily in one-on-one situations.

NEW TRAINING STANDARDS

In early 2005, a new provincial law, the BC Health Act’s Sewage System Regulation, set province-wide training and certification requirements for those performing most onsite system tasks. The law assigns the training role to BCOSSA. Association-developed curriculum that satisfies the technical and content requirements of the provincial Applied Science Technologists & Technicians of BC (ASTTBC) is presented. That entity issues credentials to planners, who do site evaluations and prepare designs, and installers, maintenance providers and inspectors, who evaluate existing systems at the time of property sales.

Creating a highly trained and educated workforce, the act has also changed the administrative process by which sites are evaluated and systems are designed and approved. Provincial Department of Health employees no longer perform site evaluations to assure suitability for onsite systems.

“System designs are filed with the health department agency, however only the designer is checking for compliance, and under this new system, they are checking their own work,” Ron explains. Ryan sees the same process being applied to installations.

“We’re looking for more policing of what goes on in the field,’’ he says. “There is a belief among many onsite professionals that the process has effectively been set up to fail.”

At first blush, it seems unlikely for regulated businesses to want greater government oversight. But seeking the perfect balance of oversight without micromanagement is, however, something many onsite professionals value. In this case, raising the bar on professionalism, accuracy and appropriateness of solutions, and the quality of installation are the goals OSI is pursuing.

DEMAND GROWS FOR O&M

OSI is different from most onsite installers in that it doesn’t own and maintain any heavy equipment needed to do the dirt work. The Parkers prefer to lease machinery as needed.

“A while back, Ryan’s brother worked for the company. He owned the equipment we needed and we deployed it, as needed, through a subcontracting arrangement,” Ron explains. They have found it to be more cost-effective to rent a machine and operator than to sustain these investments through slow times. This allows the company to work within its project niche area and not have to take on all sorts of work just to pay the bills. That would be a distraction.

The recent economy has reduced demand for installation for OSI, but operation and maintenance needs continue. Accordingly, the balance of business is moving the company toward the latter. “We have room to expand in this area without reducing our work in other segments,” says Ryan.

“Through 2008 we were operating full bore; until then, the effect of the 2005 regulation change had not fully kicked-in,” Ron says. “We saw some decline, but it was not until 2008 that we really noticed it,” Ryan adds. That’s when a 20 percent drop in work across the board hit the province, which slowed new construction-related work, but it did not stop the need for O&M.

“If the O&M service opportunity or need arises, we will satisfy it, but only for systems we have had some involvement in,” says Ryan. As an Orenco distributor, they have been heavily involved in use of those products as an installer, designer, component provider and installer trainer. They currently do not offer O&M support for any other proprietary systems, however that may change. “We are considering cross-training,” said Ron.

SMALL AND EFFICIENT

Eschewing an equipment fleet enables the company to maintain its operations in a modest, former single-family house in a quiet Duncan neighborhood. The house’s two-car garage is their warehouse and workshop. They also have an arrangement with a tank manufacturer to keep their Orenco inventory on his nearby lot.

In addition to the Orenco systems, the company also utilizes Xerxes ZCL fiberglass-reinforced tanks for commercial work applications.

A 1998 Chevy pickup is the entire vehicle pool. As needed, Ryan’s 2007 Toyota pickup is used as well. “When we need Orenco components delivered, we coordinate that with the septic tank delivery and the tank manufacturer brings both at once,” Ryan says.

Business promotion includes a website and targeted direct (postal) and email campaigns. The latter are focused on maintenance services in neighborhoods with special environmental considerations like lakeshore communities. Twice a year the company takes its training program on the road to the installer and service provider communities. “There are times when we attach magnetic signs on the truck as another way to get the word out,” said Ryan.

In addition to Ron and Ryan, Shaun Pattenden, a soil specialist, Trefor Digby, their maintenance technician, and Linda Taylor, administrator, round out the OSI team. Although Ron and Pat are officially retired, they are always available for consultation.

There are some onsite services the company has chosen not to pursue. The two standouts are tank pumping and real estate presale system inspections.

“Both of these tasks are referred to appropriately credentialed local entrepreneurs who have the specialized equipment that is needed for this work,” explains Ryan.

Founded on Canada’s western frontier, this two-generation company continues to pioneer new techniques and technologies, enhance practitioners’ competency level and strengthen the associations they helped establish.



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