Association Insider: Iowa Onsite Waste Water Association helps Habitat for Humanity

The Iowa Onsite Waste Water Association just received a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in the amount of $100,000 to develop an operation and maintenance curriculum using the proprietary systems that IOWWA has been installing for a Habitat for Humanity project over the past six years.

In 2003, IOWWA began work to support Habitat for Humanity’s Heartland Hills building project near Waverly, Iowa. The project involves providing wastewater treatment for the twenty-one homes on an abandoned former military base that Habitat is rehabilitating.

“After the government abandoned the site, the lagoon serving the area fell into disrepair,” explains Doug Bird, President of the 500-member association. “The lagoon site had been sold, but it wasn’t feasible to regenerate it anyway, so we had limited options and a lot of challenges.”

IOWWA board members recognized that onsite wastewater treatment technology and equipment at Heartland Hills could meet Habitat for Humanity’s needs—and the site could also be used as a training aid for onsite wastewater professionals. After almost two years of coordination, planning and design work, the onsite cluster system for the first four homes was installed through workshops held in April 2005. Primary treatment is provided by a septic tank at each of the four homes. These tanks drain into a common sewer line, which flows to a secondary treatment system. Final dispersal is handled by a drip system. Four more homes received new systems through workshops held in 2006, and two of those are individually served by septic tanks and media filters.

“Today, twelve of the homes are occupied,” according to Bird. “We’ve received donations of equipment from manufacturers, with labor and all else needed to put these systems together coming from our membership. Since its inception back in 2006, I would say we easily have between thirty and forty members and about fifteen or twenty different local companies sending their crews out to help us with an install.

“Because of site issues, these are not your conventional septic tank and lateral field systems,” notes Bird. “Instead, we’re employing advanced treatment technologies. With the grant from the USDA, we’ll be able to go back in and do some testing under a real-life scenario and develop training, too.”

The operation and maintenance training will be used to educate installers, regulators, and the public, since any homeowners with one of these systems need to better understand what they have in their backyards—to spark a little more clarity on what they should flush, for example. This training will also assist in promoting the use of onsite technologies for small communities.

“The manufacturers of these proprietary products are just waiting for us to call and say we’re ready for a system. It’s a good opportunity for the manufacturer to get a newer product out into a real-life situation to see how it produces. Coupled with the grant, we’ll be able to help manufacturers more by gathering that test data.”

As might be expected, IOWWA also focuses on training and certification programs.

“When we founded the association in 1999, our members told us they wanted some kind of certification or credentialing to set them above the average person doing onsite work,” recalls Bird. “After looking at different ways to accomplish this, we entered into an agreement in 2007, with NEHA (National Environmental Health Association) to provide the CIOWTS (Certified Installer of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems) credential[s]. More than 400 of our members have obtained the certification.”

“We use primarily the University of Minnesota Water Resource Center staff—Sara Heger and Dave Gustafson—who put together the curriculum for the different topics associated with onsite wastewater, starting with the NEHA CIOWTS exam, and [they] actually come in and teach. These instructors have been instrumental in tailoring the training to IOWWA’s needs, taking their Minnesota programs—which are known for being very good—and tweaking them to fit Iowa’s requirements. Workshops are held in different parts of the state to allow easy access to them for everyone.”

Along with reasonably priced training workshops, tracking of continuing education hours, and its website-based member and certified contractor searches, IOWWA hosts an annual conference that offers fun as well as training for those who attend. The next one, January 12 and 13, at the Polk County Convention Complex in Des Moines, includes an auction of items donated by manufacturers to raise money for training and for scholarships that are granted to members’ college-bound children or employees.

“I believe IOWWA could do much more if we were able to hire a full-time Executive Director and establish a headquarters,” says Bird. “With that, we could provide more education. Right now, we’re attempting to establish a homeowners’ training program, where we will provide workshops to educate owners about the proper operation and maintenance of their onsite systems.”

For more information on IOWWA:
Iowa Onsite Waste Water Association
10927 Lincoln Avenue
Des Moines, IA 50325
President: Doug Bird
Executive Director: Alice Vinsand
515.225.1051 or




By Anne Biggs

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