The Good Samaritan

Alabama Onsite Wastewater Assoc.Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association’s (AOWA) humanitarian efforts on behalf of the onsite wastewater community in Alabama are inspiring. In some cases, AOWA truly saves the day.

When things go wrong, having an attorney to advise you can be a saving grace.

“Sometimes conflicts can arise between our industry professionals and homeowners or regulators, and a legal opinion is needed,” says Dave Roll, executive director with AOWA. “It doesn’t matter how well you do it. When that happens, we put our members in touch with an attorney for a free consultation. The attorney will lay out your options for you and then you can decide how you want to proceed.”

AOWA members can get group rates for health insurance—a much needed benefit for small businesses. Health insurance can literally mean the difference between life and death for some. Often an extraordinary cost for small business owners, health insurance rates can vary drastically. “We have an arrangement with an insurance agency to tailor the plan to the needs of the individual companies,” says Roll.

In addition, AOWA bestows scholarships for those wishing to continue their education. “The scholarships are based on need and academics,” says Roll. “Members and their close relatives are eligible to apply. Our scholarship committee reviews them and this year we were able to award five $1,000 scholarships.”

While recipients can go to any academic, vocational, or technical school of their choice, this year’s winners are going to Wallace Community College, Northeast Alabama Community College, Auburn University, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Huntingdon College.

Underemployment is also a concern that many in the onsite business have in Alabama. Since new home construction is still only inching along, there is little business for septic installation. “That means that companies that were supporting two families on a $110,000 a few years ago, are attempting to do it on $50,000 now,” says Roll. “We are trying to help everyone get through and keep them licensed.”

While members receive the most of AOWA’s benevolence, the association assists others in Alabama. AOWA’s TRAC program installs or repairs septic systems for the most disadvantaged. The program relies on equipment and labor donations from manufacturers and others. Thus far, AOWA’s efforts have benefited 100 different families.

“A week ago, we put in a tank and field lines,” says Roll. “Infiltrator and Plastic Tubing Industries were two of the companies that donated materials. Advanced Drainage has donated some chambers for us to install next week.”

“There are so many people that don’t have a system,” says Roll. “They just have a line going out to a pasture or a ditch where the raw sewage is going straight on to the ground or, even worse, into a surface water or groundwater source.”

Which brings up one of the biggest problems the onsite wastewater industry has in Alabama—the soil. “We have some pretty bad dirt,” says Roll. “In some areas, it doesn’t perk so you can’t get a basic system. You end up having to build a mound or put in an advanced treatment system that can run anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. A poor person just can’t come up with that.”

With more than 50 percent of Alabama’s citizens relying on onsite wastewater systems, the onsite industry should be profitable in Alabama. Unfortunately, many people tend to skimp on system maintenance during tougher times, and others totally neglect their systems all together. In fact, Alabama’s Department of Public Health has reported that 50 percent of onsite systems are failing or expected to fail. The University of West Alabama (UWA) put the rate in their region, called the Black Belt, at about 90 percent.

“We provide our members with advice on how to keep their business afloat until things pick back up,” says Roll. AOWA provides members with myriad advice from being more professional to sending out reminders on when their customers should pump to being more efficient.

Of course, like most associations, AOWA also provides industry training. They are affiliated with the UWA in Livingston, which provides a full-time staff member, Allen Tartt, to run AOWA’s educational programs. Members receive a $75 discount on AOWA sponsored education programs.

“The AOWA Training Center is located on the university campus where we have lots of demonstration systems in the ground,” says Tartt. “We hold all of our licensing classes there. Onsite system installers, pumpers, portable restroom operators, and septic tank manufacturers are required to be licensed in Alabama. Installer licensing classes are three days long and the other licensing classes are two day events. All licensing classes involve hands-on activities in the field with the demonstration systems we have at the Training Center.”

“We have several different types of treatment and disposal systems,” says Tartt. “Some demos are static. They were installed and left exposed so people can see what they look like and how they are put together. Other demos are connected to water and electricity so we can turn the systems on, operate control panels and run pumps. The treatment systems include a peat bio-filter, a sand filter, a geo-textile filter, a constructed wetland, and several suspended growth aerobic treatment units. We also have demonstrations of different disposal technologies, including drip irrigation, low pressure pipe, and grave-less drain field products like chambers and polystyrene foam aggregate.”

The Training Center has one “live” system that treats the wastewater generated by the facility’s classroom building.

It consists of a 1,500 gallon septic tank connected to an open-cell foam treatment system and 1,000 feet of drip irrigation tubing. “Installers get a close up look at all of the different technologies while they are here. They really like that,” says Tartt. “For pumpers and portable restroom operators we bring over pump trucks so they can see how to operate the trucks. We can also pump out the septic tank to give them a live demonstration of a pump out.”

AOWA also provides training sessions all across the state. Licensees are required to receive continuing education each year. This year, classes are being held in Pelham, Montgomery, Dothan, Guntersville, Florence, and Mobile as well as the UWA campus. “We try to make it so that no one has to drive more than 75 miles to take their required continuing education,” says Roll.

Continuing education is also offered at AOWA’s annual tradeshow in Pelham. This year, they had more than 40 exhibitors. “The tradeshow is the fun place to get your continuing education hours, because we have a dinner as well as the exhibitors,” says Roll.

Whether you are a member or not, or even in the onsite industry, you may need a helping hand.

To learn more about the AOWA Training Center at UWA, visit www.aowatc.uwa.edu. For more information on becoming a member, visit www.aowainfo.org.

Story by Jennifer Taylor

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