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Advanced Wastewater Engineering specializes in sound solutions for challenging sites in the varied soils of the Idaho panhandle.

Challenging jobs are an everyday reality for George Miles, owner of Advanced Waste-water Engineering in Athol, Idaho.

“I deal with difficult sites,” says Miles, a mechanical engineering graduate of San Francisco State University and a licensed civil engineer. “We go in and figure out ways to make them buildable by adding things such as interceptor drains to mitigate groundwater. These are lots people gave up on years ago.”

Miles doesn’t take shortcuts just to get a system installed. “Normally, my customers come to me because they want to do the right thing,” he says. Sitting on the western side of the Rocky Mountains, Idaho’s northern panhandle has a huge variety of soil conditions, from pure sand and gravel all the way to clay and rock. The valleys have high groundwater with heavily fractured rock.

Around Athol, the sand and gravel soil lies over the sole source of drinking water for the region’s 450,000 people. According to the State Dept. of Environmental Quality, water moves quickly through the ground — up to 50 feet per day. That’s as far as average ground-water moves in an entire year (about 1.5 inches a day).

“You put effluent into the ground and it’s going to run right through,” Miles says. “Every septic system over this aquifer should be as close to the surface as possible with whatever loamy soil you have so you get some filtration.”

After many years in California, Miles had been doing structural engineering in North Idaho when he decided to open his own business three years ago. He quickly found a niche that fit his years of training: There were no companies specializing in onsite systems in his part of Idaho. “Customers had to go to one of the big firms, and then they were put on the back burner as a fill-in job,” Miles says.

Deploying technology

Today’s advanced systems enable Miles to make many lots buildable. He does everything from standard systems to drip irrigation, mounds, capping fill, pretreatment, and pressure distribution. “The drip system is ideal for areas of high groundwater,” he says. “You pretreat the effluent and then put it into a drip system.”

Advanced Wastewater Engin-eering also does heavy work related to construction — road work, excavation and grading, underground utilities, water and sewer extensions, and site evaluation. Many clients are subdivision developers. Miles determines how many houses can be placed in a development and whether to use individual or cluster systems. Such projects account for about half his work. Single sites make up the rest.

He and one employee, plus his secretary/wife, Cathy, do one to three community systems a year, usually ranging from 12 to 25 homes. “We’re just finishing a 16-home community septic system in Kingston that took four men 3 1/2 weeks to build,” he says.

The company is also working on a development with 30 lots that will have individual or paired systems with two homes on one leachfield. He just received approval for a community system for 14 homes along the St. Joe River.

The seven to 12 individual systems he does every year are mainly complex designs with pressure distribution and pretreatment. Miles says almost anyone can design a system in Idaho unless it is specifically required to be engineered. The state is not as strict as many others, but Miles says it is becoming more so, especially with drip systems.

He has had problems with only one of his drip systems. In that case, Miles found the flow from the three-bedroom home was 600 to 700 gpd — nearly twice the design flow. He couldn’t account for the high flow until he learned the homeowner had installed a water softener that was flushing two or three times a day. Once the softener was disconnected, the flow settled down to about 400 gpd, and the homeowner decided to leave it that way.

Miles’ most challenging job was a winery in California that used a huge amount of water for washing out wine barrels. “It needed 4,000 to 5,000 linear feet for the primary drainage area, and we had to work around the vineyard,” he says.

Old West mentality

Idaho values independence, but Miles says that attitude has to change when it comes to onsite systems, and the state realizes that. He recently served on a state committee looking at solutions. Miles expects change to be difficult — people will not like anything that adds to the cost of building or owning a home.

While other states have done away with systems using serial relief lines, for instance, Miles says they are still used in Idaho. “When I bring that up, everybody says we’ve been doing it for 20 years and it works fine. People don’t want to hear why they shouldn’t do it. But you don’t have the right to impact somebody downhill.”

While the state’s Technical Guidance Manual lays out the design parameters, that isn’t enough, according to Miles. “If you actually try to use that, it won’t work right,” he says. That’s because every system is different, and successful operation only comes from the proper installation of a well-designed system. “So a lot of people come to me and say, ‘fix what’s broken.’”

One of those was a friend putting in a drainfield with 1/4-inch holes spaced 2 feet on center along three 100-foot laterals hooked up to one manifold. The friend wanted to know what size pump he needed. “I told him he’d need a bigger pump than he wanted to buy,” Miles says. “We ended up re-engineering the system.”

There is an inherent problem with what he calls plug-and-play design programs because every system has individual nuances. “You have to take into account all the friction loss and whether you’re using PVC pipe or high density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe. A lot of people don’t know how to do that calculation.”

Even if the design is right, the key is still in the installation. With mounds, for example, “You have to avoid packing down the sand, so you can’t drive on it with equipment,” Miles says. “On the other hand, when you put down the sand, it’s fluffy, so you have to wet it to help it settle properly.”

While inspecting a mound system from another installer, he saw what happens when a professional fails to do that. “When we did the test of the laterals, I watched the gravel bed start sinking,” he says. “It sank down about 2 1/2 inches. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

The installer was confused and asked why it happened. Miles answered the question with one of his own: “Because you didn’t build it right?”

Bad systems are the result of poor design, poor installation, and poor regulation, Miles observes. “You look at what people do and it’s like, ‘You don’t understand this, do you? You really don’t get this concept.’”

Regulation: Not a bad thing

Miles supports stricter licensing for onsite installers. At present, getting a license is too easy, he says. “You have to watch a video before taking the test,” he notes. “There should be a more practical way to get these licenses.” He supports mandatory classes that show good and bad examples, and a requirement for continuing education.

Lending institutions, he says, are having a positive impact by requiring septic tanks to be pumped and inspected before the sale of a property. That at least forces homeowners to learn something about their septic systems.

As in the rest of the country, uneducated consumers are a problem. An example is a neighbor who called Miles one night because his system was backing up. Miles dug up the tank and pulled off the lid. “It looked like somebody had taken a refrigerator, piled the food up, put a tarp over it, and let it sit for six months,” he recalls. “All this broken- down food was floating on the top of the tank.”

Miles had a hunch that proved correct: His neighbor had cleaned the refrigerator and put everything through the garbage disposal. That won’t happen anymore.

Do it right

While he concentrates on difficult sites, Miles has his focus on operating a professional organization. He hires several sub-contractors, but he is picky about who he uses. His go-to man is Sean Moore of Moore Electrical & Excavation. “We can do an entire drip system, just the two of us, in three days,” Miles says.

From Moore, he gets what he demands: high quality and professionalism. “When you leave a site, it should be clean,” he says. “If it looks like a mess, it is a mess. Referral work is where most of the business comes from, and if your clients aren’t happy with the work, you aren’t going to be referred, no matter how cheap you do it, even if you’re the only guy in town. If you do a shoddy job, sooner or later somebody’s going to come in and take your work away.”

Miles’ first three years have gone well. “I have a lot of happy clients, though a couple of people are unhappy because I can’t get a septic system on their lot,” he says. While he could rig a system to please those customers, Miles wouldn’t be happy with the results, or with himself.

By refusing shortcuts, Miles is steadily building a bank of satisfied customers — and a solid foundation for his business.


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