A Quiet Force for Progress

The Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment supplies the onsite industry with an abundance of educational resources
A Quiet Force for Progress
George Loomis

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There’s a group of unsung heroes in the onsite wastewater industry. It goes by a somewhat inconvenient name: The Consortium of Institutes for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment.

One can argue whether the group should simply change its name to The Onsite Consortium, which is how you find it on the Web (www.onsiteconsortium.org). But there’s no debate about the contributions the organization has made for the betterment of the onsite industry.

From an array of full-blown training programs, to a glossary that helps standardize terminology in an industry with many regional differences, to practical, hands-on checklists and graphics for practitioners, to informational material for homeowners, the consortium has an impressive list of achievements to show for its 12 years of existence.

The consortium was founded in 1998 to encourage research, outreach and education about decentralized wastewater treatment. It is an independent group of educational institutions, industry organizations and agencies. Its membership now includes representatives from 33 higher education institutions and 22 training centers, programs and organizations (including state onsite wastewater associations), as well as a group of individual advisory members.

Members George Loomis and John Buchanan spoke on behalf of the consortium in an interview with Onsite Installer magazine.

Loomis is a research and extension soil scientist with the University of Rhode Island, director of the New England Onsite Wastewater Training Program, and onsite wastewater focus area program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture district that includes New England, New York, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He serves on the consortium executive board and chairs the practitioner training program.

Buchanan is an associate professor of biosystems engineering (formerly called agricultural engineering) with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and has an outreach and research appointment in small wastewater systems and stormwater. He chairs the consortium’s executive board.

OI: What would you say is the driving force behind the consortium?

Buchanan: The majority of us who consider ourselves consortium academicians are from Land Grant Universities. Those universities have a mission to help develop the economy and technology of their states.

There are about a dozen Land Grant Universities that still have it as part of their mission to protect public health and the environment through the transfer of information about residential and small-community wastewater systems. That makes us mission-driven and gives us the responsibility and privilege to work with the onsite industry, which really shares the same mission.

OI: How does the consortium influence the various kinds of training that get done in the onsite industry?

Buchanan: Our work has heavily influenced the nature of training. Even before there was a consortium, a number of us independently worked on curriculum for our own areas. Since then, organizations like NAWT (National Association of Wastewater Transporters), NOWRA (National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association) or NEHA (National Environmental Health Association) have adjusted their curriculums based on the programs we put together.

They realized that our materials were created by professional educators who understand the information transfer process. As educators, we can look at a group of people in training and ask ourselves: Are they getting it? When our materials came forward and the industry groups saw the logic and order and quality of the presentations, they began adopting them.

Loomis: All the major curriculum projects the consortium has developed are professionally peer reviewed, and that is a huge deal. Each program we developed was pilot-tested four times across the country. After each pilot training, the writers and reviewers went back and revised the information and pilot-trained it again.

At times during the process, the material was sent to a list of selected reviewers, typically 12 to 14 people who were essentially the cream-of-the-crop practitioners in their specific areas of expertise.

After all that was done, we sent the material to 50 to 100 people in the industry who were members of NAWT, NOWRA or NEHA. Comments from those people were then addressed in the final curriculum.

OI: Do the industry associations actually use the consortium curriculum in their training programs?

Loomis: The NAWT Operations and Maintenance training is largely based on our National O&M Service Provider program. NEHA’s national Certified Installer of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems credential is closely allied with the consortium’s National Installer Training Program, which we developed in conjunction with the NOWRA Installer Academy.

NEHA developed the credential and created the exam separate from our training curriculum, but they use our curriculum as the basis for what credentialing candidates need to know. After the training is delivered, NEHA typically on the same day or the following day offers their credentialing exam. It’s very much a coordinated effort by the consortium, NEHA and NOWRA.

Another curriculum the consortium developed was Analyzing Wastewater Treatment Systems for High Strength and Hydraulic Loading. This was created without any outside grant funds. It came together because Bill and Betty Stuth (practitioners from the State of Washington who specialized in that area) wanted to get the information they had developed over several decades out to the rest of the industry. They quite unselfishly shared their knowledge.

It’s worth noting that the Analyzing Wastewater and O&M Service Provider training curriculums each received a Blue Ribbon Award for outstanding outreach education materials from the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. That was quite an honor.

OI: What is the philosophy behind the consortium’s Train the Trainer program?

Buchanan: We have a policy that before we issue someone the slide sets, which are fully scripted, we want them to come to a Train the Trainer event so that they recognize the areas of emphasis we think are important — the key points and issues that really need to be conveyed.

We’re also concerned with the actual nuts and bolts of presenting a training program. For example, you really ought to have a backup projector. You ought to make sure the room is properly cooled or heated so that everyone is comfortable, and that the blinds can be pulled to make sure it’s dark enough in the room without it being too dark.

Those are things people who are not educators by training may take for granted, and yet they can make or break a good educational opportunity. We typically hold Train the Trainer sessions over three days in conjunction with one of the training programs we’re conducting.

OI: Who is authorized to deliver consortium training programs?

Loomis: Any consortium members in good standing and having participated in the Train the Trainer events can access the full training materials with all the PowerPoint slides, speaker notes, and electronic materials. Because it’s all peer-reviewed and nationally sanctioned material, we don’t want people to go in and change the slides to suit their needs, because then it’s no longer standardized training. But it’s perfectly legitimate for folks to add slides with information that’s appropriate to their particular state or region.

OI: The consortium’s projects include the creation of a glossary of industry terms. Why was this necessary?

Buchanan: As we went to meetings across the country and worked with installers and maintenance providers, we found we weren’t talking the same language on many issues, and we would have to ask for clarification.

We’d ask someone, “What kind of device is that you’re talking about?” They would describe how it works, and we’d say, “Oh, a media filter.” In addition, there are plenty of trade names and industry names that are not necessarily appropriate for communicating broadly across the industry.

Loomis: When we went to the first meeting with the writers and reviewers for our O&M Service Provider program, we had 25 or 30 people in the room from all over the country. We mentioned the term “drainfield,” and we noticed some people with very perplexed looks on their faces. Somebody said, “What is that?”

We thought everybody understood what a drainfield was. But we had to go to the chalkboard and draw a picture of what we were referring to. And then people said, “Oh, we call that a leachfield,” or we call it this, or we call it that. We realized at that moment that we needed a standard glossary if we were going to put together an effective training curriculum. We wanted the terminology to be standard from the first curriculum we created until the last one.

OI: Have you actually seen this standard terminology take hold in the marketplace?

Buchanan: The response to the glossary has been surprisingly positive. In keeping up with the literature that crosses my desk, and in seeing other people’s work in the industry, there have been quite frequent references to the glossary. That’s a source of pride in that we provided some standardization of the nomenclature across the country.

In another instance, we’ve gone through some revisions of our code in Tennessee. Some old definitions have been updated and even discarded, and they’ve been replaced with the more standardized terminology. We’ve also seen terms from the glossary used in some vendors’ brochures and publications.

Loomis: Like our training curriculum materials, the glossary went through a review process. We shared it with a number of people from across the country, and they sent back comments that helped us improve it.

OI: What was the thought behind the various checklists the consortium created for industry professionals?

Buchanan: The checklists are the real power behind the materials we’ve assembled, especially from the standpoint of someone who’s actually in the field, doing the nuts-and-bolts installations and doing the hands-on inspections and maintenance. Now they have a tool that helps ensure that they’ve done the job and documents that they have done it properly.

OI: How were these checklists created?

Buchanan: We put them together with help from active, working practitioners. We created a first cut as academics, including what we thought was important. That’s easy to do sitting at our desks or by going out in the field ourselves, but then we showed them to the folks who do this for a living, who our industry recognizes as the leaders, and they humbled us.

They said “We need our practitioners to be worried about safety, to know how to deal with dogs, to make sure they have lockout/tagout products and materials so that they don’t get electrocuted. We need to make sure that when they leave the site they put the system back on automatic and put the hang tag on the doorknob to show the homeowner that they’ve been there.” Those are the kinds of things we didn’t know about. The practitioners educated us.

OI: What is it about the consortium and its work that makes you the most proud?

Buchanan: I would say that in Tennessee, the item that has brought the biggest return on the education investment is the O&M Service Provider program. It gives me great pride to be associated with the organization that put that program together.

Loomis: The thing I’m particularly proud of is working with a group of like-minded people who have been effective in developing materials that serve a whole variety of needs for wastewater practitioners. By working with the industry over a number of years, we’ve been able to take our academic knowledge and apply it to help solve a lot of the industry’s problems.


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