Canadian Club

New Brunswick’s onsite wastewater professional association is not even a year old, yet it is already influencing regulations that affect their livelihood.

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Since 1987, Mike Stairs of Mike Stairs General Contracting in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and two colleagues tried to form an association to raise professionalism among onsite installers. The New Brunswick Canadian Homebuilders Association offered to share office space and staff, but the provincial government refused to support a challenge to the status quo. The industry didn’t appear to show an interest either.

All that changed in 2009 when the Department of Health revised septic regulations. Effective April 2010, the technical guidelines required new installers to be licensed through a course and exam. Contractors needed an application (permit) to install, construct, replace or repair onsite systems, and pay $150 per application.

Once-simple repairs became nightmares. Contractors first excavated to uncover the problem and made an application. Department inspectors had five business days to visit the site and approve the work. Upon completing it, contractors waited for the inspection, then returned to cover the repair. Repeat visits drove operating costs through the roof.

Now seeking representation, the industry coalesced and formed the New Brunswick Association of Onsite Wastewater Professionals in March 2010. Stairs was elected its first president at the inaugural membership meeting in November 2012. As lawsuits escalated against the provincial government, contractors and sometimes the product manufacturers due to improper installations and inspections, the department welcomed and shepherded the association.

Installer: How did the DOH help the association?

Stairs: The department invited the province’s 575 licensed installers to a meeting in Fredericton in March 2010. Of the 350 people attending, 95 percent wanted to form an association. A year later, we held another meeting and presented what the steering committee had done to the 100 attendees. Afterward, only 60 people paid the $75 membership fee.

The department also provided seed money, but start-up expenses ate most of it. This March, we met with officials and proposed attaching a $25 industry betterment fee to every application. They issue about 2,500 annually, which would generate enough money to hire a part-time executive director and provide an element of stable funding for ongoing expenses.

Installer: What happened to the early enthusiasm to form an association?

Stairs: Most are playing the wait-and-see game. We had 114 members before our first general membership meeting last November, but then only 76 renewed. We’re also trying to bring pumpers into the association because some of them install.

We are making inroads, but membership is a hard sell. People must see value. One way we’re doing that is through our website,, which was launched last year. It has a page for posting our accomplishments working with the DOH. Our biggest was when the Imported Soils Committee postponed a ruling that banned pit-run gravel and mandated only sand for raised beds and mound systems. That was huge, because pit-run gravel is an available, known quantity, but sand isn’t readily available and remains an unknown quantity until tested for hydraulic conductivity. The more we accomplish, the more installers will see merit in joining.

Installer: Besides establishing the association, what else does the DOH expect in exchange for the grant?

Stairs: They asked us to eventually provide training to all members. We’re working with training organizations to develop a mandatory three-day course. Graduates then work with a licensed contractor for a season before receiving their full license. Our first training session should roll out next spring or fall. Our next step is advocating continuing education as a license renewal requirement.

Although not an obligation, following the DOH request requires some background. The guidelines require 4 feet of imported soil to the invert of drainfield pipes in poor soils. Unscrupulous contractors haul in almost any material, build a 2-foot-high bed including cover, and know DOH inspectors will often approve it because they don’t shoot elevations. The department tried pulling installers’ licenses, but they complained to their legislative representatives about being put out of business. Very shortly, the politicians had restored their licenses.

To potentially end that situation, the DOH may wish to implement mandatory installer membership in the association in 18 to 24 months. Once that happens, the department suggested we establish a confidential ad hoc committee to review substantiated complaints about members conducting themselves unprofessionally, and provide the mechanism to terminate their memberships, which will affect their licenses.

We already launched a website where homeowners can file complaints. In every situation to date, we found that negligence seems to be shared equally with installers and inspectors. Installers will likely have 60 days to correct the problems. If they don’t, they may be allowed three miscues before we pull their membership. Consequently, inspectors are becoming more receptive to taking licenses, but we’re just entering that stage. It’s happened only a few times.

Installer: What prompted homeowners to sue installers and the health department?

Stairs: Until the guidelines became effective, the only requirements for systems to pass inspection was an approved, two-compartment septic tank with effluent filter and a minimum of 240 feet of approved drainfield pipe with orifices pointing down. Provided installers met the industry’s minimum standards, homeowners had no legal recourse.

Installer: How have the guidelines and lawsuits affected inspectors?

Stairs: They used to inspect every system twice. To help circumvent legal claims, the department switched to random audits. Now, every fifth or sixth system I install is inspected. On the first visit, they look at the test hole and evaluate my soil analysis. On the second visit, they inspect the finished system before I cover it up. That’s the only monitoring we have and it could become worse. If provincial cutbacks continue and DOH loses inspectors, the department may ask us to police our own members.

Installer: What legislative headway has been made by the association?

Stairs: In January, we changed the rules to require contractors to hold a conventional license before applying for a nonconventional license. We recommended that all tanks have risers to within 6 inches of grade, and that any work done within 10 feet of systems be supervised or completed by licensed installers. The latter prevents landscape contractors from maneuvering equipment over the system. We changed the fine for installing septic tanks without a license from a flat $50 to $350 per day from the day of the offense.

Installer: What is on the association’s agenda this year?

Stairs: We’re trying to enhance and encapsulate membership before the DOH mandates it. One benefit we’ve arranged is for members to receive 5 to 10 percent discounts on merchandise from participating vendors.

Although the DOH supports and promotes us, inspectors seem indifferent to the association and its mandate. When installers ask them about the association, they’re told that membership isn’t mandatory and not to worry about it. We need their endorsement, because it has meaning.

Regarding education, we partnered with the DOH to present a course on contour trenches. They’re the lead system in Nova Scotia, and are far more affordable than raised beds and mound systems. Once installers are licensed to install contour trenches, the issue over imported fill material basically goes away because contour systems require 10 to 12 loads of specific material and raised beds require 40 to 50 loads.

Installer: How big a voice will the association have in writing legislative code?

Stairs: The DOH is turning to us for advice as they address more stringent regulations. We were invited to attend the Technical Guideline Committee meetings and discuss changes before they become effective 60 days later. Officials now accept that we are serious about advancing professionalism in the industry.


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