Hands-On Iowa Onsite Training Keeps Going After 12 Years

The state’s program involving installers and service providers at Heartland Hills includes a variety of test systems serving 14 homes
Hands-On Iowa Onsite Training Keeps Going After 12 Years
Drew Ryken of Premier Tech Aqua shows an Ecoflo Coco Filter being delivered to Heartland Hills.

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A combined hands-on professional training program and charitable effort by the Iowa Onsite Waste Water Association celebrated its 12-year anniversary recently. And taking a look back at this successful program prompts the question why all state onsite associations aren’t following suit.

After partnering with the Waterloo, Iowa, chapter of Habitat for Humanity, IOWWA coordinated the installation of a drip system in 2005 for a cluster of homes that the nonprofit housing organization was rehabilitating. Onsite Installer covered that project at the time. Since then, the two groups have built a successful relationship that helps low-income buyers obtain housing and gives IOWWA a training ground where members can install and monitor a variety of onsite technologies.

Today, there are 14 Habitat homes at Heartland Hills, and all of the onsite systems have been installed at no or little cost to the homeowners. IOWWA has consistently maintained each of the systems and regularly brings out installers, inspectors and maintainers to learn more about the technologies used. With younger members getting involved in the association, new systems went online in 2016, and this summer, and the group held a two-day workshop involving onsite professionals and product manufacturers who donated time and materials.


The story of Heartland Hills started when Habitat obtained officers housing at an abandoned Naval Communications base near Waverly, Iowa, and planned to turn the ranch homes over to families in need. The idea of involving IOWWA came from Doug Bird, then the public health sanitarian for Bremer County and an IOWWA member. Bob McKinney, owner of RD McKinney Plumbing & Excavating, in Waukee, Iowa, was on board from the start, organizing donations and volunteer labor to install the first system for four homes. And he continues today, carrying out twice-a-year maintenance for all of the homes.

Trevor Dickerson, past president of IOWWA and a septic designer for MMS Consultants, heads the association’s education committee and is working to reinvigorate the partnership with Habitat and build on the training program.

“Habitat is a great cause. During this last workshop, Habitat people came and talked to us about the organization, giving us a little bit of understanding about how these people are getting these houses,’’ Dickerson explains. “It’s a positive thing for us to be associated with, especially for us to have the opportunity work in a whole neighborhood like that.”

A little background on Heartland Hills is in order.

Habitat purchased part of the former military base for $1 and assessed the viability of 24 neglected homes that were once served by a lagoon system for wastewater. The part of the property that included the lagoon was sold earlier; shared lagoons are no longer allowed for residential service in Iowa, so another wastewater solution was needed. About half of the houses were too deteriorated and were razed, while the organization set out to repair the other homes. At the same time, Habitat started building new replacement homes on some of the sites.


McKinney explained that poor and disturbed soils prevented the use of conventional septic systems. The lots, laid out in a horseshoe, are about 60 feet wide and 100 feet deep. Habitat families own the homes, but don’t own the land — much like a condominium arrangement — so it was practical to experiment with a variety of onsite technologies and use cluster systems where it was logistically feasible.

The first system includes different branded septic tanks (both concrete and poly) on each of the four properties, with effluent running from the tanks to a fixed activated sludge treatment (FAST) bioreactor from Bio-Microbics. Treated water then collects at a 2,000-gallon pump tank and is dosed to four zones of drip tubing (3,600 feet total) laid out in a common area.

Through the years, a variety of technologies were installed using drip, open discharge (allowed in Iowa), and at-grade systems. The most recent is a project installed in August using a Waterloo Biofilter System. The systems have been experimental, first of their kind in the state, or applications that are seldom seen in Iowa, McKinney explained.

McKinney has been responsible for maintenance from the start. He is paid $25 per month per system by Habitat to provide inspections, service and necessary repairs. As long as homeowners do not abuse the systems, they are not billed for any repairs. Through user education, abuse has been limited to one instance and the homeowner made changes that eliminated problems, McKinney says.

McKinney reports replacing a few pumps. Pumping is performed routinely. When McKinney finds one tank with sludge levels high enough to pump, all of the neighborhood tanks are pumped. This happens every three years on average.

There have been no system failures, but in one instance, a Pirana aeration unit was installed to restore proper treatment in a system hampered by a homeowner using a laundry list of medications, McKinney says. The residents have for the most part followed guidelines for care and have been understanding of the many intrusions by the dozens of onsite workers who regularly visit Heartland Hills.


“They all understand I’m coming up there to do some training and know there will be 30 to 40 people walking across their yards,” McKinney says. “We keep in mind these are people’s homes, and we respect that. It’s been really good as far as that goes.”

Habitat and the homeowners are getting a pretty good deal, McKinney asserts. He estimated the first cluster system was valued at $140,000 but that dozens of onsite pros donated their time for the installation and many onsite product manufacturers donated their components as a teaching tool. And that has continued as many manufacturer’s reps make the trip to Waverly to show how their products perform in a real-world setting and promote the use of new technologies throughout the state.

“It’s great training for anyone who wants to learn to service and install,” McKinney says. The 60-year-old service provider says he also benefits from the maintenance and training program. “I get an education, too. When something goes wrong, then I learn what went wrong and how to fix it. Instead of going off to a school, I’m going to the School of Hard Knocks.”

McKinney has one more goal for the training program at Heartland Hills before he plans to retire in about five years. He’s designing a small building where a variety of UV disinfection systems can be observed and have their effluent tested. His plan is to route the effluent from several open-discharge systems and combine it in the building, which will have a large tank buried two feet below the surface where several UV systems will treat the wastewater side-by-side.

“A lot of places in Iowa, they don’t understand disinfection period, and in a lot of areas of Iowa they’ve never seen these systems,” McKinney says. “It’s good to see it in real life and not in a showroom. It’s one thing to see something nice and clean and pretty; and understanding how it works is a different thing.”


After many years maintaining onsite systems, McKinney says there’s one area where he’d like to see a technological jump: digital communication between remote systems and the maintainer.

“It’s only getting better. But is it where it needs to be? No,” he says of the advances he’s seen. “One thing I’d like to get done is telemetry that’s affordable and can come into the service provider’s computer or phone so we know what is actually happening and can go out with the right material to repair rather than just get an alarm call.”

Things are changing in the onsite community in Iowa, and the changes are reflected across North America. More technologies are coming to the forefront to better treat wastewater. Also, younger onsite professionals are coming up, and they need to be prepared to serve the needs of customers. Dickerson recognizes the changes, and he hopes the program in Iowa can be a model for training in other states and provinces.

“The older guys are starting to get out, and the younger generation is coming on,’’ he says. “So it’s nice that we have this opportunity to use experimental systems and see how they work.”


I know many states have started some form of hands-on training. However, I wonder if any others have teamed up with a group like Habitat for Humanity or have installed and monitored as many systems as the folks in Iowa. Has your state association considered approaching Habitat to work on one of its thousands of projects across the U.S. and Canada? Or are there similar developments in your state that you’d like to shine a light on? If so, please contact me at editor@onsiteinstaller.com, and we can share your projects.


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