Alabama Installers Believe in Providing a Helping Hand

When health department officials discover an elderly woman with a wastewater crisis, members of the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association step up to save the day

Alabama Installers Believe in Providing a Helping Hand

KESS Environmental Services crew members set the Infiltrator Water Technologies tank. From left, near the excavation are Sears Smith, Mike Burke, and Derrick Smith.

Willie Mae Spivey of Tyler, Alabama, had what the state Department of Public Health refers to as a “positive outlet” carrying waste from the home she’s lived in since 1979. That’s a misnomer, however, because there was nothing positive about the straight pipe that ran to the back of her property and illegally emptied into a gully.

It took almost 40 years, but when a new neighbor followed his nose to a wet spot in the woods, he discovered that the elderly, destitute Spivey didn’t have the septic system she was promised when she bought the property so many years ago. Living on a fixed income and recovering from back surgery, Spivey didn’t have the means to rectify this dire situation.

So the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Association came to the rescue. The group’s Technical Review and Advisory Committee was approached by state officials asking if there was a way to help Spivey. Through a program instituted by Richard Reaves, the late AOWA president, the group quickly approved the donation of a new septic system.

Over the past dozen years, the state onsite association has repaired or built free septic systems for many families in need, according to Dave Roll, the AOWA executive director. It’s a community service that is sorely needed in parts of the state that face severe poverty and have a spotty history of oversight and regulation of wastewater systems.


In this case, Spivey’s home is located in the region of southern Alabama referred to as the Black Belt for the dark clay-heavy soils that cover the land in Lowndes County, which is also said to be the poorest county in the United States. The state capital, Montgomery — where the AOWA is headquartered — is nearby.

“There are thousands of people in Alabama who have nonfunctioning systems or straight pipes into the woods, or nothing at all. … The waste comes out of the trailer and goes into the ground,” Roll explains. “You have extremely poor soil and extremely poor people, and when you put the two together, you have a real problem.”

Stories like Spivey’s are what drove the AOWA to action. The group has installed or repaired systems for free in many areas, and Spivey’s situation clearly warranted a helping hand, Roll says. She bought her home through the Federal Housing Administration with the understanding that a functioning septic system was in place. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the case, according to Sherry Bradley, director of the state Bureau of Environmental Services, who went to the AOWA for help.

“It had a 750-gallon concrete tank and field lines were there, but they were never connected. (The original installer, now deceased) probably showed the field lines to the inspector but never hooked them up and just ran the straight pipe,” Bradley says. “I felt she had been jilted from the beginning.”


Roll agreed, and the AOWA sprang into action. The association, working with local health departments, first validates a hardship case and then approaches installing companies in the area where the donated system is needed. Members share in the workload, and the company that agrees to install a given system gets credit for annual continuing education requirements. Industry manufacturers have been generous in donating materials for the charity systems, according to Roll.

“You have to understand the people who put in septic systems. You know they would obviously rather go out and work — do it and feel good about helping out somebody — than sit in a boring class all day,” Roll says. The continuing education component comes in when the installing crew works with health department officials and manufacturers’ representatives who train crew members how to install products used for the new systems.

The Spivey project was made easier because the soils on her property were surprisingly very good, according to Bradley. While Black Belt soil swells and shrinks, leaving large cracks in dry weather, hers is considered Bama soil, which is a sandy clay loam found in others parts of the state, which lends itself well to conventional septic systems.

Volunteer installer David Mastin and his crew from KESS Environmental Services utilized an IM-1060 tank and 200 feet of Quick4 Plus standard low chambers, donated by Infiltrator Water Technologies. The basic gravity system included three rows of drainfield and was installed in a little more than a day. The project took longer than usual because of media coverage and the educational give-and-take with health department observers, Mastin explains. The system would have cost about $5,000 ordinarily, he says.


Mastin serves on the AOWA board and the Alabama Onsite Wastewater Board. He’s proud of the trade association’s charity efforts and wants to see the group do even more. He says Spivey’s appreciation was reward enough for his crew’s labor.

“The more you give, the more you receive,” he says. “I encourage all installers to do at least one or two. It’s extremely rewarding, and everybody should give back. If you make a career out of something, you should always give back what you can. You may not be rewarded today or tomorrow, but it will always come back to you eventually.”

Roll says many times folks with failing or no septic system live on government assistance of $600 to $900 a month and would never be able to afford a $5,000 septic system, let alone more advanced systems needed in some parts of the state. He says it would be ideal if the association could donate a system every month, but that would require a huge commitment from installers and manufacturers that have always been willing to contribute.

“Does that put a real dent in the problem in Alabama? No,” Roll says. But the members want to keep trying. “I’ve seen people break down and cry when they get a new system. They are so appreciative.”

Bradley, too, is thankful for the work of the AOWA.

“For them to donate the system and having the installers to donate their time, that was ingenious. I applaud them,” she says. “We work well together and have a good partnership with them.”



Alabama installers are exhibiting the best traits of the wastewater industry. These professionals should be commended for their continued effort to serve their local communities and individuals in need. They are protecting folks who can’t protect themselves and making the environment safer for everyone. And I know they are not alone.

Many state trade associations do similar charity work through local health departments, Habitat for Humanity, and individuals on a case-by-case basis. I also know that many installers act on their own to help people in need, whether that is repairing a system for an elderly person, helping out a veteran who can’t afford system maintenance, or doing work for their church or nonprofit groups. I believe what Mastin says is true. Good deeds are rewarded in good will. From your neighbors, your customers.

Would you like to share your stories of charitable works, whether through your company or your trade association? Send me an email at and tell me about it. We’re proud to pass along these good-news stories.


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