‘We Are the Actual Boots on the Ground Protecting Groundwater in a Significant Way’

Saskatchewan wastewater contractors push the government to require system design and installation by certified professionals

‘We Are the Actual Boots on the Ground Protecting Groundwater in a Significant Way’

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In States Snapshot, we visit with a member of a state, provincial or national trade association in the decentralized wastewater industry. This time we learn about a member of the Saskatchewan Onsite Wastewater Management Association.

Jason Holtvogt, owner and operator 

Business: Holtvogt Sand and Gravel, Humboldt, Saskatchewan  

Age: 42

Years in the industry: The company is 45 years old, started by my father, Herb Holtvogt, so I grew up in the business. But the rule in our house was to go to postsecondary school. I have a degree in computer-aided design and drafting, or CADD, and worked as a drafting technologist for 11 years, first in manufacturing and then with the city of Saskatoon engineering department. There wasn’t a lot of room for advancement, and after about five years there, my dad approached me about buying into the company and working with him. I’ve been working at Holtvogt Sand and Gravel for the last 12 years.

Association involvement: I’ve been a member of the Saskatchewan Onsite Wastewater Management Association since it was formed. I’ve been a director for three years.

Benefits of belonging to the association: When I run into a situation I’m unsure of, I can call the association and they’ll give me some feedback or send me to an experienced installer who can help me. It’s a good group you can call on. And they do a really good job of training. All the training you need you can get through the association. Also, they advocate for us when the government does reviews of their disposal guides. The association is in direct communication with the government and will provide suggestions when regulations start coming out or when modifications are made.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: The government does not require systems to be designed or installed by certified installers. Anyone can install a septic system. The systems have to meet minimum requirements, but as certified installers, there are often options you can provide homeowners that will work better for them. Often a “just pass” mentality equals a system that doesn’t fit the homeowners’ lifestyle and becomes ineffective. I don’t believe the Saskatchewan Health Authority provides enough money to properly train its inspectors, so many of them struggle to do inspections. This happens in areas of the province where onsite wastewater hasn’t been fully accepted. It’s frustrating when you’ve spent so many years in the industry investing in improving your skills, making sure you’re providing the best systems, and then the inspectors are struggling to understand the requirements. Things are improving, but it’s time to give mandatory training to all the inspectors and give the homeowners the best chance at having a successful system by making it mandatory to use a certified installer.

Our crew includes: My dad is 74 and still does stuff around here as much as he can. We talk every day and get things lined up. The crew fluctuates. There are usually three or four of us in any given year who do the septic work — but also other things. We’re like a jack-of-all-trades. When you’ve got something to dig holes with, you end up digging holes for everything.

Typical day on the job: Typically I’m going out on sites or getting prepared for an installation, which starts with a lot of planning. The prep work involves design, consultation with the homeowners, site evaluation and making sure that what we’re going to install meets the requirements of the province, site and homeowners. The day of installation is really just the culmination of all that prior work. So one day we’ll be getting the tank in, maybe doing the trenching, and then having that inspected and prepping for installing the field. Depending on weather, everything should go smoothly, and within two or three days, you have everything completed for the homeowner and turned over.

The job I’ll never forget: I was asked to come out and see if I could fix a septic tank beside the homeowner’s house. I drove into the yard and it was atrocious. There was garbage everywhere. They were like, “Everything’s still working. It’s all fine.” I found where the septic tank was and half of it was collapsed. They had a pump just sitting on the ground in the tank pumping out what they could, what was coming in there. But they wanted the tank fixed. They didn’t want to replace it. I can understand their financial constraints, but there comes a point. I told them it couldn’t be fixed and showed them their options but never heard back from them.

My favorite piece of equipment: My excavator — I use it for everything. It’s a Case CX210. The industry has changed a lot, going from using backhoes to excavators, which have become the most versatile piece of equipment we now have. When dad started in 1974, he had one backhoe and would consistently put on 4,000 hours a year. Right now, it’s maybe 250 hours a year. Excavators were very uncommon then. There are probably no contractors around here able to make a living on one backhoe today.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: In 2010 we had an extremely wet year. In an average year, we get about 9 to 12 inches of rain. That year we had 4 feet. We had an installation site where there was a slough nearby. The water table was high, but we were able to find another location on the property to stay away from the water table. We got enough vertical separation to the water table that the mound went in without a hitch. It just took awareness of the site as to where to place everything.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: “To start this tank, my neighbor told me I should throw a dead chicken in it.” I’ve heard it multiple times. It doesn’t make any sense, but they’re dead serious. They think they need to put a dead chicken in there to get the bacteria working.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: To have a requirement that only certified installers can install systems.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: Make sure you’ve got more money coming in than you’ve got going out.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I’m sure I’d be doing something with construction equipment.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I think we’re very close to a change in the wastewater industry in Saskatchewan. The Health Authority made changes to the Saskatchewan Onsite Wastewater Disposal Guide in 2018 that significantly improved it. The guide was very basic before. But even though we made big strides in this edition, it may be another 10 years before we see further changes. The wastewater industry is the most down-to-earth environmental protection industry you could be in. We are the actual boots on the ground protecting groundwater in a significant way through the proper treatment of wastewater. When that is recognized, then maybe changes to our industry will happen much quicker than they are now. 


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