Common Sense is a Rare and Valuable Commodity in Wastewater Regulations

British Columbia onsite rules should consider unique site conditions to come up with practical and sometimes lower-cost treatment solutions, says Joe Karthein

Common Sense is a Rare and Valuable Commodity in Wastewater Regulations

Joe Karthein

In Snapshot, we talk to a member of a state, provincial or national trade association in the decentralized wastewater industry. This time we visit a member of WCOWMA Onsite Wastewater Management of B.C. (WCOWMA-BC).

Name and title or job description: Joe Karthein, owner

Business name and location: Sentinel Excavating, Balfour, British Columbia.

Services we offer: We are primarily focused on installation but will occasionally do septic system design.

Age: 46

Years in the industry: 6

Association involvement: I am a member of WCOWMA Onsite Wastewater Management of B.C. (WCOWMA-BC).

Benefits of belonging to the association: WCOWMA advocates on behalf of wastewater industry professionals in British Columbia. It is crucial for wastewater professionals to know someone has their back. I always learn so much at their annual trade show and am grateful for this always well-run event.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: Interior Health, the provincial government’s health protection branch, puts 100% of accountability on septic system planners/designers, whether they are engineers or registered onsite wastewater practitioners (ROWPs) like myself. The consequence has been little to no oversight from Interior Health or anyone else. There are few, if any, employees at Interior Health who really know our 367-page, Sewerage System Standard Practices Manual (SPM) and that leads to inadequate checks and balances for dealing with rogue engineers and ROWPs who are not following SPM standards and/or doing shoddy work, which could create health hazards. If an engineer’s work is in question, the only recourse is to go to the engineers’ professional organization, Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia (EGBC) — a classic example of putting the fox in charge of the hen house. My experience is that case reviewers at EGBC are not familiar with the intricacies of the SPM. We need better accountability systems.

Our crew includes: For the last five years it has just been myself and the indispensable Shane Kratz. I’d like to keep it that way — a small tight ship, 100% accountability. If Shane is going to meet me at a given time and he’s not there (which is very rare) I know I mixed something up.

Typical day on the job: There is no typical day for me. While I plan things carefully and take pride in honoring all my commitments, I have no problem changing gears in an instant provided it doesn’t negatively impact Shane or my clients. Prioritization and communication are the keys to success in this business. I keep on top of the computer work as much as I can, whether it is invoicing, emailing clients or paying bills. I use a computer with an actual keyboard versus my phone wherever possible as the phone inevitably results in miscommunications and errors. Also, I work plenty of really long days whenever required. Up here, most of the installers only work about nine months of the year, so if I wasn’t doing plenty of 12-hour (or even 15 or 16) days during the ‘on’ season, I’d think of myself as pretty lazy.

The job I’ll never forget: My first septic job, which was only six years ago. I installed four rows of Infiltrator (Water Technologies) chambers in beautiful sunny weather on an absolutely beautiful rural property. I remember so well thinking that I just love this work. The trench digging went fast and it was so rewarding to finish all those nice level trenches in a single day. Since this install, I’ve done well over 100 septic systems and I still love the work.

My favorite piece of equipment: It is a toss-up between my Stihl 440 chainsaw and my truck and the way I’ve customized it. The saw is an older carbureted model that still runs like a champ. We do a lot of rural work so that means dealing with a lot of trees. My saw is always with me stored in my truck and I seem to use it constantly. My truck is a 2016 Ram 3500, bought new. I was able to order exactly what I wanted with all the heaviest-duty options like automatic air bag suspension. I mounted big aluminum side boxes in the truck bed that still allow me to haul gooseneck trailers but they give me two long storage compartments for everything from saws and rakes to shovels and digging bars. The beauty of the system is that it locks with my key fob via the tailgate. Also, almost every day I am standing on that checker-plate surface of the compartments and I can even load all sizes of 8-foot wide Premier Plastics septic tanks width-wise on top. 

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: Another toss up. Was it that steep rocky scree slope of pipe-puncturing fractured rock? That job seemed endless even though it was only a tank and pump chamber install that dosed to a common dispersal field. I used something like seven dump trucks of bedding sand to bury the tanks and 200 feet of pipe. That job beat the heck out of my excavators. Or was it that nasty, high groundwater site where digging to depth for the concrete pump chamber required my water pump running continuously for hours? When it came time to place the pump chamber on that one, the swimming pool sized hole came close to consuming my 8-ton excavator. 

Oops, I wish I could take this one back: One of my bigger mistakes was when I misinterpreted a very poorly done ‘septic approval for the purposes of subdivision plan.’ Its content made me think it was an approved and filed septic design plan that was ready for installation. When I went to install the septic tank in the exact location specified, I hit bedrock at two feet. I poked around elsewhere and there was poor quality thin soil with drainage issues throughout the property. After further exploration, I turned up the two test holes used by the engineer to grant the subdivision approval. The deeper of the two holes was only 28 inches. Here in British Columbia, these test holes need to be a minimum of 60 to 84 inches depending on soils and intended dispersal field. I bailed on the job thinking my further involvement in doing things correctly from that point on would only cause more difficulty for the property owner who I felt very badly for. The whole thing cost me many days of wasted time, a ridiculous amount of driving and I lost a week of revenue. 

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: It’s more of a genre of questioning — people grinding me on price. It is crazy for the client to do this because it will result in me wanting to round up numbers on their invoice rather than my more typical rounding down in their favor. 

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: I wish our SPM had specific exclusions for large rural properties (like, say, five acres or more). For example, under our current standards, a modest home in the middle of a 20-acre property with fast-draining gravelly sand soils and a 300-foot deep water well located 500 feet from the proposed septic field would require a dosed/pumped system. Exclusion examples could be things like doubled horizontal setback distances for water wells and property lines to permit the use of simple gravity-based systems in faster draining soils. It just doesn’t seem right to install a $20,000 system here when with an $8,000 system would have no chance of creating a health hazard and it would eliminate all the complications a pump brings into the equation. This kind of stuff brings a bad name to our industry. 

Best piece of small business advice I’ve heard: “When starting out on a new business or new aspect of your business, ask the right questions to the right people and, just as importantly, be open to their answers even if it is not what you want to hear.” I used to be a small business counselor, mentoring people starting small businesses. The successful startups fast-tracked their way to having viable businesses by asking hard questions to everyone they could think of who might know something about their industry — including their competition. Most of the time, by engaging with your competition you make allies and learn from their mistakes instead of from your own. 

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I’ve always thought being a park ranger would be a terrific job.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I would guess the Type 3 treatment systems will get better and better — more efficient, less maintenance, and less expensive. I sure hope they do as we are cramming more and more people on this little old planet. 


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