IOWWA partners with government agencies, onsite product suppliers and Habitat for Humanity to educate installers.


The Iowa Onsite Waste Water Association is one of the largest in the country, with about 400 members representing installation and maintenance contractors, regulators, engineers, soil scientists, manufacturers and educators. President Steve Darrah says such a broad base has helped IOWWA develop a good working relationship with interested groups to improve the certification program and onsite regulations, and help improve Iowa’s water quality.

Darrah, owner of Crystal Heating and Plumbing in Waverly, took over as president of IOWWA at the beginning of 2013 after three years on the board of directors. He has 23 years of experience as an installer and 40 years as a plumber. Darrah talked about the organization and the state of the industry in Iowa.

How did IOWWA get started?

Darrah: It began in 1999 to help onsite wastewater people learn more about what we’re dealing with here in Iowa as far as our soil conditions and septic systems that work in certain soils. A lot of work has been done on alternative systems over the last few years.

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We have a large variety of soil conditions in Iowa. In the northeast, we have solid lime rock with three to eight inches of loam cover, to areas where it’s almost wetland. You might run into the water table at three feet in the north. Southern Iowa has coal, southwest Iowa is extremely hilly, very rocky and highly erodible. Plus we have a lot of streams and rivers, including the Mississippi on the east side and the Missouri on the west side of state.

What have you done to explore the various septic systems?

Darrah: In 2005, we started working with a Habit for Humanity project on an old Air Defense Command radar site just outside Waverly, where I live. They build new three-bedroom homes and revamp some of the old homes that were on the site, now called Heartland Hills. We’ve installed eight different systems and we maintain and monitor them monthly to see how they work. We hope to do more out there.

It’s been real interesting. For each installation, we have a class open to our membership to see how they are installed. We have manufacturers there so it’s a good time to see how they’re expecting things to be installed and tested. That’s been a good piece of knowledge for the association.

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We have received a USDA Technical Assistance and Training grant for the development of a training program for the operation and maintenance of the onsite systems there. We have filmed some of the installations since 2009 and have them in our online library [www.iowwa.com]. It’s a really good asset for learning or if installers are looking for a different system for a particular application.

It’s been a great place for us, the suppliers and manufacturers to show their wares and the proper way to install and maintain them. We have installed time-dosing systems, mounds, peat filters, aerobic systems and others – and hopefully more are coming. [Installed systems include: Advantex, Concrete Peat System, EcoFlex, FAST System, Fusion Tank, Hoot System, Hydro-Action Aerobic Unit, and Multi-Flo.]

What are the licensing requirements in Iowa?

Darrah:  We have the statewide Certified Installer of Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems [CIOWTS] program. IOWWA proctors the test provided by the National Environmental Health Association [NEHA]. The NEHA test is well-respected, very detailed and in-depth.

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We give that test twice a year to certify installers and IOWWA manages renewals. As part of that, we offer a [1 1/2-day] Installation Overview course for those taking the exam, though they don’t have to take the class before taking the test. Certification requires continuing education credits. So along with the annual conference, where installers can get those, we have meetings throughout the year across the state on different topics where they can get CEUs to maintain their license.

How does the certification work with individual counties?

Darrah: Requiring certification hasn’t been picked up by many counties, but we’re working on it and encourage the counties to adopt regulations requiring licensing of installers and certification through IOWWA. Contractors work in a lot of different counties and some work in neighboring states; a good majority of them are getting certified.

But only 10 out of 99 counties require certification. Some counties have sanitarians to make sure perc tests and soil analysis have been done and systems are inspected. Other counties don’t have the resources and don’t require as much. That’s been a focus of the IOWWA board to get better at that in the coming years.

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A lot of it has to do with funding. The state would like them to require certifications, and that’s part of our efforts to get out there and meet with the county health departments to explain why it’s important, what we’d like to see them do, and if they need any help implementing a program for onsite wastewater. The state has been a good partner and we have a good working relationship. They’ve helped us with the Habitat for Humanity project and gave us a grant for our Trailer of Training.

What is that?

Darrah: The Trailer of Training can be used by members for things like county fairs and IOWWA brings it to the state fair. We acquired it through a grant from the Iowa Department of Public Health.

A lot of people don’t know anything about their septic systems, so we have displays and handouts about our organization and who to contact. People can learn about the type of system they have, what kind of condition it’s in, how often it should be inspected and pumped, and information about the time of transfer law that requires septics to be inspected when a home is sold to make sure it is operating properly.

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Iowa updated onsite wastewater regulations last year.

How was IOWWA involved in that?

Darrah: The regulations allow more alternative peat and aerobic systems in places where conventional systems like pipe and rock, sand filters and chamber systems can’t be used. IOWWA commented and we were in favor of the changes. We work pretty closely with the Department of Natural Resources and have a good relationship with them as far as regulations; we get along pretty well.

We typically use conventional systems; sand filters, seepage beds, pipe and rock, and chamber systems. Some septic systems are in highly populated areas. The type of system depends on lot sizes and how the lot is laid out. If they are close to streams, rivers and lakes they need a special permit and testing twice as often as other systems.

Lots may seem to be big, but when you try to put a well and septic system on the same lot, all of a sudden they’re fighting each other or with a neighbor’s well. Now we have alternatives like peat, aerobic and anaerobic systems. There are a number to choose from, but they don’t come into play unless a conventional system can’t be used for some reason.

Back in the day, septic systems may have had a tank or maybe it went into the front of a ’57 Chevy buried 10 feet under the ground. A lot of them had straight pipes from a homemade tank into a ditch. Between system failures and the time of transfer program, those problem areas are being found and corrected to better protect water quality in Iowa.


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