Oklahoma State University’s Onsite Wastewater Treatment Training Facility features a variety of demonstration systems placed in a public garden setting.

One of the nation’s most rural states has a new resource to teach septic system users and wastewater professionals about onsite technology.

With only 25 to 75 people per square mile, Oklahoma is among the least densely populated states in the nation, and as a result has a large number of onsite wastewater systems. Pumpers know how important it is to teach customers about proper care and usage of their septic systems, and that’s where Sergio Abit comes in.

When Abit came to Oklahoma State University as an assistant professor of soil science, he saw a need for better education about wastewater technologies, and established the Onsite Wastewater Treatment Training Facility. In 2016, the university opened a demonstration center where people can see what onsite systems look like. Pumper asked Abit about the programs he’s running and what he hopes to accomplish.

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Pumper: How widespread are onsite systems in Oklahoma?

Abit: There is an estimate that 40 percent of homes in Oklahoma have onsite systems, which is a significant number because the national average is 20 percent. And that is understandable because apart from Oklahoma City and Tulsa, we have a lot of rural areas that do not have their own central wastewater treatment facilities.

That is not the only estimate. If we look at the number of homes built and the number of septic system applications from the last four years, we could have as many as 52 percent of homes with onsite systems. And this is because during the past few years, many people moved into areas outside of a centralized sewer system.

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Pumper: How did the training facility start?

Abit: I came here in the summer of 2012, and I was required to do some sort of program on sustainable agriculture. When I asked our Extension administrator who was doing education on onsite systems, I was told nobody was. It was kind of interesting that in a state like Oklahoma nobody was doing any septic system education.

I came from North Carolina State — where I earned my master’s and doctoral degrees — and they had an extensive education program. The professor who was my adviser was connected to that effort.

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So I said, “Can I make a proposal for an onsite wastewater extension program?” and they said, “Put it in writing,” and it was approved.

Pumper: What is the facility intended to do?

Abit: We have a three-part mission. One is to write statewide training materials for installers, inspectors, homeowners and so on. The second is to organize an annual statewide wastewater conference. And the third is to establish an onsite wastewater training and demonstration facility.

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For the training, we surveyed people about what they needed most, and we prepared materials to match their needs. In November 2016, we had our second annual wastewater conference, and 167 people attended, up from 152 in 2015. And in 2016, we opened the training facility.

All this has been accomplished with collaboration from the Oklahoma Certified Installers Association, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and members of Oklahoma’s Native American nations and Indian Health Services. We also had support from industry, primarily from Infiltrator Water Technologies and Clearstream Wastewater Systems.

Pumper: Would you describe the demonstration center?

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Abit: We were given a prime piece of land that is part of the university’s botanical garden. Thousands of people already come there every year to look at the plant exhibits or receive other training, so it gives us an entirely different group of people, non-industry people, who can walk around and look at our displays.

Everything we have is built above ground so people can see it, and we have signs telling people what they’re looking at and for what conditions systems are appropriate. We have a gravity-fed drainfield, stone-filled trenches, low-pressure dosing and an aerobic treatment system. The systems are mockups to illustrate how the components work, but none are functional.

We have it arranged so we can tell people a story. We say if soils are perfect you can rely on gravity, but poorer soils require pressure dosing, and so on.

The back part of our site isn’t filled yet, and we’re reserving that for displays of advanced systems such as a membrane bioreactor.

Pumper: What training do you provide?

Abit: We have our courses designed for several groups — for regulators from the DEQ, sanitarians, for installers, and for end users, meaning homeowners, Realtors, builders and inspectors.

For the installers we cover the basics of system installations, safety, operations and maintenance. For the regulators we talk about the basics of soils, how to profile soils, how systems work, and we cover ethics because these are the people who are regulating the industry.

Before we established this program, people were getting continuing education courses on their own, but the training didn’t always line up with what people needed to learn. Now we have that, and we hope wastewater professionals will take advantage of it. At our most recent conference we had almost 100 percent attendance by the state regulators from DEQ, but we have to do a better job of encouraging more installers to attend the conference. The sanitarians are just beginning to be involved with our program.

Pumper: Where do you see the demonstration center heading?

Abit: We want to expand the demonstration portion. As I said, we have room for more advanced systems, and we’d like to have more of those. At the moment we lump all of them together under the label of advanced systems, but they should be separate because they are all different. At the moment, Oklahoma permits only a few types of basic systems, and we need to educate Oklahomans about other available technologies.

We want to reach out to as many stakeholder groups as possible — even those who are not directly involved in the onsite wastewater industry. That was the reason behind putting the demonstration center in the botanical garden. For example, if the master gardeners are at the garden for training, I can come in for an hour, talk to them about wastewater systems, and invite them to look at our displays.

Of course we also want to use the demonstration center for our students in the university. We have a lot of courses covering water treatment and environmental protection, and the ability to show students what professors are talking about will be very valuable.

And we want to use this for people not connected to the industry. That also means kids in FFA and 4-H programs. If you can educate the children, they will grow to become responsible adults with a good understanding of wastewater treatment technologies.

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