Nature’s Way

When Canada’s Goulet Septic ran into a jam with a land-spreading program, it partnered with Mother Nature and university researchers to pioneer an environmentally sound reed bed disposal system
Nature’s Way
Abram Penner watches as the septage moves through a 6-inch pipe into a reed bed. (Photos by Steve Warburton)

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René Goulet didn’t set out to be involved in Canada’s cutting-edge septage research. He was busy operating his rural pumping business in Green Valley, Ontario, just a few miles from the Quebec border. Everything changed when government inspectors showed up. They were from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, and one day in October 2005 they appeared at the Goulet family farm, which is also home base for Goulet Septic Pumping & Design.

Following common practice for the time, Goulet was spreading septage onto frozen farm fields from his truck. He even had a letter – called a certificate of approval – from the ministry saying he could do that when the ground was frozen or snow-covered.

It was fall. The ministry representatives said the certificate clause allowing septage spreading on frozen or snow-covered ground was not valid. They demanded Goulet stop direct spreading immediately and build a lagoon to store water through the colder months. What could he do?

“And the guy says, ‘That’s not my problem,’ ” Goulet recalls.

It was Goulet’s problem, and there was no easy solution. Green Valley is a community of about 600, and Goulet Septic serves the rural area within a 40-mile radius. Hauling septage to a local municipal wastewater plant wasn’t an option because there are none.

Goulet built that lagoon, but he didn’t stop there.



By searching the Internet he learned of people in France and New Zealand experimenting with reed beds for dewatering septage. Then he found someone closer: Chris Kinsely, a professional engineer at the Alfred campus of the University of Guelph who has worked at the university’s Wastewater Centre since its founding in 1998.

Goulet and Kinsley talked. Kinsley had been experimenting with beds to treat waste for the town of Alfred in Ontario and in the nation of Morocco. Goulet later attended a conference where he met an Environment Ministry official who had heard of Kinsley and was interested in helping Goulet and Kinsely experiment with the technology.

The idea is simple as Goulet explained it, and the technology is as old as nature. You dig a bed and put in a rubber liner. (In Goulet’s case there is also an outer felt liner to protect the rubber from the stony ground.) Then put in pipes to aerate the bed, coarse gravel on top of the pipes, a layer of 1-inch washed gravel, and a layer of coarse cement sand.

You plant reeds, and let nature take over. The Goulet installation uses a plant called Phragmites australis. It’s an invasive species, which can be found in any ditch, Kinsley says, but any reed should work.

The plants suck up the water leaving behind a bed full of dewatered septage that composts itself.

With help from the ministry and guidance from the university, Goulet put in three square beds, each about 50 feet on a side. Two have reeds. The other contains only sand and has been used as a comparison to see what difference the reeds make. As the reeds grow, die, and collapse into the bed, they and the sludge form layers of peat that becomes part of the filtration.



At first, the team had to make some modifications. There was a lot of trash in the septage when they started, Goulet says.

From the truck, septage flows through a homemade bar screen to filter out the plastics, sanitary napkins and other debris. Goulet’s on his third design made from a 2,000-gallon tank, which he cut in half. The screen is made of stainless steel rods he had on hand. He installed a 6-inch outlet in the side. The remainder of the tank is used on the other reed bed.

But these aren’t working well, Goulet says. He welded the rods 3/8 inch apart, but the screen plugs too quickly so he plans to change to 1/2-inch spacing. He also wants to put the outlet in the bottom of the tank. Dirt and other solids settle out now, and he must occasionally flip the tanks upside down to clean out sediment.

After passing through the screens, septage flows directly to the beds. A pair of 5 hp pumps moves the filtered water to a small tank where university researchers collect samples, and on to the lagoon.

At first they dumped 9,000 gallons a week into each bed. Now the sand bed is starting to fill. It’s down to receiving only 3,000 gallons per week while the two reed beds are receiving 6,000 and 9,000 gallons, Goulet says.

The largest amount of septage dumped in a year was 292,174 gallons or about 1.5 truckloads per week. That’s an average, and Goulet says he could increase the load during the summer because business slows in the winter. That average is also above what engineering calculations suggest for a 50-by-50 foot bed: 188,355 gallons.



Any septage in excess of what the beds can handle goes into the lagoon where solids settle. The lagoon serves only to store the filtered water.

Goulet has not had to do anything with the reeds. They take up metals, too, so they become almost hazardous waste by themselves, he says. But at the moment they’re taking care of themselves. Old ones die and fall over. New ones grow in the spring.

The filtered water from the lagoon is handled within the borders of Goulet’s 170-acre farm.

When the lagoon is full, Goulet pumps out the water. The intake pipe floats so it doesn’t disturb solids settled on the bottom, and the power take-off on his tractor pumps water through a pipeline that runs to his tree plantation. Hoses lead from the pipeline to his spray guns. He recently added new Nelson SR100 Big Guns, which shoot water up to 225 feet. They’re on wheels and while one is spraying he repositions the others.

The water nurtures a plantation of hybrid poplars. Goulet chose them because they naturally absorb a lot of water and nutrients, much more than a field of corn, while growing 3 to 6 feet per year.

The dewatered sludge from the reed beds will likely have to be removed in seven to 10 years and spread on nearby farmland. Ontario law doesn’t set a firm limit for sludge but varies the amount allowed according to the nutrient needs of the crop, Goulet says. Goulet’s permit does not allow the harvest of any crop less than one month after application, and forbids harvest for domestic consumption until after 12 months.

When it comes time to empty the beds they’ll use an excavator, and then change the slope of the sides so in the future they can drive in with a loader/backhoe. Maybe they’ll have to plant new reeds; maybe the reeds will grow back on their own.

Sludge in the lagoon will stay there, Goulet says. He plans to add more reed beds to dewater all his septage.



Since the system was constructed in 2006 there haven’t been any problems, Goulet says. There was a mistake in the beginning when the team calculated the density of the initial reed plantings. They thought it should be one plant every square meter. Turns out it should have been one plant per square foot.

“The first bunch of reeds we planted, we kind of choked them out,” Goulet says.

That happened because they started by dumping in a lot of sewage. For any new installation it would be better to start with holding tank waste so the initial planting isn’t smothered by heavy sludge, he says.

Then there was the day when Goulet’s hired man accidentally dumped 12,000 gallons of septage into one bed in one day.

“And we ended up getting 3 feet of liquid over the top of the sludge already there,” Goulet says. The hydraulic load rammed water through the system, and on the other end where the university put in its sample collecting points, “Well, that water there was black.”

But, he says, the heavy sludge didn’t get pushed through. Eventually the water cleared, and Goulet and the researchers realized the reed bed system could handle abuse.

Although the system is outdoors, it has proven resistant to cold. Even in a Canadian winter there’s enough latent heat from the earth, sand, and bacteria to keep the water flowing, Goulet says. Only once did the system completely freeze up.



Tests have not shown much difference in dewatering capability between the sand and reed beds, Goulet says. But his nose tells him of one: Reed beds seem to do a better job of controlling odor. Once that wasn’t important, he says, when the countryside around Green Valley was populated primarily by farmers.

The smell of septage beds mingled easily with the smell of manure and offended no one. But now more people are moving out from cities – people not used to country odors. Goulet believes the deodorizing nature of the beds will help keep neighbors happy. The closest house is about 600 feet from his property, and Goulet says he has never had a complaint.

Goulet runs his entire operation with one truck.

It’s a 2012 International WorkStar with a 4,000-gallon steel tank and a Wallenstein 1054 dual-cooled pump from Vacutrux Limited. There’s a 30-ton, four-stage hydraulic dump system, stainless steel toolboxes and hose trays, and a 2,500 psi pressure washer with a 100-gallon stainless steel freshwater tank. The LED lighting system includes amber safety beacons.

On the tank is an image of plants to reflect the company’s reed-bed dewatering system. Vacutrux created and applied the graphics, which are reflective vinyl for better visibility at night.

Goulet Septic pumps 1,200 to 1,300 tanks annually. Household septic tanks in his area are between 800 to 1,000 gallons, while the holding tanks he pumps average 2,000 gallons.



Goulet has provincial approval for new reed beds, and he will build them deeper, 10 feet instead of 6 feet. That will allow 8 feet of sludge per bed, while still meeting the provincial rule of 2 feet between the sludge and the top of the beds. The additional beds will be about 62 feet by 71 feet and when added to the existing beds the system will have a combined design flow of about 2.4 million gallons of septage per year.

Photographs make his system look complex and expensive.

“It is expensive whenever we’re setting up liners and gravel and monitoring wells,” Goulet says. “But once it’s set up, it almost doesn’t cost anything to run.”

It’s also been fun, he says. Encouragement has come from many friends, neighbors and the college. It’s about more than that.

He wants to be ahead of the regulators. If the province prohibits fertilizing with untreated human-derived waste, he’ll be ready. And the pilot project he hosts has been visited by people from around the globe, but he says he’s not trying to change the world.

“I’m just a little guy trying to do things better than what they are. I’m just lucky to be the spot where the experiment is being done,” Goulet says.

“I think we have to take care of the environment, and this is the family farm. My father bought here in 1950,” he says. “I live here. My kids live here. I have neighbors, and I just don’t want to pollute the place.”

“Whatever I know,’’ he says, “if I can help somebody I’m open.”


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