‘My Guys Hunger to Learn; They’re Good With People’

Wastewater pros in British Columbia work hard, adapt to changing regulations and strive to be at their professional best.

‘My Guys Hunger to Learn; They’re Good With People’

Garth Millan and his trusty 1981 single-axle Mack gravel truck. (Photos courtesy of JAB Site & Wastewater Solutions Ltd.)

Name and title or job description: Garth Millan, co-owner with wife, Frances Millan  

Business name and location: JAB Site & Wastewater Solutions, Hornby Island, British Columbia

Age: 66

Years in the industry: I’ve been in the industry about 13 years and became certified as a Registered Onsite Wastewater Practitioner, or ROWP, in 2006. I’d been involved in related work before that — home maintenance, water systems. We live in a rural community where everybody has wells or water storage so there was a lot of work with water, septic and small repairs.

Association involvement: I’m currently president of the Western Canada Onsite Wastewater Management Association of British Columbia, serving my second two-year term. I joined the association nine years ago. I have served on the board of directors for seven years — two as secretary-treasurer, one as vice president and now president. Despite the industry challenges, I enjoy working with our membership and sharing skills and experience I have gained over the years.

Benefits of belonging to the association: We advocate for our members to other industry stakeholders — the registration body, the Ministry of Health — and we offer training in all ROWP categories. We hold annual conferences, usually three days, where we bring in suppliers, manufacturers and distributors and have training seminars. If the weather is fine, we’ll do some practical training in the field or we may hold a day seminar for an important aspect of training.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: The industry in British Columbia is suffering some huge growing pains. New sewage system regulations came into effect in 2005, the biggest change being that our ROWPs, engineers and hydrogeologists sign and stamp their designs, installs, maintenance and inspection reports — in other words, policing ourselves. A strong element of distrust has developed in the industry. The accrediting body wants new people to be highly trained before offering accreditation. But in a small onsite industry, it’s hard for potential ROWPs to find work with a company in order to get training, especially in maintenance or inspections. So our biggest challenge is developing a stronger trust and better relationships with the accreditation organization. The Western Canada Onsite Wastewater Management Association of British Columbia will provide good training and will continue to upgrade people’s skills to meet whatever the expectation is.

Our crew includes: My excavator/gravel truck operator is Bob Nixon. And I have one part-time maintenance provider, Bikram Singh Gill. I hire contractors or different equipment for special needs.

Typical day on the job: For the last couple years, most of my time is spent doing what I call triage. With the challenge of poor soils on the Gulf Islands and setbacks from the ocean or streams, the industry was forced into advanced treatment systems as early as 30 years ago. Some were partially maintained but most systems lacked full routine maintenance. So there’s a lot of emergencies — sewage backing up into bathtubs in the basement, alarms, wet spots in the yard. This is good and bad. Now I see a significant change in the homeowner’s attitude. What used to be, “I don’t have any problems: The toilet is still flushing,” to nowadays saying, “We want you to make sure this thing is going to keep on ticking because we don’t want to pay for a new system.”

Helping hands – Indispensable crew member: Everyone is just so important. My guys like what they’re doing, and they hunger to learn; they’re good with people and have very good personalities. I’ve been lucky through the years that the people who’ve worked for me have been positive, listen to customers and don’t get angry. And they’re very good at saying, “I don’t know what to do here. I’ll have to check into this.” To me, that’s important. They don’t have that ego or arrogance and end up making poor decisions.

The job I’ll never forget: This installation had all the classic examples of what not to do. In 2007, a Type 3 treatment system was installed at a small restaurant/bakery. The alarms started going off. I received the call in January, during heavy rains and high water table. There was severe flooding of the tank, the treatment plant and the dispersal field, which was a mound built between the restaurant and the parking area. The owner was incensed because it was only 1 1/2 years old and had cost them close to $60,000. I played the advocate — I couldn’t slam dunk the installers or the designer because fault was shared by all parties.

The designer and one installer responded immediately and we devised a game plan. The repair was phased in over two years. The treatment plant vent caused the flooding of the tanks so we repaired it immediately. The dispersal was completely saturated and groundwater mounding was an issue. We rerouted the vent from the treatment plant to introduce warm air into the gravelless chambers, which were a higher elevation than the tanks. This helped the field to dry out and oxygenate. Due to prolonged flooding of the tanks, the treatment system became invaded with little critters, which were determined to be Cyclops (water fleas). In the ideal environment of warmth, plenty of food and no predators, the Cyclops multiplied, clogging tanks, filters, the UV, the pump chamber and dispersal laterals.

We had to completely pump the whole system — four tanks — and bleach and clean everything. Then it was a slow process for the system to rebuild bacteria and get back to normal. Just as the system returned to normal, we had the 100-year storm. The building and the system flooded; the blowers became submerged. Fortunately, the pumps continued to move water to the dispersal. No insurance, so we rebuilt the damaged equipment.

My favorite piece of equipment: My 1981 single-axle Mack gravel truck. It has a 10-yard aluminum gravel box. It’s a workhorse, just never gives up. It’s small enough to get into the smallest yards and large enough to carry 10 yards of light material or five or six of heavier materials. It’s known throughout the region. Everybody says, “Oh, you’re the one with the little red Mack.”

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We had a repair to a system on a small waterfront lot that had a 7-foot concrete fence around it and no equipment access. The option was to either tear down a large section of the fence and hopefully rebuild it or do everything by hand. We chose the latter. The field had failed. I hired Steve Carballeira, hydrologist from H2O Environmental Ltd. Carballeira’s plan was to install a pump chamber after the treatment plant and a small seepage bed. All the materials were placed by hand with wheelbarrows. The hole for the tank was hand-dug in almost sandstone-type soil. I just said to the gang, “We’ve got to do this. I can hire some young bucks or I’ll just give you $1,000 and you dig that hole. If you do it in 10 hours, you just made yourself $100 an hour.” Being in a remote area with two ferries, it’s very expensive to bring a (Stone Slinger truck from www.stoneslinger.com) in. We planned a day for a Slinger — we had all our piping cut, drilled and glued just ready to lift over on top of the drain rock and quickly get it glued to the headers. It was a very challenging, exhausting process, but at the end of it all, it was like “Wow, we did it!” Everybody had big grins on their faces.

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: In the early years, I would have had many answers for this, but in the past 15 years, I’ve learned no question is crazy. If you really listen and ask for more information, you will learn the client’s depth of understanding. What seemed like a ridiculous question was purely the client’s lack of knowledge. It reminds me that before I attended formal training, I only thought I knew what made septic systems operate. It takes years of making your own mistakes to gain knowledge. So I do not judge clients for asking questions, I encourage it. Many homeowners have stated they learned more about their septic system in the hour and a half I spent with them than in all their years of ownership. That is when I know I am doing my job properly. 

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: The current regulations need a provision for inspection of septic systems. Requirements have not been outlined. The result is the Ministry of Health and regulatory body have taken the approach that inspection and maintenance are the same thing — but they are not. Maintenance is making sure the system works as the designer intended (performance more than compliance), while inspection is doing an in-depth look, including digging up the dispersal area and seeing what it looks like, to ensure the system fully complies with guidelines and is operating properly (compliance and performance).

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: Don’t undercut yourself or try to beat everybody’s price. Respect the value of your service and the fact that you’re a professional and don’t gouge but charge accordingly. Keep always in the forefront of your mind that you are a professional and working in hazardous conditions. My wife was a very strong proponent of that — you’re doing an important job and you’re worth it.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: I’d want to be retired. But I like this industry. I don’t think there’s really anything else I’d want to do. And I love training. I feel the adrenaline surge when challenged at sites. I love the opportunity to troubleshoot and find solutions. I like to motivate students.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I think the industry in British Columbia is heading in the right direction. But it’s been tough trying to build the trust between the Western Canada Onsite Wastewater Management Association of British Columbia, Ministry of Health and accreditation body — trusting that everybody is trying to do a good job, that all of our intentions are honorable. That is my goal, and I will stick to it until they retire me.


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