‘We Are Progressing in a Very Positive Direction’

The head of the New Brunswick onsite association is upbeat about the future but says challenges remain, including enhanced regulations and recruiting younger people to work in the field

‘We Are Progressing in a Very Positive Direction’

Mike Stairs

Name and title or job description: Mike Stairs, president/owner

Business name and location: Mike Stairs General Contracting, Lakeville Corner, New Brunswick

Age: 56

Years in the industry: 38

Association involvement: I’ve been involved in the New Brunswick Association of Onsite Wastewater Professionals since its inception in 2010. I was the chair of the steering committee to put it together, and once we were officially an association, I served as president for three years. Then for a couple years I had no involvement, but I’m currently once again the president.

Benefits of belonging to the association: Learning about new technologies and methods available to the clients from industry professionals and enhancing the protection of public health, generally at a more economical cost over the long term than traditional wastewater installations.

Biggest issue facing your association right now: There is a lack of meaningful dialogue and input with the regulator. Until 2016, installers were able to communicate directly with the Department of Health, which included health inspectors for field inspections and the office of the chief medical officer of health. Since 2016, administration of regulations and field inspections are being done by the Department of Public Safety, which is plumbing inspectors. This produced several challenges in the first season regarding percentage of slope, soil structure, frost protection and other issues not normally encountered by the plumbing industry. By 2018 things noticeably improved as the inspectors learned the new (duties). The overall communication process, however, is quite complicated. Currently, if an issue surfaces that is beyond current regulations, the plumbing inspector reaches out to the Department of Health that in turn contacts former departmental staff now located in the Department of Environment for potential resolution. It also appears the New Brunswick Association of Onsite Wastewater Professionals has lost its platform for meaningful input into regulatory changes.

Our crew includes: My wife, Shelley, and I are the constants. She also has full-time employment as a medical lab technologist. We’ve had a different full-time employee in each of the last three years. Prior to that, we had two employees for 10 years. We have more work than we can handle, but finding the right fit for the right person is proving to be a challenge.

Typical day on the job: My day starts at 6 a.m. The trucks are usually loaded with supplies the night before. We leave for a job site, which is generally located one to 1 1/2 hours away. Our subcontractors and suppliers are lined up well in advance, and we can generally accommodate two conventional installations per day. We do, however, specialize in aerobic treatment units, specifically Norweco’s Singulair Green, as well as a variety of nonconventional field installations. I usually return to the shop/office between 7 and 9 p.m. Unless it’s an emergency, we try not to work Friday afternoons and weekends.

Helping hands – Indispensable crew member: My wife. I have her unequivocal support — financial, psychological, whatever — she’s there.

The job I’ll never forget: I was called in to change out a steel septic tank for a concrete one for a person in their mid-80s. It was located “out there somewhere.” Having used all the traditional methods — metal detectors, probes, dye, color of the vegetation — after two hours we started an excavation investigation. As luck would have it, the track on our Case CX50 mini-excavator drove directly alongside the corrupted steel tank, which immediately collapsed. It never happened in 38 years, but it happened.

My favorite piece of equipment: Aside from my builders’ level, it would have to be my Case CX50 mini-excavator with a hydraulic thumb. It’s amazing how much work you can accomplish with this small unit. It’s easy to move. I can haul it behind my 2014 Dodge Longhorn truck or my 1999 International Keith Huber vacuum truck with a Masport pump. When compared against our larger excavators, it consumes a minimum amount of fuel, can be economically purchased and, given the right operator, is very precise when it is being used as an excavating tool.

Most challenging site I’ve worked on: We were called to a site of a 2-year-old home with a malfunctioning system. We were the last of a dozen contractors to be contacted and were confronted by an infuriated homeowner whose initial greeting was “Hi, I’m Jason, and I don’t mean to be short but I’m not telling you anything about my wastewater system. You look it over and tell me what’s wrong with it.” After determining property lines and tank volume, we found nine glaring regulation violations with the original installation. After identifying them with the homeowner, he said, “That’s more than even I knew about and some that none of the other installers found. You’re hired!”

We attempted reconciliation between the previous installer and the homeowner on three occasions to no avail. This was mid-August, and we were pretty much booked for fall, but because of the hardship already encountered by the homeowner, we adjusted our schedule to do the installation. It was a five-bedroom home with an attached two-car garage on a slab. The existing wastewater system exited the rear into a largely bottomless bog about 2 feet above the water table. The imported material was substandard, virtually no aprons and taper. The existing infrastructure was too close to the property lines. In order to meet regulations, a complete rebuild utilizing a lift station was in order.

We had just purchased a new Case CX160 1-yard excavator with a root rake. In order to expand the system at the rear in a wooded area, we laid down trees in a corduroy-type configuration to support the weight of the excavator while clearing the bog. Upon completion, we realized two stumps would remain exposed after aprons and taper were completed. Not wishing to damage or use any more trees we went off the corduroy to pull the stumps and immediately the excavator sank. Before we were done, an extension had to be welded onto the exhaust, as it was completely submerged. It was 3 p.m. when this incident happened, and it was 10:15 p.m. on Oct. 31 in a light snowstorm with the aid of two more excavators and our dozer before this machine was on solid footing. We were the sideshow for all the trick-or-treaters that night!

The craziest question I’ve been asked by a customer: The most common one is: “Why do I need to pump my septic tank?” We get that all the time.

If I could change one industry regulation, it would be: I’d like to see a mandatory requirement for membership in our association. As a follow-up, newly licensed installers should be mentored for a minimum of five conventional systems before acquiring a regular license.

Best piece of small-business advice I’ve heard: An older friend of mine in an unrelated business told me that debt is a good thing, unmanageable debt will ruin you, take on what you can comfortably afford and remain conscious there will always be a rainy day. In the beginning I’m not sure I followed it. As a small company, we had $15,000 per month in payments, but we made it. I’m not sure I could do it again in today’s climate.

If I wasn’t working in the wastewater industry, I would: Probably be farming. I’ve always loved running equipment. In fact, when I was younger, no one would hire me as an operator so at 18 years old, a year out of high school, I started my own company. The rest, as they say, is history.

Crystal ball time – This is my outlook for the wastewater industry: I communicate with people involved in the residential wastewater industry in several other jurisdictions, both in Canada and the U.S. As a whole, I believe we are progressing in a very positive direction, especially with regard to newer technologies, further enhancing the protection of public health and the environment, and education for the homeowner. There appears to be an abundance of work in this industry, but I’m very concerned regarding the age of the average installer — the younger set just isn’t getting involved in it.


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