Goulet Septic Rolls the Dice With an Environmental Disposal Solution

A decade of practical experience proves the value of reed bed treatment of septic waste for a Canadian pumper

Goulet Septic Rolls the Dice With an Environmental Disposal Solution

Jessica Goulet is shown with René Goulet and Thomas Cushing Jr.

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A decade ago, René Goulet was at the start of a scientific experiment at his pumping business, Goulet Septic Pumping & Design, in Green Valley, Ontario.

For years he and other pumpers had been land-spreading septage, but Goulet worried that would end as Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment began to add regulations. Goulet wanted to be ahead of regulators, so he joined Chris Kinsley, now an engineering professor at the University of Ottawa, in a project to test the effectiveness of reed beds to treat septage.


A pair of engineered reed beds were built on Goulet’s farm, where his business is based. Each bed has layers of gravel and coarse sand and is planted with phragmites, reed grasses that grow in nearby ditches. Beds receive septage at one end, and release cleaned water on the other end. Water flows from the beds into a lagoon and is used for spray irrigation of a plantation of poplars. A third unplanted sand bed was built as part of the experiment to act as a comparison to the reed beds. That’s where the project stood when Pumper last wrote about Goulet in 2012.

The sand bed has now become another reed bed. Nature converted it when seeds from the other two beds drifted over and took root. Three years ago, René built a fourth bed. It’s double the size of the first ones, he says, at 50 feet by 100 feet. (The originals were 50 by 50.) He planted nothing with the expectation that seeds from the other beds would colonize the new one.

“So we’re up to four reed beds, but size-wise we have five,” says his daughter and Goulet Septic manager Jessica Goulet.

In 2021 they installed an aeration system in the lagoon to help break down solids before wastewater flows to the irrigation system. Aeration has been working so well that they’re looking at adding a couple of lines to increase agitation, Jessica says. The lagoon is built with a triple liner, and solids not broken down by the aeration system form a layer of organic matter that helps protect the liner, René says.

The two 1 hp aeration pumps are from Canadian Pond. A pair of 150-foot long hoses connect to each pump and create small bubbles. This aerates about half the lagoon at the moment. He wants to install more hoses and valves to direct air to half of the lagoon at a time.


About two years ago, the original beds were cleaned out for the first time since they were built. About 4 1/2 feet of sludge had accumulated in the beds, René says. That sludge becomes part of the filtration as it builds up.

The Goulets brought in a large excavator to do the cleaning. To start the cleaning, the excavator cut a trench through the middle of the beds so Kinsley could take samples. Although his research project had ended, he was still interested in what had happened in the beds.

The excavator operator had to be careful not to hit the liners on the side, René says. On the bottom a layer of sand covered the base gravel layer, so once the operator found sand he left a few inches of compost.

With a manure spreader Goulet distributed the sludge among the poplars. Also, Jessica says, they let the beds dry out before cleaning. “That sludge is a lot better than the liquid stuff. There’s much less chance of polluting,” René adds.

“The first two reed beds, the reeds were planted in sand. It looked like peat moss, about 12 to 14 inches of peat moss right over the top of the sand. It was nice, fluffy and above that it looked like black ground. It was very decomposed,” René says.

In the sand bed that had been seeded by the two planted beds, the bottom 12 to 14 inches looked like clay, very wet and dense, René says. Above the clay-like layer was a well decomposed layer that looked like black earth.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment recently gave the project another five-year permit, René says.

One condition of the project was that Goulet Septic could not patent the design, Jessica says. There was a flurry of interest in the technology early on with tours coming to the farm.


“In the last few years we haven’t really had anybody interested because it costs a certain amount of money to put in,” René says, “but what people don’t understand — after it’s in, it almost doesn’t cost anything to run, and that’s a big advantage.”

Aside from the irrigation pumps, and the cost of those is minimal, the other big cost is running the aeration pumps, Jessica says. “Even that, it’s a drop in the bucket. The aeration addition to the lagoon almost replaces any product we would put into the lagoon to help the decomposition.”

The downside, René says, is that the Bio-Desolve (MTS Environmental) they previously used kept the lagoon water clear. In 2022 they used only aeration, and the lagoon grew a green moss they’ve never seen before, he says.

In 2022 the four beds combined treated 1.76 million gallons of septage, René says. When customer demand for pumping is high the beds may receive 36,000 gallons in a week, he says, and that saturates them. Effluent flowing into the lagoon becomes darker than usual (hydraulic pressure pushes effluent too fast through the sand and gravel), but the system keeps working and clears itself when customer demand drops, he said.

In 2023 René plans to add two more beds, each 50 by 50 feet. At 50 by 100 feet the newest bed is too large for easy cleaning, he explains. When it needs cleaning, it will have to be out of commission for a few months in order to dry out. Having more, smaller beds will provide capacity and allow one bed to be out of service for cleaning, he says. Essentially, he says, he’s found you need one bed per day of dumping, which lets beds drain and dry on days when they’re not used.


When he started the poplar plantation, René says, he was pulling septage from the lagoon and spraying it into the trees, so he wanted a species that would easily absorb water and nutrients. “But now that we have the reed beds, we could have another type of tree that only sucks up water. I mean, there’s not much nutrients left in the water from the lagoon because it’s fairly clear water now.”

None of the poplars have been harvested yet. A local mill shut down, Jessica says, and a couple of proposals to use the wood for pellets have not panned out. Trees in the plantation are between 6 and 12 inches in diameter and from 40 to 50 feet tall.

“Some of the trees are starting to break. We clear those as we need to. All in all they’re doing quite well. We just haven’t found an outlet for them yet,” Jessica says.

René clears tree branches with a John Deere tractor and a Bush Hog. He drives over the tree pieces, and the Bush Hog breaks them up enough so they decompose in about 18 months, he says.


A decade ago, Goulet Pumping was serving people within a 40-mile radius of its base. It’s still handling the same territory. “We’re so busy, we pretty much stick in the same area,” René says.

In 2021, they pumped 1,600 tanks. That is not only residential work but also schools, a local wastewater treatment system and truck stops.

There’s no company website because there is more than enough work, René says. “I don’t even keep up the Facebook page the way I should,” Jessica adds.

As in other places, migration has helped the business. “We’ve had a lot of people from the city moving out to the country, buying older houses, and most of the systems of the older houses here were put in in the ‘60s,” René says.

Green Valley is about 60 miles from Montreal and Ottawa, but the edge of the company’s service territory comes within 20 miles of each city center. 

“The other thing is, with COVID and home-schooling, people were putting in in-law suites to get the parents to move in just to support them for homes-chooling and lack of daycare,” Jessica says.

Designing systems is a new part of the company’s business. René is 68, and designing is his plan for staying involved in the industry as 40-year-old Jessica begins taking over. “We’ve really been busy designing in the last three years,” René says. “We’re four designers in the area, and we’re all pretty much the same age, which is close to retirement.”

Ontario code specifies system size based on the square footage of a structure, number of bedrooms, and number of fixtures, René says. Most soils are either glacial till or clay, he says, so almost all of the systems he designs are raised beds. Commercial systems, more than 2,641 gpd, must be approved by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Jessica adds. As long as systems are not overly complicated, René says, he can design them.


At first the pandemic was scary because no one knew anything, and everyone was working from home. Case numbers in Ontario were quite high, and provincial officials took the pandemic very seriously, Jessica says. People who were exposed had to quarantine for 10 days. Goulet drivers carried letters identifying them as essential workers in case they were stopped.

In the initial stage of the pandemic, their driver, Thomas Cushing Jr., wore a mask and face shield, safety glasses and gloves. “He has a toddler who’s not much younger than mine, so he would get home and undress outside,” Jessica says. They used hand sanitizer after each pumping, sterilized the trucks, sanitized money, and encouraged customers to use electronic money transfers instead of cash.

“We’re very lucky. We haven’t really been touched by it,” Jessica says.


New in the company inventory is a 2021 Western Star truck with a 3,200-gallon steel tank and a Wallenstein pump. There is a hose reel, as there was on the company’s previous trucks, and plenty of stainless steel toolboxes. Like previous trucks, this one was built out by Vacutrux.

“The only difference, as far as accessories, is this truck does not have a large water tank on the top. We weren’t using it,” Jessica says. The water tank on the old truck fed a pressure washer, but it was underpowered for unblocking sewer lines, René says. Also, he adds, “It takes time, and we are so busy just pumping, we really didn’t want to continue that part of the business.”

When a customer needs lines cleared, Jessica says, there are a couple of local contractors who are quick and efficient and receive a referral.

Another change with this truck was selecting an automatic transmission. “We went with automatic because in times when we need to hire a new driver, it’s easier to find a driver who’s more comfortable with an automatic,” Jessica says. Another advantage of this truck, René adds, is that a technician can engage the vacuum pump by remote control.

A 2016 Bobcat 418 excavator does light work such as installing risers.

A 2017 Ford F-150 four-wheel-drive, with a towing package rated at 12,200 pounds, moves the Bobcat in a 14-foot enclosed tandem-axle trailer from Lightning Trailers. The trailer also holds tools, pipes and parts. René fitted out the inside of the trailer himself. The door folds down to act as a ramp.

“If I’d have known the little machine was so heavy, I would have got barn doors, and I would have put an aluminum ramp on cables,” he says. To handle the weight of the Bobcat, René says he had two aluminum ramps fabricated. They’re about 20 inches wide and fit over the lowered trailer door. He had wheels installed on the ramps so he can roll them into position.

The company owns a AM200-100 camera (Amazing Machinery) for inspections but mainly uses the sonar function on it to locate the end of a line, Jessica says. The climate created by COVID depressed the market for inspections, she says, and a hot real estate market meant buyers were waiving inspections and all other contingencies. Inspection requests are coming in again, she says, but the company is finding plenty of work designing systems to replace all the failed systems in homes bought by city migrants.

A 110 horsepower John Deere 3155 tractor handles general chores, mowing and drives the Bauer Magnum SX1000 irrigation pump in the poplar plantation. This pump is like a sludge pump, René says, with knives to chop up any solids and reed pieces.

They have a Bush Hog to keep grass cut among the trees so it’s easy to monitor irrigation, and an angular mower to keep grass short on the sides of the lagoon so it’s easy to spot muskrats or other rodents trying to set up homes.


The Goulet team has expanded. Last time Pumper wrote about Goulet, the employee count was just one: Goulet himself. Now there are four. In addition to René there are Jessica, Cushing Jr., and part-time bookkeeper Lisa O’Neill.

There is plenty of pumping and repair work to be done, but it’s hard to find employees, Jessica says. Ideally, René says, they would find someone to run a truck and do repairs, but he’s not  optimistic. So he does repairs whenever he can, but mostly he designs. “I design every day, and we install a lot of risers. People don’t want to dig their tanks anymore.”

René runs a truck less often these days, but jumps in the old truck (a 2017 International) for special jobs such as pumping a municipal wastewater plant. For the last few years Jessica has worked primarily in the office because her son was young. Once he’s in school, she says, she will be able to spend more time in the field and learning.

“The way I look at it is, I really have to take advantage of the knowledge that dad has because they don’t teach it anywhere.” She took a course to get her designer’s license and thought she would learn about septic systems. “You don’t. You learn about math. You learn about the legalities of it.”


Goulet Septic is in a good place right now, Jessica says. New septage dumpsites are not being approved, and their reed bed system is well ahead of what regulations require. Local pumpers are all about his age, and few people seem interested in taking over the businesses, René says.

A worry is what the province will ultimately require for septage. René says he’s spent much time and money on the reed beds, yet the province could require all pumpers to dump loads at municipal wastewater plants. The city’s nearest Green Valley is Cornwall, Ontario, about 24 miles away, but it’s having a hard time handling its own wastewater, René says. “So where else do we go?”

Some pumpers are hauling to sites near Ottawa (about 68 miles), he says, and those sites are nearing capacity. “Not to mention the cost,” Jessica adds. “I was talking to a fellow pumper on the weekend, and he hauls four hours a day to dump.”

Taking septage from other haulers is not on the table because of liability, René says. Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment told him that if any contaminants were to enter his beds, he’d have to bear the cost of having the bed and lagoon contents disposed of as contaminated waste, he says.

Meanwhile, a solution is already tested and in place on the Goulet farm. “I think we’re pretty proud of what we’ve done here,” René says. “I think we’re a good example.”


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