June 18, 2018
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Houlton manufacturer working to help bring water to Haitian communities

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — Take a little northern Maine ingenuity, combine it with some genuine caring and compassion and the resulting collaboration is making a real difference for people 1,800 miles away.

Bison Pumps, based in Houlton, has teamed up with Portland-based humanitarian group Konbit Sante to create and provide water pumps for one of the world’s poorest areas.

Designed for high use and low maintenance, the “Guzzler” deep well hand pump is on its way to Cap-Haitien, Haiti.

“Until you actually get down there and see the conditions in Haiti, you can’t believe it,” Robert MacKinnon, Konbit Sante volunteer, said. “There is no municipal water supply, very little sewer disposal and the electricity is pretty sporadic.”

Enter Konbit Sante, which began with a group of volunteer doctors and nurses from the Portland area in 2001 and has worked with Haitian health providers to improve health care in that small island nation.

The group eventually connected with Justinian Hospital in Cap-Haitien.

“If you have power in a building 50 to 60 percent of the time on any given day, that’s a good day,” MacKinnon said. “Imagine running a 250-bed hospital under those conditions. They are desperately poor down there.”

Early on Konbit Sante, Creole for “working together for health,” discovered adequate health care is directly tied to an improved infrastructure, so the call went out for volunteer engineers.

“I’d been looking to do something like that for years,” MacKinnon said. “I saw an article about Konbit Sante and Googled it and saw it was based in Portland.”

In 2009 the Yarmouth water department supervisor offered his skills and was put to work on a project to improve neighborhood water access issues in Haiti.

“I was assigned to an infrastructure group planning to go to an outlying neighborhood where the [United Nations] had drilled a well to put in a hand pump,” MacKinnon said. “Down there, you can’t go to a store and just buy a normal plumbing item, so whatever we installed had to be really reliable and really strong.”

MacKinnon began researching options for good, solid pumps that could handle drawing water from deep wells in an area with few, if any, replacement parts and available to multiple users taking water from that single communal well.

His research led him to David Harbison and Bison Pumps in Houlton.

“Their products looked good, they were made in Maine and looked easy to install,” MacKinnon said. “Talking with them really reinforced what a good connection it would be.”

Nearly 2,000 miles north of Cap-Haitien, Dave Harbison Jr., of Harbison Plumbing & Heating and president of sister company Bison Pumps, had been working on a new kind of reliable hand pump for about a decade.

“The idea sprouted from the ice storms in 1998,” Harbison said.
“People were without electricity for days and calling us and asking for hand pumps.”

Since his family’s Houlton-based plumbing company had not sold hand pumps for years, Harbison said they began looking around the country for pumps, only to find old style cast iron pumps which were expensive and not readily available.

“So we began thinking, ‘Why couldn’t we make these?’” Harbison said.

Designing a hand pump was simple enough, he said, the real trick was to create one that could be mounted on an existing well casing for use with electronic jet or submersible pumps.

“What we wanted was something that if a person lost electricity they could go out and pump the water directly from their well,” Harbison said. “Any private well owner is a candidate for one of our pumps so during storms and power outages they have a convenient way to access their water.”

Bison Pumps now offers eight different models of their hand pump and have sold units all over the United States, Canada and abroad to clients in Ireland, Africa, Australia and Germany.

All the pumps are manufactured in Houlton out of noncorrosive stainless steel and are capable for drawing water from as deep as 200 feet.

It’s a design that was a perfect fit for the Konbit Sante needs.

“They contacted us and told us they needed one with a bit of a different design and a bit beefier because it would be used by a lot of different people,” Harbison said. “It allowed us to put to use a new design and custom build a unit that fit their needs.”

MacKinnon said the custom-built pump was perfect for the Haitian neighborhood’s communal well, but unfortunately the timing was not as perfect.

“When we went to look at the location there was a kind of political squabble over that well [and] it was a tense situation,” he said. “We went to the neighborhood meeting and there were 150 people there and it was pretty clear this was not going to work.”

The fear, MacKinnon said, was the well would come under control of a powerful minority who would then sell the public water to the rest of the community.

“We were told to wait,” MacKinnon said. “So the pump sat in storage.”

Around that same time, he said, a new well was drilled at Justinian Hospital which had been trying to function with two existing polluted and inadequate wells.

“This looked to be a good application for the Bison pump,” MacKinnon said. “It was installed and right away they were able to get clean water regardless of the [electrical] power situation and they are really happy with it.”

Konbit Sante has not given up on that neighborhood, MacKinnon said, or Bison’s new “Guzzler” pump with its 3-inch cylinder.

“The standard one-and-a-quarter-inch [cylinder] is darn near indestructible with normal use,” Harbison said. “But Konbit Sante really needed an extra rugged design to withstand the heavy use in Haiti.”

The Guzzler is now on its way to Haiti for installation.

“I’ve made three trips down to Haiti and you never know what you are going to find there,” MacKinnon said. “Do you think you can find a simple P-trap for a sink in a city of 350,000? I walked all day one time and never found one.”

That lack of spare parts that people in this country take for granted is what makes the easily installed and maintained Bison pumps perfect for that Third World situation.

“We had no idea when we started that it would go to this extent,” Harbison said. “We had an idea for a hand pump and now we are just ecstatic to build something that is making such an impact.”

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