Homeowners not afraid to get their hands a little dirty may soon get the opportunity to do just that—by inspecting their own septic systems. It’s already happening in parts of the U.S., with varied, and sometimes controversial, results.
But is it an idea whose time has come in the septic world? Or is it just asking for trouble from health, maintenance and management points of view? Several experts in the environmental health and septic system industries agree that there can be positives, but practitioners and local health jurisdictions (LHJs) must ensure proper training and reporting systems are in place for such programs to work successfully—for all parties involved.
Reason vs. realism
Anthony Smithson, a longtime member of the National Environmental Health Association and now-retired environmental health director in Lake County, Ill., had been approached in the past about starting such a program. “We were looking at training homeowners who insisted they could do as well as practitioners,” he says. “Homeowners had approached the county; they didn’t think they were getting their money’s worth.”
Part of the rationale for homeowners may be a tough economy. John Thomas, executive director of the Washington On-Site Sewage Association, adds, “Some people don’t want government intrusion and being mandated to do inspections on their systems. Others just have a lack of understanding of operations and maintenance as it protects their drainfield and their system as part of the infrastructure of their house.”
Ultimately, the realism of regulation and structured training programs dashed the concept in Lake County before it could take root.
“If you are going to require O&M and an inspection, there have to be regulations,” Smithson says. “We generally don’t let people regulate themselves, and there were some safety issues.”
While some LHJs are considering, and often quickly discarding, this idea, others are willing to give it a try. In Clark County, Wash., the public health department is looking to revamp its program that allows owners of conventional gravity septic systems to do their own inspections.
The goal, according to the environmental health program manager, is to better educate the county’s homeowners—of which about 32,000 have septic systems. In the process, inspection costs could be cut dramatically.
Right now, the state requires that gravity systems are inspected every three years, and about 80 percent of the systems in the county fall into that category.
The county is seeking to revise its monthly training classes. Homeowners who attend the course can get certified to do their own inspections every other time one is required. A course would also be offered on the county’s website, and earlier this year several pilot classes were held at a local university, with dozens showing interest.
Likewise, Clallam County, Wash., moved forward with a homeowner inspection program, but it was limited to 100 people (low-risk systems in low-risk areas). “WOSSA worked with the county to develop the program,” says Thomas. “We covered the scope of technologies, and we also worked with some of the local service providers who are instructors for our other industry classes.
“As part of that, the homeowners got a visit with some of the inspectors so they had a personal review of the technology in their backyard. Clallam County has a very good program in terms of the structure.”
While WOSSA is willing to work with LHJs to establish protocols for this process, Thomas, like Smithson, recognizes that inspections, training and reporting can be uneven.
“One of the main issues with this is that the data collected on the systems can be inconsistent from property owner to property owner and from county to county,” Thomas says. “It is impossible to collect coherent information that can be correlated to do any kind of trend analysis on systems, technologies and critical areas over time.”
Smithson agrees homeowner programs may be warranted in some places, but says that doesn’t mean they will be risk free. “I’ve got some broad concerns,” he says. “One is that anything we do with onsite systems should always be based on risk. While homeowner inspections might work in very low-risk circumstances, they may not always be appropriate or feasible.”
Despite some already registered successes, Thomas has studied concerns. He cites numbers from another Washington region, Whatcom County, as showing that from a group of homeowners who self-inspected, 94 percent reported their own systems as satisfactory, while only 5.5 percent of the systems were reported as needing maintenance. That compared with professional inspectors, who found only 62 percent of the systems they checked were satisfactory, and 34 percent needed maintenance.
“That’s one of the strengths of the Clallam program – they have minimized the risk,” Thomas says. “The benefit to the county is that they get a competent baseline to put into their system database.”
Power over process
Ultimately, the challenge is in how a jurisdiction approaches homeowners’ inspections and how thoroughly they train. Bottom line, in Thomas’ opinion, is that homeowners should be allowed to participate in the process, and even to inspect their own systems, but the level of regulation needed to protect everyone in the watershed needs to be appropriate.
“There are positives for the septic industry,” says Thomas. “Most homeowners get into this and then realize it’s not a job they want to do. By and large, the industry does not see this as a loss of revenue or loss of business.”
But what about loss of reputation—an even bigger concern which, Smithson cites, hits at the very core of the sanitation business. “People who do this work are professionals,” he says. “In some way, these programs sort of diminish what they do.
“If I were a pumper, I’d see it as someone trying to do my work. It’s a really big problem with our industry; people still don’t take us seriously.”
A former regulator, Smithson says, “If we don’t all respect the role of each other, then nobody gains. We lose a little bit of credibility; we’re seen as just septic tank people.”