It’s Time for a Septic System Reality Check

The onsite industry has to share the hard truth that the private wastewater infrastructure is broken and needs fixing to protect public health.

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It’s refreshing when septic system users verbalize the same things installers, designers and health department regulators are thinking to themselves when homeowners balk at repair or replacement of failed systems.

How many times have you listened to a line of arguments from someone who is used to “free” decentralized wastewater handling but is now dealing with the “sticker shock” of a new septic system?

It might go like this:

County health officer: Sir, your 40-year-old septic system no longer processes wastewater and it must be replaced.

Homeowner in denial: But it’s worked perfectly all these years and I’ve never had to have it pumped … I’ll bet you only required the inspection to collect more money from me … Nobody’s complaining or getting sick from the drinking water around here … I’m on a fixed income and you’re going to drive me out of my house.

Failing Grade

The fine folks from Randolph, Minnesota, probably went through a similar scenario recently when local county officials took over onsite monitoring responsibilities from the tiny village located on a pristine waterway south of the Twin Cities. Since the county assumed the inspection duties, 43 of 149 systems were found to be failing, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Of the 106 in compliance, it was estimated that 30 may fail in the next few years.

One resident who had modernized his septic system said it was the right thing to do. Bob Helgerson is even OK with a discussion that could either lead to septic system repairs for others or connecting to a municipal sewer system.

“It’s not an easy problem, but I think as a responsible steward of the water supply, No. 1, and as a responsible participant in the community of Randolph, we’ve got an obligation to consider all options,” Helgerson told the newspaper.

Local officials, however, worry that a projected $8,000 to $15,000 septic system replacement would be a burden on some homeowners, pulling out the “fixed income” argument. They recognize the risk of untreated wastewater reaching the well water drinking supply and the need to upgrade some woefully old septic systems. But they hope for low-interest loans to augment a county cost-sharing program to help those in need handle the major expense.

Truth Bombs?

When you scroll beneath the short story, however, you get to some ideas and input from readers. Some of it is constructive. And some of it is lobbing flaming truth bombs you would probably endorse. What’s nice to see is that some of the mainstream public we need to reach as an industry have come up with some great insights. See the anonymous quotes and my responses below:

Rural public sewer is not the answer

“Don’t fall for the rural sewer option scam that I’m sure will be on the table. We got forced to spend (thousands) to install it up at our lake property along with everybody else, and now every year the monthly bill keeps increasing.”

Jim says: Municipal sewer systems have their place, but we’re learning over time that they can be costly boondoggles when treatment capacity outstrips user density. Advancing onsite technology offers better wastewater solutions all the time, especially in lake regions where lots are small and site conditions are challenging. Do your homework when the Professor Harold Hill of the Big Pipe shows up in your small town.

Consider private cluster systems

“Some lake property development in northern Minnesota includes a central septic system that serves six or more individual lots. The same setup is used to furnish well water to each of those lots. When individuals purchase one of those lots, they sign on to their responsibility to pay into the maintenance of the well and septic.”

Jim says: Sometimes it makes great sense to work with your neighbors to find the right onsite solution. Every family on your block buys their own lawnmower, but when it comes to a major investment like processing wastewater, you might find cooperating on a private treatment system is the smart way to go.

Where’s the personal responsibility?

“I don’t care if you bought this house a week ago or 100 years ago, if the septic system is out of code … fix it. Take out a loan or sell the place if you have to. If you can’t afford to take care of a property for the public good and your own, you shouldn’t be living on it.”

Jim says: What makes a septic system any different from a new roof or a furnace? They are all household components that have a finite life and wear out. I’ll tell you what’s different: If your roof leaks, it only gets you wet. A broken wastewater system can harm all of your neighbors. Personal responsibility is woefully lacking today when many people would rather fix a septic system on the cheap or ignore the problem all together.

Onsite systems offer good value

“After living on a farm I know that we had to replace septic systems as they aged. Not a mystery. My water/sanitary sewer bill runs $600/year using very little water. Take that times 40 years and that’s $24,000. In lieu of paying those bills (septic system owners) need a $6,000 upgrade. That looks cheap to me.”

Jim says: I’ve been singing this tune for years. My annual combined water and sewer bill is well over a thousand dollars. Compare that to a homeowner with a septic system that lasts 30 to 40 years and may spend $300 every three years to pump the tank. Onsite systems, properly cared for, offer a tremendous wastewater treatment value.

Infrastructure is important

“How could anyone even think that infrastructure would wear out and people would have to replace it? How can we sit and complain about state and federal elected officials deferring responsible infrastructure maintenance when we and our neighbors are far worse at it.”

Jim says: We expect smooth roads and scream when we hit a pothole. We would all like better infrastructure and realize that the government needs to spend more money in that area. But we don’t recognize the need for improved infrastructure, quite literally, in our backyards. We have to face up to the fact that many septic systems in America are well past their replacement date and they are no different than the federal highway system. Both need upgrading.

Get used to this battle

“This will be a growing concern as septic systems age and counties are pressing new standards that require a compliance check during home sale. We are undergoing the latter as my elderly folks’ home failed. My father is a bit stunned, as his generation felt that the old septic tank/cistern was good for the life of the home. You would be surprised how many people don’t understand (or accept) that septic systems need to be considered a maintenance cost of owning a home.”

Jim says: It’s time for a reality check! As members of the wastewater industry, it is incumbent on all of us to continue to make consumer education a top priority. We are environmental stewards sharing what we know about safeguarding our precious freshwater supply. That means passing along the hard truths about the cost of protecting public health.


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