The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Wastewater News

From a dubious choice for a septic tank to a clueless public official, it’s time to share some onsite industry tidbits

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With hundreds of emails received every week, constant Google alerts, social media and other direct contact with folks in the industry, I compile a barrage of wastewater news tidbits on my computer desktop. The web of information grows at an ever-faster pace, creating a long list of items I’d like to share with you.

Every now and then, I’ll use this space to talk about a few of the positive, the outrageous and the unusual stories I save related to the world of onsite installers. I hope you find these dispatches thought-provoking or at least a little entertaining. As always, I invite your response. If you have a comment, write to me at I’d be glad to share your thoughts on any onsite-related topic right here in the magazine.

Read on.

The onsite industry message is sinking in.

A recent report titled 5 Things You Need to Know When Representing Rural Buyers, from Inman, a website dedicated to educating real estate agents working in the luxury housing market, listed “septic components and maintenance” as the No. 2 topic to review with clients. Writer Maria Dampman advises real estate professionals about the importance of discussing onsite system maintenance and the potential cost of repairs.

“A thorough inspection of the system is a necessity, and it should include pumping the tank, excavation and inspection of the distribution box, and sometimes even running a small camera down the lines to check for obstruction or damage,” she writes. “Also, you should know where to find records to make sure the system is able to handle the number of household occupants.”

In the past, I have accused some Realtors of turning a blind eye to septic system inspections because issues they turn up can complicate home sales. It’s only fair to point out when real estate agents recognize the importance of time-of-sale inspections.

What were the other four things to review with rural homebuyers? Well system and water safety; covenants and restrictions; land use, conservation and tax benefits; and specific-use needs (Is the property suitable for the buyer’s lifestyle, hobbies, etc.?).

Generous assistance for new systems.

Towns on New York’s Long Island have announced some generous grant programs to cover the cost of replacement onsite systems in an effort to clean up watersheds. For example, a Southampton town rebate program raises grant money limits from $10,000 to $15,000 to pay for nitrogen-reduction systems now being required in Suffolk County.

The income limits for participating in this program are higher than I’ve ever seen, and I would describe them as “eyebrow-raising.” As reported at, a property owner with $300,000 or less in annual income qualifies for 100 percent of installation costs, up to $15,000. A property owner making up to $500,000 qualifies for 50 percent of the cost of a new system. On top of the grants supported by the town’s Community Preservation Fund, Southampton residents can apply for another $11,000 grant from Suffolk County. Added together, homeowners can receive up to $26,000 toward a new system.

I’ve heard of low-income assistance before, but not high-income assistance like this.

Virginia’s Culpeper Soil and Water Conservation District has significantly raised its reimbursement rates for residents who maintain their onsite system. The assistance has nearly doubled in several categories: $240 for pumpouts, $4,000 for system repairs, $6,400 for full systems and up to $19,200 for alternative engineered systems.

The payments to private property owners prompted the district’s manager, Greg Wichelns, to share an analogy to convince homeowners to take part: “This is a heck of a deal. If this existed for automobiles, it would mean you’d get reimbursement for inspecting your car and then you get a reimbursement for repairing it, too,” he said in a report in

Two questions come to mind for installers trying to forecast the demand for their services over the next few years: Will this trend continue across the country? And if it does, where are they going to find enough new workers to join their crews?

She said what?

My award for the Ignorant Public Official of the Month goes to Melinda Lautner, chairwoman of the Leelanau County, Michigan, board of commissioners. In opposition to an onsite system inspection ordinance for the county, Lautner had this to say during a board meeting (as reported at

“A great majority of our county, the septic systems sit in well-drained soils. When those systems fail, it doesn’t go down to our groundwater, it actually will rise up and that person will have a beautiful patch of green grass on their lawn.”

Nothing like trying to put a positive spin on foul-smelling and bacteria-laden puddles that could sicken a homeowner’s children, pets and cause harm for the neighborhood. This is one public servant who needs to do her homework on the consequences of ignoring failing onsite systems. She should be listening to her fellow commissioners, Ty Wessell and Patricia Soutas-Little, who pushed to form a committee to study the need for inspections, which are required at the time of sale in surrounding communities.

“We inspect electrical, we inspect housing, why don’t we inspect septic systems? … We have a responsibility to do whatever it is to keep our human waste out of our waters,” Wessell told the group. He said an inspection ordinance in another county reduced the septic system failure rate from 15 percent to 9 percent after it was enacted in 1990.

Holy Fahrvergnügen!

What’s the strangest septic tank you’ve encountered during an onsite inspection? For Richard Umlauf owner of R-N-R Backhoe & Complete Septic in Edwards, Missouri, it was an old Volkswagen. Umlauf told the Benton County Enterprise that the buried Bug had an inlet pipe coming in the rear window and an outlet to the drainfield going through the windshield.

“It used to be that a lot of weekenders to the area had cabins around lakes, and they put in anything they could find to act as a holding tank for sewage,” Umlauf told the newspaper. “We’ve seen water heaters, an ice box and the basement of a house that burned down used as septic tanks. And when people can’t get plumbing supplies to repair a system during a weekend visit, they sometimes use radiator hoses as lateral lines.”

Installers never know what they’ll find underground because the ordinance regulating installs wasn’t in place before 1991, explained Barry Pabst, the environmental public health specialist for the county. “My job is to ensure the new systems being installed and old systems being replaced meet minimum requirements of the state and county,” he said. The informative article recommended homeowners pump their tanks every three to five years, but Umlauf suggested every two years is a safer bet for many families.


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