Keep Promoting Onsite Systems. It’s Working.

At one time it was difficult to get the word out about effective maintenance of onsite systems, but the media and general public are starting to take notice

In the not-so-good old days, it was difficult to get anyone in the media world to focus on the proper care of decentralized wastewater systems. If you ever saw a wastewater-related story turn up online or in a newspaper, it was typically regarding a municipal sewer system — and it was usually a pocketbook issue related to rising quarterly sewage fees.

Only a few short years ago, I could shout in this column about the need to promote septic system maintenance to save users (about a quarter of all Americans) money and headaches associated with failing septic systems. We had lobbying groups like the NOWRA - National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association trying to raise awareness about onsite issues and funding initiatives. But few outside the sphere of local public health departments cared to listen.

But something has changed. People are waking up to the critical role played by onsite wastewater systems — both the existing systems that badly need attention and new construction and development utilizing improving technologies to build out the country. Where once we heard crickets chirping, local media across the country is spending more time promoting the work of our industry.


Why is this happening? I would like to think installing professionals, county and statewide regulators, and active wastewater trade associations have something to do with it. First, NOWRA and our state groups are reaching out to legislators on issues like mandatory periodic system inspections that extend the life of existing systems and new technologies that improve the feasibility to build on what were once considered substandard lots.

As the year comes to a close, we look back and realize that the annual U.S. Environmental Protection Agency SepticSmart Week initiative is working. Held in September every year, SepticSmart Week gives local government agencies a push to promote gatherings where onsite maintenance is promoted. And those events typically involve members of our industry who are called on to provide expert information on care of septic systems.

I’d like to share a few interesting examples of media finally giving appropriate coverage to our onsite community:

Dude, watch what gnarly items you toss in the toilet!

Of all online media sites, who would have expected to read a primer on onsite system care published in SurferToday, a foremost publication about catching some tasty waves? It’s true. In a story, “20 Things You Should Never Flush Down Your Toilet,” the website stresses that caring for your onsite system is also caring for the environment and the water its readers want to enjoy. The list is quite comprehensive and one you might want to consider sharing with your customers. You can see it at

We know most of the items on the SurferToday list (wipes, condoms, paper towels), but here are a few homeowners may not have considered: chewing gum, cigarette butts, hair, contact lenses and dental floss. “Dental floss is usually made of Teflon or nylon. When flushed down, it mixes with wet wipes, paper towels, hair and other items, creating huge balls that will clog pumps and sewers,” the story explains.

“Remember that by adopting new behaviors, you are reducing the amount of toxic and potentially harmful objects and chemicals that interact with water and marine life,” the story concludes. “We all made mistakes, and we can all change our daily habits. Even if it takes time, it is just a matter of thinking twice before flushing the toilet.”

Rhymes for a reason

The Chesprocott Health District in Connecticut uses some clever rhymes to help septic system owners remember the keys to maintenance. Promoting SepticSmart Week this year, the agency reminded folks that more than 1 million state residents use onsite systems to treat their waste, saying, “Subsurface sewage disposal systems provide a cost-effective long-term option for treating wastewater. When properly installed, operated and maintained, these systems help protect public health, preserve valuable water resources, and maintain a community’s economic vitality.”

Among the health district’s tips that you can share with customers:

Shield Your Field: Tree and shrub roots, cars and livestock can damage your leaching system.

Protect It and Inspect It: Regular septic system maintenance can save homeowners thousands of dollars in repairs and protect public health.

Don’t Strain Your Drain: Use water efficiently and stagger use of water-based appliances. Too much water use at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.

And one that doesn’t rhyme, but it’s maybe the most important tip.

Pump Your Tank: Ensure your septic tank is pumped at regular intervals as recommended by a professional and/or local permitting authority.

We need to guard against chemical contaminants.

A recent study by the Massachusetts-based environmental research organization Silent Spring Institute shed light on the dangers of contaminants of emerging concern, or CECs, improperly disposed of in septic systems and municipal sewers. Published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the study notes that many household products and medications leached into the groundwater contain hormone disruptors, associated with the feminization of male fish and reduce fertility on other wildlife. In humans, they have been linked to thyroid disease, developmental disorders, decreased fertility and cancer.

What could be interpreted as good news for the onsite industry: The study found that conventional septic systems and municipal systems produced similar treatment results and suggested that converting private systems to public sewers may not be the right way to address the problem. An analysis found that septic systems “do a decent job at removing chemical such as acetaminophen, caffeine and alkylphenols — a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. However they’re much less effective at removing other contaminants,” including an anti-epilepsy drug and an antibiotic.

Ending on a positive note for our industry, the study’s lead author Laurel Schaider says onsite system users can make a difference in protecting the groundwater and, ultimately, drinking water supplies.

“It’s … important that people follow guidelines for maintaining their septic systems and make sure they’re in good working order,” she says. “And avoiding household products with harmful ingredients by switching to safer alternatives can make a real difference.”


Have you read some positive educational coverage of the onsite industry recently? If so, please send me a link to the story at We’ll share it with readers. And keep on preaching to your customers and anyone else who will listen about the benefits and improvements in decentralized wastewater treatment  .


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