You Installed a Quality Wastewater System. Now It Must Be Protected.

You want homeowners to take an active role in onsite system care? Share these tips to reduce water use and abuse.

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Last month we discussed the responsibilities of the installer to ensure long-term operation of wastewater treatment systems. A good deal of the discussion centered on supplying information to homeowners so they have knowledge to make good decisions about the use of their systems. We thought it would be a good idea to suggest specific actions homeowners can take to use and maintain their systems properly.

If an onsite system is properly located and installed, the three most common causes of premature failure are within the homeowner’s control. They are overuse of water consistently exceeding the finite capacity of the system, using and flushing products that are harmful to the biology or operation of the system, and lack of maintenance.

Over the years, we have worked with numerous homeowners whose problems were solved simply by implementing water-saving techniques. The bottom line is the system was designed and installed to handle a specific amount of water. If that amount is exceeded on a regular basis, everyone in the industry would say that system is destined for failure, and the solution is to either increase system size or cut back on water use.

In the past, we have discussed not using the toilet as a disposal receptacle. Every additional flush that does not need to be made adds additional water to the system. Whenever water is used, a similar amount flows out of the septic tank and to the soil treatment area. Our tongue-in-cheek way to express this has been, “Do not put anything down the toilet unless you have drunk or eaten it first.” Our one exception is toilet paper; even here, use should be limited to only what is necessary. Low-flush toilets are getting better every day, so another way to reduce toilet water inputs is to replace the toilets.

While we are talking about toilets, they are not garbage disposals, so things like cigarette butts, baby or cleaning wipes, and unused medications should not be flushed. Solids such as wipes, sanitary products and condoms do not settle in the tank; so they can plug the effluent screen causing backups that can flood the lower level of the house if there is not a high tank alarm to alert the homeowner.


We all like to take long, hot showers. From a water-use perspective, installing low-flow showerheads, limiting shower times and shutting off the water while soaping up are all ways to reduce water use to help keep the system within capacity. We’ve worked with homeowners who put timers in the shower to enforce family rules requiring shorter showers. Homeowners should resist the temptation of turning their bathrooms into a warm sauna by running hot water. If they want a sauna, they should build one in the backyard.

There is a growing understanding that anti-bacterial cleaning products can affect the biology of septic tanks and ATUs. These cleaners include automatic toilet bowl cleaners that dispense product every time the toilet is flushed. Shower cleaner and other anti-bacterial soap use should be limited, along with any other strong cleaners and bleach that would impact bacteria in the septic tank. The key here is not total elimination but to use the products only when needed.

Water can also be conserved in the laundry room. Homeowners should only wash full loads or make sure their washers have the function to change water levels for different loads and adjust accordingly. Wash for a typical home generally gets done in one day, start to finish, due to work schedules. This puts a strain on the system for that day; a better approach is to spread use out over the week, a load or two a day.

Water conservation should be practiced in the kitchen, too. Dishwashers should only be run with full loads. The good news about dishwashers now is they generally use less water and do a better cleaning job than in the past. However, some can act like a garbage disposal in the delivery of solids to the septic tank. And homeowners who rinse dishes clean before putting them in the dishwasher can greatly increase water usage.


If dishes are washed in the sink, fill the basin versus washing them under running water. Similarly, do not leave the water running while washing vegetables. Use only the amount of soap necessary for the job, whether washing in the sink or in the dishwasher. As in the bathroom and laundry room, limit the use of anti-bacterial soaps and cleaning products. Obviously for food safety reasons, some use of these products is necessary.

The final product we’ll discuss is one that has been discouraged a lot over the years: the garbage disposal. This product has a tendency to add more water to the system. Most disposal manufacturers recommend running water with them for one to five minutes after the material has been ground. This is to make sure pipes do not get clogged. But at the same time, gallons of water are being used.

Also, disposals increase the volume of solids delivered to the tank. These solids are usually harder to break down and less likely to settle. This increases the need for maintenance of effluent screens and solids removal.

This is only a partial list and discussion of homeowner responsibilities. It should be obvious there is a lot of room for users to make poor decisions about their systems, so we as an industry must put an emphasis on homeowner education and promotion of regular maintenance visits.


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