I Need a New Septic System? Bring It On!

An upstate New York homeowner embraces his role in creating a cleaner environment and voluntarily upgrades his lakefront septic system

How often do you have someone call your office and the conversation starts out like this:

“I bought a house recently and I’m not required to install a new septic system. But I’d like to do it anyway to make sure we can protect the water quality around here.”

Then you visit the property to make an assessment and inform the homeowner it will cost $25,000 to $30,000 for a new advanced system. And he answers, without hesitation, “Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s go for it.”

That doesn’t happen to you?

Well it would if you were talking to Paul Derby of the town of Queensbury in upstate New York, about 50 miles north of Albany. Derby, whose house is on a small, challenging lot on Glen Lake, would be your dream customer.

Derby made headlines in the local newspaper recently when he approached the town board asking for setback variances for a new onsite system. Appearing with system designer, Eric Murdock, P.E., of Onsite Engineering in Syracuse, Derby explains he was happy to replace the older — but still legal — conventional system at the home he purchased recently.

Tiny lot, big challenge

The Clarus Environmental Fusion system with a compact raised sand filter bed (20 feet long by 7 feet wide) would require some serious shoehorning to fit onto the 82-by-109-foot sandy lake lot and serve the two-bedroom home built in 1965. The house is only 4 feet above the lake level. Minimum setbacks from the lake and water well are supposed to be 100 feet, and Derby was requesting to locate the system 38 feet from the water and the well, and 18 inches from the house foundation.

“My goal is to be a model to show you can do this voluntarily,” Derby told the town board, according to The Post Star newspaper. The board quickly approved the variances.

I had to find out more about Derby and thank him for his interest in being proactive about his septic system. So I gave him a call.

While Derby’s enthusiasm for upgrading his onsite wastewater treatment is refreshing, it might not come as too much of a surprise if you know anything about the long-time Glen Lake resident. He’s lived on the water for 26 years and spent the past 18 years as president of the Glen Lake Protective Association. As part of that group, he advocated for a property transfer septic inspection law approved by the town after he downsized into the ranch house. And he favors the idea of mandatory periodic system inspections around the lake.

“I purchased it just before the law kicked in,” Derby explains. “I didn’t have to upgrade my system, but I want to do it because it’s good for the lake.”

Glen Lake is a 320-acre kettle lake (50- to 60-foot maximum depth) that is fully developed with 288 homes, is about 2.5 miles long, and has springs and an inlet and outlet. The lake has required weed management and monitoring over the past 15 years. It has a healthy fishery and clean water, and the association aims to keep it that way. The group recently started a program through Adirondack Community College that will be testing the water for E. coli bacteria and free chlorine to figure out if aging septic systems are having a negative impact.

A healthy lake

As wastewater professionals, you’ll be happy to hear that the Glen Lake homeowners have been forward-thinking about caring for their septic systems. They generally supported the new time-of-sale inspections. They’ve also been good in general about pumping, as the association has had good participation in a voluntary maintenance program they’ve developed to get a volume discount from area septic service providers.

“Our goal is to have a healthy lake, a healthy fishery and good water quality, and we feel like we have that,” Derby says. “We’ve been able to manage our nuisance aquatic plants very well, and septic systems are our next big push.”

When the time-of-sale inspections were mandated, the association also favored requiring five-year mandatory system inspections and upgrades as needed. The town wouldn’t go that far.

“I don’t think there was enough political will to get that through at the time,” Derby says. “If a system is bad, we should get rid of it. For now, this is where we are, and we’ll get more information and see where we can go in the future.”

Derby recognizes that many times homeowners resist inspections and the potential repairs or replacements that can be forced by a documented failure. But he thinks that, by and large, folks in his part of New York are becoming more comfortable with the notion of spending money to ensure a cleaner environment.

“People were skeptical in the beginning about the cost. A septic system is something you can’t see unless it fails. If it’s not (an apparent) problem, people don’t think about it. But I think we’re turning a corner and people are thinking about it,” Derby says. “I think it’s gotten enough critical mass and people can see this is a good thing to do.”

Neighbors take note 

What’s his evidence of changing attitudes? After his variance hearing at the town, two residents came up to him and wanted to know more about the advanced system he was installing. One of them, who had been utilizing two old holding tanks, has since decided to do a similar voluntary upgrade.

“It’s a pretty nice community up here, and people want to do the right thing,” he says.

Let’s hope that this understanding and enthusiasm for a cleaner environment and better wastewater treatment spreads across the country like wildfire. Kudos to Derby and others like him who realize the need to improve our decentralized wastewater infrastructure and are willing to invest in it for the common good of their communities. 


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