Emergency Calls Hint at a Big Problem

Pumpers see an increase in system failures during the coronavirus pandemic. Could it mean a crush of installer workload is on the horizon?

The past several months of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic may have revealed an unfortunate truth to the onsite industry: the decentralized wastewater infrastructure in the U.S. is in even worse shape than previously thought.

In recent years, the experts have warned of the aging out of conventional septic systems across America. Those simple tank and drainfield systems were installed in every rural and suburban area 30, 40, 50 or more years ago, most of them providing yeoman’s service and exceeding expected life span.

About one-third of the nation’s homes are served by private wastewater systems, and that percentage figures to grow as the cost to extend municipal sewer service skyrockets. Government officials — including health departments — now recognize the practical effectiveness of newer advanced treatment technologies and will go in that direction to curtail growing utility expenses.

We knew there was a lot of work to be done to upgrade millions of failing septic systems, but it took the coronavirus and its associated stay-at-home orders to show just how big the problem is. As families were locked down at home starting in March, they soon realized septic systems were being overwhelmed.

Older systems may have been built so robustly and with excess capacity that they performed pretty well under normal usage. But as soon as the whole family is at home 24/7, these systems’ age and treatment shortcomings came to light. Soon pumping contractors were reporting a raft of emergency calls every week as sewage was backing up into homes or surfacing in the backyard.


“We’re getting a high volume of people backing up, which is the systems are full so the water has nowhere to go. So it’s backing up into the house,” Kevin Snyder, president of Flash Sanitation in Battle Creek, Michigan, says in a local WOOD-TV 8 report. “With everyone being home, you have a lot more water usage.”

Snyder was one of a number of wastewater professionals who TV news stations turned to during stay-at-home orders to explain why septic systems were failing. He and Kevin Green of the local Calhoun County Public Health Department urged septic system users to watch their water usage and have their systems inspected to safely get through the period of high usage.

“Since we are staying home … we want to conserve water and not to throw anything down through your toilet more than toilet paper,” Green says. “We do recommend that you get your septic system pumped … normally every three to five years, depending on the number of people that are in your house.”

Scott Robertson of ASAP Septic in Mishawaka, Indiana, had a similar story to tell WNDU-TV 16 News Now.

“We’ve had a lot more emergency calls because families are staying at home and overutilizing their water needs. Some septics aren’t able to take all the water that they’re generating, and it’s overflowing into their yard or back into their house,” Robertson says.


First off, I would like to congratulate these and any other wastewater professionals who stepped up during this crisis and thank them for helping educate homeowners about proper septic system care. This is a critical message to get out in these times. It’s hard enough when families are in quarantine and fearing infection from a deadly virus. Imagine going through that and losing use of your wastewater system at the same time.

Please consider jumping in anytime you have the opportunity to reach the audience of onsite system users. We all know how much work there is to do on the education front. Far too many people are new to septic systems and don’t know the basic rules. Others should know about proper maintenance but ignore it. And many don’t understand when their systems are failing and how they can be replaced with better treatment technology.

The COVID-19 crisis has been unlike any emergency we’ve experienced in a century, and it has taken a terrible human and economic toll. But perhaps there is one silver lining for the onsite industry: That is to raise awareness of the critical importance of effective wastewater treatment. It is often said that septic systems are out of sight and out of mind for the people who use them. But this attitude has to change if we want to avoid devolving into some kind of third-world existence where it’s OK for waste to be ponding in backyards or flowing in the ditches.

Now is our time to send important messages. Old systems must be replaced. And new systems must use the best technology available for a cleaner environment. We will drive the point home through constant communication with system users. And we will push state officials and county regulators to endorse a wide variety of treatment solutions so installers can offer many options for any site condition.

System Design and Installation for Future Management

Your print edition of Onsite Installer has a virtual cousin you can find at www.onsiteinstaller.com. If you haven’t spent a lot of time at the website, I urge you to check out the fresh stories posted there every week. Our online editor, Kim Peterson, does a great job bringing unique content you won’t find anywhere else. And working with Kim, we’re doing something a little different with the print magazine.

As part of website analytics, we track how many times someone clicks on and reads each online article. Through that process, we can determine the most popular stories and topics over any period of time. Because these stories are only published online, print readers who don’t visit the website miss out on some valuable content. We’re going to change that starting in this issue.

Awhile back, Jim Anderson, co-writer of our Basic Training feature and University of Minnesota emeritus professor, produced a seven-part online series on the topic of design and installation of onsite systems with future management in mind. Most of you know Anderson as a wastewater industry trainer across the country and at the Water & Wastewater Equipment, Treatment & Transport (WWETT) Show over many years. 

I have reworked Anderson’s series into two stories to run this month and next. In this issue, he covers regulatory programs, consumer education and soil evaluation. In the conclusion next month, he will cover system component access.

We will continue to look for opportunities to bring you some of our most popular online stories in the months ahead. 


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