It’s Party Time – What Happens When Your System Is Tied to an Airbnb?

Short-term rentals can have a big negative impact on onsite installation. How can you protect yourself in case of serious overloading on one of your newer systems?

You’ve finished a tricky onsite system installation on a small waterfront lot and the customer is happy with your work from the first flush. In one of your toughest jobs of the year, you faced obstacles including working around elevation, a well and depth-to-groundwater concerns. And the client — as they often do — wanted to wring every gallon per day of flow out of the system to add an extra bedroom.

This kind of job is what you’ve built your reputation on — creating a system that will outlive the homeowners and never cause you a lick of trouble. It’s time to cash the check and tip back a cold brew to celebrate another job well done.

Maybe, but maybe not.

Like a lot of lake property owners in this recreational area, your customers have just posted their beautiful home on a vacation rental website, perhaps it’s Airbnb or VRBO. Unbeknownst to you, they plan to rent out the house to visitors from the big city week after week, expecting your work to hold up under some pretty tough conditions.

How do these weekly renters tax the system? First off, these folks use a municipal sewer system back home and they never think about what happens to their waste after the flush. And because they’ve footed a big vacation rental bill, they’ll want to invite Aunt Martha and Uncle Ed along for the week; and of course all the cousins have to drive out for a day on the lake. Pretty soon they’re running way over the 450 gpd flow capacity and using the water facilities with reckless abandon.


Heaven help you if problems crop up within a year or two. When your clients get their first text from angry vacationers complaining about a backup, who are they going to call first? You. That’s right. And the call will come just as you’re sitting down for a Saturday night cookout with the family.

This situation could soon spiral out of control, with clients threatening to sue your installing company, telling all their lakefront friends what a terrible job you did, and leaving a one-star scathing review of your services on social media. It doesn’t matter that your system functioned as promised from the start. Their new problems are your fault and you need to fix them.

Of course that’s not true. You can rightfully explain that they were not using the new system as intended; that they brought on the problem by allowing unfettered use of their home’s wastewater system by strangers who didn’t know they were causing harm. You could counter every complaint they have and protect your company from legal entanglements. But is that going to make the problem go away? Probably not.

So go ahead and enjoy that celebratory beer, but be prepared to continue the task of customer education and system monitoring for a long time to come. That’s because when contractors proudly say they have a “customer for life,” that distinction can cut both ways. Sure, a happy customer will return again and again. But so will an unhappy one.

Following the trend of short-term home rentals through websites like Airbnb, I would suggest you start educating customers when you install their new system and stay in contact throughout the first few years, making sure they understand the potential negative impacts of such arrangements concerning their new onsite system.


Look at each property you work on and try to pick out which homeowners are likeliest to want to make a few bucks through short-term rentals. Perhaps it’s a lakefront home and the owners say they will only be there a few weeks or months per year. During the design stage or installation, they may actually tell you they expect friends and family to use the home on occasion, downplaying what they are really thinking of doing with the house.

If you have an inkling it will be used differently than the typical three-bedroom home, it’s time to kick into education mode and make suggestions for how to best care for the onsite system no matter who is staying there. It would be wise to include a discussion about short-term rentals whenever you complete an installation. This could help prevent the kind of nightmare scenario described above.

What are some initial talking points for customers who are thinking of letting others use their home? Here are several suggestions to consider:

Check the zoning – It’s quite possible the municipality does not allow short-term rentals like Airbnb. There has been a swing in this direction as neighbors often don’t like to have the constant churn of rowdy visitors at an Airbnb and petition the town or village to prohibit the activity. This might end such a scheme by your customers before it’s started.

Recommend more frequent maintenance – Offer to check system performance every six months or more often to help detect problems before they get out of hand. This is especially important as systems become more advanced. Suggest adding Wi-Fi tank and pump warning systems to alert you or their septic service provider directly if there is a problem. Offer to respond to these alarms for a fee.

Carefully manage and monitor renter activity – Alert your clients to expect renters to try to stretch the rules, especially concerning the number of guests they bring. Airbnb rentals can be expensive, and it’s typical for users to want to “share” the cost with extended family and friends. More people means more stress on the septic system. And if this stress continues for weeks, it can lead to serious overuse.

Take preventive measures to reduce water usage – Homeowners can do a number of things to take the strain off of a septic system. Among the suggestions are to install low-flow faucet heads to showers and sinks; contract for a portable restroom to be set up near a beach or party area and encourage guests to use it; lock the washer and dryer behind a door so renters don’t have access.

Have your customers educate their customers – Do this online through the rental website and create flyers to share with the renters and leave on-site during their visit. Among the messages: Ask them to manage their flushing — they’re not in the city anymore, so it’s OK to live by the credo, “If it’s yellow let it mellow and if it’s brown, flush it down.” Watch how much they run the water and conserve wherever possible. Stress conservation as the environmentally friendly thing to do.

Mark off the drainfield with easy-to-see signage – Let visitors know they cannot drive over, park cars on, or set up tents over the drainfield. Warn them not to tear through the drainfield area with their four-wheelers or snowmobiles. The drainfield must be off-limits to renters with no exceptions. It is advisable to make this a direct talking point with short-term renters or even fence around the dispersal area in some cases.

Stagger weekly rentals to allow the system to rest – Make the home available once a month or one week on and one week off to allow overburdened onsite systems a chance to catch up with treatment.

Plan ahead – If Airbnb is allowed and the clients know they are going to pursue this activity before the install, suggest they build the system to account for spikes in flow. Aside from the added initial cost, there may be no downside to overbuilding the system. Review the options with them and make your best recommendations. And if they move forward, have customers work with a qualified pumping company to look at the usage and consider more frequent pumping intervals.


It’s best to get out in front of any potential problems you could encounter post-installation. Nobody wants the surprise of an overused or failing onsite system early on in its life. Not the homeowner, not their renter, and — the biggest concern to me — not the installer. Be aware that the concept of web-based, short-term rental services is not likely to go away and will probably become a more popular option for homeowners in the future. Let’s be prepared for it. 


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