Extra, Extra!! Share Your Knowledge as an Onsite Professional

News stories involving septic systems create opportunities to educate the public about the wastewater industry

Every now and then my inbox overflows with mainstream media news accounts that bring the onsite industry to the forefront. Sometimes they paint a negative image of our wastewater treatment solutions. Other times they shed light on how our installing community continues to provide an excellent and necessary service for the general public. So I want to comment on some of the news and views of the day:

More evidence of the wisdom of ongoing system maintenance

Another tragic death of a child who fell into an unsecure septic tank made headlines recently. And the sad case further demonstrates the critical need to follow up a system installation with regular inspection and maintenance. 

Emma Davidson, age 3, was visiting a campground in Erma, New Jersey, with her family when she stepped on a septic tank lid that was unsecured and fell 10 feet into a septic tank, according to a police report shared by media outlets. She was pulled from the tank and pronounced dead at an area hospital.

The girl’s parents quickly filed a lawsuit alleging the campground owners, Michigan-based Sun Communities, had a history of septic system safety violations. According to the suit, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had cited the campground multiple times for having unsecured tanks and broken or cracked lids. It also alleged the company failed to maintain inspection logs. 

Sun Communities responded by asserting that serious accidents are “extremely rare” because of a “rigorous program of safety inspections and maintenance.” Since the girl’s death, the company said it had reinspected all septic tanks, installed additional safety fencing and redundant equipment to block access to tanks. 

This is just the latest in a string of preventable deaths of children playing around septic tanks stretching back more than a decade since I have been monitoring onsite system safety. With each senseless death, I talk to wastewater industry professionals about the need to keep close watch over working septic systems. Steps must be taken to safeguard these necessary private decentralized treatment systems, and that effort can start with onsite professionals educating those who purchase and utilize each system.

When you complete an installation, sit down with your customers and tell them about these stories. Ask them to get serious about safety by monitoring every access point and keeping track of any damage they find, whether it’s a crack in a lid or a missing screw on a cover. You can formalize an inspection program as part of recommended routine maintenance and regularly sell the concept to system owners. Stress the importance of these follow-up visits to protect homeowners or commercial clients from liability or having the potential injury or death of a child on their conscience. 

Installers and system users must establish a mindset that their relationship doesn’t end when the last pipe is put in the ground. They should be glued at the hip for the duration of the life of the system so we never have to read about this kind of tragedy again.

Don’t be so quick to blame septic systems for waterway pollution

A new report out of Virginia’s King George’s County absolves the many decentralized wastewater systems along the Potomac River of responsibility for a growing pollution problem. An opinion piece in the Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredricksburg, Virginia, points out that human waste from septic systems has long been blamed for bacteria contamination at the river’s Fairview Beach. 

But a $24,000 study by the Hampton Roads Sanitation District revealed that no human DNA fecal matter was found in 30 samples of water taken from the river, prompting scientists to look elsewhere for the cause of the pollution. “The take-home message here is really simple: Human fecal contamination … is not the driver behind the recreational water quality exceedances at Fairview Beach,” reported Raul Gonzalez, an environmental scientist for the Hampton Roads division of water quality.

Experts now believe the pollution may be caused by pets, wildlife or some yet-unknown source. 

When recreational waterways are polluted, private septic systems are often a convenient scapegoat as the public looks to cast blame for algal blooms or the red tides that are becoming more common on even our most pristine waterways. It’s nice to see a study that says no, the decentralized wastewater systems installers supply, are not at fault. 

In fact, studies like this one reinforce the message that septic systems are a valuable and cost-effective solution to wastewater treatment in many situations. Without these private systems, many fewer people would be able to enjoy life on or near our rivers, lakes and ocean coastlines. Keep spreading the news that the onsite industry will continue to innovate to ensure a cleaner environment in these beautiful and sensitive environments.

A red-hot real estate market leads to fewer point-of-sale inspections

One perhaps-unexpected fallout of the low-supply, high-demand housing market of the past few years is a diminished number of onsite system inspections when homes are sold in a bidding war. As buyers become more eager to land that dream home, the experience turns into a nightmare when they don’t hire experts to assess the viability of water and wastewater systems.

One such nightmare scenario played out recently in Toronto and was covered in a story by CTV News. Buyer Lisa Song reported that the sellers of the house she wanted agreed to sell if she raised her offer price and waived a home inspection contingency. Desperate for the country home, she agreed to the terms and ended up paying dearly for that decision.

“They asked me to waive the home inspection, and I hesitated a little, but she said if I want the home, I had to waive it, so I waived it,” Song told the news outlet. Song soon found out there were major issues with decentralized utilities.

“We found there is no well water being pumped into our house because there is no well water,” she said. And the septic system was failing. “I almost fell to pieces knowing I would have to get a mortgage to fix the septic.”

A Canadian home inspection association had an obvious response: It should be a red flag to homebuyers if the seller asks to waive the home inspection. Indeed, a case like this dramatically underscores the need for home inspections with any real estate transfer … and specifically a specialized inspection from an onsite professional if the home uses a septic system. 

We can play an important educational role where point-of-sale onsite inspections are concerned. For most of the general public, a septic system is out of sight, out of mind. Prospective homebuyers seemingly show more concern about having a granite countertop or backyard hot tub than the essential utilities needed to safely occupy a dwelling they purchase. 

We know better. We should find ways to remind those entering the real estate market about the importance of demanding a properly functioning septic system. We need to share the potential costs to repairing or replacing an onsite system, which can be devastating to a family’s budget after they stretch their finances to buy a home. 

For the wastewater professional, it is so more gratifying to alert a homebuyer to a looming septic issue before the sale than delivering the bad news of an unexpected expense after they move in. 


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