She Paid for Sewer Service For 14 Years … Then Found Her Septic Tank

Strange story of North Carolina renter shows you can’t tell the difference between sewer and septic — until something goes wrong

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If anyone tries to argue the big pipe municipal wastewater system is superior to an onsite system, tell them about Carla Shields of Graham, North Carolina.

Shields has rented her home for 14 years, diligently paying her city sewer bill and presumably pleased with the wastewater service. That is, until her toilet backed up and the plumber who responded to fix it informed her she had a septic tank.

Of course, now Shields is focused single-mindedly on getting her sewer payments back from the government, as reported recently in the Queen City News. It’s a story we can all relate to as taxpayers, rooting on as the little guy — or gal, in this case  — tries to claw back thousands in erroneous billings from the local authorities.

But are we missing the forest for the trees? Perhaps the big-picture story here is not an instance of someone paying for services not received over a long period of time. Maybe the happy news is that it makes no practical difference if you have an onsite system or are connected to the municipal sewer as long as you provide minimal care for the infrastructure involved.

And this drives home an important point you can be making to your customers: decentralized wastewater service is not only cost-effective over the long haul; but you also won’t be able to tell you’re not receiving high-priced municipal sewer service so long as you pay attention to routine maintenance.

Isn’t this the message we’ve been sharing at Onsite Installer for many years? It is, indeed. 


Let’s back up and learn a little more about Carla Shields of Graham, North Carolina. She told the local media outlet that when she began renting the house, she started paying the $35 monthly bill for sewer services. Over time, that would add up to $420 a year, and $5,880 over the 14-year span, to treat her wastewater. 

In actuality, she was using  — and without knowing it  — abusing a septic system. Think about it. If she didn’t know she was on septic, she presumably never followed any of the recommended advice you share about spacing out household flows, for example.

While installers might tell homeowners to restrict clothes laundering to a load or two at time or watch the frequency of toilet flushing or duration of showers, Shields didn’t know any better to do that. Or installers might tell customers to watch out how many relatives come over for Thanksgiving dinner or to refrain from loading the house with long-term guests. Shields would be clueless to control heavy-use events.

And what about maintenance? Typically an installer will talk to users about recommended periodic inspection and pumping, or to clean outlet filters and never drive over the drainfield. Shields blissfully lived her life without these concerns. So she may have driven on, planted a garden over or otherwise abused her drainfield. She never checked for a filter because she didn’t think she had one.

And still, she went 14 years without experiencing symptoms of a failure. And without investing a single dollar into maintaining her septic system. If it weren’t for her paying the city for a sewer service she didn’t receive, I would say she was getting a wastewater service bargain all of these years.


This is not to say I don’t feel empathy for Shields. I do.

The response from the city is disappointing and puts Shields in a bad spot. Officials told her she could only recover the last two years of payments, and that she had no recourse to seek the previous 12 years of payments.

“My problem is if I am not using the service … it’s fraudulent charges,” she said in the story. “How are they coming up with these charges when there’s no usage?”

She was told landlords are responsible for hooking up to the city sewer lines at any point in time, something that was going to be done shortly after Shields experienced the failure. However, it seems like the city should know when it’s receiving payment for service from a property that isn’t hooked up to the municipal pipe.


While this is one little story out of a small town in North Carolina, there are a few important takeaways for system installers:

 Your onsite systems are as effective as Big Pipe. Some folks claim municipal sewer systems provide superior wastewater treatment. You typically hear this message when a city wants to expand its borders into new territory and serve large commercial water and wastewater customers. It’s a marketing message that perhaps held a little bit of truth for past generations of homeowners. But not so much anymore as onsite technology has improved dramatically and decentralized systems often prove more cost-effective than bloated public treatment options. When promoting the private option, you never have to take a backseat to public sewer infrastructure or let anyone argue onsite is a stopgap measure on the way to something better.

The need for customer education never ends. Never assume your clients have a firm grasp on the details of their wastewater treatment. Whenever you encounter a customer  — even if they’ve lived in their house for years  — start your discussion with the Septic 101. As you learned from the situation in North Carolina, a person can go for years without knowing whether their home is served by an onsite system or municipal treatment. Take pains to explain how their onsite system works, the rules for how they should use it, and the importance of ongoing maintenance. Then reinforce that message with follow-up communications or anytime you are called out to their house.

It’s important to help the less fortunate. The renter in our story explained she was on a fixed income and couldn’t afford a mistake like paying for sewer service she wasn’t receiving. Some of your customers may also be in a dire financial situation and you should help out when you can. Sometimes you don’t know the financial burden people are under when they call on you for help. I commend the many installer contractors who try to give a break to senior citizens, military veterans or those faced with unexpected emergency repair or replacement orders. You are a credit to the industry and good stewards of the environment.


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