Installing Septic Systems With Management in Mind

Each component of the treatment process needs to be continually evaluated as part of an ongoing operations and maintenance process

Installing Septic Systems With Management in Mind

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When I started working in this industry, it was as a researcher, specifically on the movement of water (effluent) through the soil. This is a rather narrow slice of everything that goes on relative to an onsite wastewater treatment system. If you take a step back and look at a system as a whole, it’s not long before you realize that having long-lasting systems requires a lot of effort on everyone’s part: from regulatory agencies, to the homeowner, to the designer, to the installer, to the service provider and others.

To this day, some 40 years later, it’s my opinion that way too often there is a separation or disconnect that occurs between these different people that causes the systems to not function the way they were intended, and as a result they do not last as long as they should. This is one of reasons the idea of different management levels was articulated back the in late ‘90s as the EPA was looking at how to improve these systems. It was also part of the reason they searched for or encouraged development of responsible management entities to take care of systems, perform required maintenance and replace the systems when necessary.

One positive outcome of the discussion has been the recognition that systems need to be installed properly and all systems need maintenance over their life span. It was also recognized that everyone involved has certain responsibilities to see that the system is taken care of so it protects the environment and public health while meeting the homeowners’ needs.

In this series, I will focus on residential onsite wastewater treatment systems where the system collects, treats and disperses the wastewater from the residence. A typical residential system has the following pieces: the residence as the source, collection, pretreatment components, and final treatment and dispersal. Each of these four pieces in the treatment process need to be continually evaluated as part of an ongoing operations and maintenance process. I intend to look at each part and then discuss some of the ways an installer’s management of the system can be facilitated or improved. 

For the purposes of this discussion, management is defined as the steps necessary to conduct operations and maintenance. From a regulatory perspective, management is the framework that allows steps for proper operations and maintenance of onsite wastewater treatment systems. From my perspective, those steps begin with the initial concept and design. If the “right” system is not selected based on homeowner requirements and site characteristics, no amount of operations and maintenance in the future will make that system function the way it should. Again, in my opinion, this is why a number of efforts at warranting and insuring systems have failed: there were a number of systems in any given area that did not have much of chance to work because bad decisions were made at the time of design and permitting.  

About the author 
Jim Anderson is connected with the University of Minnesota onsite wastewater treatment education program and is an emeritus professor in the university’s Department of Soil Water and Climate. Send him questions about septic system maintenance and operations by email to


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