The Truth About Septic Systems

Vested interests are making on-site wastewater disposal more costly than it needs to be. This article explains how septic systems and alternatives work and provides good background information in the event that you’re in a similar situation.

  • conventional gravity septic system
    A conventional gravity septic system used on level ground.
    Illustration by Peter Aschwanden
  • mound septic system
    Sand mound septic systems create an unattractive landscape.
    Illustration by Dave Channon
  • mound system
    Typical mound system. Effluent is pumped to the mound, which functions as a drainfield.
    Illustration by Peter Aschwanden
  • Cross-Section of Typical Drainfield
    Cross-section of a typical drainfield pipe.
    Illustration by Peter Aschwanden
  • healthy septic tank
    A healthy septic tank with scum on the top (A), liquids flowing to the drainfield (B) and sludge on the bottom (C). Right: A tank that was not pumped out, causing it to clog
    Illustration by Peter Aschwanden

  • conventional gravity septic system
  • mound septic system
  • mound system
  • Cross-Section of Typical Drainfield
  • healthy septic tank

It came to my attention on a quiet summer day in 1989 — heavy trucks were rolling down the dirt road. Trees were being cut down; stumps, bulldozed. Twenty truckloads of sand and gravel were brought in. My neighbor was adding a small addition to his house, and because of local building codes, he had to install a “mound” septic system. The landscape-disrupting mound, along with pumps and complex plumbing, cost more than $40,000! In contrast, my conventional gravity-powered septic system, built for less than $3,000 in 1971 on land with the same soil profile, has worked reliably for 36 years.

Homeowners across the United States are being confronted by regulators and engineers decreeing that their septic systems are failing and must be replaced by complex and expensive alternatives. It’s a trend that’s been gaining momentum over the past decade for both single-family homes and community sewer systems. Many of these expensive wastewater disposal systems are unnecessary and being forced on homeowners under false pretenses in order to generate maximum income — often federal “Clean Water” grant funding. For several years I have been working with science researcher John Hulls, attempting to educate homeowners about septic systems so they can deal intelligently with officials when confronted with expensive upgrades; this article summarizes our advice.

The push for expensive wastewater disposal is not a movement; there is no central headquarters. Rather, it’s a recurring theme. Why is there virtually no media attention about this phenomenon? Well, septic systems are underground — out of sight, out of mind — and they tend to work so well (and silently) that people are scarcely aware of their function. Then there’s the “eeeeyu” factor: Feces is not a subject for polite conversation or one that inspires rational discussion.

Yes, there are some failing septic systems that need fixing, and there are soils unsuitable and lots too small for conventional systems. Certainly, septic systems that leak into wells should be condemned. There also are areas where soil characteristics and population densities are leading to problems with nitrates in groundwater. But I think  many, if not most, of the “upgrades” now being required are not necessary for either environmental or health reasons.

There’s Money in Sewage

There’s always been money to be made in sewage and garbage — stuff people don’t want to mess with — and the sums presently generated in the U.S. on-site wastewater disposal industry are enormous. For example, if a bill that’s in the California legislature (AB 885) as of this printing mandates statewide septic requirements as restrictive as those in affluent California counties, the cost could be as much as $30 billion in mandatory home septic upgrades in California alone (not counting new systems) — if only one-third of the systems were targeted for replacement.

I’ve been amazed by the scale, by the lack of accountability, by the hoodwinking of the public and by so many homeowners placidly accepting their fates. If you own a home with a septic system and haven’t been pushed to upgrade to an expensive new system yet, I bet you will be in the next five years. The amount of money to be made is just too great for this new industry to slow down on its own accord.

8/29/2019 10:53:29 AM

We live on a hill near a lake. We are a fair distance from the lake and have lived here 20 years. It is a two bedroom one bath home on septic. We have a leak in our driveway that is clear water and a neighbor complained and called the Health Department. They tested and said we have some crazy number of e coli in this water. It has no smell and is not sewage. It is our leachfield not draining properly and running downhill. We own a level lot next to us. They dug a hole to test that soil. They said our current field is clay and no longer absorbing. They said it is common here. So they tested the other lot and claim it is not absorbing either. (However it poured after they dug the hole and there was no water in it when we walked over to check.) They came back with a total of $26K to put in some new system with two tanks and a long explanation. We cannot fathom that our teeny home with two people and one bathroom needs this waste treatment center. There is all this pressure from the county threatening law suit and we don't feel like there is anyone to get a second opinion. They use their own people. What can we do to make sure we are not being taken for a ride? The guy told my husband "you're lucky you have this lot next door or you'd probably be losing your house." WTH?

1/12/2019 8:23:16 PM

We purchased land and are building a modular home. Our lab includes 4k for a septic but now the health department says we need a mound system. I've reviewed estimated from 14k up to 22k. Of all the neighbors only 1 had a mound system. These are 5 acre reacts of land. They say there's only 18 inches above water table. An I wish to hire a soul scientist to try and get out of this expensive system? That's a big difference I can't come up with and our house will be set within 2 weeks. Any advice?

12/28/2017 4:28:53 PM

My Mother is concerned that the septic tank needs to be pumped. It was last done about 10-12 years ago. She seems to think that she can extend the time untill it needs to be pumped out again by throwing the used toilet paper in the trash rather than flushing it. I've heard this is a common practice in Mexico. I think the practice is disgusting. She thinks it'll save her money. Can anybody shed some light on this issue.

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