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.

| February/March 2008

conventional gravity septic system

A conventional gravity septic system used on level ground.

Illustration by Peter Aschwanden

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.

5/3/2016 4:00:04 PM

Great article - Coincidentally , if anyone is interested a a form , my wife used a template version here

1/1/2014 4:58:19 AM

Prices have gone way higher than you can believe now. And it is mainly because the septic systems of modern days are more advanced than the past. Ask a, and he will tell you how much old systems cause problems these days.

s springer
1/2/2013 6:52:21 PM

Yep, I live in a small town in Ohio and it was a nightmare getting my sewage system. Ended up overdesingning to the toon of around 15,000 to get it passed without fussing. Our problem stemmed from a couple homeowners had tank failures and put in straight pipes to the ditches. Rather than demand fixes to those homes and punish those home owners, they are trying to force about 30 homes to put in a $40,000 per home system, where about half the homes in the effected area are worth less than $100K. All thanks to the Ohio EPA. The system I put in is a mound with a lift station. I have 3000 galoons worth of holding tanks under ground. I purchased and designed a system by Presby Environmental that seemed to get through our local Health Department without too many interruptions. All of this was because some engineer said the water table was just a couple feet below grade, even though I sit on a ridge roughly 15 feet higher grade than the ditch a couple hundred yards away, and I have a basement that has no issues with water. It absolutely ridiculas the harm that is being caused to home owners by the EPA, when all is required is individuals to properly maintain what they have. My system is designed with several fail safes specified by me, along with being in compliance. 2200 gallons met the compliance size for the number of bedrooms I have, and the lift station is in a 750 gallon tank. Personal responsibility is the solution, not these mega million dollar systems that cost tax payers tens of thousands of dollars.

t brandt
10/25/2012 10:49:00 AM

Can't say I feel sorry for you.Yours is a superfluous industry created & sustained strictly by industry lobbying. The underground house I'm about to build will cost less than the septic system I'm required to install.. How is a septic system principally different than a simple, old fashioned pit latrine? In each, solids are captured in a holding area and liquids are dispersed to the environment underground. Are dog, cat, bird, deer, etc E.coli on the lawn substantially different than that from humans?

sean d'ambrosia
10/25/2012 2:52:09 AM

I am a septic installer and inspector in massachussetts. The regs changed in 1995 and for good reason the ecoli rates were off the chart. The money is not great in this industry we struggle to make ends meet. The average system costs with engineering between 15,000 to 24,000.

mark j. sigouin
7/15/2009 4:26:56 PM

This author has only forwarded his opinion, but spun it as "Truth". There are four overriding themes running through the article. All people want is your money, all regulators are evil and driven to get even more of your money, all those with college degrees and legitimate accreditation in the subject of onsite sewage disposal are just stupid, and even those "environmentalists" like himself who should know better are mislead. And it is good to know that the author is in the first category since he is trying to sell his book. Man, how did this article get through a responsible editor? Does this magazine have independent fact checkers? Even more, the author has a personal spin and what sounds like a personal axe to grind about his own "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy and general lack of knowledge on onsite sewage disposal. While there are occasional glimpses of clarity acknowledging that septic systems can experience problems, the author fails to provide any scale to what is or causes a real problem. Instead he dives back into the everybody involved in the subject is just greedy, and an idiot. That is excepting himself and a certain "Sewage Messiah" mentioned once, but apparently not worth actually interviewing. Given human nature to ignore problems, anyone with a problem but hoping to not have to spend money would immediate think they don't have a problem even if they were constantly treading in toilet waste everyday in the back yard. It's just a spring, right?

2/11/2008 12:00:36 AM

I’m astounded how forcefully the writer defends polluters. There are so many reasons septic tanks need to be upgraded – systems get old and breakdown. People are lazy and don’t maintain them. Regulations get tighter. And towns grow in population. You wouldn’t let your roof go for 30 to 50 years without maintaining it and without replacing it – the same is true of your septic system. A roof protects you from the weather; a septic tank protects the environment from you. I’m proud city and federal leaders make clean water a priority, and we should continue raising the bar on everyone – homes, businesses and farms. The goal is a clean healthy environment, so builders should be required to install the cleanest septic system, not the cheapest. It’s the right thing to do. Defending the folks in Los Osos is disheartening – the town has been thumbing their nose at local and federal clean water laws for three decades now with absolutely nothing to show for it. Every other city and town in this nation must meet clean water standards and so should they. They’re not heroes, they’re polluters. I disagree with this author – his motive is saving money when it should be what’s best for the environment.

2/6/2008 4:20:07 PM

Lloyd Kahn article on septic systems is very informative but does not tell the whole truth about the pro's and con's of sewage disposal by septic system. I whole hardedly agree with Mr. Kahn that monuds, while innovative, are far to expensive to be used for anything but dire need. Septic systems, ground disopsal, by their very nature are designed to fail and they fail in two ways. The day they are put into use starts the process. Sewage is quite dense and starts clogging soil pores thus stopping percolation and ultimately breaking the surface of the ground. Failure One. Ground water is to close to the bottom of the system or the soil does not have sufficient filter medium to properly cleanse the sewage thus contaminating ground water. Failure Two. This failure is never seen but is the most dangerous to human health. We know from contaminated wells in a Frederick County, Maryland Subdivision of this fact. Failing systems into ground water were traced by dying these systems and the results showing up in adjoining property water wells. In this way the offending septic systems were Located. Following the contamination was that simple and you can't tell me drinking water from those wells did not pose a major health risk. The fact is many persons have been hospitalized from just this problem. The pressure to develop land that is not suitable for residential use is part and parcel the reason unconventional systems are being proposed, designed and build. My friends this is called cooperate greed and government bending to that will, sad to say. Bob Lloyd Ewa Beach, Hawaii

2/6/2008 10:17:50 AM

My folks live in a gated community in southern new england and the trend in their bayfront community is that people aren't driving bentleys and cadillacs and gas hogs but they're burying the equivalent money in their side yards in retrofit septic systems that wash, cleanse, filter and coddle the ick from their blackwater. With mound filters that look like cold war bunkers. I'm sure it is generally good for the environment but the overall water quality it not ascending as it declined as the other sources of contaminants are still there. Livestock, chemical, urban centers and excess fertilization are not being corrected because they can't afford it or the profit model of the business doesn't accomodate responsibility. So we sniff our cabernet and vent our fields of green mounds and feel much better about ourselves. And we still can't rake any safe shellfish from the sound. The regulations need to affect those with the greater causality for improper outflow to the waterways. ā

cinthea t coleman
2/6/2008 8:24:53 AM

thanks for your most excellent article. i live in los osos, CA actually the part of los osos that's called "baywood park". i've known the water here is fine for 7 years and that the regional water board, county and newly-formed community services district have all been lying. we've NEVER had a septic survey. in jan, 2005, i was "randomly-selected" to receive a "draft cease & desist order". 83-13 or "the basin plan" says i can't use water in/discharge anything from my home. we could not challenge the basin plan and were "convicted" after a year of "hearings" (abuse) and given CDO's. 11 of us are fighting in court. i suggest you get in touch with ""...editor of The Rock newspaper and "" with technology that can SAVE our community. now, because of assemblyman sam blakeslee's AB 2701, the county has taken over building a (gravity) sewer and just got a bizarre 218 vote passed that was "weighted" and "open" but we can't know there's probably less than 10 property owners who carried the balloting.

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