The Truth About Septic Systems

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A conventional gravity septic system used on level ground.
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Sand mound septic systems create an unattractive landscape.
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Typical mound system. Effluent is pumped to the mound, which functions as a drainfield.
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Cross-section of a typical drainfield pipe.
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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

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.

The Players

You will encounter four categories of people who promote expensive septic systems: engineers, regulators, developers and misguided environmentalists.

Engineers. Don’t assume that an academic degree necessarily ensures competence, design skill or honesty. I’ve seen civil engineers repeatedly distort science and dupe the public in order to justify exorbitant fees. Remember that it’s in their interest for systems to be failing. John H. (Timothy) Winneberger, Ph.D., is a botanist and a renowned pioneer in advocating on-site sewage disposal as opposed to sewers for small towns; he is the author of Septic Systems, a Consultant’s Toolkit. Winneberger says claims of health hazards from failing septic systems are vastly exaggerated, that accusations of pollution are more political than scientific, and that the field is rife with misinformation. He says there’s no scientific evidence that people get ill from failing septic systems. “Nitrogen just does not want to travel through soils,” he says. “Neither do bacteria or viruses. It’s really immaterial because the accusation is all that’s needed. There is no scientific follow-up to put these guys (engineers) in their places.”

Regulators. Many health agencies are funded by permits and fees, so the more expensive the systems, the bigger their department’s income. I think many regulators just honestly don’t understand the science of on-site wastewater systems; they’re taking the word of “experts.” Also, in many states, county health regulators are forced into unrealistic requirements by state agencies — in California, by the State Water Resources Control Board.

Developers. Some landowners want to use grant money to build expensive septic systems to increase their land’s value before selling it.

Environmentalists. I consider myself an environmentalist, but I’ve seen misguided ones condemning septic systems without the most basic understanding of them.

Small Towns

This all started for me in 1989 when a multimillion dollar wastewater plan was suddenly sprung on my hometown of Bolinas, Calif. E. coli (Escherichia coli) had reportedly been discovered in a creek and, even though no tests were done to determine if the bacteria were coming from human, wildlife or livestock waste, the septic systems of all 300 houses in town were declared failing. Engineers were hired to design a plan. (These same engineers had previously been hired to write the county’s alternative wastewater standards.) Federal Clean Water grant money was available, so apparently a need had been manufactured to obtain the money.

The plan called for “community leachfields,” i.e., dumping sewage effluent on various town lots. My neighbor was going to have sewage from 20 houses pumped to a lot next to his house. Townspeople rose up. A year of town meetings, passionate debate and newspaper articles ensued. We shot the plan down, but barely.

The engineers ended up collecting $500,000 for designs that were never built. That amount would have fixed all the failing systems (maybe there were 10) with enough left over to provide needed drainage for the entire town.

Since then I’ve seen the same modus operandi in small towns country-wide. For example, there is another California town currently wrestling with a multimillion dollar rip-off of homeowners and taxpayers. In Los Osos, an ongoing $150million wastewater nightmare has homeowners facing $300 to $400 monthly sewer payments for a plan that is $50 million more expensive than the cheaper, more ecological plan many townspeople want. 

Monte Rio, Calif., was presented with a ludicrous plan designed to maximize profit for engineers and benefit developers. The project was recently abandoned by Sonoma County due to ballooning costs, and at least some of the local homeowners are investigating how much in government funds were spent on engineering and planning costs. (This is a win-win situation for the engineers in that they get paid handsomely for design even when their plans are unworkable.)

Small towns all over the country are grappling with similar situations.

Single Homes

It’s also happening with individual homes. For example, if your system fails (or you build an addition that prompts stricter septic requirements), you must hire an engineer to design a $50,000 (where I live) mound system instead of a simple gravity-powered septic system that would work just fine in most locations.

I wondered if this was just a California phenomenon, so I ran a short notice in MOTHER EARTH NEWS early last year asking people to contact me if they had encountered new and expensive wastewater requirements. I received more than 75 replies from all over the country.

Geauga County, Ohio: “The new mound will be larger than our house. How to pay for it? Bye-bye savings.”

Whatcom County, Wash.: “The assessor came onto my property and told me when the sewer goes down my road, he will increase my property’s tax valuation to $1.2 million dollars! I bought these 19.51 acres, with two trashed houses and a barn, for $195,000 and could barely afford the taxes on it then, almost $2,000. Now my taxes are almost $5,000, and our income has not increased at all.”

Northport, Mich.: “The firm that assessed the village’s need for the sewer is the same one that designed it and is now planning to build it.”

Spooner, Wis.: “We were planning to buy a piece of land for $6,000 where a tornado had leveled the house — until we were told we’d need a $30,000 mound system.”

Hillsdale County, Mich.: “Exasperated homeowners are fed up with eyesores for yards, not to mention costs of these systems that force mortgage refinancing for those whose homes are nearly paid off.”

Thurston County, Wash.: “I am going through this nightmare now. FYI, the system has not failed, there is no sewage on the surface of the ground, no sewage backup, no sewage leaks, no soggy ground, no smells, no soil investigation (indicating) human pathogens.”

From a general contractor in Shasta County, Calif.: “I have seen people with the most perfect soil (for a conventional gravity system) get turned down for various reasons and have to hire a septic designer, and that’s where it gets expensive.”

Water Pollution and Scientific Testing

Water pollution is commonly measured by either pathogens or nitrates (and more recently pharmaceuticals).

Pathogens: Huge sums are being spent because E. coli is being discovered in local waterways. But regulators are not testing to see if the E. coli is from humans, livestock or wildlife. Recently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has promoted Bacterial Source Tracking (BST), a new methodology that examines DNA to determine the actual sources of fecal bacteria.

If E. coli contamination from septic systems is alleged as the reason for excessive septic regulations in your area, ask your health officials if BST has been utilized. If not, the mere presence of E. coli does not indicate failing septic systems. “My hypothesis is that if we get good source tracking, septic systems are going to look awfully good,” says E. Jerry Tyler, Ph.D., Professor in the Soil Science Department, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and co-author of The Wisconsin Mound Manual.

I’ve seen regulators and engineers stonewall accurate BST testing because they want to blame septic systems. And by the way, BST is no longer “too expensive.”

Nitrates: Nitrates in groundwater can be a real problem. But nitrate contamination of groundwater should not be an excuse for blanket application of Draconian standards in the absence of scientific testing. Nitrate impact from septic systems is actually minimal compared to runoff from agricultural fertilizers, cattle feedlots, atmospheric pollution and large discharges of municipal waste.

Depth to Groundwater and Percolation Tests

Individual homeowners are generally being forced into “advanced” systems as opposed to conventional gravity systems due either to a requirement that there be 24 inches of unsaturated soil above groundwater level in the wettest months, or because water does not percolate through the soil fast enough. These rules are intended to assure wastewater never seeps to the surface, and they presume that such seepage is dangerous.

When I asked Winneberger about the risks involved with effluent surfacing, he said, “If someone in the house has an illness and the pathogen survives the septic tank (not likely) and surfaces on the ground, and a baby crawls along and drinks it, the baby could get that illness. But what are the chances of that occurring?” He went on to say, “I don’t know of any bona fide case of anyone getting an illness from septic tank effluent surfacing.”

Also, cost has to be a factor in these decisions. There is no such thing as zero risk. In a 2000 study sponsored by theEPA, it was concluded that “acceptable risk levels, rather than zero risk, need to be targeted with due awareness of attendant costs and benefits.”

Most of the septic designers I talked with said perk tests, as currently conducted, are relatively worthless. Pouring water in holes to see if it disappears does not accurately gauge water absorption capabilities.

What Can You Do?

Jennifer Hause is an engineering scientist with the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University. Her organization answers questions regarding on-site sewage disposal [(800) 624-8301]. “The main problems I see,” she says, “are lack of education and lack of maintenance.” It’s going to be a difficult battle for homeowners in coming years, but education is the foundation for participating in the dialogue.

Maintaining your system is the key to its functionality and longevity. (I’ve posted the chapter from our book on septic system maintenance.)

I hope this forewarning will help you forearm yourself with knowledge. Get to know your septic system. Do some research on on-site wastewater disposal so you can maintain your system — and so you’ll be prepared to deal with this situation. There’s a lot at stake here.

Three Main Types of Septic Systems

There are three broad types of septic systems: conventional gravity systems, mound systems and “advanced” treatment systems.

Conventional gravity systems: Waterborne waste flows to the tank by gravity, and effluent (the liquid part of wastewater) exits the tank to the drainfield (or leachfield) by gravity. No pumps, electricity or mounds. (A drainfield is a series of perforated underground pipes through which effluent is dispersed so that it can gradually seep into the subsoil.) This all goes on underground. And if things work properly, the soil purifies the effluent and returns clean water to the water table. It’s a “green” system. “Soil has this marvelous capacity for treating all these constituents,” says George Tchobanoglous, Ph.D., and co-author of the “bible” of the wastewater industry, Small and Decentralized Wastewater Systems.

Mound systems: Large man-made, aboveground mounds of sand and gravel are installed when authorities think conventional drainfields won’t be adequate. This system is run by electrical pumps. See the illustration below. Mounds are expensive, use a lot of resources, don’t work when the power is off, and are more prone to failure.

“Advanced” treatment systems: This includes a wide range of systems or additions to conventional systems, such as sand filters, aerobic units or trickling biofilters. An example is Orenco’s AdvanTex system.

There is a continuum of less expensive options between a gravity system and the most advanced systems. If something goes wrong with a gravity system, it doesn’t mean you have to automatically go to a mound or other high-tech replacement. There are steps that can be taken to fix a gravity system without paying big bucks to replace it.

So why are mound or advanced systems required? Small towns are generally being forced to “upgrade” due to alleged pollution of local waterways or groundwater. Individuals are facing installation of expensive, other-than-conventional systems due to a requirement that there be, for example, 24 inches of unsaturated soil to depth of groundwater during the “wet season,” or soil that does not percolate (drain) “fast enough.”

An Example of Faulty Reasoning

In 1996 a shellfish farming operation on Virginia’s eastern shore was shut down due to E. coli in the waters; the assumed culprit: “must be from septic systems” — yet there were none in the area. But there were a lot of raccoons. When 180 raccoons were trapped and removed, the contamination ceased and the tidal creeks were reopened to shellfishing.

Lloyd Kahn doesn’t take any crap when it comes to septic systems. He served for a year on a county septic advisory committee and has followed all matters septic over the past 15 years, starting when his town was confronted with a corrupt $7 million wastewater plan in the late ’80s. In 2000, he wrotThe Septic System Owner’s Manual. The new edition (2007) remains the single best book about septic systems for homeowners.