Septic Systems

Flush It and Forget It: A Recipe for Disaster

By Leslie Corcelli

I grew up in a house with a septic system. It was a wonderful home, built by both of my grandfathers. Although that was some years ago, I vividly remember that we, like most folks, flushed it and forgot about it – until it backed up into our basement, which served as our playroom.

Back then, my father’s approach to plumbing and building maintenance issues was to bring a hammer. He is a brilliant attorney and CPA, but not so well versed in plumbing and mechanical systems. My mother was even less versed, but perhaps a bit more practical about hammers. Suffice it to say, had either of them known that septic systems require regular maintenance, the basement would never have backed up with what we kids called “the nasties.”

Even these days, none of us likes to think about what happens to our “stuff” when we flush. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to flush it and forget it. It’s gross to think about and awkward to talk about. You can’t make friends at parties talking about wastewater – believe me, I’ve tried.

It’s more complicated now, too, than when I was a child. There are myriad cleaning supplies, hygiene products and flushable wipes that are detrimental to both septic and sewer systems. But, we can’t ignore it. We need to take action to prevent “the nasties” from entering our homes and yards, and from affecting the environment. It’s a health risk.

Our septic program has several tools and some simple “dos and don’ts” to help us wade through the murky waters of septic maintenance. These tools and tips can save us money and protect our health.

  • Toilets aren’t trash cans: Don’t flush anything besides human waste and toilet paper.
  • Inspect and pump frequently: Have your septic tank professionally inspected at least every three years and pumped every three to five years.
  • Use water efficiently: All the water a household sends down its pipes winds up in its septic system. The more water a household conserves, the less enters the septic system. Water conservation improves the system’s operation and decreases the risk of failure.
  • Maintain your drainfield: Your septic tank has a drainfield to remove contaminants from the liquid in the tank. Never park, drive or plant trees on it, and keep roof drains and other drainage systems away from it.

Please, don’t flush it and forget it! Visit our Proper Care page to learn more about septic maintenance. You’ll be glad you did.

About the author: Leslie Corcelli is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Leslie has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Getting an Education on Septic Systems

By Leslie Corcelli

Most of us don’t think or talk about where things go when we flush. Let’s face it, it’s a little awkward. However, I’m fortunate enough to be an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Around here, wastewater is the topic. Guess what? There’s a lot more to it than you think.

Did you know that nearly one million households in Virginia have onsite wastewater treatment systems? Many of these are septic systems. For many households and communities, there are site limitations that prevent traditional systems from being practical. That’s where alternative systems are essential.

During EPA’s annual SepticSmart Week, I attended a tour that demonstrated five types of alternative onsite wastewater systems in northern Virginia. The tour covered Fairfax and Loudoun counties and was hosted by Virginia Department of Health, which was accompanied by the Fairfax County Division of Environmental Health and the Loudoun County Health Department.

We visited five very different sites — a residential home, a volunteer fire department, a low-income community, a commercial center, and a residential community with 25 homes. They ranged in age from old to new, and the amount of wastewater generated per day varied from 750 gallons to 22,000 gallons. There were dispersal systems, black water recycling, drainfield systems and sand filters.

In addition to the technical information, I took something else away with me. There are some seriously dedicated wastewater and health professionals at the local, regional, state and federal level who are committed to ensuring public health through effective wastewater management. They have to consider planning, design, installation, and ongoing operations and management, not to mention local, state and federal laws. They also engage with a variety of stakeholders, including the individuals and communities for whom the alternative systems are necessary. It’s quite a feat.

They’re amazing folks, but they need our help. I now realize how important it is for us to do our part. For those of us with septic systems, we need to think much more about what happens when we flush. These systems require maintenance and ongoing management. Maintaining your septic system will save you money and protect your property and environment. Go to http://epa.gov/septicsmart to learn how.

About the author: Leslie Corcelli is an ORISE research participant in EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Our Waters Know No Borders

By Allison Martin

On my recent visit to South Texas with our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program, I met with local residents and learned the challenges they face from failing wastewater treatment systems. One person explained how, during heavy rains, she had to wade through thigh-deep water mixed with sewage in her yard. A mother described her children’s skin and stomach problems due to contact with wastewater.  Another showed me a puddle in her yard. Her son stood a few feet away; he must have been well-instructed that this ever-present puddle above the family’s failing septic system was off limits. But as I eyed the small compound, I had a sinking sense that staying away from the puddle was not eliminating the family’s contact with the wastewater.

Many border communities are economically disadvantaged and can’t bear the financial burden to build or repair their water infrastructure. Failing systems can significantly affect the environment, spilling untreated wastewater into streets, rivers and streams. This can seriously affect community health, increasing the risk of water-borne illnesses such as cholera, typhoid, and gastro-intestinal diseases. Unfortunately, these issues are not isolated. The U.S. and Mexico share many rivers, and sewage discharged into them pollutes our shared water resources.

My trip reemphasized to me the importance of our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program. It funds the planning, design, and construction of high-priority drinking water and wastewater treatment systems in border communities. Meeting with border residents gave me a deeper appreciation for the program’s unique technical assistance component, which helps communities select the type of infrastructure that is right for them. The program also emphasizes community participation, empowering residents to get involved in the process. Most importantly, the projects funded by this program help prevent serious health and environmental problems.

To protect the health and environment of those who call the border home, we have to continue to work collaboratively to treat pollution at the source.  Our U.S.-Mexico border water infrastructure program does just that.

About the author: Allison Martin is an ORISE participant in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Allison supports the U.S.-Mexico Border Water Infrastructure Program, Clean Water Indian Set-Aside Program, and Decentralized Program.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Septic System Nightmare

By Cyndy Kopitsky

The backyard construction site

The backyard construction site

This story I am about to share will hopefully shine a light on one of those “out-of-sight/out-of-mind” homeowner’s responsibilities. To all of you who own homes or plan to make a purchase in the near future in an area without public sewers (if you don’t know whether or not you use a public sewer, please ask!), this story may be of interest.

Homebuyers know that there can be many costs that you encounter after settlement day. We can expect certain larger repairs like a new roof every 30 years or we may opt for energy smart upgrades when the water heater breaks down. These repairs and others are the more obvious types because they are external, but what about the quality and safety of your home insulation or the effectiveness and safety of your septic system? These “hidden” responsibilities could one day cause you an expense and an inconvenience beyond your expectations or imagination.

Septic system repairs

Septic system repairs

That leads me to tell you my experience with the “septic system nightmare.”

One day last week we heard water bubbling noises in the downstairs bathroom sink. Later that day my husband noticed water seeping up from the ground behind our home. After digging a hole, he saw a few pipes were separated by a large gap and water was collecting in the hole. After following instructions to locate the “septic box” and removing steps and cement slabs to get to an access point, my husband called in a professional.

The solution to the bubbling problem was far more complicated than we expected as we watched our backyard turn into a dirt-field and a construction site.  It seemed that because we never pumped out (something that must be done approximately every three years) and the initial system was placed too close to the house and trees 25 years ago, several pipes had broken leading to the septic “field.” I was informed that we were “lucky” and matters could have been worse indeed!

To that end, if you don’t pump out, watch out!

Septic system repairs

Septic system repairs

For more information on septic system maintenance you can visit the U.S. EPA’s Septic Smart webpages at: http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/septic/septicsmart.cfm. In New Jersey more information can be found on the New Jersey Onsite Waste Management webpages at: http://www.nj.gov/dep/dwq/owmp_main.htm. In New York, please visit: https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/3208/.

About the Author: Cyndy Kopitsky has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for 16 years in the Clean Water Division. Currently she is the lead contact for the national Urban Waters Initiative. Cyndy is a far commuter with her home in Cape May County, New Jersey. Her personal interests include housing rescue parrots and macaws, gathering fresh eggs from her 11 chickens, and spending time with her dog, cats and when there is time, with her retired husband John. She loves to bake, she eats healthy foods, and tries to respect the environment with her lifestyle choices.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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After the Flush

A decentralized wastewater treatment system – a package plant – serving an apartment building in Suffolk County, New York.

A decentralized wastewater treatment system – a package plant – serving an apartment building in Suffolk County, New York.

By Kristina Heinemann

What happens after you flush a toilet in New York City?  In most cases household sanitary waste, as well as domestic wastewater from your kitchen and laundry, travels to a central wastewater treatment plant.  But that is not always the case!  In some areas, for example in many parts of Suffolk County, New York and in less developed areas of both New York and New Jersey, domestic wastewater is treated right where it is generated. In these instances wastewater from sinks, tubs, washing machines and toilets typically flows into in a septic tank and then is distributed or dispersed to a larger area where wastewater flows under the ground and is further treated by natural chemical and biological processes within the soil. This type of wastewater treatment is referred to as decentralized wastewater treatment to distinguish from instances where wastewater flows through large sewer pipes to a centralized wastewater treatment plant.  Despite being more common in rural areas, decentralized onsite treatment can even be found in the outer boroughs of New York City and in one instance has been incorporated into the award winning design of a high rise apartment building, the Solaire* in lower Manhattan.

*The Solaire was awarded LEED® Gold Certification by the United States Green Building Council.

Precast concrete rings of the type used in residential leaching pools in Suffolk County, NY

Precast concrete rings of the type used in residential leaching pools in Suffolk County, NY

Just what is decentralized wastewater treatment?

Decentralized wastewater treatment consists of a variety of approaches for collection, treatment, and dispersal/reuse of wastewater. The systems are part of the nation’s permanent infrastructure and can be managed as stand-alone facilities or integrated with centralized sewage treatment systems. They provide a range of treatment options from simple, passive treatment with soil dispersal, commonly referred to as septic or onsite systems, to more complex and mechanized approaches, such as advanced treatment units that collect and treat waste from multiple buildings and discharge to either surface waters or the soil.

Why use decentralized wastewater treatment?

Decentralized wastewater treatment can be a smart alternative for communities considering new systems or modifying, replacing, or expanding existing wastewater treatment systems. For many communities, decentralized treatment can be:

  • Cost-effective and economical
    • Avoiding large capital costs
    • Reducing operation and maintenance costs
    • Promoting business and job opportunities
  • Green and sustainable
    • Benefiting water quality and availability
    • Using energy and land wisely
    • Responding to growth while preserving green space
  • Safe in protecting the environment, public health, and water quality
    • Protecting the community’s health
    • Reducing conventional pollutants, nutrients, and emerging contaminants
    • Mitigating contamination and health risks associated with wastewater

The bottom line is …

Decentralized wastewater treatment can be a sensible solution for communities of any size and demographic. Like any other system, decentralized systems must be properly designed, maintained, and operated to provide optimum benefits. Where they are determined to be a good fit, decentralized systems help communities reach the triple bottom line of sustainability: good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for the people.

Stay tuned for more information on how to care for a decentralized treatment system and   EPA’s Septic Smart tips. See http://water.epa.gov/infrastructure/septic/septicsmart.cfm for a preview!

About the Author: Kristina works in the Clean Water Division and coordinates the Region’s decentralized wastewater treatment (also known as septic systems, onsite wastewater treatment systems) activities in New Jersey, New York and the Caribbean. She lives in Suffolk County, New York and there has had the opportunity to experience first-hand living with and maintaining an onsite wastewater treatment system. Although retirement is still a number of years away, Kristina does sometimes dream of using her golden years to create a decentralized community wastewater treatment system and septic management district in her neighborhood to further protect groundwater and surface water quality.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Keep Your Septic System in Super Shape

By Christina Catanese

With the recent onrush of holiday guests, your septic system probably got a pretty good workout .  And it might not get much recovery time, with football playoffs in full swing, hockey season about to finally start, and the cold days and long nights of winter that beg to be spent indoors with friends and family.

Septic Smart Logo

If you’re among the nearly one in four households served by septic systems, EPA has some “SepticSmart” tips for you to help keep your system in shape:

  • Run the dishwasher and washing machine only when full.  Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products.  Too much water use at once can overload your system, particularly if it hasn’t been pumped in the last couple of years.
  • Avoid pouring fats, grease and solids down the drain, which can clog your system, or toxic material, which can kill the organisms that digest and treat waste.
  • Have your septic system inspected every three years by a licensed contractor and have the tank pumped when necessary, generally every three to five years.  It can cost $3,000 to $7,000 to repair or replace a malfunctioning system compared to the average $250 to $300 cost to pump a septic system.
  • Don’t flush household products down the toilet.  Dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, coffee grounds and cat litter can clog and potentially damage septic systems.
  • Remind guests not to park or drive on your system’s drainfield because the vehicle weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow causing system backups and floods.

A malfunctioning system, in addition to being costly, can kill native plants and fish and shellfish, as well as reduce property values and potentially pose a legal liability.

A properly maintained system helps keep your family’s drinking water clean, reduces the risk of contaminating local waters, and keeps conversation with your guests focused on more pleasant subjects…like the funniest commercials during the big game.

So while you work on your new year’s resolution to be healthier yourself, resolve to keep your septic system in shape too.  For more information, visit www.epa.gov/septicsmart.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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After Hurricane Sandy

By Christina Catanese

Today in Philadelphia, life is beginning to return to normal after Hurricane Sandy.  Our buses, subways, and trains are up and running, most of the fallen tree branches have been cleared away from the streets and sidewalks, and the sun has even peeked through the clouds to help us all start to dry out.  But our concerns remain with those in other parts of the northeast facing a more difficult recovery.  Natural disasters are a reminder to all of us of the power of nature and the importance of being prepared.

Hurricane Sandy's approach to the Northeast United States.  Photo courtesy of NASA.

Hurricane Sandy's approach to the Northeast United States. Photo courtesy of NASA.

After a storm like Sandy, there are a number of things you can do to stay safe when it comes to water.

  • If you have concerns that your drinking water has been contaminated, don’t drink it.  Drink bottled water if it is available and hasn’t been exposed to floodwaters.  Otherwise, boil your water for one minute at a rolling boil to get rid of pathogens.  Learn more about emergency disinfection here.
  • Avoid contact with flood water, as it may have high levels of raw sewage or other hazardous substances.
  • If you have a private well and it has been flooded, do not turn on the pump due to danger of electric shock.  Do not drink or wash with water from the flooded well until it has been tested and deemed safe.
  • If you have a septic system and it has been flooded, do not use the sewage system until water in the soil absorption field is lower than the water level around the house.
  • For water and wastewater facilities, check out these suggested post-hurricane activities to help facilities recover.

Get more information on what you can do to protect health and the environment after severe weather and flooding.

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Maintaining Healthy Waters in Emergencies

Is your water supply secure in case of an emergency or natural disaster?

By Christina Catanese

The CDC’s recent blog about emergency preparedness for the zombie apocalypse got us thinking about Healthy Waters in emergency situations, undead or otherwise.  How can the safety of water and the health of people be maintained during an emergency, and what preparations can be taken in advance to be ready for any issues you may face before, during and after an event?  Whether you are a citizen trying to protect your own health or a facility operator responsible for protecting the health of many others in your community, the best time to plan to protect your source of water is before an emergency.  And whether the emergency involves zombies, a hurricane, or floods, preparedness for water emergencies is key.

Everyone depends on a safe supply of water to operate their business, a hospital or school.  Water is needed to fight fires and it restores hope in communities hit hard by natural disasters.  But natural disasters or other emergencies can disrupt drinking water supplies and wastewater disposal systems.  Conservation or emergency disinfection orders can be issued to affected water system consumers in the aftermath of an event, if the safety of water supplies cannot be immediately ensured.

The tornado outbreak at the end of April 2011 hit states in the southeast the hardest, but in Region 3, storms in Virginia resulted in damage to a number of water systems in the southwestern part of the state, mainly because of power being knocked out by high winds. In some areas, boil water advisories were issued because the water was not safe to drink.  Water systems and water treatment plants need power to treat and distribute water, so it’s important to restore power as soon as possible, either through emergency generators or priority restoration of service.  This protects health of people (by ensuring that affected populations have access to safe drinking water), pets and water bodies (by making sure that waste gets treated before it is discharged to rivers).

Have your own septic system?  Be aware of actions you need to take to protect you and your family if your system becomes flooded.  Have a private well for your drinking water?  Check out our blog “Is your well well?” for information about how to maintain the quality of your private well or disinfect it if necessary.

There are both planning and recovery efforts in any emergency event.  That’s why EPA has provided resources on suggested pre- and post- disaster event activities to water facilities, like tabletop exercises, staff training, and facility evaluation.  EPA has also provided grants to purchase emergency generators so they have a backup source of power in case of an outage.  To learn more about emergency generators see our regional factsheet.

There’s also the Water/Wastewater Agencies Response Network, a network that lets water utilities in an emergency situation request the help of other utilities, which can provide emergency assistance, from people to equipment.  It can also be used for smaller, non-disaster emergencies, as it was recently during a water main break in Harrisburg, when nearby water companies responded to the PaWARN activation to assist with the repairs. If your utility is not a member, contact your WARN Chair.

Have more questions about water security in the Mid Atlantic RegionFind out who to ask at EPA.

Have you assembled an emergency kit in your house, or taken any other preparatory measures for an emergency?  Do you know of any preparations being done in your community?  Get involved with community based resiliency!

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, and her work focuses on data analysis and management, GIS mapping and tools, communications, and other tasks that support the work of Regional water programs. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a B.A. in Environmental Studies and Political Science and an M.S. in Applied Geosciences with a Hydrogeology concentration. Trained in dance (ballet, modern, and other styles) from a young age, Christina continues to perform, choreograph and teach in the Philadelphia area.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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