septic

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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Helping Communities Plan for Climate Change

image of sunset over water

Before coming to EPA, I had an opportunity to work at Carolinas Integrated Sciences and Assessments, studying climate change in North and South Carolina. These two states have some of the most beautiful beach towns I’ve ever visited, and both enjoy breathtaking mountain views in their upstate areas. Unfortunately, many of these scenic places, and the communities and habitats within them, are threatened by climate change impacts like sea level rise, increasing precipitation and increasing temperatures. The health of people and the environment, and the viability of the local economy are all at stake. When I spoke to people in the area about the situation, they repeatedly told me that they need tools to help them identify specific climate impacts and potential solutions.

As part of EPA’s Climate Ready Estuaries (CRE) project, I’ve been able to help develop some of these tools, while working on climate resiliency on a national scale. We recently published, “Being Prepared for Climate Change: A Workbook for Developing Risk-Based Adaptation Plans,” which is intended to help environmental managers and planners identify climate change risks and select adaption actions to address the most pressing ones. The San Juan Bay Estuary Program in Puerto Rico has already successfully used the workbook to identify its climate risks; the report they’ve developed will be used to inform future efforts to develop an adaptation action plan.

The CRE program will feature the workbook and the San Juan Bay pilot project during several webinars and conferences throughout the next year to introduce it to stakeholders and provide technical assistance on the methodology.

I’m pleased that although I no longer work in the southeast, I am still able to support those communities and others across the country through my work with EPA. I encourage you to learn more about what EPA and other federal agencies are doing to help Americans adapt to current and potential climate change risks, and download your copy of the workbook. Maybe you can help your community increase its resiliency to climate change.

About the author: Ashley (Brosius) Stevenson is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education participant working with Climate Ready Estuaries in EPA’s Office of Water. She received her Master’s in International Affairs from American University, as well as a Masters in Natural Resources & Sustainable Development from the University for Peace in Costa Rica. She enjoys spending time with her family at their beach home in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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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Is Your Septic System Ready for the Big Game?

By Maureen Tooke

I come from a large family and get-togethers can be stressful, even for our septic system. My family is just one of the nearly one-quarter of U.S. households that should follow a few simple steps to avoid problems with their systems during family gatherings and parties, like many that will happen for Sunday’s big football game.

While we’re all familiar with how the system works and are careful to maintain it, all that extra flushing and water use during parties can really stress the system, causing it to fail.
 
I remember several things in particular my mom would do around the house, in addition to having it inspected and pumped, which were good daily practices to ensure that our system worked. 

Kitchens back in the day didn’t have garbage disposals, so she would put food waste in a little bag and throw it in the trash.  She would also put the grease from the Sunday morning bacon in a tin can for it to harden and then throw it away.  Turns out that it was a good thing we didn’t have a disposal, as EPA recommends you not use one if you have a septic system.  All that extra food waste and cooking grease clogs the system. There’s nothing worse than your septic system backing up!

For the bathroom, she’d buy thin toilet paper and we’d never flush anything other than what we were supposed to, though I’m sure one of my brothers’ little green army guys might have slipped in when no one was looking.  My dad would stay on us about taking short showers and not running the faucet while we brushed.  These are good water conservation practices, regardless.

Like my mom, EPA’s SepticSmart program has easy to remember tips about keeping your system properly maintained during the big game and all year long:

  • Get your septic system inspected by a professional at least every three years and pumped every three to five years.
  • Don’t flush anything besides human waste and toilet paper.
  • Never pour cooking oil or grease down the drain.
  • Never park or drive on your septic drainfield.
  • Conserve water around the home as much as possible since all of the water a household sends down its pipes winds up in its septic system.

Proper system care and maintenance are vital to protecting public health, water resources and your property value.

About the author: Maureen Tooke is an Environmental Protection Specialist who works in the Office of Wastewater Management in EPA’s Region 10 Idaho Operations Office in Boise. She lives in the North End with her fiancé and dog.

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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Growing up SepticSmart in New Jersey

By Maureen Tooke

I grew up in New Jersey, which is the most densely-populated state in the U.S. Most urban and suburban areas—like much of New Jersey—rely on sewer systems to handle their wastewater. But I grew up in northwestern part of the state, which looks more like the rural countryside than the New Jersey most people immediately think of.

The house that I and my family of seven lived in was great, with one exception: it did not have a properly-functioning septic system. But working on EPA’s septic system program, I am not surprised. Our house was built for a family of four in the 1970s, before the rest of the surrounding housing development. When our house was built, the housing development’s sewer lines didn’t exist yet. Our septic system, including the drainfield, was located in the front yard, which is generally not where a septic system should be installed. Our yard was also lined with about a dozen pine trees, which also contributed to the less than ideal scenario for our septic system; tree roots can damage the drain lines and cause them to fail, leaving water with nowhere to go.

My father was an engineer, so he knew enough to know that our septic system was not properly functioning, and he would call the pumpers to service the system on occasion. When the time was approaching for our system to be pumped, we’d have to conserve water, as there would be little room left in the septic tank. (Ever taken a “Navy shower ?” Get in, get wet, turn the water off, shampoo, wash and water back on to rinse. In the winter, this process was a bit brutal.) We also didn’t run all our appliances that used water at the same time so as not to flood the system and avoided putting cooking oil or grease down the drain, per proper septic system maintenance practices.

I now know how important it is for homeowners to be educated consumers about their septic system, just as they are with anything else they own that requires periodic maintenance, like a vehicle. To promote proper septic system use and maintenance, EPA is launching SepticSmart, a national program to help educate homeowners about the need for periodic septic system maintenance and proper system use. For information on SepticSmart or tips on how to properly maintain your septic system, visit www.epa.gov/septicsmart.

About the author: Maureen Tooke is an Environmental Protection Specialist who works in the Office of Wastewater Management at EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. She lives on Capitol Hill with her dog, near many friends and colleagues.” You can see other examples on the Greenversations page: http://blog.epa.gov/blog/.

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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