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 to learn how.

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

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