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

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:

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