Sunday, April 15, 2007

13 Things About Septic Systems

The house has a private sewage treatment system - a fancy name for a septic system. Although I have lived several houses with septic systems, I have never be the property owner. Wirenut, on the other hand, has never lived with one at all. So we have been doing a lot of research on them. Here is what have learned:

1) The lifespan on a concrete tank is about 50 years (ours is 23).

2) For two people who conserve water, it could go 20 years between pumpings. It is, however, better to pump at least every 5 years.

3) Septic systems contribute to groundwater, which can be useful during times of drought.

4) Trees and shrubs should not be planted in the drain field, as their roots can cause the drain field to clog and fail.

5) Nitrates are the biggest pollution concern with a properly operating septic system. According to the Chesapeake Bay Journal, "In Maryland, the Office of Planning has calculated that — on average — 65 percent of the nitrogen that leaves a septic drainfield reaches the groundwater, and that 75 percent of the nitrogen reaching the groundwater ultimately reaches surface water." Nitrogen pollution is a big concern in The Bay, and since we are within the watershed area, this is a concern for us.

6) There are newer septic systems that can reduce nitrogen levels, but they are generally only installed in new systems. It will cost a lot to retrofit an older system, so its generally acceptable to wait until it fails and then upgrade to the newer systems.

7) Phosphorus is also a byproduct of septic systems and a concern to water quality, but since it tends to bind to the soil, its not a large concern.

8) Bacteria and virus can also flow from the septic system into the ground. After years of use, a "bio-mat" forms and removes these pollutants. Our septic system is almost 40 years old. I think we have a bio-mat.

9) Never use commercial additives in the septic system. Despite what they say, they are bad for the organisms that live in the tank.

10) Garbage disposals are not good for septic systems. If you use one, you should pump the tank more often. In our county, garbage disposals are against code when you have a septic system. Wirenut is very uphappy about this point. It will force us to compost more.

10) Septic systems are happier when your sump pump and laundry water is not pumped into them. Too much water coming in at once can flood the tank, causing the sludge to run down the pips into the drain field. This is bad. These should go into a drywell. But, there are phosphorus concers from that too. This demands more research by me.

11) The tank is pretty gross. My father fell into one once. I hope that never happens to me. I hope Wirenut never falls in either.

12) Its not good to have a "laundry day" when you have a septic system (assuming the washer empties into it). This can flood your tank, which is a bad thing. So we will have to spread out our laundry. We will also have a front-load washer. Since these use a lot less water than top-load washers, this will reduce the water loads.

13) A septic system is a temporary solution, albeit a 50+ year long one, to a permanent problem. Someday, it will need to be replaced.

Summary: Having a septic system is not a bad thing in general. It requires more homeowner maintainence than a public system, but it also makes the homeowner more aware of their impact. The environmental impacts of a septic system are really not that bad. Yes, you are releasing nitrogen into the groundwater, but this can be controled in new systems. You are replenishing groundwater, which is a good thing. And public sewer systems dump waste water into our rivers and streams at a single point. Like anything, there are tradeoffs. But after doing this research, I believe the septic is not the horrible environmental polluter I feared, and with a little water convervation and awareness, it no worse than public sewer. It puts us in control of our waste water pollution, rather than our impact being clouded by whatever other crap our fellow citizens flush down their drains.

sources: Wikipedia, Chesapeake Bay Journal, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Michigan State University Deparment of Agricultual Engineering, Thomas Miller with the MD Cooperative Extension Office.


Anonymous said...

Well researched and well said! I work in the wastewater field and you have hit the major points right on target.

Betty Saenz said...

I am so glad to "know" you via your post. I am researching GREEN septic systems to further my Earth helping work as an EcoBroker (GREEN REALTOR) and environmental educator.

Anonymous said...

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