When they follow these operation and maintenance rules, homeowners will be happier and you’ll have fewer emergency calls.
Iget a lot of questions regarding educating homeowners about their onsite systems. One thing that we recommended in Minnesota was that every new system installed should come with an owner’s manual covering general operation and maintenance requirements for their system. As an installer or service provider, this is something that you should provide for your clients.
It is always amazing how homeowners will seek out the most unqualified (relative, friend, etc.) persons for advice on caring for their onsite systems rather than asking a septic service professional. In my opinion, the more you work with your clients, the better off we all are in the industry in terms of dispelling false, misleading or old wives’ tales about system operation. In that spirit, I will offer a top 10 set of tips for homeowners, hoping this leads to further discussion of the topic among professionals in your area. We’ll break up the tips, starting with the first batch this month, and continue in next month’s column. Here we go:
1. Give your customers a diagram showing the components of their system and indicating the location of these components on their lot. If there are pumps, show where they and any high-water alarms are located. Be clear about telling them not to enter any tanks or parts of the system to investigate a problem, and explain they should not use the manual override for the system unless specifically told to by a professional. Of course, in addition to having your contact information clearly marked on the manual you provide, place a sticker with your contact information in a conspicuous place on the system in case there is a problem.
2. Spell out the design capacity for the homeowner. They should know that how much water and how they use that water can have a large impact on how long the system will last. Here is where this gets a little controversial. I have not met a homeowner yet who feels they use too much water. In fact, I worked with a person awhile back that maintained quite strongly that they used very little water. When a water meter was installed to check the daily flow, it turned out they were using roughly twice the average daily flow. This overuse will eventually cause hydraulic failure in the soil treatment area. However, most homeowners have no way of knowing how much water they use other than their uninformed guesses.
This is why some of my colleagues and I have advocated for installation of water meters so the homeowner and you as the service provider can determine water usage. If there is a pump tank and a pump in the system, a cycle counter can be used to see how many times the pump kicks in. Using the count number, you can provide them with a table showing how many gallons are used compared to the daily flow maximum. If they see the counts are showing excessive usage, they should contact you to investigate. Either additional water is infiltrating into the system or the usage is a reflection of their actual use.
3. Explain that water usage habits can have an impact on the performance of their septic systems over time. Their laundry schedule, for example, can have a major impact on how well their onsite system works. First, the homeowner should purchase lower-flow clothes washers, usually front loading, however most washers now let the user set water levels when not doing full loads. Often both husband and wife work outside the home, which leaves chores such as laundry being bunched up on the days they have off.
Doing multiple loads of wash one after another can put a significant amount of stress on a septic system. It is much better to spread the laundry loads out during the week. For dishwashing, recommend looking for lower-flow products and only running the dishwasher with a full load or using a small-load setting when appropriate to conserve water.
4. Tell homeowners that regular maintenance is key to system longevity. Share the maintenance intervals for each part of their system and explain that a septic service professional should be called on to provide those services. This starts with having the septic tank pumped regularly. My rule of thumb is that a 1,000-gallon tank will require cleaning every two to three years for a family of four or five. I also recommend homeowners avoid using a garbage disposal. It adds more water to the system and adds solids that are difficult to break down in the tank. It also means the tank will need to be pumped every year or more frequently. Tools are available for homeowners to estimate the necessary cleaning frequency based on their usage. Encourage them to keep a regular maintenance schedule or at least request a regular inspection of solids accumulation in the tank to ensure it will be cleaned when needed.
5. Warn the homeowner to avoid flushing items that can compromise the performance of their septic system. I mentioned the garbage disposal, but there are many things homeowners try to dispose of in their septic system that do not belong. In the past we talked about cigarette butts, personal hygiene products or condoms. Now numerous other products, some even being marketed as “septic safe,” are clogging various parts of the system. These include all types of baby wipes, antibacterial cleaning wipes and makeup cleaning wipes. Fortunately, effluent screens are often required today at the septic tank outlet to trap these products before they can impact other parts of the system. But homeowners should be informed that none of these are appropriate for disposal in the septic system.