Make Customer Education a Party

Washington State homeowners organize backyard Septic Socials to spread the word about proper onsite system maintenance

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Fire up the grill, cook up some burgers, and then let’s look inside a septic system. That is not an unusual sight around the Puget Sound where Washington Sea Grant has been working for 20 years to raise awareness of the importance of proper onsite system maintenance and monitoring for homeowners.

“Septic systems are amazing and they work really well when they work,” says Teri King, a Sea Grant water quality specialist. One of her jobs is organizing Septic Socials, neighborhood gatherings for homeowners to make septic system education a fun community event. She’s been organizing them for 20 years around the state and even into the Canadian province of British Columbia. She talked to Pumper about Septic Socials and other educational programs that touch a couple of thousand people a year across her state.

Pumper: After 20 years, why is there so much interest in septic systems?

King: The state of Washington is one of the largest producers of farmed shellfish in the United States, and the Puget Sound is the heart of shellfish country. Many rural homeowners harvest them or lease their tideland rights to companies that do, and most properties have septic systems. A single septic system failure can close down a shellfish bed if the effluent leaks into the bay. People have an incentive to keep their system healthy because they enjoy their beach and its seafood riches and they might make enough money from shellfish sales to pay their taxes.

Pumper: What is a Septic Social?

King: Someone invites us into their home and they invite people over. We uncover the system and talk about how it works. Four a year is about average, but I had five in five weeks last fall thanks to a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The homeowner is in charge of the event and invites a few friends or a whole neighborhood. The larger Septic Socials have had 60 people.

We help the homeowner uncover the tanks and observation ports so people can see the various components. We also have models and pictures to show the portions of the system they can’t see. We open the tanks and people practice measuring sludge and scum levels and we show them how to check and clean effluent filters by spraying them back into the tank instead of on their lawn so they don’t track bacteria back into their house. We keep it simple.

Pumper: What’s the typical reaction?

King: They have no idea that a healthy system doesn’t smell bad. When we pop the lid off of the tank, most are amazed that the odor is no worse than teenage sweat socks. It’s a real eye opener for them. We talk about the pump, if there is one, and how if there is a power outage and they still have access to water, system troubles could occur when the power comes back with a high water alarm or water surfacing in the yard.

We talk about scum and sludge, things that float and things that sink in a tank, and how to do your own observations. We ask them to do them once a quarter at first and then yearly; just walk around the drainfield and the yard, smell and look so they know what’s normal, and look for ponding and other evidence of trouble.

Pumper: What kind of questions do you get?

King: We get a lot of questions about additives. I’ve heard them all, like feeding the tank a whole cut up cabbage or a pound of raw hamburger every month. We let folks know that they have everything they need in their own bodies to make a septic system work properly and to feed it like they would themselves; regular meals, not all at once. If they aren’t willing to put it in their bodies, perhaps it wouldn’t be good for their septic system either.

Pumper: What’s their biggest surprise?

King: Usually it’s toilet paper; where it goes and how it accumulates in the system. They don’t think about the quantity they use or that it should stay in the tank. As it degrades, it forms cellulose and lignin and will make papier-mâché in the drainfield if it escapes from the tank.

Pumper: Have you seen behavior changes?

King: Absolutely. We do surveys about six months to a year afterwards. One person knew their garden flooded when they did laundry. The Septic Social allowed them to correlate that with their septic system and they found their d-box was tilted. Another person had a big yellow patch on the lawn and found out their tank was so full of sludge that wastewater was coming out of the lids and contaminating the soil. Another person found out their advanced system was installed before their new house had power so the pump wasn’t calibrated. Nobody thought to call the installer when power was hooked up, so sewage was leaking into the ground from the calibration ports. A lot of seasonal homeowners have learned that if they add antifreeze to keep their pipes from freezing in the winter, they need to suck it back out in the spring instead of flushing it into their system.

Pumper: Do septic service contractors get involved?

King: We work with the pumpers in the area to develop our materials, along with local and state health departments. Some homeowners have a really good working relationship with their pumper and invite them to Septic Socials.

We work with pumpers to help them communicate effectively with customers. Together, we designed brochures and a packet of information for pumping companies to distribute to their clients.

We have a consumer brochure developed with pumpers, Pumping Your Septic System, about best practices that lists the things a quality pumping company should do each time they visit. We also encourage homeowners to be there at least once when their tank is being pumped because the pumper can tell them a lot about their system and how it is being used.

Pumper: What other septic system educational programs do you have?

King: We hold Septic Sense, Scents and Cents classes about once a month in various places in the community. We have a slideshow and different activities, like shaking up toilet paper in water to see if it dissolves. The class covers things like how to find your system, additives, hot tub draining, water softeners, household cleaners and detergents. We have walk-through septic models and use them at fairs and festivals, too.

Clean and Simple is a program on household cleaners. One of the problems pumpers identified is that people use highly toxic chemicals in their homes. We teach them how to read commercial labels and give them options for using less toxic cleaners. We’ve seen a shift in product use over time.

We also have septic landscaping classes. We teach people about protecting drain lines, the right plants to use over a septic system and how to hide unsightly components.

To keep organic material out of sewage, we’ve done garbage disposal roundups, trading them in for compost bins and worm beds. We also give out kitchen sink screens. People tell us they serve as a good trigger to make them think about their septic system. One pumper liked it so much that they now provide sink screens to all of their clients.

We share information about low interest loans from a nonprofit bank and a community program that helps low income and senior citizens with pump-outs. We’ve been able to get help for people fairly quickly. No one wants to pollute the environment.


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