Are We Prepared For New Monitoring Technology?

Before you know it, onsite system control will be available via a homeowner’s smartphone. The industry must adapt to tighter regulation and more frequent performance checks.
Are We Prepared For New Monitoring Technology?
Jim Anderson, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate and recipient of the pumping industry’s Ralph Macchio Lifetime Achievement Award. Email Jim questions about septic system maintenance and operation at

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Recently I was asked if the internet of things (IoT) is going to be adopted by the industry for management of onsite systems, making them more sustainable. In recent Answer Man articles on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency management guidelines for decentralized wastewater treatment systems and another about nitrogen, I posed the question: Are we as an industry prepared to take care of systems to ensure performance? I see this as a major challenge to the industry.

EPA concluded in its 1997 Response to Congress that “adequately managed decentralized wastewater systems are a cost-effective and long-term option for meeting public health and water-quality goals, particularly in less densely populated areas.” This report also gave rise to the five management levels recognizing that way too often systems are installed and then either forgotten or assumed to be operating as expected. It was noted that the more complex the system, the more care and management is needed. A need was recognized — as it had in the recent nitrogen task force — for continuous management through a professional service provider.

It has been nearly 20 years since this report was issued, and unfortunately, evidence shows a significant percentage of decentralized systems are not being managed properly, causing pollution to the environment and creating a risk to public health.


It is predicted that homes all around the world are going to become smarter and more connected over the next five years. This is the internet of things, or IoT, where everything is connected, monitored and controlled. So, a homeowner can remotely control their heat, lights, computers and other appliances. It does not require data input (think typing in information from a computer keyboard) but the computer (or device) is linked to low-cost sensors that control the household appliances.

The technology — implemented through smartphones — is already being marketed to homeowners. In a memorable television commercial, a person uses the phone to shut off the lights and lock the door back home while relaxing on the beach thousands of miles away. Developers expect exponential growth in this area over the next five years. If this is true, we should see an increase in using sensors to monitor conditions such as liquid levels in tanks and trenches to give a heads up to the need for service.

For more complex systems, ATUs and media filters, there are already examples of remote monitoring systems on the market that trigger maintenance and service visits. The technology will continue to improve and more options will be offered. This provides the potential to significantly improve performance and reliability of systems we install and maintain.

Are we ready for this as an industry? Are we ready to embrace the technology to track system performance? Unfortunately, at this time I agree with the people who say we are not and that there are some serious issues to overcome. Here is my take on some of the issues facing the industry:


To adopt managed systems, the homeowner has to be on board. It is amazing to me that a homeowner will pay $250 a month to their satellite TV provider, but when faced with a minimal fee to have their onsite system checked for performance, they do not see that as worthwhile. In fact, if they are required to have a service contract upon installation, and if there is not a requirement from the local regulatory body to continue the service into the future, they will opt out as soon as the initial contract term expires.

Their rationale is often that the system works just fine and they see no need to continue with inspections, or they argue their previous septic system “worked” for 30 years and it did not cost anything to maintain. So there is a huge need for consumer education and probably a change in regulatory approaches before homeowners are convinced they need the extra expense of sensors and warning systems to trigger service visits.

Next up are installers; they are often reticent to monitor systems they install for fear that a problem will be perceived when different readings or periodic adjustments are actually part of normal operation. An example is changing liquid levels in trenches due to climatic conditions such as excessive rainfall. Some of the more cynical people in the industry worry that tracking system performance might open them up to questions about their installation work.

Again, there is an educational effort to bring installers and service providers up to speed with available technology and demonstrate the value of collected information as opposed to the mindset that everything is good until there is an obvious problem, which they then get to fix.

One objective of the EPA guidelines is to show available management options and also to indicate that changes in regulations may be necessary to build in the required management. Regulators sometimes have the same mindset as the installers mentioned above; everything is working as long as no one is complaining.


Some have suggested they are reticent to adopt monitoring of systems because it will point out where certain design and operation requirements are flawed, putting the local regulator in a bad position of defending regulations that have problems rather than looking at this as an opportunity to change the rule to better reflect reality. On a personal note, I have seen this in numerous places; the rule is considered so rigid that there is no opportunity to address problems inherent in the rule, which means flawed systems continue to be installed.

So my answer is no, we are not ready for IoT. But we need to be and should be actively working toward using available technology to improve our systems.


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