You’re Not Just a Pumper. You’re a Teacher!

Service is more than pulling a lid and pumping a tank. Take time to educate the customer to encourage better care and longer life for their septic systems.

You’re Not Just a Pumper. You’re a Teacher!

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

As a septic system professional, your responsibilities start with the interaction and communication with the consumer. I always find it interesting to listen to my neighbors and friends around the lake I live on talk about their service provider. Since they have no idea — for the most part — about my industry connections, what I get is totally unfiltered.

Two things become clear from the outset: They complain about the lack of communication, often meaning callbacks when they make a service appointment, and a failure to explain what the technician is going to do and what has been done on site. Sometimes this information is included on the bill presented by the contractor, but sometimes it is not. Secondly, after the service provider leaves, homeowners don’t know any more about their system’s performance or operation than they did before the visit.


Since you are reading this column, you are probably not one of the providers they are talking about. I know a lot of you spend a lot of time on customer service, letting clients know what’s going on with their systems and what they can do to make them perform better. If we don’t take the time to educate customers, we miss an opportunity to get them involved in the care of these systems and system performance will not improve. I say this based on all the discussions I have when conducting an industry class and hear about the “dumb” things you see homeowners doing to the extreme detriment of their systems.

Discussions with the homeowner should begin by making them understand what their system does and the role each component plays in protecting human health and the environment. They need to know their system was properly designed, sited, and installed and that it is their responsibility to use and maintain it correctly so it functions indefinitely. As a service provider, if you see a system is not installed or working properly, you need to share how to fix the problem or provide advice on where to find a solution.

Assuming you are servicing a “good” system, discussion with the homeowner should address what they can or need to do to prevent problems in the future. Highlight the three most common causes of system failure: 1) overuse of water in the home, 2) using harmful products and 3) improper or lack of maintenance. Each of these contributing factors can be reduced or eliminated by the homeowner.


Homeowners need to be aware their system has a finite capacity based on the size of the house, number of occupants, and soil and site characteristics. If the system is used at or above this capacity for an extended period, the system will fail. Impress on them that limiting use and conserving water will keep their systems functioning properly for a long time. Give them some examples of how to limit use. Suggest they use low-flow toilets and showerheads, do not let the water run while bushing teeth or washing vegetables, use high-efficiency clothes washers and dishwashers, and spread flow out during the day and week whenever possible.

Explain that clean water sources can also cause system failure and they should be kept out of the system. Clean water sources are water conditioning devices such as softeners and iron filters. Floor drains and foundation drainage water should not be routed through the system. Hot tubs, therapeutic bathtubs and the like should be drained through separate plumbing and not through the septic system.

Discuss with the homeowner how overuse or introduction of some products to their system can affect how organisms break down and treat waste. Products they should use sparingly or avoid include automatic toilet bowl cleaners, bleach, antibacterial soaps and cleaners. Excessive use of these products can reduce or eliminate bacterial activity in the septic tank and drainfield.

Other products that should be kept out of the septic system are unused medications (consult with your pharmacist on how to dispose or recycle them), solvents, paints, antifreeze and pesticides. Ask if they are using regular medication. Tell them this may mean their system will need more routine maintenance.


Encourage a variety of best practices (offer these as suggestions that will help; don’t overwhelm or embarrass them). Practices include using liquid instead of powdered laundry detergents, not to use the toilet as a trash can for baby and antibacterial wipes, not to use a garbage disposal, and to repair leaky faucets or toilets immediately. Have them consider installation of a water meter to track water use and make changes if necessary.

Impress on them the need for a regular maintenance schedule. Walk through the necessary items to be maintained for their system and the frequency of visits or activity necessary to complete this. From my perspective, having a contract that spells out the what and when of a maintenance schedule is ideal.

Along these lines when a new system is installed or when a service provider is doing a maintenance contract, providing the homeowner with a system management plan tailored to their situation will help users understand the workings of their system and encourage them to take ownership for system care and maintenance. This is something required in Minnesota, so something you may want to encourage for your state.


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