You’re Not Talking to a Brick Wall After All

Sometimes it seems like our industry message about proper septic maintenance isn’t being heard. But keep shouting because it is paying off.

You’re Not Talking to a Brick Wall After All

Jim Kneiszel

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Looking at my online news feeds, I can tell septic systems and their importance in our world is gaining more attention. Every day I read stories from somewhere in North America talking about onsite system design, maintenance or a new regulation coming forward. It’s great to see this evidence of a growing awareness about the critical role decentralized wastewater treatment plays across the U.S. and Canada, where most readers of Pumper live and work.

And the news is good and bad.

I can see our industry’s message about routine septic pumping and system inspections taking hold. We are getting through to owners of septic systems and local and state government officials who are the key to ensuring proper functioning systems that will not pollute our precious water.

More and more users are recognizing how maintenance can save them from costly system replacements and following through by calling pumping professionals for advice. And elected officials are little by little gaining the courage to require inspections from those users who would not otherwise take care of their systems.

But there are also lingering signs that many people have not heard our message or willfully disregard it. Too many homeowners think the tank and drainfield in the backyard will magically make all of their waste disappear without a thought or any dollars spent on upkeep. And some lawmakers who ought to know better still bend to the will of those who see maintenance requirements as an unfair tax rather than a way to ensure a clean environment and protect their real estate investment.

We’ve come a long way, but we still have miles to go in our public education efforts. Using a “thumbs up, thumbs down” format, I’ll share a few recent stories to illustrate our challenge in the years ahead.

Thumbs down – Pumping every five years? That’s not necessary!

The Florida Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee unanimously supported a bill to identify and map all septic tanks in the state. But when homeowners started to squawk, state legislators withdrew the regulation from consideration. The law would have mandated septic inspections every five years and required the health department to develop minimum standards for repairs of failing systems.

Readers of the website cheered the decision to drop the law. “I have been in my house 30-plus years and never had a problem,” wrote one person, saying she religiously uses septic additive. “We raised three girls and never once had a problem. That said, it will probably plug and stop draining today.” Wrote another: “We have enough regulations already. Before you move into a house that has been lived in before you, it is required to inspect the tank and have it pumped. No need to do it that often. Most homeowners take care of this maintenance.” And another: “Just another scheme to get money out of taxpayers.”

Thumbs up – Septic improvements credited in Minnesota lake cleanup.

It was a backhanded compliment, but better septic system maintenance is being credited with a decline in walleye population in Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake north of Minneapolis. According to news reports, a University of Minnesota study looked at 30 years of data on water quality in the lake and determined the water clarity has improved, thanks in part to widespread septic system improvements. It stated the popular sport fish prefers the lower light and cooler temperatures found when water was more polluted.

This is disappointing on one hand, because pan-fried walleye is an amazing dinner treat and fishermen love pulling trophy walleye out of Minnesota lakes. But the study is also an indicator that homeowners are taking seriously their responsibility for clean water in the state’s pristine waterways. Minnesota has always been strong on septic system regulations, and those efforts are paying off.

Thumbs down and up – Pumper caught illegally dumping in Michigan.

Facing a troubling news story, sometimes we need to look on the bright side. And, believe it or not, there is a bright side to the story of a central Michigan pumping company caught illegally spreading waste on a farm field. The company (we won’t name them because an investigation is pending) apparently dumped 3,000 gallons of septage on the field it has not yet received permission to dump on. This is according to a Fox 47 news account. A company representative told complaining neighbors that the employee responsible was being terminated and a cleanup effort was underway.

A report like this is clearly a setback for our industry. The vast majority of pumpers abide by disposal laws and want to promote a clean environment. Unfortunately a few bad apples cause a whole lot of public relations damage. The good news in this case is that the pumper was working quickly to rectify the problem and that concerned residents were vigilant in reporting the incident. That they were holding the wastewater industry to a high standard should be applauded. Their actions hold all pumpers to a higher standard.

Thumbs up – Need-based grants available for system upgrades.

The cost of septic system replacements is often an impediment to homeowners addressing failures before sewage backs up into the dwelling or comes to the surface, creating health hazards. This is especially true for rural folks or the elderly living on a fixed income. So it’s always good to learn about programs that help cash-strapped homeowners deal with failed systems. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recently announced its grant requirements, published in the Osakis Review for readers in Todd County, in the central part of the state.

Grants through the agency and the Board of Water and Soil Resources will pay 80% of the cost to replace existing septic systems. No such provision is made, however, for systems serving new construction. In case you want to compare the Minnesota income restrictions to programs offered in your state, here are the maximum household income to qualify along with the number of family members in parentheses: $38,900 (one), $44,500 (two) $50,050 (three), $55,600 (four), $60,050 (five), $64,500 (six), $68,950 (seven), and $73,400 (eight).

If you encounter a customer who is unable to pay for a necessary repair or replacement, ask your local, county or state health department officials if there is a program to help. You can be a valuable onsite advocate by pointing customers in the right direction.

Thumbs down – Our septic system doesn’t need pumping.

Here’s a septic system user we haven’t reached. Kary Paulson wrote this as a letter to the editor in response to a story about septic regulations in the Jackson Hole News & Guide in Wyoming: “My system is 25 years old and was constructed with a proper leachfield. It has been pumped out once for insurance purposes. Enforcing more rules and inspection is more government interference. If there is a problem in certain places in the county, deal with it and leave the rest of us alone.”

One pumpout in 25 years? It looks like a little “government interference” wouldn’t be the worst thing for this homeowner. It might even help save his septic system from failure one day. We need to continue to preach proper system maintenance until guys like this stop writing letters to the editor.

Thumbs up – Cleaning up waterfront septic systems in Maine.

Coinciding with Earth Day this year, the state of Maine expanded its periodic inspection regulations to cover not just coastal shoreland zones, but all lakes, great ponds and rivers, according to a report in the Portland Press Herald newspaper. Starting in January 2020, septic inspections will be required at the sale of all waterfront homes.

According to supporters, the new law will help detect failing septic systems, alerting homebuyers of a serious problem before their purchase goes through. Under the plan, the homebuyer would have one year to either repair or replace a failing system. Inspections would not be required if a new system was in place within three years of the sale or the seller provides an inspection report done in the past three years.


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