Your Septic System: Know It, Maintain It and Make It Last

Michelle Wood, District Program Administrator, HSWCD

July 19, 2019

So….what are you doing?
I’ve heard it many times, and my husband, who is a soil scientist, hears it almost daily. I spent a day recently tagging along with him as he did various soil evaluations for septic system installations. The “soils guy” is a mystery to most. I suppose a dude stomping through a field with a 5’ 4” tall soil auger and a clipboard isn’t an everyday sight. Here’s a tip for you…never arm wrestle a soil scientist. They have to twist those augers to 50” deep or more. For the record I can twist it to about 3”.

Scheduling the soils guy is one of the steps to installing a septic system. A soil evaluation is required for new or replacement septic systems. The evaluator is looking at soil type (whether it’s sand, silt, or clay), limitations (called a fragipan, which acts as a barrier that water can’t penetrate), slope, and depth to perched seasonal water table. The soil scientist then tags off his report to a septic system designer, who uses the info to determine which system is appropriate for the site. The size of the house and number of bedrooms also determine the size of the system. Most use a leach field system, but there are also spray systems.

Image from Goustermass.gov

Image from Goustermass.gov

The fact is that wells and septic systems are an afterthought to most home builders. A septic system needs to be in undisturbed, native soil. The proper order to a new rural homebuilder should be to determine the site of the well and the septic system, THEN site the house and garage. The area for the septic system should be flagged off so that it doesn’t get compacted. Believe it or not, my husband has been to plenty of sites where the house is already being built. He then must try to find a site where the soil hasn’t been compacted (hard to find amidst the construction equipment coming and goings). Most times, the system is more expensive because of the limitations created by the construction.

Many homeowners don’t understand that septic systems are not a one and done. Because they have ponied up thousands of dollars to have it installed, they think it will work maintenance-free forever. But that’s not the case.

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An EPA study several years ago determined that 30% of septic systems are failed. And get this, there are approximately 628,000 septic systems in the state. That’s a lot of potential for water contamination. As farms in Holmes County are carved up into five acre lots on a seemingly weekly basis, the number of septic systems is increasing in our county.

According to the EPA, most septic systems fail because of inappropriate design or poor maintenance. Some soil-based systems (those with a drain field) are installed at sites with inadequate or inappropriate soils, excessive slopes, or high ground water tables. These conditions can cause hydraulic failures and contamination of nearby water sources. These reasons are why the Ohio Health Department now requires a soil evaluation prior to system installation.

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Failure to perform routine maintenance, such as pumping the septic tank generally at least every three to five years, can cause solids in the tank to migrate into the drain field and clog the system. The EPA has a good website for the septic system owner about caring for your system (https://www.epa.gov/septic/how-care-your-septic-system). Included are the following:

  • Inspect and pump frequently. There are many local septage pumpers around, and it doesn’t take much time at all. Also remember to switch leach fields periodically (the time change is a good reminder).

  • Use water efficiently. Just because water is abundant doesn’t mean it should be used abundantly. All the water in your house has to pass through your septic system, even if it’s “gray water” from the shower, sinks, and laundry. It’s best to stretch the laundry out over time instead of doing it all at once and overwhelming the system.

  • Properly dispose of waste. Basically, don’t put anything in the toilet or down the sink that might plug up or contaminate the system, like cooking grease or chemicals. Those baby wipes that say they are flushable? No. Putting food down the garbage disposal is convenient, but the fats and oils can mess up your septic system.

  • Maintain the drain field. Don’t drive over it, or it will become compacted and not function. The pores (spaces) in the soil are necessary for the system to function correctly. When the soil is smashed, waste water cannot penetrate properly and creates surface wetness.

Healthy functioning soil is the key to a working septic system. Soil is probably the least valued of our natural resources, but we use it for everything, including the not so glamorous septic system. The Holmes County Health Department regulates septic systems, so if you have questions about your system, contact them. And if you suspect your system is failing, they currently have an income-based septic system replacement grant program that you can ask about.

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Michelle Wood, District Program Administrator

Michelle Wood oversees the day to day operations of the district and the diverse activities offered to promote clean water and healthy soil. With a lifelong passion for the outdoors and a background in communications, she appreciates the conservation district grassroots model which enables the local board and staff to create programs that meet the conservation needs of Holmes County. Michelle is a member of several state and national committees. Contact Michelle at 330-674-2811 or at mwood@co.holmes.oh.us