Home owners with septic systems don’t think much about them — unless the system quits working.
During Septic Smart Week, now through Sept. 18, the Mason-Lake Conservation District asks people using septic systems to think about what they put down drains, flush down toilets how they use water and to consider having their system inspected and pumped if that hasn’t been done in the past few years.
“We’re wanting to get the word out about how septic systems work and things people can do to make their septic work properly so we don’t have water quality issues,” Dani McGarry, M-LCD executive director said.
This week the district is promoting septic system awareness through informational “blasts” on its Facebook page as part of a national effort led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Among the points McGarry shared about what the EPA and M-LCD want homeowners and others with septic fields to know are:
• Have your septic tank pumped and inspected every three to five years. This is seen as the single most important maintenance requirement.
• Know where your septic field is and do not drive over it or park vehicles on it.
• Don’t overload your system with too much water.
• Avoid use of garbage disposals.
MSU Extension also advises:
• Eliminate release of nondegradable materials, such as fats, oils, paper towels, hair, personal care products, disposable diapers and flushable wipes.
• Never release toxic chemicals, such as solvents, disinfectants, oils, paints, paint thinner, medications and pesticides. Use boiling water and a drain snake to open clogged drains instead of caustic drain openers. Use commercial bathroom cleaners in moderation. Use mild detergent or baking soda when possible.
• Avoid using antibacterial soaps and detergents. They can kill the bacteria you want in the tank.
• Stay away from additives. Their benefits have not been demonstrated, and some may actually harm your system and contaminate groundwater.
• Keep the drainfield surface properly drained by mounding soil over it, redirecting downspouts and sump pump outflows away from it. Do not stockpile snow over the area.
Septic systems siting and design are overseen and available through district health departments in Michigan, locally District Health Department No. 10.
In an oversimplification, a typical system involves a pipe waste from the home to a tank that holds wastewater. There, solids settle to the bottom. If not overloaded, cleared liquid exits through an outlet pipe higher in the vault and goes to a drain field slowly seeping into the ground through a series of perforated pipes
When working properly, McGarry said, microbes in soil and vegetation further clean the wastewater. After leaving the drainfield, the water seeps through the ground to a stream, lake or into groundwater.
If the system isn’t working properly, uncleaned wastewater can harm the quality of the water it ends in. If the drain field completely fails or the tank is overloaded it can lead to sewage backups into the home.
McGarry said people who into rural areas from areas served by municipal wastewater systems, sometimes don’t know their home is served by a septic field and thus are unaware of the need for pumping and inspections.
Current Michigan law doesn’t require inspections when homes are sold. An effort to create such a requirement died in the Legislature in 2018. According to the environmental group For Love of Water (FLOW), Michigan “is the only state that lacks a uniform sanitary code requiring periodic inspection and maintenance of septic systems — even though 30% of Michiganders rely on such systems.” FLOW reports an estimated 130,000 septic systems in Michigan are failing.
Individual counties may require septic system inspections upon sales if they get permission from other counties within the same health department district, McGarry said.
Mason and Lake counties currently don’t require inspections upon selling a home. Manistee County does.
Septic system pumping and inspection is an option in some real estate transactions, though.
McGarry said pumping and inspections services such as Malburg’s Sanitation Service locally, typically charge several hundred dollars and are just a call away.
Frequently cottage and cabin systems initially were sized to serve a family a few weeks a year. Over time, such places often are transformed into year-round residences with greater demands that can overtax the septic system initially installed. Sometimes older cabins and cottages may involve a barrel without a drain field. Such systems are not up to current code and likely are not treating the waste.
Undersized, possibly never inspected systems sited too close to a residential well can contaminate the well with bacteria, McGarry said.
Systems that have never been pumped out could be leaking and leaching nutrients into the lake people live near. That can lead to algae blooms or promote excessive aquatic vegetation.
“Bacterial contamination can limit swimming, and you might not want pets not in there,” McGarry said.
While nutrient loading from improperly functioning or undersized septic systems is not the only cause of algae blooms, it can be one factor.
“It’s something where people can make a difference,” McGarry said, by making sure your system is operating properly and is pumped as needed.
Where water tables are high or on narrow lakeside lots, septic tanks sometimes are placed in mounds above ground without outlets or a drain field. They must be pumped more frequently or they will back up, McGarry said.
Driving or parking a vehicle over a septic field can lead to soil compaction preventing soil from being able to percolate — allowing water to pass through — leading to septic system failure, McGarry said.
Septic companies can do a field inspection to locate septic tanks and fields, and check pipes. Roots of trees or other vegetation can get into drainfields clogging or breaking pipes leading to system failure.
“If you see signs something is wrong, more in-depth inspection needed,” McGarry said.
Signs of trouble include a sewage smell or backups in the home or seeing bright, spongy green grass around septic fields.
Putting too much water down drains can lead to problems.
“If too much water is in (the vault) it will push out into the drain field before it breaks down,” she said.
When there’s lot of laundry to do, McGarry suggests washing it over several days to prevent overloading the septic system. Using high efficiency appliances also can help.
“It may not be the best to do all laundry in one day,” McGarry said.
Fixing leaky faucets or running toilets are worthwhile practices, too.
More information is available by calling the MCLD at 757-3707 ext. 5.