On-lot septic management is vital to water quality

Some septic system stories are pure gold. One septic tank worker reportedly told some homeowners that they should "throw some raw steaks down in there" after he had pumped out their tank, in order to "get the system started up again."

"Or, you could go ahead and cook the steak and eat it and get it in there a little later," said Dana Rizzo, water quality educator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County. "That would work about as well, and you'd still get to enjoy the steak."

"I usually include that story whenever I do a presentation," said Rizzo, who will conduct a free Web-based seminar titled "Managing Your On-Lot Septic System," which will air Wednesday, May 26, at noon and again at 7 p.m. She said she intends to cover on-lot septic system basics, how they function, how to maintain them, troubleshooting, what homeowners should do if they have a problem and whom to contact if major repairs or new installations are needed.

Rizzo said it is difficult to estimate the number of septic systems in Pennsylvania, but suggested it might roughly equal the number of private wells, which serve about 3.5 million residents. She said that while some residents are connected to public water supplies but not public sewers, the vast majority of people who have private wells also have a septic system.

Rizzo noted that Westmoreland County is quickly becoming a suburb of Pittsburgh, and that "a lot of people have absolutely no idea what to do with a septic system. This is the first time they've had a septic system, and they may not be aware of the need for proper care and maintenance."

And for people who claim they've never needed to have their septic tanks pumped, Rizzo remarked that now is as good a time as any. "Septic tanks have a lifespan, and in time, they are going to fail. But what you want to do is prolong the lifespan as long as you can by following maintenance guidelines."

Experts recommend pumping the system regularly. A family of four is advised to have the system pumped every two to three years, while a family of two could stretch that to four or five years, Rizzo said. Homeowners also should be careful what they put into the system, since items such as diapers, cat box litter, certain food scraps or household chemicals may affect septic system performance.

Rizzo said that there are no uniform statewide standards for existing on-lot systems but that the overall goal is to keep any sewage from entering waterways. She said systems vary greatly from location to location.

Some houses built in the 1700s may not have any septic, and the waste pipe may go directly to a creek. Houses that are 100 years old may have a septic tank, but may not have any kind of drain field. Other homes, 50 years or younger, may have drain fields. Newly constructed homes that are not on public sewage are required to have adequate septic handling systems as well as appropriate soil conditions to accommodate the system.

"In some cases, towns will never get public sewage because it's too expensive," she said. "It's less expensive to tap into another system, but if you have to build a system, lay the lines and then tap in, some towns and villages can't handle that expense, or they're too far away to tap in to another community's system."

Some municipalities are looking at innovative, community-based on-lot systems that pump waste from approximately 20 houses to a large, central septic tank, and then pump wastewater to wetlands for filtration.

Rizzo said there are also alternatives to traditional systems that are permitted in Pennsylvania, particularly in locations where sandmounds are not allowed or where septic systems may be too close to sensitive trout streams. Many people are unaware of their septic systems until they fail, she said.

The latest in a series of water-quality webinars offered by Penn State Extension, "Managing Your On-Lot Septic System" is aimed at educating homeowners to avert eventual failures, which may manifest themselves as smells in the house, backed up drains or wet spots in the yard. It also will address potential repairs should those problems arise and provide an overview of environmentally sound replacement options.

Participants must pre-register for the live webinars by visiting the Penn State Extension Water Resources website at http://water.cas.psu.edu/webinars.htm. Once participants have pre-registered, they may visit this website on the day of the presentation and simply click on the link with the title of that day's webinar.

Any visitor to the site may view previous webinars online. Programs in the archive include water monitoring strategies near gas-drilling activity, money savings through water conservation, managing ponds or lakes, and Penn State Extension's Safe Drinking Water Clinic.

For more information, contact Rizzo at 724-837-1402 or by e-mail at def18@psu.edu.

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Last Updated October 11, 2010