Governor DeWine’s H2Ohio clean water initiative has entered its pilot phase, aimed at reducing agricultural fertilizer and phosphorus runoff [link to farming grants blog], restructuring and creating wetlands, and addressing failing septic systems. Noted as having the most significant impact on Ohio’s water quality, these three areas will be H2Ohio’s focus for the remainder of this year. Many people understand the need for regular septic system maintenance in order to avoid a septic system backup or, worse, catastrophic system failure. Not as many people are aware of the environmental risks of a failing septic system, risks that not only put you and your loved ones in jeopardy, but can also have a devastating impact on the surrounding environment.
Environmental Impact of a Failing Septic System
A properly functioning septic system is actually a green alternative to public sewage treatment plants that use harsh chemicals, including chlorine, to treat wastewater. The treatment process for a septic system is brilliant in its simplicity, using a closed anaerobic system to break down solids and then sedimentary filtration to remove the remaining impurities in the effluent. However, failing septic systems introduce untreated wastewater into the environment, causing a slew of problems. When a system fails, it will either contaminate the groundwater or the surface water, creating environmental concerns for nearby streams and lakes as well as polluting the drinking water supply.
In extreme cases, a failing septic system may leak improperly treated sewage into the environment, leading to the spread of diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery. In other cases, improperly filtered effluent may be released into the environment, feeding an excessive amount of nitrates into the water supply. Nitrates pose a significant health threat for infants, pregnant women, and those with a compromised immune system, potentially leading to methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder which interferes with the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Excess nitrates in the streams and lakes can lead to an explosion of algae growth and even harmful algae blooms (HABs) that create oxygen-depleted “dead zones” and release deadly toxins that endanger animals and humans that come into contact with them.
How Septic Systems Fail
There are four main reasons septic systems fail. Understanding the reasons systems typically fail as well as what warning signs to look out for will help you protect your home as well as the environment from a catastrophic system failure.
An Overwhelmed Septic System
Many installed septic systems have a holding tank capacity of 1,000-1,500 gallons, which is typically large enough to treat the wastewater from a home with 3-5 bedrooms. By conserving water and only flushing appropriate matter into the system, a properly maintained septic should be able to function for many years without becoming overwhelmed. However, there are many ways to push a septic system past its limit. Flushing items that should never be flushed (like kitty litter or fats, oils, and greases) leads to the buildup of solids and potentially disastrous clogs in the system that may lead to sewage backing up into your home. Stacking “water heavy” chores, like doing the entire family’s laundry in one day, or having an abundance of houseguests who take long showers may lead to flushing too much greywater into the system. An overwhelmed system will not give the solids enough time to settle in the septic tank, forcing them into the drain field. Once solids begin building up in the drain field, the septic system will not be able to properly filter the remaining contaminants out of the effluent, which will find their way into the groundwater or surface water.
Damage to the Septic System
Housed underground, septic systems are typically well protected from the elements. They can withstand shockingly low temperatures and heavy rains, but they are not immune from damage caused by invading root structures or heavy vehicles or machinery driving on top of them. Plants with aggressive root structures – most trees and any woody-stemmed shrub that does not die back to the ground in winter – should not be planted near your septic tank or the drain field. To avoid crushing the drain field, heavy vehicles or machinery should never be driven overtop or near the system. Crushing any part of the septic system will result in an immediate catastrophic system failure that will introduce contaminants into the surrounding environment.
Faulty Design or Construction
Though simple in design, in order for a septic system to function properly, its installation must be done with precision. Paying particular attention to the soil composition, the topographical layout, and considering which system best fits the needs for your particular location are all essential in ensuring the proper and long-lasting functioning of any septic system. If any component of a septic system is not properly installed, it can lead to devastating problems, especially once the system is under added stress, as it is during the winter or during times of high use.
Improperly Maintained Septic System
Perhaps the biggest reason most septic systems fail, an improperly maintained septic system may suffer from entirely preventable issues. Septic tanks need to be pumped every 1-3 years, depending on use, and if they are not, the system can become overwhelmed, forcing solids into the drain field. Invading tree roots that would have been identified during routine maintenance visits may grow into the septic system, dislodging pipes or even growing into and clogging the perforations in the drain field. Damage to the system could be readily identified during routine maintenance visits and repairs could be made, allowing the system to return to full functioning. However, with no maintenance, these issues go unresolved, leading to full system failure and an environmental pollution crisis.
How You Can Help Prevent Septic System Failure
There are many things homeowners can do to prevent having their septic system be the cause of environmental contamination. By adhering to septic system care and maintenance best practices, a septic system will stay in good working order for many years. Regular service visits are not only highly advisable, they are required by state law in order to ensure your system is properly maintained and is not adding to the water pollution issues plaguing Ohio. During a routine service visit, a trained technician will inspect the system for any signs of failure, make any necessary repairs, and pump the septic tank, if needed.
Is it time for your septic’s routine service visit? Have you noticed any signs of failure in your system? Contact us today to schedule a checkup.