Congratulations! You've bought that house in the suburbs you've always dreamed of. Your very own detached house on your very own plot of land with your very own on-site sewage disposal system.
Yes, that's right. You are now the proud owners of a septic tank.
When you lived in the city, your dirty water flowed from the house, through miles of pipe, to a municipal treatment plant. Now when you flush your toilet, the dirty water flows through a pipe into your back yard. The soil there gives your sewage the only treatment it's going to get.
Some 23 million American homes rely on septic systems to dispose of their waste water and sewage. These systems most commonly consist of two parts: an underground septic tank, in which solids, such as feces and ground-up food, settle and are partially decomposed by bacteria, and a drain field, where small particles and bacteria are filtered from the water as it trickles ever-so-slowly through the soil.
These systems work nicely -- when they work. In fact, a well-designed, well-maintained and properly located on-site disposal system can clean up water better than many municipal plants do. Unfortunately, not all septic systems are well-designed, maintained or located. Some experts estimate that fewer than a half of the country's septic systems work as well as they should. These millions of improperly functioning septic systems deliver insufficiently treated sewage to the ground water, or into lakes and streams, before contaminants have been filtered out. This usually happens when soils are too coarse or too shallow to provide treatment.
The results can be catastrophic to the environment and to the public health. Well water contaminated by septic systems has caused outbreaks of hepatitis in Arkansas, shigellosis in Maryland and Florida, typhoid in Washington and cholera in Texas -- not to mention thousands of cases of giardia and other, more mundane, tummy bugs around the country.
In the past 10 years, 20 percent of Washington state's shellfish beds -- some 80,000 acres overall -- have been closed permanently because of unacceptably high fecal coliform counts. That means the shellfish may be contaminated with the bacteria found in half-cleansed sewage, which has trickled into streams and rivers and poured into shallow ocean bays. Massachusetts has closed 100,000 acres of shellfish beds for the same reason.
Fecal coliform aren't the only contaminants sewage delivers. Household waste water can contain fairly high levels of toxic chemicals, nitrates and heavy metals. And sewage may contribute excess nutrients to lakes and streams, hastening their transformation from fresh water to swamps.
So how do you make sure that your septic system is a good one?
If you are buying a house that depends on a septic system, call your local public health department and find out how to have the entire system professionally inspected, just as you'll have the house inspected by a structural engineer. Don't buy the house unless the septic system works perfectly, or can be made to work perfectly, before closing. Keep careful records, both now and for future septic system doings.
Now that you own the house, the continued success of the system is up to you. Have a septic tank pumper inspect the tank once a year to see how quickly it fills up with solids. You can learn to do this yourself if you are handy and not squeamish. Again, inquire at the local health department to learn how.
The tank will usually need to be pumped out every three to five years. A pumper will charge around $150, depending on his or her own disposal costs. Oversee the operation and make sure the tank is completely drained. You do not need to leave some septage at the bottom to "seed" the bacterial decomposition process. Believe me, there's plenty of seed material in there.
Do not allow the pumper to persuade you that the tank needs cleaning with chemicals or seeding with added enzymes. These products are totally unnecessary. They will not reduce your need for pumping, and some can poison ground water. The Suffolk County, N.Y., Department of Health Services found that 40 percent of the 18,000 private wells they tested had been contaminated by organic solvents added to septic tanks.
Use water conservation methods, including low-flush toilets and low-flow shower heads. Spread your washing of clothes over the course of the week, rather than doing a mountain of laundry on a single day. The less water you use, the longer your system will last.
Avoid toxic household cleansers and solvents, oils, paints and pesticides. Use only phosphate-free detergent. Don't flush grease, cooking fats, coffee grounds, paper towels, tampons, bits of plastic or cigarettes. Don't use a garbage disposal. All of these can clog the system and will lead to more frequent calls to the pumper.
Keep surface water run-off away from your drain field. Divert downspouts, redirect run-off from patios and driveways and think twice before paving or covering any additional portion of your lot. Save your drain field's water-holding capacity for your household waste water.
Treat your drain field with tender loving care. Don't compact the soil by driving heavy equipment on it, and don't plant trees on it.
Septic system connoisseurs advise using only white, one-ply toilet paper. They say it decomposes more readily than colored or two-ply stuff. I'm willing to take their word for it.
A series of brochures, including "Understanding and Caring for Your Septic Tank System," and a sheet that teaches you how to measure the scum and sludge depth in your tank, are available from your local public health department, or from the Washington State Department of Health, Wastewater Management Section, Mail Stop LD-11, Olympia, Wash. 98504.