Keeping Sewage in its Place
Compared to sewage discharges from some of Ohio's municipal treatment plants, a faulty septic system here or there might seem like a minor problem. But consider that more than a million Ohio households process wastewater through individual sewage treatment systems. Of those, the Ohio Department of Health estimates 25 percent are failing. Not only do those failing systems contribute to water quality problems, they can be serious public health threats.
To avoid being part of the problem, watch for signs of failure in your existing system and make sure any new systems are properly designed for the site and conditions.
System failures aren't always easy to see. For instance, a faulty system on extremely permeable soils might let nutrients and pathogens leach into groundwater, contaminating wells. On shallow soils and soils with low permeability, faulty systems are more likely to pollute surface water. Watch for sewage pooling on the soil surface or running into ditches or creeks. Besides being a smelly nuisance, this discharge can spread disease and provide breeding sites for mosquitoes.
Some systems fail because the site is inappropriate for the type of system installed. Others fail because they aren't properly maintained. For instance, if a septic tank is not pumped often enough, sediment will flow into the leach bed or absorption area, clogging the system. Systems also fail if they are overloaded with water from household use or surface drainage.
Eventually, all systems wear out when tanks or pipes break down. Even a well-maintained system will need to be upgraded or replaced after 20 or 30 years. Modern systems are also more effective than many of the systems installed years ago.
If you're not sure how your system operates or how it should be maintained, check with the contractor who installed it or refer to Ohio State University Extension fact sheets on wastewater treatment, available through local offices or at www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~setll (click on "publications"). Information is also available on the Ohio Department of Health website, www.odh.state.oh.us. For help evaluating sites or selecting appropriate systems, check with your local health department or Soil and Water Conservation District.