Report on Septic System Seminar of Nov. 14

mapleleaf's picture

A lot of Fayette County residents are “on a septic tank,” and not that many know what it all implies. So it was a good idea for the Fayette County Health Department to offer this free seminar in the county commissioners’ public meeting room at 7 p.m. last Tuesday.

The main benefit to the people in attendance may have been the distribution of brochures on septic systems, which included the same one the county commissioners had mailed to county citizens in the fall of 2003.

The main presentation included a 9 minute movie on the basics of septic fields, and then a talk by Rick Fehr, Chief of Environmental Health in the Fayette County Health Department. A question and answer period followed, and that may have taught us more than the official presentation.

From the Q&A we learned that charges for pumping septic tanks vary widely (or is that wildly?), sometimes by hundreds of dollars. But it seems a reasonable average would be in a range of $250 to $350.

However, we were cautioned by members of the audience with experience to be sure the firm doing the job pumps up all the solids, not just the liquids, as the real purpose of pumping up a septic tank is to remove the accumulated sludge and scum. Moreover, one must beware of add-on or extra services that might be suggested as the job is done. The various possibilities are best discussed before the job is begun.

Another potential problem or surprise is that after the pumping the folks doing the job might not fill the dirt back in and restore the landscape to anything that might be viewed as reasonable.

The official party line on septic tanks is that they should be inspected every three to five years. That’s Rick Fehr’s position, but I personally take issue with it and I’ll explain why.

One lady told the crowd she’d been using her septic tank for 26 years, without pumping it out, and she had experienced no problems. Another person talked about using one for 20 years without problems either. So it looks as if septic systems can function without problems for a long time.

It is easy for Rick Fehr to take the official position that septic systems should be inspected every three to five years, because he is not the one who experiences the landscaping mess involved and who foots the bill. That’s a common occurrence when dealing with public officials, as they never seem to care about the expense and inconvenience of following their recommendations.

Actually, I suspect there are two aspects to checking a septic system. The easy and inexpensive part might be a look at the septic field, checking for signs of water leakage, odors, and lush green grass stripes. The other part is digging up the dirt above the septic tank, lifting the cover, and looking inside, perhaps using a probe to see what the level of solids (scum and sludge) might be.

The real danger, it appears, is that the solids might reach a level where some solids, especially things like grease, might enter the septic line and clog up the line, preventing the surrounding soil from absorbing the water coming from the tank. If that is allowed to happen, the entire field might be irreparably damaged, and it might be necessary to prepare an entire new septic field in a different area. That can be inconvenient and expensive.

The problem with Rick Fehr’s presentation is that he does not seem to think like a homeowner who’s got a septic tank. My personal feeling is that if I incur the expense and trouble of having a guy come over, dig up the dirt above my septic tank, lift up the cover, and check what’s inside, I might as well have him pump up what’s in there while he’s at it. Fehr’s presentation seemed to imply that you don’t have the tank pumped if your expert finds no problem, and all is well with the world until the next inspection, three to five years down the road.

As I said, it’s not his money or his landscaping problem. It’s yours!

I’d roughly guess there were 50 to 60 people in attendance, and I believe I learned more from their comments than I did from the official presentation. That’s the beauty of our having seminars like that where the people can talk, because we often get more practical advice from our neighbors than we do from the featured experts.

So it ended up being a useful meeting.

Experience makes experts. Comments from other county residents with real-life septic tank experience will be appreciated.

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muddle's picture
Submitted by muddle on Wed, 11/15/2006 - 5:12pm.

You wrote,

"The easy and inexpensive part might be a look at the septic field, checking for signs of water leakage, odors, and lush green grass stripes."

What if such are found?

I have a soggy spot in my yard--right about where the entire septic field should end.

(I posted a question about this months ago, then it seemed to clear up by itself, but now it is back.)

mapleleaf's picture
Submitted by mapleleaf on Thu, 11/16/2006 - 9:22am.

Here’s the way I would reason this out.

If you have no sign of water coming up to the surface (such as wet or soggy spots, foul odors, or abnormally lush strips of grass), you are pretty sure you don’t have a problem. Thus you hold off on paying all the money and suffering the aggravation of getting your septic tank inspected and pumped out. The more so if you know your septic tank was pumped out not that many years ago.

Having a wet or soggy spot at the low end of a septic field may be the result of having more water going into the system than it can properly handle. Perhaps it is a sign that the ground is clogging up with stuff (e.g., grease) that inhibits downward percolation. Then again, if it is infrequent, it may be the result of an unusually heavy discharge of water into the system.

I am pretty sure that the Health Department would say that if in doubt you get your septic tank pumped out. The problem with them is that they don’t really care about the money you spend or the mess you put up with when your yard is torn up. Moreover, if you alert them to your problem and seek their advice, they may turn around and order you to do things you’re not prepared to do or threaten you with bureaucratic action that might prove a nightmare for you. (“I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” You know the rest.)

In the end this is a judgment call. If you trust the government, you can call the Health Department and ask.

By the way, in my report I forgot to say that the Health Department has on file maps of the layout of most septic fields in the county, and homeowners who don’t know where their septic field is located can obtain a copy just by contacting them. As their movie showed, some folks only find out about their septic field when they ask a pool company to build them a swimming pool. Obviously, you can’t build a swimming pool in the middle of a septic field.

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