Celebrate SepticSmart Week: Maintain septic systems to protect water quality

Guest column provided by Corrina Parnapy

In observance of the Environmental Protection Agency’s SepticSmart Week – September 18-22, 2017 – conservation districts nationwide are discussing septic systems and how they can help landowners use them sustainably.

Septic systems – made up of a tank and absorption field – are effective methods for treating wastewater. The average lifespan of a properly maintained septic system is 30 years. Failing or ineffective systems can allow excessive nutrients, like phosphorus and nitrogen, to reach groundwater and surface water supplies. These nutrients can feed hazardous algae blooms and significantly alter a waterbody’s ecology, in turn reducing property values, hindering recreational opportunities, limiting clean water supply, and impacting nearshore fish beds.

Just because septic systems are out of sight, doesn’t mean they should be out of mind. To protect our valuable water and soil resources, we should follow septic system best management practices:

  • Pump out systems every two to three years and have it inspected by a professional;
  • Use water efficiently and install low flow toilets and water saving fixtures;
  • Use the proper setting on washing machines and spread wash cycles out over the week;
  • Do not use septic tank additives;
  • Avoid chemical drain openers for clogged drains – instead, try boiling water;
  • Don’t pour grease or oil down the drain;
  • Don’t rinse coffee grounds down the sink;
  • Don’t pour household chemicals or pharmaceuticals down the drain;
  • Eliminate or limit use of garbage disposals;
  • Don’t flush non-degradable products;
  • Don’t allow roof drains, basement sump pumps, or curtain drains to empty into your septic;
  • Do not discharge water softeners backwash into your system;
  • Know where your tank and system are and don’t drive over or plant large trees within your absorption field.

It’s also important to know the early warning signs of a system that is not functioning well. Slow draining, pipes that gurgle or produce bubbles, soggy soil in the drainage field, and soil settling over the tank are all clues that something’s not right. Serious signs of a failure include a smell of sewage and the septic backing up into your home.

Regular pumping and routine inspection of your septic system is one of the most important aspects of a proper operation and maintenance schedule. Failure to maintain and inspect your tank can result in potential health hazards to you, your pets, and the environment, not to mention property damage.

This article is a summary of an article shared by the EPA during the 2017 SepticSmart Week. Click here to download FREE SepticSmart outreach materials, including proclamation templates, brochures, postcards, web graphics, and more!

Corrina Parnapy is the district manager of the Winooski Natural Resources Conservation District in Vermont. She can be reached by email at corrina[at]

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