A hatch to a septic system spreading underground hides under a blanket of snow. (Photo: Donna Kallner)

One day last summer when I was working the U.S. Census, I visited a cluster of homes on a narrow road made narrower by pick-ups parked on both sides. It’s the kind of congestion normally associated with family reunions and graduation celebrations. But this time, what inspired the party atmosphere was a neighbor getting a new septic system.

People who’ve only ever lived with city water and sewer might think we’re easily entertained out here if a septic installation can draw a crowd. But a new traditional anaerobic septic system with a leach field can run $10,000 to $25,000. That would include the piping to run waste from the house to a septic tank (where solids accumulate), and more piping to run liquids to a leach field, where it filters through sand, gravel, and soil before reaching the underground water table. There’s not much to see once a new system goes in the ground. And frankly, no one really wants to stand in the back yard watching when, every two or three years, the accumulated solids get pumped out. We prefer to celebrate while things still have that new-septic smell.

A year ago, frequent hand-washing was about all we had to defend our families from Covid-19, so your family’s use of antibacterial products may have increased. Now might be a good time to reevaluate which products are best suited to keeping both you and your septic system healthy.

Even people accustomed to small-town living can be a bit fuzzy on what our septics do — and don’t do – with our doo-doo. So here’s some straight talk about an important aspect of rural living.

It’s a Responsibility

One in five households in the U.S. treats its wastewater onsite because they are not served by a public sewer system. Some Instagram commenters on #septicsystem posts call rural waste management “very toxic” and “polluting the water table.” And, when a septic system fails due to age or other factors, that can be true. But responsible management and regulation – from planning and design through siting, installation, operation, and maintenance – help ensure these systems meet public health and environmental standards. I can’t imagine the cost to hook all the homes in my rural township (118.8 square miles) to the closest municipal sewer system. Maybe that time will come but I bet the economic impacts would cause more of a stink than any properly functioning rural septic system.

How They Work

There are different kinds of septic systems, but commonly things happen in three stages: The waste that goes into a septic tank separates into three layers — soap and grease scum on top, wastewater, and sludge at the bottom. Anaerobic bacteria gradually break down most of the solids, and that sludge stays contained in the tank until it’s pumped out. The wastewater portion is distributed to drain field lines, where buried perforated pipes leach it into the surrounding soil. A new septic installation generally requires a perc test to determine “how quickly a known volume of water dissipates into the subsoil of a drilled hole of known surface area.” Microbial action and filtration occur as leached wastewater percolates down through sand and gravel before reaching the water table. 

There Are House Rules

Many homes on septic systems welcome guests with an orientation to septic etiquette. Or look above the toilet for a cute sign (generally painted on barn board) for house rules like, “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” Some things you never want to flush, including “flushable” wipes, baby wipes, cleaning wipes and tampons. Those don’t break down like human solid waste and toilet paper. It can cost $300 to $600 to have a septic tank pumped out. Limiting non-fecal solids can slow the accumulation in the tank. Many areas have regulations that require pumping out solids every two or three years. There’s no point shortening that time frame when you can train your household and visitors to use a wastebasket.

It’s a Living Thing

Microbial activity helps digest matter in a properly functioning septic system. That can be upset by use of some cleaning products. Flushing prescription drugs can kill bacteria or inhibit its ability to break down waste. And a biggie is antibacterial liquid hand soaps, which can slow down the anaerobic digestion process, which is slow to begin with. A year ago, frequent hand-washing was about all we had to defend our families from Covid-19, so your family’s use of antibacterial products may have increased. Now might be a good time to reevaluate which products are best suited to keeping both you and your septic system healthy.

Volume Matters

We might also blame Covid-19 for an uptick in the volume going into rural septic systems this past year. It’s true that some people have been home more, using their own toilets instead of the ones at work and preparing food and washing dishes instead of eating out. But we were using a lot of water in our homes already. In a single family home, the average indoor water use is nearly 70 gallons per person per day. Toilet flushing accounts for 25 to 30% of that, and a leaky or running toilet can waste as much as 200 gallons of water per day. Showers account for about 20 percent of our use. And laundry? A modern high-efficiency washing machine may discharge about half as much wastewater into a septic as a traditional top-loader, but that’s still about 20 gallons per load. The EPA recommends spreading use of your washing machine throughout the week instead of doing it all the same day to allow your septic tank enough time to treat that volume of wastewater properly.

Extra Volumes

In addition to our average daily household uses, there are other things that create more-than-average additions to our septics. The whirlpool tub that soothes your weary muscles discharges a lot of water, which may contain bath and body oils that contribute problems of their own in a septic system. My husband home-brews beer, and washing bottles uses a lot of water. But his use is nothing against mine: I’m a handspinner. I buy raw wool fleece from local growers to make into yarn. When I’m washing a fleece, I divide it into batches and do just one a day to moderate the discharge to our septic system. Washing a fleece is like having an extra person in our household for a week.

Company and Paying Guests

Because we are careful to keep our septic system healthy, we don’t worry too much about it when the crew comes for our annual fishing camp. With an extra seven to nine people in our one-bathroom house, nobody gets a long shower anyway because there’s always someone waiting for the toilet. But that’s one weekend a year. Out of curiosity, I googled “Vrbo septic system” to see how some  Vrbo (Vacation Rental By Owner) listings address this rural reality. Along with the list of wastewater-rich amenities (bathrooms, laundry, dishwasher) there were notes advising prospective renters of expectations regarding the septic. But in some rural areas, concerns about advertised occupancy numbers that exceed septic system capacity have local governments concerned about what they can regulate and how to enforce those regulations. 

Manage Expectations

Expectations that seem reasonable when wastewater flows into a municipal sewer system simply aren’t realistic in some rural areas. Vacation cottages are a prime example. Friends share fond childhood memories of summers at the lake where bathing entailed a swim before bedtime and laundry was something their mom took to the coin-op. Those small seasonal cottages are mostly gone now, replaced by larger cottages with multiple bathrooms, laundry and a dishwasher. In places like Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula, those vacation homes are built on shallow soils over fractured bedrock. Those conditions  require the use of a septic holding tank. A holding tank doesn’t have a leach field. It’s a temporary storage unit and requires frequent pumping to remove the contents and transport them to a treatment facility. That might be every six to eight weeks — or less, if you have a full house and the holding tank alarm goes off.

Be Grateful

My mother grew up in a rural farmhouse without indoor plumbing. My husband and I lived in a house that was built when rural homeowners dug a privy, and when that filled up they dug another. Over the years, previous owners cobbled together an indoor bathroom that managed to move waste past a fieldstone foundation to a septic system, but don’t ask how the soil pipe was vented. The estimated cost to build an addition that met modern standards convinced us it was cheaper to build a new house. We did that in 2001, and had a new septic system installed at the same time. Now I wish we had invited the neighbors to celebrate with us when it went in. 

For more information about septic systems visit https://www.epa.gov/septic .

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where she is still washing the four raw wool fleeces she purchased this spring from a local sheep producer. That wool will be dyed, spun into yarn, and made into hats and mittens for sale in her Etsy shop.