The conventional septic system has a life expectancy of 20-25 years provided they are properly maintained. Many of our state and local agencies do not have septic system management programs in place so many are not properly maintained, along with a significant amount of them operating well beyond their life expectancy. Plus, pumped septic waste is not always sufficiently tracked and can allow a significant amount of unregulated raw sewage to be pumped and dumped throughout the region annually. Without a septic system management program, it is fair to assess that at least 33% of your septic systems are operating in a neglected state and it is possible that at least 10% of your transported raw sewage is being improperly disposed.
To learn how we can reduce nitrogen from septic systems we should clear up a few misconceptions and myths. A residential septic system is designed to treat household waste. It does not produce nitrogen, it removes it and some systems claim to remove more nitrogen than others. If you take away or remember anything from this website please remember this, “it’s not the septic system type that removes the nitrogen, it’s the septic system’s maintenance!” Any type of septic system that does not receive its required maintenance will not reduce the nitrogen it claims. Here is an example; the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) permitted thousands of the upgrade advanced septic systems with high nitrogen reduction claims throughout Florida in the mid 2000’s, the same type of upgrade systems you are hearing about today. FDOH performed a $350,000 study in 2013 to evaluate the effectiveness of these systems. They learned that they only averaged 33% nitrogen reduction and the lack of maintenance was the primary reason for the low results.
The typical household generates about *23 lbs. of nitrogen a year. If you want to know how much nitrogen your community is producing from septic systems, simply take the number of properties you have serviced by the number of septic systems times 23 pounds. Studies have shown us that if properly sited and maintained the conventional septic system and advanced systems will both remove an estimated 50% nitrogen after installation on private property. This will cut your septic system nitrogen contribution to 11.5 lbs. per household providing the systems are sited correctly and properly maintained. In a perfect world 12,000 conventional septic systems “properly sited and maintained” will allow an estimated 138,000 lbs. of nitrogen to leave the system after it has completed its process.
It’s really not that difficult to reduce nitrogen from septic systems if you have reasonable expectations and develop a budget and plan you can afford. Here is what we know about our septic systems. At least 30%-40% of our septic systems are allowed to operate in a neglected state, this contributes at a minimum 30% more nitrogen to your water resources than necessary and it's easily and affordably preventable. It is logistically and financially impossible to remove all the septic systems so you need a plan to contain and minimize the nitrogen impact from all septic systems. You need to be cautious of expensive upgrade programs, studies show that when placed on private property they have difficulties performing as claimed. Your nitrogen reduction plan needs to be all encompassing or it will have little to no effect in reducing nitrogen.
You have three options to reduce septic system nitrogen: Septic-to-Sewer, Septic System Upgrades and helping septic system owners take better care of their septic systems. An effective plan will include all three, the first step is to contain, reduce and control the problem. This is done by developing a septic system restoration program that supports owners to help them properly maintain and if needed repair their systems to get them running properly as quickly as possible. Without a septic system management program, it is likely that 30-40% of your septic systems are not working properly and this needlessly increases your nitrogen load by 30 to 40%. A properly developed septic system restoration program is a quick, efficient, affordable and long-term solution to reducing a substantial amount of nitrogen in a few short years. Dollar for dollar and pound for pound this is the most efficient and cost-effective option to reduce septic system nitrogen. When your restoration program is in place you are on your way to containing and controlling your nitrogen program and can start the next step. The next step would be to budget and implement septic-to-sewer plans to remove systems that are feasible for sewer hookup as funds become available. Finally, upgrade septic systems on a voluntary of site-specific basis. These systems have the potential to remove high levels of nitrogen provided the owner wants them and can afford to maintain them, forcing homeowners to upgrade to expensive systems when they can’t afford to maintain them only compounds the problem.
*U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported a per capita contribution of 9.012 lb.-N/yr. (EPA 1992). 2017 Census 2.54 average people per house hold.
“it’s not the septic system type that removes the nitrogen, it’s the septic system’s maintenance”
NITROGEN CONTAMINATION FROM SEPTIC SYSTEMS
We have four primary sources of nitrogen contamination from septic systems. 1) The properly functioning septic systems, 2) neglected septic systems, 3) the transported raw sewage from septic systems and 4) flawed and inadequate rules and regulations managing our septic systems. Without the understanding of how all four sources are affecting our environment it is impossible to determine with any accuracy how our septic systems are truly affecting our environment. Only when we have a full understanding of the issues can we better determine a productive path to long-term reduction of nitrogen from our septic systems. How is it possible to evaluate septic system nitrogen contamination when you know nothing about your septic systems? We have been permitting septic systems for more than 50 years and in most areas, we don’t know how many we have, where they are, what they are, their condition, or if their raw sewage is legally and properly dumped.
1. The properly functioning septic system: A properly functioning septic system is estimated to contribute 11.5 lbs. of nitrogen to our environment. A household with a septic system will produce 23 lbs. of nitrogen a year and a FDOH 2018 study shows that a properly functioning septic system will reduce 50% of the nitrogen.
2. Neglected septic systems: A neglected septic system would not provide the 50% nitrogen allowing up to 23 lbs. of nitrogen a year to enter our environment.
3. The transported raw sewage from septic systems: Most agencies do not track or monitor the transportation and disposal of pumped raw sewage. If only 10% of this waste is illegally disposed it has the potential to allow a substantial amount of raw sewage to contaminate our environment.
4. Inadequate septic system rules, regulations and record keeping: A conventional septic system has a life expectancy of 20-25 years provided they are properly maintained. Without a management program it is likely that you do not know how many septic systems you have, their condition, or if they are being maintained. If septic systems are allowed to freely operate throughout the region without maintenance, operate beyond their life expectancy and if the transported raw sewage is not monitored, a fair assessment of at least 33% of your septic systems are operating in a neglected state and 10% of your transported raw sewage can be improperly disposed.
REDUCING SEPTIC SYSTEM NITROGEN
To remove septic system nitrogen from our environment you have three options; Septic System Restoration, Septic-to-Sewer and Upgrades.
SEPTIC SYSTEM RESTORATION: The development of a restoration program is a sensible, affordable and realistic long-term solution to reducing, limiting and containing septic system nitrogen from “all” your septic systems. If setup properly it will stabilize, limit and control septic system nitrogen contamination. A properly developed restoration program will also provide the benefits of an impact study providing the vital information needed to properly evaluate future steps in reducing septic system nitrogen, such as selecting locations for septic-to-sewer projects.
This is not a check-the-box pump-out or inspection program. A restoration program works with both the septic system owners and the local regulators to implement education, incentive and improvement projects to reduce the impact the septic systems have on our environment.
Reducing, limiting, containing and learning as much as possible about your problem before taking action is always good policy and is generally the first step in evaluating and developing a sound and economical solution to any problem.
How do you learn, evaluate or improve the impact of a “device” that is determined to have a negative impact on your environment when you don’t know how many you have, their condition, if they are working properly, if they are being maintained properly or if their hazardous waste is being disposed of appropriately?
SEPTIC-TO-SEWER: This is the automatic reflex option to solving the issue. We would like to remove all the septic systems but it is simply not feasible. The cost is overwhelming and logistically we simply cannot remove them all.
ADVANCED & PERFORMANCE BASED SEPTIC SYSTEMS/UPGRADES: These types of systems with high nitrogen reduction claims generally have high installation, service, permitting and maintenance contract costs. FDOH studies on these types of systems have shown nitrogen reduction to only average 33%. Research these systems carefully and avoid data collected from testing or studies. Try to find data from systems operating on private property under normal and unsupervised conditions, this will give a more credible representation of their performance. It is likely these types of systems could increase your nitrogen issue, rather than reduce it. This option demands a lot of homework.