Conserving water helps home sewage treatment systems last


Have you ever thought about your daily habits and how they impact water quality both now and for future generations?

There are so many ways to waste water. One way we waste water is by using more than we need, such as leaving the water running while we brush our teeth. A running tap is pretty apparent, but water wasting is not always so obvious.

Pretty much everything we purchase has a water legacy. Massive quantities of water are used to grow food and transport it to our refrigerators. Each time we throw away food, we are wasting the water used to produce it. It takes about 1,800 gallons of water to produce a pair of jeans — that’s more drinking water than you need for over five years. Buying more clothes than we need is wasting water.

Terms matter

What about the terms waste water and wastewater? Are they the same thing? Not necessarily. Both are water that has been “used.” The word waste is defined as a material or substance that is discarded as no longer useful or required after the completion of a process. So, waste water is water that has been used in a variety of processes (industrial, mining and materials production) that pollute water beyond what is economically feasible to reclaim.

How is that different than wastewater? Unlike waste water, wastewater can be treated to reduce the contamination to a level that natural processes can finish the job of reclaiming this water for re-use. For the most part, the term wastewater is applied to water that has gone down a drain. In homes, this includes water from sinks, showers, bathtubs, toilets, washing machines and dishwashers. It includes substances such as food scraps, oils, soaps, chemicals and human waste. And just like the livestock on our farms, humans are constantly creating their own waste.

Hu-manure: human waste

To avoid fines resulting from potential pollution abatement inspections, farmers need to know and follow the rules that dictate when and how much manure can be stock-piled and/or spread on ag fields. Cautious farmers will document these actions and have them ready just in case someone files a complaint about their operation. An Ohio farmer might be able to tell you with great accuracy when they last spread manure on a field, but I wonder how many farmers can tell you when they last had their home sewage tanks pumped?

I am not picking on farmers — there are probably even more suburbanites that would struggle to answer the same question. Having your septic tanks pumped is just one of the many ways homeowners can maintain the proper function of their home sewage treatment system (HSTS). Our hu-manure really adds up when you consider that roughly one million Ohio families have a HSTS. Just as the burden falls to farmers to properly manage manure, the burden falls to homeowners to make sure they maintain a properly functioning HSTS.

So how are Ohioans doing with maintaining their HSTS’s? The Ohio Department of Health estimates that 31% of HSTS in the state are failing. If we were in school, that would be a D grade! A failing system allows insufficiently treated water to enter both surface waters and groundwater. These waterways can be contaminated with pathogens, such as E. coli, chemicals and nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus. Pathogenic bacteria and viruses can cause serious human illness when drinking water is polluted. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus are also common contaminants associated with human waste. These nutrient loads can disrupt the life cycles of aquatic plants and animals that have critical roles in maintaining water quality.

Considering Ohio’s poor grade in maintaining properly functioning HSTS’s, it might do well for all HSTS owners (myself included) to study up on the key elements of HSTS maintenance. It turns out that wasting water (using more than you need) is bad for HSTS’s. Proper use is just as important as routine maintenance. A few water-conservation and maintenance tips are listed below:

  • Conserve water — Repair leaky faucets and fixtures, take shorter showers, buy water-saving appliances when replacing dishwashers and washing machines, run full loads when using and stagger water use so you are not overloading your system.
  • Be careful with what goes down the drain — Switch to eco-friendly soap, cleaners and detergents. Flush only pee, poo and toilet paper. Keep accurate records: Know where your septic tank is and keep a diagram of its location. Keep a record of maintenance which will be helpful if problems occur and if you plan to sell your home.
  • Inspect your system once a year — Check inside your septic tank to see if the solids need pumped. Periodically inspect the drain field and downslope areas for odors, wet spots or surfacing sewage.
  • Pump out your septic tank when needed — Routine pumping can prevent failures such as clogging of the drain field and sewage backup into the home.
  • Keep all runoff away from your system — Water from surfaces such as roofs, driveways, or patios should be diverted away from the septic tank and drain field area.
  • Protect your system from damage — Do not drive over or park heavy equipment and mowers on your drain field. Keep livestock away from your HSTS area. Soil compaction is a major threat to proper HSTS function.
  • Make good landscaping decisions — Do not plant large tree species within 50 feet of a drain field or other HSTS equipment. Also, keep the drain field free of volunteer woody plant material.

Dirty business is not good business

If you are looking to sell your property, a failing home sewage treatment system can decrease the value of your property. Buyers and their agents are quick to ask for inspections to prove that the HSTS is functioning properly. They are even quicker to ask for reductions on the selling price if repairs or replacement is needed. Please keep in mind that proper HSTS maintenance will help protect your financial investment.

Many counties throughout Ohio have worked to receive both federal and state grant funds to assist homeowners with repairs and/or replacement of failing home sewage treatment systems. Check with your local health department to determine what services they can provide. Remember, everyone stands to benefit when homeowners choose to maintain their HSTS.


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Lynn Vogel is a Stormwater Educator at Portage County SWCD. A graduate of Ohio University with a degree in Industrial Hygiene and Environmental Health, she looks forward to working in the county on stormwater and other conservation issues.



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