TROUBLESHOOTING ON-SITE SEWAGE SYSTEMS
In Indiana, 33 percent of our homes, equivalent to 800,000 units, are served by an on-site sewage treatment system, rather than by municipal sanitary sewer lines and a sewage treatment plant.
On-site systems typically serve individual homes, and in a few cases, mobile home parks, apartment complexes, office buildings and even schools.
When something goes wrong with an on-site sewage system, it’s usually the local health department environmental health specialist who hears about it first. If contamination of drinking water is suspected,, the Indiana State Department of Health may be involved, providing technical assistance and laboratory services if the local health department can’t quickly resolve the problem.
The local environmental health specialist’s job is to figure out the source of contamination when a sewage problem occurs. Causes included worn-out finger systems needing replacement, improperly designed or overloaded systems, and no provision for treatment at all.
Approximately 400 Indiana towns do not have municipal sewage treatment. In too many of these towns, sewage ends up in open drainage ditches or storm sewers designed for carrying off rainwater into streams and rivers.
It is surprising that this source of contagion has not been linked more often to serious health problems. "That it has not," according to Alan Dunn, at the Sanitary Engineering Department of ISDH, "is probably the result of a combination of protected or chlorinated drinking water, wide-spread immunization of the population, the excellent quality of contemporary medical treatment, and the difficulty in attributing gastrointestinal disorders to specific causes" – such as contaminated water.
Many of these 400 Indiana towns were constructed in the 19th century, predating indoor plumbing. With the later addition of bathrooms to these homes, sewer lines were either connected to drainage ditches or storm sewers since the technology for individual residential onsite systems or sewage treatment plants had not been developed.
For example, it was not until 1930 that even the city of Chicago had constructed its first sewage treatment plant. By then, diversion of sewage away from drinking water supplies, vaccinations, and chlorination of water supplies had largely eliminated water-borne contagion as the cause of wide-spread typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox and scarlet fever which had reached epidemic proportions in the 1880s and 90s in Chicago.
The Howard County town of New London, founded in the 19th century, is a good example of what an Indiana small town can do today to modernize sewage treatment. The older New London homes had discharged their toilets into nearby Wildcat Creek. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) cited the community as being in violation of state sanitation laws. The local health department documented the problems and offered to work with the Program (RCAP), New London officials developed a plan of action supported with a low-interest loan from an IDEM revolving loan fund.
By 1997, New London’s new sanitary sewer system and treatment plant was in place and working.
Adapted from the Indiana State Department of Health bi-weekly publication Express, David Pilbrow, editor. (317/233-7336; firstname.lastname@example.org). Reprinted with permission.S
NEWS FROM ISDH…
Septic Tank Additives
ISDH staff is frequently asked to comment on the use of septic tank additives. Although their use has not been addressed in our rules for on-site sewage disposal, we can provide comment on the use of septic tank additives.
A septic tank is a watertight tank designed to slow down the movement of raw sewage so that solids can separate or settle out and be broken down by bacterial action. This action does not purify the sewage, eliminate odors, or destroy all solid matter. The septic tank simply removes enough of the solids so that its effluent can be discharged to a soil absorption system without prematurely clogging the system. The septic tank will provide anaerobic digestion of organic material without the use of any additives to enhance its operation. A new septic tank does not require any special additives, because the sewage it receives contains the organisms necessary to initiate and promote anaerobic digestion.
The effective removal of solids from wastewater is only a part of the consideration in providing an on-site sewage disposal system that will function properly over an acceptable period of years. Although some solids may leave the septic tank and cause a biological mat formation in the trenches, a properly sized, designed and maintained septic tank provides acceptable solids removal without the use of additives. Much more important than the possible use of additives is proper system design and selection based on soil characteristics, careful installation practices, and proper operation by the homeowner. The use of additives will not "cure" a system if these steps are not properly followed. If these steps are properly followed, the use of additives are worthless, at best, and damaging to the system and environment, at worst.
The use of septic tank additives may be severely detrimental to the system, rather than beneficial. Joseph Salvato, Environmental Engineering and Sanitation, (1982, p . 416) states that one of the causes of septic system failure is the carry-over of solids into the absorption field due to the use of septic tank additives.
The Public Health Service advises that the functional operation of septic tanks is not improved by the addition of disinfectants or other chemicals, that such compounds may result in sludge bulking, and may interfere with anaerobic digestion. The addition of chemicals is, therefore, not recommended (Manual of Septic Tank Practice, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, 1967, p. 38).
The Public Health Service further states that some 1,200 products, many containing enzymes, have been placed on the market for use in septic tanks, and extravagant claims have been made for some of them. As far as is known, however, none have provided an advantage in properly controlled tests (reference same as above).
This office has received no reliable information that would counter the statements by Joseph Salvato or the Public Health Service. In fact, all information received by this office has further substantiated their statements.
After reviewing the information that has been published concerning septic tank additives, we can reach only one conclusion. Septic tank additives may clean out the tank, but the likelihood is high that they will cause failure of the absorption field due to the expulsion of large amounts of solids from the septic tank, and that some of them may pollute groundwater.S
Any questions about this topic may be directed to Alan Dunn, Supervisor, Residential Sewage Disposal, ISDH, at (317) 233-7177 or by e-mail to email@example.com.
REGULAR INSPECTIONS CAN PREVENT ONSITE SYSTEMS FAILURES
Most people know that it is important to visit the doctor from time to time if they want to live a long, healthy life. Regular checkups can uncover physical problems or unhealthy habits before they lead to serious illnesses, yet many people put off going to the doctor precisely because they are afraid of what they might find out.
Perhaps it’s only human nature, therefore, that many homeowners put off having their onsite wastewater treatment systems inspected. Homeowners often don’t even know what type of system they have or when it was last serviced. After all, onsite systems usually are buried out of sight, which makes them easy to ignore, especially when they seem to be working.
But ignorance about the condition of onsite systems can be costly. Careful examination by a trained professional usually is required to determine whether a system is functioning properly and to troubleshoot and accurately diagnose any potential problems in their early stages before they lead to expensive emergencies.
In fact, regular inspections are as important to onsite system health as medical checkups are to human health. Inspections help homeowners determine when systems need maintenance, which is essential for keeping them in good working order. Inspection results also can suggest simple lifestyle changes, such as conserving water, to help homeowners protect and extend the life of their systems.
Protect Your Home and Family
Inspections not only protect systems but also the health of family, neighbors, and entire communities. Malfunctioning onsite systems can contaminate nearby wells and public drinking water sources, and they can pollute local rivers and lakes, contaminating and killing aquatic life.
Thorough onsite system inspections can help homeowners protect their property investments. Local regulations and lending institutions often require that systems be inspected prior to property transfers, just like termite and structural inspections, to help avoid costly surprises. Imagine the nightmare of moving to a new home only to find that the wastewater system is failing or that it is too small.
Okay, I’m Convinced – What Do I Do?
Inspections may be performed by county environmental health specialists, independent contractors, or people employed by communities, developers, or homeowner associations. Exactly who should inspect your system depends on the type of system you have, the reason for the inspection, and local onsite system regulations.
Adapted from the National Small Flows Clearinghouse at 800/624-8301 or 304/293-4191.
CELEBRATE AMERICAN WETLANDS MONTH!
Join the Terrene Institute in celebrating American Wetlands Month in May! Terrene publishes a newsletter, Wetland Celebration, to report on projects and activities across the country. They also produce materials to use in celebrating American Wetlands Month, as well as materials suitable for education settings. Information on Terrene, American Wetlands Month, and Pals of American Wetlands (PAW) is available online at www.terrene.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.S
WATER CONSERVATION – An Inexpensive Way to Improve Household Onsite Systems
Reducing the volume of wastewater entering the onsite treatment system is important because; less flow (volume) means better treatment, longer system life and less chance of failure. The quantity of water used depends upon the number of people using the dwelling, their living habits, the types of appliances in use, and maintenance of the water supply system. Average water use in rural households is 40-50 gallons per person per day. With low-use fixtures and individual awareness and concern, a reduction to fewer than 25 gallons per person per day is even possible. However, even with water conservation, water use can exceed the capacity of some wastewater treatment systems.
Reducing the volume of water entering the system improves treatment by increasing the time the waste spends in the system, thus providing more time for settling, aeration and more soil contact.
Consider the following ways to minimize water use:
WATER USE BY CONVENTIONAL FIXTURES AND WATER-SAVING FIXTURES AND
*Installation of all these water-saving devices could reduce water use by 35% or more over older existing fixtures.
CORRECTIVE ACTION FOR A FAILING SEPTIC SYSTEM
There are several options for correcting a septic system
failure. They include several dos and don’ts.
FUNDING SOURCES FOR SMALL INDIANA WASTEWATER SYSTEMS
"Financing Sources for Water and Wastewater Projects," is an excellent 16-page publication by the IN Rural Community Assistance Program. It lists the major funding sources available to Indiana communities that are interested in beginning water and wastewater projects. The publication consists of an excellent list of funding sources for the planning and construction of public water and wastewater projects in Indiana, as well as the offices to contact for assistance.
The Environmental Infrastructure Working Group (EIWG) should probably be the first agency that a community contacts with regards to funding for any water or wastewater project. EIWG is a committee sponsored by the Indiana Rural Development Council (IRDC) and is composed of most of the government agencies that provide funding or assistance for water/wastewater projects. They include:
Communities can obtain feedback from EIWG on the feasibility of a project and identify the agencies and programs that are most likely to be able to fund their project. This can save time by identifying exactly which programs may help them without having to go through the lengthy application process with several different agencies.
A community with a wastewater problem needs to prepare a two-page "IN-Take" document (available by calling the Indiana Rural Development Council at 317/232-8776). The document requests specific information about the community, the problems they are experiencing and past efforts to fix the problem. The community should then schedule a presentation for one of EIWG’s monthly meetings.
There are two primary sources of planning money for water and wastewater treatment systems – the Indiana Department of Commerce (IDOC), and the Indiana State Budget Agency (ISBA).
Indiana Department Of Commerce oversees two different types of funding (800/824-2476) that can be used for water/wastewater projects. The first is the Community Focus Fund (CFF) [from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in the form of Small Cities Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)], and the second is the Community Planning Fund (CPF) [state funds].
The CFF Planning Grants are centered on communities that need to hire an engineer to undertake an engineering study based on the needs for water/wastewater treatment systems.
To be eligible to apply for a CFF grant, 51% of the beneficiaries must be low-to-moderate income as defined by HUD standards. Eligible applicants are limited to general-purpose local units of government, such as incorporated cities or towns. Conservancy districts, regional water/sewer districts or other non-profit organizations are not eligible to apply, but the county government may apply on their behalf.
Activities funded through this program include data gathering, analysis, preparation of plans and the identification of actions that will implement the plans. Grants are awarded up to a maximum of $50,000 with a minimum 10% local match of either cash or debt of the community applying. Greater than 10% local matches show good effort and commitment and are viewed favorably when scoring is done to determine the projects that will be funded.
Submit a letter of intent to IDOC one-month prior to the monthly deadline. Once IDOC approves the letter of intent, a full application is submitted. Proposals are given a ranking on a scale 1 to 1,000 points. The ability to complete the project within a twelve-month contract period is critical in receiving funds.
To apply, a community should contact their Indiana Department of Commerce field agent at 800/829-2476 in the Community Development Division.
The RCAP staff can provide technical assistance to communities on all stages of project planning, financing, and construction, to operations and maintenance. There are no fees for their services.
This publication also lists a number of sources for construction funds for waste and wastewater treatment systems, in addition to the planning grants discussed here. Contact the Indiana Rural Community Assistance Program (RCAP), 1845 W 18th Street, Indianapolis, Indiana 46202 (800/382-9895). [Kevin Fortwendel, Ron Smedley, and Cheryl Coverdale]
The Indiana State Budget Agency (317/232-0759) is the other major source of funding for small communities. It is responsible for the Supplemental Wastewater Assistance Fund (SWAF) and the Safe Drinking Water Assistance Fund (SDWAF). These funds work with the Wastewater State Revolving Fund (SRF) and the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, respectively, administered by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to provide grants to communities unable to finance preliminary studies on wastewater problems on their own. These communities would then be able to apply to the SRF for a loan to finance the improvements. SWAF is open to any community eligible to apply for an SRF loan. The purpose must be to eliminate some existing wastewater pollution problem.
One grant for up to $25,000 can be awarded for testing and evaluating an existing collection system and/or a preliminary engineering report. If a community closes on an SRF loan within two years after the funds are awarded, the money is treated as a grant. If a community decides not to pursue the project or decides to finance the project through another source, the grant converts into a loan, which must be repaid within two years after the grant was made.
This is an invaluable reference for small communities looking
for help with wastewater problems. The publication is available from the Indiana
Rural Community Assistance Program at the address listed above for RCAP.S