Edition 11, 1999

Features in this issue:

The Next Generation of Sewage Treatment:
Flushing in the New Millennium

The University of Minnesota Extension Service Onsite Sewage Treatment Program is offering a live satellite conference on Thursday, October 28, 1999, from 7-9 pm CDT. This will be an interactive conference with each downlink site being offered the opportunity to fax or phone in questions from attendees at each location. There will be basic information for homeowners as well as detailed information for installers and Health Department officials on treatment alternatives for individual residences and small groups of homes where standard trench and mound treatment systems are not a good choice because of high ground water, shallow bedrock, small lot size, or poor soil conditions.

The Onsite Wastewater Disposal Project, a joint venture between Purdue University and the Indiana State Department of Health, will be offering downlink sites in numerous counties across the state:
County Location Contact number
Allen 116 Walb, IPFW campus 219/581-6826
Clark Clark County CES office 812/256-4591
Dearborn Lawrenceburg Library 812/926-1189
Fayette Connersville Career Center 765/825-8502
Johnson Emergency Management Office, Franklin Sheriff’s Building 317/736-3724
Ripley Ripley County CES office* 812/689-6511
Scott Scott County CES office* 812/752-8450
Vanderburgh Vanderburgh County 4-H Center 812/435-5287
Warrick With Vanderburgh County* 812/897-6101
or, please feel free to contact us for information about a downlink site in your area (765/494-1174 or email onsite@ecn.purdue.edu).

*Tentative locations


Several organizations working on water quality issues stemming from on-site wastewater treatment are sponsoring Flushing Into the Next Century, Sewage Treatment Alternatives for Rural Areas, on Monday October 4, 1999. This conference will provide useful and timely information to rural and small community homeowners, local decision makers, health officials and natural resource educators who are concerned about failing and inadequate septic systems and their impact on water quality.

Rural homeowners depend on septic systems to treat their sewage and trends show greater numbers of households developing in rural areas not served by municipal sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. New technology and information on on-site sewage treatment is needed to provide adequate treatment of sewage in these areas. In order to address these issues, the conference will bring in a wide variety of knowledgeable people to provide information about both the problems and the solutions associated with on-site wastewater treatment. Jill Long-Thompson, Under-Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the Key Note Speaker of the conference, will discuss Sewage Disposal Options in Unincorporated Areas. Other topics covered will include: Public Health Concerns and Sewage Pollution; The Occurrence and Distribution of Pathogens; Impacts of Sewage Pollution on Lakes and Rivers; Non-Traditional Treatment's Impact on Rural Development; On-Site and Multi-User Treatment Options; Evaluating Your Site and Maintenance and Inspection of Your Septic System; Financial Options for Multi-User Alternatives & Improvement; Sewer Districts; and Septic System Regulations and Changes. Businesses and organizations that are involved with on-site wastewater disposal are supporting the conference. These businesses will have exhibits at the conference so that the attendees can learn more about their services.

The conference will be held Monday, October 4, 1999 at Pokagon State Park just north of Angola, IN from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. Registration is just $20, $10 for students. For information or to register, contact: April Ingle, St. Joseph River Watershed Initiative, 2010 Inwood Dr., Ft. Wayne, IN 46815 (219) 426-4637 ext. 3.


It’s now decision-making time! Your dream has long been to move from the hustle and bustle of the city to the peaceful countryside. Buying or building your new home in the rural community has been a long-sought goal. Before the excitement overwhelms your rational thought process, you should weigh the benefits and liabilities of country living. Some of your friends may have related horror stories of their experiences with rural living while others are well-pleased. Some find the odors, the dust, the large slow-moving equipment on the roads, the noise from farming operations to be nuisances, but for many they present only minor concerns and ones that are out-weighed by the perceived benefits. Living near farm fields where chemicals are applied to crops are experiences that are undesirable, unfamiliar, but not entirely different than having a lawn service maintain the residential lawn.

But, moving from a community with a municipal water and sewer system to a home served by a well and an on-site septic tank and leach field that the owner has total responsibility for the operation and maintenance may present a major concern. How does the buyer of a rural property assess its potential to accommodate a septic system?

In order to evaluate a site for a septic tank and a leach field, some understanding of how it functions is essential. A system in the simplest configuration consists of a large tank buried under the surface of the soil located near the dwelling, but a minimum of 50 feet from the well that provides potable water for household use. The tank receives and temporarily stores bath, kitchen, and laundry wastewater, permitting microbial action to break down and consume most of the solids, leaving primarily liquid to be released to the leach field. The traditional leach field is a series of perforated tile lines laid in a trench prepared with a gravel bottom. The trench and the tile lines are designed to temporarily store the liquid until the surrounding soil can absorb the received liquid and permit the soil microbes time to destroy pathogens that may be carried in the liquid. When the soil conditions are suitable and the design and installation are correct the system should function well for 10 to 20 years given periodic maintenance (normally pumping sludge from the tank). The following drawing illustrates a simple system design, with alternating fields. While somewhat over-designed in size compared to a single field system, long-term performance is often much improved if located in soils that have limited capabilities to absorb liquid.

Whether buying an existing home or buying a lot on which to build, once the purchase is made the new owner is faced with the challenge of managing an existing system or constructing a new system based on the soil resource on the chosen site. Soil types frequently vary significantly within short distances. Different soils vary in their ability to accept and absorb liquid from the septic system. Therefore, it is important to gather the facts to resolve your major concerns before purchase commitments are made. Purchase contracts may be written contingent upon acquiring soil test information or approval.

The soils in the area where the leach field is placed will determine if a system will work well or poorly and determine the simplicity or the complexity and cost of the design required to provide satisfactory service. For a soil to absorb liquid, it must have adequate air space in the soil profile throughout the year to accommodate the liquid moving from the leach lines to the soil surrounding them. Soils that have limited air space or are periodically saturated with water will not accept liquid discharged into them quickly enough to service the wastewater from modern homes. During rainy periods some Indiana soils develop a temporary water table that can cover the leach field tile lines with water restricting any discharge from the home. In this case the liquid may rise to the surface creating ponded effluent in the lawn which may flow to a ditch or water course, contaminating it with waste and pathogens. Also, some very porous soils may permit effluent to pass through so rapidly that soil microbes do not have sufficient time to destroy the pathogens carried by the liquid and they may reach the water source supplying water for the home. Indiana has a variety of soils – some are not suitable for septic systems, some are suitable with increased technology and some have the characteristics to accommodate simple systems. Indiana is blessed with soils that are wonderful for crop production because they have and hold adequate water but many of those soils are unsuited for simple septic system designs.

What can a potential buyer do to gather the facts for a specific site? If there are neighboring residents who have lived in the area for some time, ask how their septic systems perform. Acquire a soils map of the area in consideration. These maps are available at the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Office located at the county seat in most counties. For the ten counties that do not have NRCS offices, contact the Soil and Water Conservation District in your county. These maps will delineate the different soils in the general area of consideration. The accompanying supporting information will describe the general ability of those soils to support a septic system. For assistance with interpretation of this information, contact the NRCS Office or the County Health Department. For an on-site soil evaluation either office can suggest private individuals who provide on-site interpretive and consultation assistance in your area.

Another very important part of your information search on constructing and maintaining home septic systems will be to contact your County Extension Office for publications concerning domestic sewage disposal. Available publications are: Operating and Maintaining the Home Septic System (ID-142), Construction Guidelines for Conventional Septic Systems (ID-170), Steps in Constructing a Mound (Bed-Type) System (ID-163), Constructed Wetlands for On-Site Disposal (ID-220), and On-Site Domestic Sewage Disposal Handbook (NWPS).

Technology can overcome some of the soil limitations, but as soil limitations increase so does the cost of the technology required to solve the problems associated with the limitations. In addition to the Mound System and Constructed Wetlands discussed in ID-170 and ID-220 above, additional technologies are now available for septic system installation in the less-than-optimum soil situations.

For new construction or repairs to existing systems, consult your County Health Department for permits, inspection requirements and recommended area

Since a waste disposal system is a major investment associated with most rural home ownership, up-front research time is essential to avoid unnecessary expense and the frustration of living with a system that functions less than satisfactorily.

Oscar Hopkins is a retired Purdue professor, and a realtor in Tippecanoe County.

Onsite Maintenance Contracts – Is a septic system just like any other appliance?

Many homeowners routinely sign maintenance contracts whenever they purchase any "big ticket" appliance. Many more have continuing maintenance contracts with a local heating contractor that involves twice a year inspections to see that furnace filters are changed and ensure the system is ready for the changing seasons. Why not use this same model for septic systems? Next to the home itself or an automobile, septic systems are the most expensive purchase made by many homeowners. It only makes sense to keep the home and car in good working order, and it’s just as important to ensure that the septic system is functioning properly. Many homeowners are already used to having commercial service personnel make needed repairs and routine service.

So, if homeowners can be convinced, or required, to engage in onsite service contracts, how could such a program be implemented in Indiana? A monthly or annual bill could cover twice-a-year inspections, and, if additional work is needed such as tank pumping or pump replacement is needed, this could be billed to the homeowner at the time the work is done (just as in the case of a service person replacing the furnace blower). Alternatively, anticipated maintenance costs could be factored into all bills to provide some peak cost insurance to the individual homeowner.

Fortunately, there are onsite operation and maintenance (O&M) programs that are already in place in several other states. One of the most unique is in Minnesota. There, two local Rural Electric Associations (REA) have expanded their focus, and name, to Rural Utilities Association (RUA), and taken on this onsite O&M role. They already have the ability to bill their rural customers for electricity use, so a mechanism is in place to bill customers for septic maintenance. This is a logical extension of the services they already provide. In many cases, the RUAs simply subcontract with local installers to do the twice-a-year service. In addition, there are several other workable models for onsite maintenance programs (in North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington). Organized maintenance options in Indiana could include sewer districts, conservancy districts, or even county health offices. Certainly there are significant advantages to strong county health office involvement in whatever program is implemented. If maintenance is required in a county, copies of inspection and maintenance reports should be kept on file in the county health office, perhaps even submitted electronically to minimize record entry in the office.

The health office may also wish to operate a "certification" program for installers and maintenance personnel who participate in the program. This would help to reassure homeowners that the work done on their systems is done well.

Lastly, monitoring of onsite systems is getting easier, and better. At the recent NEHA meeting and tradeshow in Nashville, Tennessee, two companies showed sensors that monitor buildups in pump or line pressures and increases in water depth in the septic tank and alerted the homeowners when maintenance was needed. Some of the sensors could even be connected to an inexpensive telephone modem in the home to alert service personnel of the need for attention, even before homeowner was aware of a problem!

Could this work in Indiana? It is working! One eastern Indiana company sells onsite maintenance contracts that involve yearly inspections of their onsite pump installations. An engineering firm is using an electronic monitoring system to monitor an onsite system in Southern Indiana.

What’s involved in a wider implementation of onsite O&M programs in Indiana? We believe there are several points to consider:

Innovative onsite systems are needed for many of the soils in Indiana. They are more complex than conventional systems, however, and:

Obviously, there are significant advantages to onsite maintenance programs, both to the homeowner and to the environment. Effective maintenance programs throughout the state could dramatically reduce the failure rate of septic systems in Indiana. Developing a comprehensive maintenance program will be a huge job in most counties and existing systems should first be brought into compliance with existing regulations before such a program begins. To be practical and accepted, it would probably have to be phased in over a long period of time. It should probably be voluntary, at least initially, and homeowners encouraged to participate based on the fact that maintenance helps ensure against costly total system replacement. From the standpoint of the County Health Office, a mandatory inspection and maintenance program could be the start of a comprehensive evaluation of the condition of onsite systems in their area and the beginning of dramatic improvements in Indiana’s environment.

Don Jones and Joe Yahner (Retired)

ABE and AGRY Departments, Purdue University

"Now that’s what I call Y2K compliant, Maude!"