Protect your septic: MPCA inspector offers basic tips

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What's going down the drain?

Sadie Wunder discussed the impacts of phosphorus, nitrogren and chemicals that homeowners may be introducing into their septic systems.

She is a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) subsurface sewage treatment system compliance and enforcement inspector.

At a recent Hubbard County Coalition of Lake Associations (COLA) meeting, Wunder explained the basic components of septic systems — and how compliant systems help prevent pollution in lakes, rivers and watersheds.

"The overarching message is that a compliant system will prevent pollution and by empowering the homeowners with the basics of system function, they can better understand why it is important to think about what is going down the drain. Simply put, all water is connected," she said. "And as you know, Hubbard County is full of lakes. Minnesota is full of lakes. And we want to make sure we're doing our best to protect the resources we have."

The MPCA's mission to educate and protect is similar to COLA's mission, Wunder noted.

"At the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, we really do like to get out and touch base with homeowners and people who are actually in charge of their septic systems," she said. "Those one or two tips make a huge difference when it comes to protecting your septic system."

Why should you care?

Most septic systems cost between $15,000 and $30,000.

"That's a huge part of your property value," Wunder said. "By protecting your system, by taking care of it, by doing a few things here and there, you are not going to have to replace it."

Primary treatment of septage occurs in the septic tank, followed by secondary treatment in the soil, or drainfield.

The most important part of this system is the 3 feet of vertical separation between your distribution area and the "limiting condition," which may be bedrock, aquifer or saturated soils, explained Wunder. It's where no further treatment can take place. Effluent from the septic tank percolates down through the soil to the limiting condition.

Current rules require a 3-foot separation, but older systems may only have 2 feet.

Sewage from homes carries pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, plus solids, nutrients and chemicals.

"Anything that's going down the drain is going into our septic systems," Wunder reminded the audience.

Daily cleaning products and anti-bacterial soaps are "tough" on a septic system. The MPCA suggests not using Tidy Bowl or Rid-X.

Septic treatment additives are completely unnecessary, said Wunder.

"Your body produces additives. You don't need to add anything."

Rather than using chemical drain cleaners, buy a plumber's snake or clog cable.

"Be mindful of the products you're using," Wunder said.

Unneeded medication should be safely deposited at the Hubbard County Sheriff's "Take It to the Box" program.

"But never, ever, ever send it down the toilet," Wunder said, adding that estrogen mimickers in medicine are causing intersexing of fish species in Minnesota's lakes.

The MPCA recommends using low phosphorus dishwashing liquids. Powder detergents often have a filler that don't easily decompose.

Fats and oils should go into the trash can, Wunder said, not down the drain.

Septic tanks should be cleaned or pumped every three years to remove the solids that accumulate. The licensed professional should pump from the tank's manhole, not through the inspection pipes, Wunder noted. The contractor should inspect the tank to make sure baffles are in place and functioning properly.

They are supposed to provide a report about the tank's condition as well, Wunder said.

Common indicators of a failing or failed septic system are the following:

• Sewage backup in the house

• Water or sewage surfacing in the yard

• Sewage odors indoors or outdoors

• High levels of nitrates or coliform bacteria in well water tests

• Alarms sounding/flashing on the system

• Frozen pipes or soil treatment areas

• Frequent intestinal disorders

• Algae blooms or excessive plant growth in nearby ponds or lakes

Additional resources

The University of Minnesota website is 

The" target="_blank">septic.umn.edu.

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MPCA offers homeowner information at www.pca.state.mn.us/water/ssts-practitioner-and-homeowner-information. The agency also maintains a list of licensed professionals, as does the Hubbard County Environmental Services.

The Environmental Protection Agency's website is www.epa.gov/septic/septicsmart-homeowners.