Homeowner Guide: Buyer Beware

During the Wekiva BMAP Septic System Remediation Committee, a list of Homeowner concerns was formally submitted to FDEP about the so-called “advanced” nitrogen reducing replacements for our conventional systems. Although FDEP billed this committee as a collaborative effort, none of our considerations or concerns were ever addressed. The list was ignored. Homeowners in every Priority Focus Area are now faced with having to choose from a Dept. of Health list of approved replacement systems. We are being asked to purchase a $20,000 mini-municipal plant, put it in our yards without any knowledge of how these systems work, if we can afford the monthly costs, or how to make an informed choice that will preserve value of our homes.

In this issue of the Sludge Report we have expanded that list of homeowner concerns into a not-so-quick study guide. We hope it will provide you with enough knowledge about how these systems work to make up for the lack of collaboration and guidance from our state agencies.

Advanced systems have many names – ATU’s, performance-based treatment systems (PBTS), advanced onsite wastewater treatment systems (AOWTS), and the list goes on and on. Some even are now being called distributed network sewer systems (fancy name, but it’s still a tank in your yard). Regardless of what it is called, every system has its own is a complex design and it will require far more of your attention, your pocketbook, and your safety awareness than a conventional septic system.

Just a thought for you. Your state senators and representatives seem to be unaware of the issues with these systems. Unfortunately, many just trust what they have been told by our agencies instead of reading agency reports issued over the past 12 years as we have. You can always send this issue of the Sludge Report to them – before they pass more legislation allocating state taxpayer dollars to subsidizing this mess.

THE NOT-SO-QUICK STUDY GUIDE

Sewers, gravity fed, not low-pressure grinders or distributed sewers, are your best choice. While your legislators are reeling over the costs of sewer conversion, the costs are a mere pittance of what you will pay in life style impacts and out of pocket costs if you are forced into an advanced onsite septic treatment system.

To begin the discussion, all the high-tech solutions have many common attributes. They have at least one tank, most have multiple chambers, are electrically managed and powered by pumps, are costly, will not last as long as conventional systems typically do, will require maintenance, and will affect your lifestyle. To help you get grounded in what “lifestyle changes” mean, here is a partial list of concerns for the homeowner.

Drugs: Systems serving homes (or nursing facilities) where occupants are consuming large quantities of medications, particularly antibiotics or possibly chemotherapy drugs, can be rendered inoperative if the antibiotic or drug level concentration is enough to kill the working microbes.

Considerations: No advanced system certified as National Sanitation Foundation’s NSF-245 can assure reliable operation when drugs and chemicals enter the effluent. The manufacture’s assurances and warranties are your only protection. Read the warranty and manual before you purchase. Exclusions will be noted here.

Disinfectants: Use of improper septic effluent disinfectant in aerobic systems can disrupt efficiency and operation, voiding warranties. Maintenance of some models require that tanks, pumps and plumbing require periodic chemical treatment with things like calcium hypochlorite or chlorine.

Considerations: Some designs and models of advanced systems will require periodic cleaning as part of a maintenance plan. Again, reading the service manual should identify the “ongoing maintenance” requirements to keep your warranty in place. Length of warranty is also important. Because they have electromechanical parts, the probability of a comparable service life to what you have now is remote. Understand the costs of operation over a 10- or 20-year time period. Use these costs to compare models.

Filter clogging: Outlet filters clog on some aerobic septic systems. Causes include broken or missing baffles in the upstream solid-holding tank(s), use of the system beyond its design load, or perhaps improper use of aseptic additives or chemicals which may have increased the level of suspended solids.

Considerations: Some designs use filters to remove debris from the effluent, so the systems do not clog up. By design, filters will need periodic replacement. Access ports will be required for this. You should know what the replacement schedule is for a filter, the cost of replacing the filter and whether that is something you can do or something you need a certified technician to do. With some models, the filter itself holds specific bacteria that removes nitrogen and other elements from the waste water. Failure to use the system as designed can clog them and render the bacteria ineffective.

Salt: Systems serving homes with hard water and which use a water softener can be rendered inoperative if high levels of brine are discharged into tanks. Water softener backwash and brine will need to be discharged to a separate drywell. These will carry additional permits and costs.

Considerations: You will need a separate gray water system to capture this water. These will carry additional permits and costs. You should install only NSF350 certified gray water systems.

Overloading: A residential advanced system of any kind is at risk of being overloaded and failing to adequately treat its effluent if it has not been properly sized during its design phase. Design is based on “dosing,” determining a maximum flow of effluent and water from the household. When lifestyle changes, new additions to the household, parties, extended stay guests, even vacations with suspend use, homeowners are usually greeted with repair and re-startup costs.

Additionally, the concept of “dosing” is dependent upon continuous operation. When system operation is interrupted through periods of high volume, no electricity or mechanical failure, solids will not be processed and can enter the drain field. When solids enter the drain field, drain field life is shortened.

Considerations: When a system has been designed around a dosing requirement, this means that the daily flow of water and effluent is expected to be constant. When loads vary, the system design cannot accommodate treatment. When selecting a system, you must consider your lifestyle. How many family members do you have? Will this change while you own the home? Does the occupancy of your home vary do to frequent visitors, social gatherings or even vacations? Lack of use can cause some designs to require a maintenance call. Do you wash clothes on the same day of the week or space out one load a day? Selling your home can also be impacted if you have not installed an advanced system that will handle the occupant capacity of the dwelling.

Wi-Fi Monitoring and Controls: New proposed designs of AOWTS use Internet connections to not only monitor but optimize batch processing.

Considerations: Exposing access to a home’s Wi-Fi network is not without risks. Connected devices as diverse as septic systems have joined the “Internet of Things” (“IoT”). Unfortunately, IoT devices have also become an increasingly attractive target for cyber criminals to probe the devices for security vulnerabilities and then install malicious software (“malware”) to surreptitiously control the device, damage the device, gain unauthorized access to the data on the device, and/or otherwise affect the device’s operation without permission. According to the CYBERSECURITY UNIT U.S. Department of Justice, even home networks can be vulnerable without proper protections.

Alarm Troubles: Advanced systems will have alarms, audible alarms that you and your neighbors will hear. It is important to know if something stops working. To fail to know can easily result in sewage backup in to your home. Alarms are also there to keep homeowners from tampering with the devices. During mechanical issues, power outages, or lifestyle adjustments, only qualified technicians can intervene and correct the problem. If not reset within a few days, drainfield failure can occur.

Considerations: Tampering with alarms will be against State and local regulations. While they are there to tell you if something goes wrong, an alarm typically must be turned off by a maintenance technician who has fixed the issue. If a general weather event has impacted a subdivision or community, alarms can quickly become a major annoyance. Does the model you are considering have an alarm? Is it visual (flashing light) or audible (buzzer/bell)? Is there battery backup? Can you legally override the alarm?

Odor: According to some expert sources a slight odor from an aerobic septic system is normal. When odors become unpleasant, you will need an aerobic septic system service company to look at your system. One reason for the odor issue is that your home is vented at the roof. Odor coming from waste pipes is pulled out where most people cannot smell it. Wind dilutes the smells and carries them away. However, in FDEP studies where entire communities have been converted to advanced systems, the density of homes and the ground level venting, odor was actively listed as a constant complaint.

Considerations: Ask vendors to give you references to call. Look for their oldest systems, especially where there is a concentration of homes. Ask the homeowners. Visit an installation and see if you can smell anything? Some manufactures use designs and technology to limit odors. Ask!

Design Complexity: A conventional septic system is passive. There are no moving parts, and no electrical power needed. Conventional systems work successfully for 25 to 35 years when properly maintained. Advanced systems vary greatly in design. Their complexity should be the one overarching criterion any homeowner uses when evaluating an advanced replacement for their conventional septic system. Lets list some of the items that make an advanced system complex:

Blower(s), pump(s) with many designs having more than one; metal clamps, rubber seals which deteriorate with age; floats to sense and trigger pumping; alarms to warn; check valves to assure the direction of flow; filters and bio mat filters to both decrease clogging and assist in microbial growth; circuits to sense levers, trigger pumps, and measure dose sizes; multiple tanks; multiple chambers that need cleaning and periodic pump outs; Wi Fi communications to city and county facilities for both dose control, monitoring and repair of systems; flashing lights; timers; drain fields (yes, most designs still require drain fields); spray fields and other proprietary design components.

Considerations: This may be the most important criteria to consider. You will find deigns that use simple air blowers. These are low cost, easy to replace. Other models will use one, two, even three pumps. When pumps are used, floats are used to detect effluent levels and turn pumps on and off. Dosing requires timers, electrical clocks of sorts. Lithium Ion batteries are used many times for backing up parts of the circuitry. Simple is better. Just count the number of electrical components in a design. Look for the one with the least number of components.

Access: Lids must have secure fasteners to assure no child can open and fall into them. Since all advanced systems require electrical power, they must be properly installed and grounded to assure against accidental electrocution.

Considerations: State inspection requirements mean models will have one to multiple access ports. Not only must they be exposed at the ground level, shrubbery and other landscape cannot interfere with them. Any cover must be secure for safety reasons. If you have children or children in your neighborhood, even pets, make sure any access point, component or electrical connections are secure and safe.

Drain Fields: Most advanced treatment systems still utilize a drainfield to route the processed waste water into the soil. Even systems called distributed network sewer systems have drain fields. Why the confusion? These distributed sewers are nothing more than an advanced waste water treatment septic system in your yard and the only physical connection to a municipal “sewer” facility is your Wi-Fi connection to a utility monitoring system. By designating them sewers, the manufacturers of these products do not seem to need NSF245 certifications (a BMAP requirement). Homeowners beware!

Considerations: Like all drain fields, if the systems are not operated properly, drain fields can still fail. When upgrading to an advanced system, you may be able to use your existing drain field. However, there is risk. You probably are upgrading because your drain field has failed. Many installers believe that once you begin directed highly treated waste water into a drain field, it will come back to life. Whether you choose to save the money initially by using your old field is a risk decision. It is always better to have a vendor replace all components and provide a warranty. It avoids finger pointing later.

The Gorilla in the Room, Electricity: For reasons that only our State’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health can tell us, virtually every solution to replace conventional septic systems permitted in Florida is electrical. (Note: there is one passive wood chip design permitted but costs and practical limits make this a non-choice). You need to ask yourself, what will you do WHEN the power goes off? A few designs revert to gravity and still function as conventional tanks. This is a great feature provided that the restart costs are not high, and that maintenance is readily available. Most advanced designs just stop working. Leave them off for a few days and you could be in line with 10,000 neighbors waiting for a maintenance crew to restart your system. Without the usual pre-treatment, solids can enter the drainfield and cause drainfield failure.

Considerations: Use a generator? Well there is the cost. Small generators start at a few hundred dollars and full home generators can be thousands of dollars. There is the size and weight of the generator (Can you handle it?) Storing gasoline is dangerous and gas should only be kept for 6 months. The generator should be emptied of gas if left unused for long periods of time. Hazards include, electrocution, explosions from attempting to fill a hot generator, and carbon monoxide poisoning. If you are planning to use propane for fueling a generator, make sure your homeowner association will permit a large 100 gallon or greater tank in your yard.

Also, there will be the cost to add a generator hook up to your home’s panel box. Your advanced system will have a panel on the exterior of your home. Most homeowners would also like to include their refrigerator, room ceiling fans and a few lights onto a generator circuit. Before you assume that adding a generator is an easy thing, get a quote from a qualified electrician on the proper way to attach a generator to your home.

When major weather events occur, entire neighborhoods, cities can require servicing. Have a plan on where to evacuate to when you cannot use your toilets because of the service backup.

Advanced Drainfield Alternatives: Conventional Septic Tanks are rated to denitrify by about 10 percent. A Conventional Drainfield removes approximately 35 percent more nitrogen, making the conventional septic system about 45 percent efficient. An FDEP Wekiva Area homeowner study and other national studies show when the water table is 10 or more feet below the surface, attenuation (natural denitrification) occurs removing the remaining nitrogen before it can reach ground water.

Advanced Drainfields capable of significant denitrification prior to releasing fluids into the soil are used throughout the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, Florida’s Department of Health has blocked the use of advanced drainfield design in Florida. An Advanced Drainfield can be attached to a conventional tank. The technology uses either carbon-based media, biological action and/or air to denitrify without electricity. These are highly efficient and can reach total system denitrification in excess of 95 percent. If available, these are the best choice for homeowners and the environment.

The entire purpose of FDEP forcing homeowners to use advanced technology is to improve tank nitrification to 50 percent. That is what the NSF245 certification requires. The drainfield remains a conventional field. Add the two values together, FDEP and BMAP mandates all treatment systems remove about 65 percent of the nitrogen. NSF245 does not address dentification, turning nitrates into nitrogen gas. Therefore, just changing to an advanced onsite wastewater system (high tech tank) does not insure a cleaner environment. In fact, FDEP and DOH internal studies show that, once installed at a homeowner site, total nitrogen reduction falls on average to 33% and bacteria levels rise on the complex advanced septic systems.

Considerations: Passive design does not stop working in weather events. No mechanical parts will provide low maintenance cost and reliability. The only visible change to your yard will be an air vent and these can be located behind shrubbery. This is clearly a desirable choice but you will need to demand this choice from your Senators and Representatives.

Now What?

The State of Florida has done nothing to help its homeowners with the task of selecting a reliable vendor and advanced system model. National Standards such as NSF245 only assure you that with a test slurry (not real effluent) 50% less concentrated that a typical home produces, an advanced unit submitted to NFS worked for 6 months and reduced a value called total nitrogen TN by 50%. It may answer why in the field, they don’t produce the desired result. Important to note, there is no State requirement to test systems for nitrogen reduction once they are installed in homeowner sites.

Therefore, legislators and environmental groups cannot be assured they work, that they remove nitrogen, or they are beneficial to our environment. It is all up to you to be diligent, and lastly, to communicate to your county commissioners, your state legislators, and even your Governor, that the solutions mandated in our BMAP plans hold little promise of improving our environment. At this point, the only thing we can be sure of is the cost will be in the billions to taxpayer/homeowners, and the return on investment won’t even be measured.

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