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Once upon a time, in a land far away (Tallahassee), a passive, nitrogen reducing alternative septic system was born. It required no electricity. It was what we all waited for and advocated for so folks with septic systems could rest easy that an affordable, simple solution to nitrogen reduction was available. With the Basin Management Action Plan marching forward, and the passive system birth announcement made, we planned to celebrate, because we were out from under the burden of complex, expensive, electricity driven “advanced” systems. Then the Dept. of Health, Bureau of Onsite Sewage wrote the rules for the passive baby.

Cancel the celebration. The Bureau did what it always does, write horrific and unnecessary rules that trash any benefit, economically punish the state’s residents, and make the simple solutions unworkable. Our choices have been, once again, forcibly limited to the FDOH Bureau approved “Advanced Nitrogen-Reducing Systems” that generate money for the Bureau. And, lots of it.

The Bureau of Onsite Sewage has taken a simple concept – a layer of wood chips under the drain field – and wrote rules for installation that turned it into nightmare. After reading the rules, I got a quote from a reputable master contractor on what it would cost and what the difficulties would be if I put one in my yard. Here it is.

FDOH RULES AND WHAT THE CONTRACTOR MUST DO TO IMPLEMENT THE RULES:

  1. Wood chip system must be a mixed combination of sandy loam in a “non-plastic state” and wood chips. Yes, they even have rules for dirt. This is the media.
  2. Footprint to install is much larger than code for a conventional system (currently 650 sq. feet for a typical 3-4 bedroom house)
  3. Cost to install in my yard $17-18 Thousand for the construction plus the cost of the media (undetermined)
  4. Media must be mixed off-site which increases the cost.
  5. To install in my yard, all my trees (2 big oaks) and the stumps will have to be removed (no grinding of the stumps). Not included in the costs. (Rough estimate is $10-12 K minimum)
  6. Utility/county easements between yards may make installation impossible.
  7. 2-3 trucks will be needed to move dirt and bring premixed media on-site, requires a lot of space (rotating trucks so roadways will not be blocked).
  8. System will cost $12,000 more than present conventional septic system (estimate $18,000 without tree removal).
  9. Rules also state you will have to register with the clerk of courts and record on your deed that you have a “nitrogen reducing” septic system that may require maintenance (in the future). This will impact your home value negatively.
  10. Drain field failure before 10 years old, you replace the drain field. Past 10 years you must test media for efficient Nitrogen removal and if found less than it should be (unknown what the testing standards will be), you replace both the drain field and the wood chips. (potential cost of an additional $20 K)

BEST GUESSTIMATE OF COSTS:

$20,000 Labor & Materials
$12,000 Tree Removal
$20,000 Potential Cost in 10 years
$20,000 Reduction in Property Value with deed declaration
$   4,000 Re-landscaping and sprinkler system repair

NET COST TO HOMEOWNER: $76,000

FDEP has promised to pay the difference between the capital cost of present conventional septic system and the proposed cost of the nitrogen reducing systems. The difference is approximately $12,000 plus about $2,000 for the wood chips, far short of the real costs to homeowners. My advice, advocate with your county for gravity sewers. The price tag above makes gravity sewers the best deal around.

LOGIC TEST: Require a hole so big I must take out two huge oak trees that absorb 20 lbs. of nitrogen each year. Grind up the trees. Mix with dirt. Fill the hole and I now have an approved nitrogen reducing septic system – designed to absorb 20 lbs. of nitrogen a year.

FACTS: There has never been any testing of the sandy loam/wood chip combination. Plain wood chips have been tested at three sites and shown to be reducing Nitrogen at high levels with no liner and no mix of loam and chips. I checked with a former member of the Technical Review and Advisory Panel (TRAP) committee which oversees the Bureau’s rule-making. I asked if TRAP ever approved the sandy loam/wood chip layer for use. The answer was a resounding “NO.” Apparently, at a FDOH continuing education course, a representative of the Bureau of Onsite Sewage was confronted by contractors who unanimously said they would never install one of these wood chip systems.

Burn the passive solution birth certificate – it’s useless. As for the Bureau of Onsite Sewage, they spent $5 Million dollars of your money with the legislative directive to come up with a passive alternative. We still don’t have one.

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