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Considerations for Replacing Conventional Septic Systems

If you are no longer allowed to own a conventional septic system, either because  you live in a Springs Protection area or your local county or city government is mandating septic systems be converted to sewer, you must understand the basic technology of every conversion option and its impact on your finances and your lifestyle. The Sludge Report offers you this list of considerations to aid you as you compare various replacement strategies for conventional septic systems:

Topography – is the area or subdivision suitable for gravity fed solutions? Numerous hills may require the addition of lift stations for gravity fed sewers. This may require the acquisition of property and use of eminent domain to obtain space.

Distance from existing municipal or county sewer trunk lines. This will affect the method and costs of running lateral connections from homes to main trunk lines.

Is lateral drilling an option? Lateral drilling is typically used when low-pressure sewers will replace septic systems. It is considerably less costly and disruptive to the community than laying solid PVC piping used in gravity sewer installations. If pressurized sewer systems are an option, consider the following:

  1. Electrical pumps: All will require electrical pumps. What is the life expectancy and what are the service requirements?
  2. Quality of materials: A raw waste environment is corrosive. High quality materials will help reduce failure/servicing events.
  3. Check Valves: When sewers are under pressure, electrical and mechanical failures can cause waste to backflow into homes and yards. The number and quality of check valves is very important.
  4. Raw waste or partially treated waste: You should know what is under pressure and moving through the pumping mechanism and into the small diameter lateral lines. Is it all wastewater and solids generated in the home or only the liquid minus the solids? Raw waste is a biohazard and effluent (the byproduct of a septic system – liquid minus the solids and is typically just a nutrient loaded liquid).
  5. Homeowner Insurance: Only your insurance agent can tell you if your policy will cover a backflow incident arising from the use of a low-pressure sewer. You may want to explore obtaining a special policy rider.

Annexation: In unincorporated areas of a county, there may be requirements that your community or neighborhood agree to annexation in order for you to connect to a sewer trunk line and use a treatment plant belonging to a municipality.  Make sure you understand all of the impacts on your area, including how the annexation will affect your property taxes and services currently provided by the county.

Gated community access: If the community owns the roads, it will affect whether excavation of a roadway to install gravity sewers is practical. It will also affect how future maintenance and repair services for low-pressure systems are contracted for and delivered to the homeowner.

Size of property: The footprint is the required space to install a solution and should consider the following:

  1. Paved surfaces
  2. Landscape disruption including obstacles such as large trees
  3. Costs to remove the present conventional tanks and/or drain fields to make room
  4. The sizes and quantity of tanks to be installed
  5. Whether mounding is necessary

Capacities: Some advanced systems have a “fixed dose”. This is the maximum number of gallons the system can treat at any given time. This may impact the numbers of residents and/or guests that can occupy and/or use a dwelling at any one time and includes all water and toilet use that flows into the system during that fixed dose limitation. Overloading the system may cause alarms to trigger and/or the system to shut down. Ask the following:

  1. What is the maximum dosing limit (if there is one)?
  2. Will dosing limits disrupt normal family functions or lower home values because of required changes in lifestyles?

Seasonal use: Many electro-mechanical solutions, whether advanced systems or low-pressure sewers, must be purged and cleaned when temporarily abandoned for even as little as a week or two if pumps or floats sit in biosolids. Know the requirements of the system and if you must hire a technician to shut down or restart the system.

Bio-filters: Advanced systems use biofilters to grow beneficial bacteria which is used to remove nutrients. Certain activities will compromise or kill the bacteria. Chemotherapy, antibiotics, anti-bacterial cleaning products are all known to kill the bacteria used to reduce nutrients. Each “advanced” system will respond differently to this condition. What is the response of the system? Does the biofilter need regular replacement or service calls? Are there activities that render the warranty null and void?

Venting Gases: All sewage systems create gasses that must be vented. Conventional septic systems and gravity sewers vent at the rooftop level. Grinder-based sewers are vented at ground level, as are many of the Advanced systems. Ground level venting can cause neighborhood odor issues, especially when there are large numbers installed in close proximity to each other. Before agreeing to a solution, have your HOA arrange a tour of a neighborhood with many units so you understand implications. Talk to homeowners.

Warranties: Read, read, read. You must understand the issues that will render your warranty null and void, who can install and service the unit, and how long is the unit under warranty, what components are covered, and what is not covered.

Monthly, annual, repair, and operational fees: Every alternative to a conventional septic system carries a set of monthly or annual costs – sometimes, both. Some fees cover repairs, some do not. You must understand what those costs are and who sets, or resets, those costs. Annual permits, maintenance contracts, inspections, municipal sewer usage fees, sewers that may have repairs or maintenance requirements, electrical modifications to your home, and the electricity used to power your alternative are all sources of cost.

Long term, costs can escalate and impact your personal cost. Incentive programs for initial installation are being offered, but replacement costs for advanced systems may not be. Understand that the upfront capital cost will probably be followed in 10 years by another equally expensive replacement cost. Separate those costs currently covered by municipality/county/State and those you will be responsible for now and later.

Typically, monthly sewer usage rates are subject to approval by the Public Service Commission. This is to protect homeowners from unwarranted and unvetted hikes in rates. Find out who sets usage fees associated with your sewer or Advanced system.

Access ports: All alternatives to conventional septic systems have access ports for service, inspections and repair. Look at a diagram. Even better, visit an installation. How many access covers are needed? Is their color, height, placement going to blend with the landscape. Is there piping that protrudes from the ground? Does the system require a mound? Does it provide electrical and mechanical safety features appropriate for children.

Intermittent versus continuous power requirements: If electrical power is required, how is it used?

  1. Periodic pumping only when full. What is the capacity and how often does it run to pump out the tank?
  2. 24 X 7 operation – Power must always be present to operate. What is the capacity with or without power?

What happens when the power goes off?

  1. How many days of operation? What can you live with before you need to stay in a shelter or hotel? Can you shelter in place?
  2. Can the holding tank pump be run manually to give more capacity for backup when a predictive weather event is due?
  3. How difficult is it to use a generator? (periodic pump out or 24 X 7 or must leave on continuously)
    1. Is the electrical panel pre-wired for a generator?
    2. Can solar panels be installed to handle power outages?
  4. What size generator? (small generator vs large)
  5. Is a drainfield used for backup? How many days before drainfield becomes compromised when used as a backup?
  6. Do units require cleaning and a restart from a service technician before they can be used again?
  7. What will service response time be in large weather-related events when thousands of people need service at the same time?

Noise: Equipment outfitted with blowers and alarms may cause problems with noise in neighborhoods. NSF 245 systems are rated acceptable if their alarms produce a sound at or below 60 decibels. What is acceptable, and at what levels? How do alarms work? How long do alarms run? Who is responsible for responding to the alarm? Can you turn off alarms?

Legal Considerations and Easements:

  1. Will the selected choice you make today give you a permanent exemption from any future requirement changes due to BMAP?
  2. Will the solution you have chosen be required to be registered with the county clerk and noted on your deed?

As a final note, the reason for replacing conventional septic systems is to remove nutrients from ground water. The only solutions that provide 100% removal of nitrogen and other nutrients are designs connected to wastewater treatment plants. With Florida’s water quality issues, no one knows what the future will bring. Advanced systems all have conventional drain fields and all conventional drain fields can contribute nitrogen to ground water.