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New septic system designs are undergoing testing and permitting by both the Florida Dept. of Health, Bureau of Onsite Sewage (FDOH), Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection (FDEP). According to FDOH, conventional septic systems remove approximately 20-35% of nitrogen prior to treatment by soil and groundwater. New septic system designs developed by FDOH, claim to remove 50-95% of nitrogen. Most of these new technologies involve mechanical pumps, multiple tanks, specialized filtration and aerobics to denitrify the output from septic systems. The new solutions are costly and complex, so it is important that homeowners ask the right questions before either endorsing or selecting a solution for their area.

In many areas of our state, homeowners are being faced with only one solution, replacing their septic systems with sewers. Even the sewer solution presents problems, as there are traditional gravity sewers and there are low-pressure “sewers” which are vastly different than gravity sewers, and that homeowners need to understand and ask questions about.

The most significant concern should be whether the cost that is expected to be borne by the homeowner, or even the state’s taxpayers and utilities, will deliver adequate improvements to the environment. To date, insufficient testing has been done to prove the need for any new technology. Nor, have some of the new technologies been time-tested in Florida conditions for suitability, user-friendly operation, or long-term performance.

In general, be aware that the driving force behind a mandated solution may not be the environmental science that demonstrates a solution is needed. Sometimes, it is a financial decision based on grant or state-funding availability, excess waste water treatment plant capacity, special interest group pressure, or a potential business opportunity. Our position has always been “do what matters.” Without adequate science, appropriate solutions equal to the size and scope of the problem cannot be chosen, and results will be substantial cost with no measurable benefit to the environment.

Take time to become educated on both the issues and solutions. The questions below will help make you an informed homeowner.

  1. Has an environmental study been done in your specific area to show that the soil type and geology in your area requires a new mandated solution? What is the cost-benefit of any proposed solution?
  2. What are the goals of the mandated solution? How much of a reduction per septic system is necessary to achieve nitrogen reduction goals? The answer to these questions is dependent on the answer to Question 1 and should be stated as a Percent reduction of nitrogen.
  3. What are the total costs to you, the home owner of any mandated solution? It is not uncommon for total capital costs to range from $25K to $50K and ongoing annual costs to be $1,000 or more. Don’t forget to include things like:
    • Site engineering and design costs
    • All costs of permitting and inspections and/or recertification
      • Are permits required to be renewed on an annual basis?
    • Equipment, how many tanks? Complexity of mechanicals involved
    • Wiring costs, including the upgrading of a home’s electrical panel if necessary
    • Hauling of excess fill dirt from the site or adding fill dirt to fill in an old tank location or change the grading of your yard.
    • Restoration of landscaping and sprinklers after installation
    • Possible restoration of sidewalks and driveway (some solutions require extra room so they are installed under your walkways and driveway)
    • What remains visible in your yard? Cost to camouflage
    • Annual operating expenses
    • Service requirements, replacement filters compliance testing and/or other supplies
  4. Will the use of a specific type of septic system, or low pressure sewer system reduce the value of your home, or be perceived as a negative to a prospective homebuyer?
  5. What then, are the actual costs per pound of nitrogen removal? This should be the comparative value between two or more solutions. The average home produces approximately 22.5 pounds of nitrogen annually. As a point of comparison, each bag of fertilizer that covers 5,000 sq. ft. of grass contains 3.2 lbs. of nitrogen. Further, a tree absorbs 10 lbs. of nitrogen annually.
  6. Does the installation change the grading of your landscape, producing a mound? Will a mound create drainage issues for your home or your neighbors?
  7. Is a maintenance contract necessary to keep the system running due to the complexity of the design?
    • Who is the maintenance contract with? Contractor, county, third party?
    • Frequency of maintenance requirements
    • Cost of maintenance contracts
    • What is the response time and is it guaranteed in the event of a failure?
      • What happens when there are significant area wide failures such as hurricanes affecting thousands of electrically operated septic systems or electrically operated low pressure sewer systems?
    • If a home owner can do maintenance, what are the training costs?
    • Who becomes liable if commercial maintenance is no longer available?
    • Will elderly homeowners be able to financially or physically manage owning and operating costly and complex systems?
  8. What are the impacts of a gated community on costs/design/maintenance?
  9. Who is liable for the design and performance guarantees made for the systems?
    • Contractor, county or state if mandated
  10. Is there a loss of property rights?
    • Do you have to give up clear title through an easement for access to the equipment on your property?
  11. What happens when you are on vacation for a longer period of time? (inactivity)
    • Does the system have to be shut down?
    • Is a system restart necessary? Costs?
  12. What happens if you have an event that overloads the system? (over activity)
    • House guests for an extended period
    • Large social gathering
  13. Is the system operation and effectiveness sensitive to drugs such as antibiotics, chemotherapy, or other household products?
  14. What are the system warranties? What are the “demonstrated” lifespans of each alternative?
  15. What happens in the event of an area power failure? These questions apply to alternative septic system designs that require pumps as well as low pressure systems that have limited storage capacity or grinder pumps and depend on power to move sewage to a lift station.
    • Do you need to restrict your water use during a power outage?
    • Is formal restart of the system required?
    • How many hours before you cannot use your home due to backups
      • Who covers the cost of a hotel in the event of wide spread and lengthy power and equipment failures?
  16. Does your homeowners’ insurance cover backups of sewage into your home?
  17. How long has the specific technology been in use?
    1. References of homeowners to contact
    2. How many are in use today? Where?