Maintain septic systems to save big bucks

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Septic systems are under-appreciated. Unless you live in a city on a municipal water system, septic systems dispose of all the waste that goes down the drains in your household, small business, church, school, restaurant and more.

Spending a little time and money to maintain your septic system could save you from major headaches and repair costs. But, for many people, septic systems are "out of sight, out of mind."

"A well-maintained system will average about 20 to 30 years of life," says Dick Martindale, an Environmental and Health Protections program manager at the Panhandle Health District (PHD). "It's worth it to maintain your system."

A basic septic system consists of a septic tank that separates solids and grease from the rest of the waste, and a drainfield that further treats and disposes of the wastewater into the ground. The treated wastewater eventually ends up in the local groundwater from which your drinking water well may pump. Or it ends up in nearby surface water in which you may swim.

Just about everyone who lives outside city limits and some people who live within city limits but beyond the reach of municipal water services is on a septic system. About 25,000 septic systems process wastewater in Kootenai County.

"This is your wastewater treatment system," says Shawn Ellison, an Environmental and Health Protections program manager at the Panhandle Health District. "You own it. You're in charge."

To find out if you're on a septic system and where it is, visit the PHD website - www.phd1.idaho.gov - and scroll down to the Septic Permit Search link. Enter your address, parcel number and other information and you'll find your septic permit and a layout of where your septic tank, drainfield and replacement drainfield are located on your property.

Knowing their location will help you protect them from failing. A failing septic system means backed up drains or sewage in your yard. You can avoid failure and the cost of repair with common sense and periodic maintenance.

Pump your septic tank about every five years. Everything that goes down your drains goes into your septic tank and separates. Heavy stuff sinks. Light stuff, such as grease, floats. The waste in between leaves the tank by pipe for a drainfield. Eventually, the remaining gunk builds up. If you don't pump it out, it'll clog the tank and drainfield, causing a failure. Pumping costs about $300. A list of licensed pumpers is on the PHD website.

Keep your drainfields clear and open. Drainfields are the soil areas that serve as filters for wastewater. They need air and sunlight. Don't park vehicles or equipment on them or build on them. Don't drain hot tubs onto them. "That area must be protected," Martindale says.

All drainfields fail over time. Keep the designated area for a replacement drainfield clear and ready for use. If your drainfield fails, you can apply for a permit to replace that system and an installer can come out to your property to make a relatively quick repair.

When you're thinking of buying land to build on, the design and location of a septic system should be your first project. Start at PHD to obtain a septic permit. An environmental health specialist will visit the property and help you find the best sites for a drainfield and replacement drainfield.

For more information on caring for septic systems, visit www.phd1.idaho.gov.

Cynthia Taggart is the public information officer for the Panhandle Health District. She can be reached at ctaggart@phd1.idaho.gov.

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