Teaching homeowners septic ‘secrets’ to protect water

January 10, 2020

Most people who live in a home with a septic system probably know they should get it pumped once in a while.

But they may not realize that what they put in their septic system can prevent it from working properly — and could even wind up in their drinking water.

program from the University of Minnesota aims to teach homeowners about the myths and misconceptions of septics systems, knowledge that could save them money and help protect the environment.

The technology behind a septic system is fairly basic: Pipes carry wastewater away from the house and into a tank that collects solids. The water then goes to a drain field, where it’s absorbed into the soil and is recycled back into the groundwater.

But for many homeowners, out of sight means out of mind. As long as the water disappears when they flush the toilet or turn off the faucet, they probably don't think a whole lot about their septic system.

Sara Heger, a research engineer with the U of M, is trying to change that. In 2018, she received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health to educate homeowners on everything they need to know about their septic system — how it works, how to maintain it and what to avoid putting in it.

In the past two years, more than 700 homeowners have attended the courses, which include information on contaminants that have been raising concern more recently, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

"Those are the most common things that people are putting down the drain,” Heger said.

Those chemicals can kill the natural bacteria in a septic system that help break down organic matter. Even though septic systems are effective at treating sewage, there are trace amounts of contaminants that leave every wastewater treatment system, no matter how large or small, Heger said.

So in the classes, Heger urges homeowners not to dump unused medications down the drain. She recommends cutting back on antibacterial soaps and cleaners, and choosing natural products when possible.

"If you have to put gloves on before you'd want to touch your skin, probably not good for the environment,” Heger said. “If you could eat it, it's probably OK for your septic system — vinegar, baking soda, lemon juice, things like that."