The Complete Safe Septic Guide
This Handbook is designed to educate residents and business owners in the Lake George Basin about their onsite wastewater treatment systems and the critical importance of operating and maintaining their systems in a manner just as important as other onsite utilities. The impacts of failing septic systems on the Lake, property values, surrounding communities, and the Basin economy are all highlighted. System design and construction are explored and explained in order to empower property owners to make informed decisions best suited for their individual needs. Most importantly, low- and no-interest financing options that will help residents to invest in the long-term health of their property and Lake George are featured.
Lake George, the “Queen of American Lakes,” is one of America’s most beloved natural gems, visited and enjoyed by nearly three million people every year. 1 The Lake is in the beautiful Adirondack Park surrounded by lush forests, mountains, and rocky or naturally sandy shorelines. It is classified as oligotrophic, meaning it is a low-nutrient, low-productivity water body. Due to its low nutrient content, algae growth has been limited, providing for the Lake’s exceptional water quality and clarity. However, scientific investigations starting in the 1960s indicate that nutrient loading into the Lake has doubled over natural background levels. 2 Lake George is susceptible to strong biological responses including increased algae growth. Among the main sources of increasing nutrients—especially phosphorus and nitrogen—are aging and antiquated septic systems and sewage treatment plants.
The majority of the Lake George Basin, or watershed, is rural, without centralized utilities like municipal wastewater collection and treatment systems. The basic function of a wastewater treatment system is to properly treat all wastewater that goes down any drain before it enters the natural environment. In areas without centralized wastewater collection and treatment systems, property owners must have their own individual onsite treatment systems. The function is the same as a centralized wastewater treatment system: to treat all wastewater to safe levels meeting recommended contaminant levels before it is discharged into the environment. Onsite wastewater treatment systems are also known as septic systems, water resource recovery systems, on-lot systems, and individual wastewater or sewage disposal systems. Nearly 6,000 properties in the Basin utilize onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTSs) to treat wastewater. 3
LGA has been the leader in protecting the water quality and clarity of Lake George from the impacts of inadequate wastewater treatment on both municipal and private fronts. LGA’s science-based advocacy documented excessive algae growth in Dunham’s Bay that prompted our partnership with residents there and with the Town of Queensbury to adopt the first septic system management district in the Lake George Basin. The Town of Queensbury established a district and became the responsible management entity with oversight of septic system operation and maintenance. LGA incentivized the replacement of antiquated systems at Dunham’s Bay by investing in a matching grant program and conducting algae monitoring to demonstrate improved water quality.
In a State-funded partnership, LGA also administered the Town of Lake George Septic Initiative Program. 4 This partnership produced a data-based algorithm to prioritize areas for system inspection and possible replacement. This new system applied site suitability analysis, existing septic system evaluation, and algae monitoring indices to prepare a prioritization map for the Town to use in effectively addressing the issue. It was designed for application throughout the Lake George Basin.
LGA’s septic research to date indicates that most onsite septic systems in the Basin are antiquated and/or lack proper maintenance, the two leading causes of system failure. According to LGA-initiated research conducted in the southern Lake George Basin, two-thirds of systems there have exceeded their life expectancy of 30-40 years, are designed improperly, and/or suffer from a lack of maintenance. The remaining third are compliant and permitted. These sobering numbers have created a basin-wide crisis that directly threatens the Lake’s still-pristine water quality. Research findings compelled LGA to expand existing work and create a program that will inform, empower, and incentivize the improvement of septic systems basin-wide.
Heat map of the 6,000 private septic systems in the Lake George Basin
Making the septic issue more challenging is a regulatory landscape that can be confusing, With varying state, regional, and municipal jurisdictions, there is a distinct lack of a coherent wastewater program commensurate with protecting Lake George water quality. Regulatory consistency is imperative for the long-term protection of Lake George. This Handbook and LGA’s commitment to solving the basin-wide septic crisis marks a major step toward achieving the regulatory improvements required.
Chapter 1: How Wastewater Can Impact Lake George and Surrounding Communities
The Lake George Basin comprises the area where all precipitation drains into the receiving water body, Lake George. Every drop of water that enters the Lake George Basin eventually drains into the Lake, either through surface runoff entering streams or by seeping into the ground and entering the groundwater. Such human conveniences as toilets, sinks, dishwashers, washing machines, lawn sprinklers, and more generate water that eventually makes its way into the Lake.
The Lake George Basin is surrounded by mountains of granite covered by generally shallow sandy soils. The evergreen and deciduous forests in the Basin grow on these soils and hold them in place. When forests are cut and development occurs, natural precipitation as well as wastewater place a greater burden on the already limited absorption capacity of the Basin’s shallow soils. Shallow sandy soils are very porous and inherently cannot provide adequate percolation time to treat wastewater. They also do not provide many nutrients for natural soil bacteria that can treat septic system wastes. When layered with high groundwater, shallow bedrock, and/or close proximity to open water bodies, there is even less opportunity for adequate treatment of septic system wastewater. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus along with various human-made chemicals readily enter groundwater and ultimately the Lake.
Lake George Water Quality and Environment
Onsite wastewater treatment systems are necessary for treating and removing nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that in excessive levels are harmful and environmentally damaging. If nutrients are not treated properly, they will eventually reach Lake George. Upon entering Lake waters, they accelerate algae growth, and therefore increase the potential for harmful algal blooms (HABs). Algae growth is most noticeable in nearshore shallow waters called the littoral zone.
An excess of nutrients speeds up the process of eutrophication—aging of the lake and degradation of water quality. The two types of eutrophication are natural, from normal precipitation on undisturbed land, and cultural, from human influences that increase runoff, as depicted below. Natural eutrophication is typically a centuries-long process. Cultural eutrophication occurs much more rapidly, over the course of decades, resulting in quick changes that are dramatic and devastating. Substantial scientific data document the process of cultural eutrophication at Lake George. Research supported by LGA and RPI’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute, documented in the State of the Lake report, showed that levels of chlorophyll-a, a biochemical measure of algal growth, has increased. This increase correlates with rising nutrient concentrations. 6 Antiquated and failing septic systems in the Lake George Basin are contributing more nutrients to the Lake that, in turn, are fueling cultural eutrophication. Evidence of this process has been observed in excessive algae growth over decades and scientifically documented in the past decade through the implementation of algal biomonitoring and application of algal indices.
While Lake George has not yet experienced a harmful algal bloom (HAB), it is one of 12 lakes in New York State’s HABs Initiative, included as the control lake. As noted, Lake George is classified as oligotrophic with a Class AA-Special water quality designation, meaning its best intended use is for drinking water, culinary uses, and contact recreation. Skaneateles Lake is another Class AA-Special lake, serving as the public drinking water supply for the City of Syracuse. It is also one of the 12 HABs Initiative lakes. Unlike Lake George, however, Skaneateles Lake began experiencing HABs in 2017, much to the shock of all concerned. The blooms there continue as steps to mitigate the problem are being taken. The lesson of Skaneateles Lake for Lake George is that no lake is immune to HABs and that everything must be done to reduce conditions that trigger blooms, in particular, reducing nutrient pollution.
Health and the Community
Onsite wastewater treatment systems are necessary for the health of our communities and our personal health. In addition to nutrient pollution, wastewater contains harmful pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. A failing septic system does not properly remove these pathogens and pollutants, causing direct and sometimes severe impacts to human health and that of the environment. Dysentery, hepatitis, and acute gastrointestinal illness are all health concerns that can arise from failing onsite systems whose untreated effluent leaches into drinking water sources. These concerns are made worse if you live near or on the Lake or have your own well. Most property owners in rural settings around the Lake acquire their drinking water from the Lake or from an onsite well. If a septic system is failing, the pollution load can stress drinking water treatment systems, potentially affecting your health as well as your neighbors’. Recreational use of the Lake can also be compromised from failing septic systems. Illnesses associated with contaminated waters include gastroenteritis and ear/throat infections through contact recreation, i.e. swimming. In severe cases, harmful algae blooms can form, producing cyanotoxins. Exposure to cyanotoxins can cause hay fever-like symptoms, skin rashes, sore throat, cough, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even kidney and/or liver damage. Pets can be poisoned by drinking or swimming in toxin-contaminated water. As is seen in a growing number of other water bodies, such impacts to public health and the environment can be made much worse by multiple failing septic systems.
Property Value and Costs
Typically, when older septic systems experience sewage backup, offensive odors, or slow drains, the septic tanks are pumped out. Unfortunately, this only delays the inevitable and contributes to instead of solving the nutrient loading problem. Such systems are overloaded with wastewater and/or solids buildup, and thus cannot properly treat incoming wastewater. This, in turn, leads to the serious impacts cited above. Property owners have the choice of continuing to pay for high maintenance and failing systems with unintended health consequences or replacing their old system. Making the right decision takes on even greater importance the closer a system is to the Lake, as well as when site conditions—high groundwater, shallow bedrock, or extremely porous soils to name a few—impede performance. Once an under-performing, non-maintained system has exhausted its receiving soils, complete absorption field (or leach field) replacement may be the only option, a very disruptive and expensive process. This handbook guides property owners on proper updating and maintenance of a septic system, an investment that ultimately saves money by protecting the Lake, human health, and property values.
The high price of Lake George property is, in large measure, a product of the Lake’s superb water quality. As mentioned above, in the Lake George Basin privately owned septic systems account for more than half the wastewater discharged from centralized municipal wastewater treatment facilities. This fact places even more responsibility on property owners living around the Lake to make sure their systems are functioning properly. This handbook is designed to inform and empower property owners to make responsible decisions in protecting the region’s chief natural and economic asset.
Chapter 2: What Are Septic Systems and How Do They Work?
What Is Onsite Wastewater Treatment?
Onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) refer to systems of various configurations and technologies that treat the wastewater generated on associated properties. An OWTS is part of a property’s utility matrix that includes the water well, electric service, communications infrastructure, building mechanical systems, and emergency power generation. However, unlike these other essential services, septic systems are too often overlooked and taken for granted since their wastewater collection and treatment function is out-of-sight and out-of-mind—until a problem arises.
A conventional home septic system usually consists of piping, a septic tank, a distribution system, the subsurface infiltration system (aka absorption field, disposal field, or leach field), and the receiving soils. These system components include:
The septic tank provides primary treatment in a buried watertight tank, where heavier solids settle out and lighter solids and grease float to the top. Organic solids are partially treated in the septic tank in anaerobic conditions by bacteria, and the gases generated from the treatment are vented back through the plumbing system of the dwelling.
The size of the septic tank is determined by the number of bedrooms in the dwelling, a measure of the number of occupants. Areas that can be utilized and/or converted to sleeping areas (i.e. dens, recreation rooms, sleeping porches, etc.) should be considered as bedrooms for septic system design purposes. The minimum volume of the tank for a three-bedroom house is 1,000 gallons; for a four-bedroom house it is 1,250 gallons. Additional volume requirements exist for high load or use fixtures including garbage disposals, jacuzzis, and spas.
The septic tank is designed to eliminate direct flow-through (short-circuiting) with a down turned pipe called a sanitary tee at the tank’s inlet and outlet. The outlet may also include an effluent filter to allow only clarified or filtered effluent out of the tank, retaining the solids and scum. Most septic tanks have an internal baffle, or partial wall, to keep solids away from the outlet.
Older septic tanks may be undersized and made of steel, which is no longer used. Steel tanks typically have a capacity of 500-gallon and suffer from structural failure as well as corrosion from the harsh environment. Much older tanks, called cesspools, were built with laid up concrete blocks in a staggered configuration, allowing wastewater to seep out of the sides of the “tank” without treatment. Old cesspools combined the operation of the septic tank and dispersal area in one structure. Cesspools are no longer an acceptable wastewater treatment option.
Septic tanks are most often constructed with concrete and should have access ports to the surface of the ground, allowing periodic inspection and removal of solids. Septic tanks should receive all wastewater from the dwelling; residential gray water (i.e. wastewater from showers, laundry, and sinks) and black water (i.e. wastewater from toilets) only. If the residence has a garbage disposal then the septic tank needs to be upsized. If the residence has a water softener the backwash water should NOT be discharged into the septic tank as the salt generated from the water softener will kill the bacteria necessary for wastewater treatment and will also promote stratification, or a layering effect of different properties such as salinity, oxygenation, or temperature which further undermines treatment. Septic tank pump outs should take place every three to five years, depending upon usage and tank size.
Holding tanks are not allowed for any new construction yet holding tanks have been approved by regulating agencies as a replacement system when onsite disposal is not available. Typically, holding tanks have audible and visual high-level alarms. An automatic potable water shutoff is required to be connected to the alarms. The potable water shutoff restricts any additional water from entering the holding tank until it is serviced. Pump outs may be required as often as every week depending on how quickly the tank fills with wastewater, thus making it necessary to be sited for easy access by the septic pump truck.
Once the wastewater has received primary treatment through the septic tank, the effluent is conveyed to the subsurface absorption area via gravity or pumping. Where there is a sufficient grade difference between the septic tank outlet and the septic absorption area, gravity flow will be used. Wastewater leaves the septic tank and flows by gravity into a flow splitting device called the distribution box (or d-box) that distributes flow to the absorption area or field. Distribution boxes are small concrete structures that are installed close to ground level. Distribution boxes installed in very shallow excavations should be insulated to prevent freezing during low usage periods in cold climates. It is important to know the location of the distribution box for future maintenance access.
Gravity dispersal of wastewater is favored by homeowners since the system contains no moving parts. However, many sites do not have the requisite open land area, elevation, or soil depth for a conventional gravity system. Where gravity distribution is not feasible, a pump-up system is required. Proximity to surface water, shallow depth to groundwater, shallow soils, and limited open land area readily adjacent to the house all factor into a design engineer’s decision to utilize a pump-up system where the absorption field is remotely sited, potentially uphill from the main residence. In this type of system, the effluent from the septic tank flows into a downstream pump station that is sized to distribute wastewater over the entire absorption area and allows for a resting period between doses for soil re-aeration and organic materials breakdown. Pump stations, especially two-pump stations, are reliable, and are equipped with both audible and visible alarms to alert the homeowner if the water high level is reached. The high level float activates an automatic valve that shuts off the potable water to the residence until maintenance occurs. Pump stations require venting for air exchange during the pump cycles. Homeowners with emergency generators and pump-up septic absorption systems should verify that the pump station is served by the emergency generator.
Some enhanced onsite wastewater treatment systems have an internal pump system or require a separate pump station as part of their basic design.
Absorption area, Absorption field, Leach field, Disposal fields, Infiltration fields or beds
For onsite wastewater disposal with a conventional treatment system, treatment of sewage is accomplished in the native soils. At a minimum, solids are collected in the septic tank and some digestion of organic materials occurs there, but most of the wastewater treatment is expected to take place in the receiving soils. Adequate soils are critical for the proper operation of an onsite wastewater treatment system. The size of the absorption area depends upon the rate at which water enters the soil, called the infiltration capacity. This is determined by a percolation test performed by a professional when the wastewater disposal system is designed and/or installed.
There are several options for absorption fields that can be either trench or bed systems. Trench systems include a distribution box connected to perforated pipes in lateral rows bedded in stone-filled trenches and covered with native soils and grass. The number and length of the laterals is dependent upon the quantity of wastewater being treated daily. This measurement is based on the number of bedrooms and the infiltration capacity of the soils, as well as other site conditions. Every site must be individually evaluated by a design professional to assure proper operation of the absorption field. Absorption beds serve the same function as the trench system, with several laterals of perforated pipe installed in a single large excavation filled with stone and usually operate with a pump system.
Alternatives to the traditional “stone and pipe” absorption area include gravel-less systems. These systems still require a properly-sized and -maintained septic tank for primary treatment. Lightweight PVC infiltration chambers, geotextile sand filter systems, and geofilter shallow pressure systems are available and have been used on difficult sites where construction access may impact soil structure and function. Such alternatives may allow for a reduction in the absorption area of up to 25%, but must be carefully engineered and installed for each site-specific application.
Soils are the most important element for onsite wastewater treatment systems. A minimum depth of four feet of soil is required for a system to provide adequate treatment. For conventional septic systems, soils provide the bulk of biological and chemical processing of wastewater. Soils that allow water to flow through too quickly, as occurs with sandy soils because of their rapid infiltration rates, or too slowly, as with heavy clay soils, prevent adequate treatment. Areas with shallow soils (less than four feet) lack the depth needed for microorganisms in the soil to successfully remove nutrients and pathogenic organisms and may have limited oxygen exchange.
Emphasis must be placed on the fact that that wastewater effluent requires adequate contact with natural soil bacteria for biological treatment. These soil bacteria consume many of the nutrients and pathogenic organisms found in the wastewater. The soil bacteria need sufficient time to properly consume contaminants. Soils that are too sandy or too shallow do not permit effective treatment. If soils are poorly drained and the absorption area is continuously filled with effluent, the soil bacteria suffocate from lack of oxygen.
Enhanced Treatment Unit – Application of Improved Treatment
There are two approaches for onsite wastewater treatment. The first, discussed above, employs a conventional septic tank/absorption field system, where the native soils perform the bulk of the treatment. These systems have been in use for decades, are passive with no moving parts, and require minimal maintenance. They are, however, limited in their ability to provide groundwater and surface water protection, especially in nutrient sensitive and pristine watersheds.
The second method actively accomplishes treatment “in a box,” via a modular unit known as an enhanced wastewater treatment system (ETU). In nutrient-sensitive watersheds such as Lake George, there is growing interest in and support for enhanced onsite wastewater treatment systems. Enhanced systems include a wide variety of pre-engineered treatment components, all of which provide for the oxidation of organic material and ammonia, and reduction of suspended solids and pathogens. Many of these systems include a recycle mechanism to reduce nitrate concentrations, a critical component of onsite systems in the Lake George Basin where all treated wastewater is required by regulation to be discharged to the subsurface. Many of these enhanced treatment systems provide for effluent disinfection, most often in the form of ultraviolet (UV) light disinfection. In addition, the use of ETUs can reduce the size of an absorption field by up to a third. Enhanced treatment systems generate more solids than conventional systems and need to be monitored and pumped out periodically. Even with this in increase in maintenance requirements, ETUs can offer landowners considerable savings over conventional septic systems.
The enhanced treatment systems are part of a home’s essential operating infrastructure including the heating/air conditioning (HVAC), electrical, and communications systems. All require careful design, installation, operation, and maintenance. The design of any enhanced onsite wastewater treatment system needs to be done by a design professional experienced with regulations in the Lake George Basin. Many ETU vendors provide certified installations and routine monitoring and maintenance programs, similar to yearly service agreements for HVAC and onsite generator installations.
Effluent from an ETU onsite must still be discharged into the site’s native soils. The improved effluent quality of wastewater treated through an ETU lets native soils simply disperse (rather than treat) the effluent. In some applications, this allows for a reduced infiltration area of as much as 33%. Even so, the reduced infiltration area must still have adequate infiltration capacity to prevent ponding of the effluent.
Review the more commonly available and performance-tested ETUs. Some of these systems are rather new to New York State, yet their use has been documented in other states. Design professionals can describe the benefits and limitations for each of these systems, as well as others that may become available.
Mounded Systems and Amended Soils
Without proper native soils to perform many of the biological and chemical wastewater treatment processes, homeowners have options that include installation of an ETU.
One option is to augment or amend the native soils with imported soils or materials that either slow down infiltration or “fluff up” the existing soils to achieve acceptable infiltration rates. Soil augmentation must be done by a design professional after having the native soils tested and characterized by a reputable soil testing laboratory. Once the native soils are characterized, the design professional, in conjunction with the homeowner’s contractor, must locate off-site soils to bring to the site. Doing so requires dump trucks and heavy construction equipment. Blending the native and imported soils is an iterative process requiring a large work area. Once the native and imported soils are mixed thoroughly, the blended soils must be tested to assure their proper infiltration capacity and depth. This process is repeated until the necessary soil characteristics are achieved and the design engineer verifies the suitability of the blended soils. Upon completing the process, the new absorption field can be installed.
An additional option is installation of an elevated, or mound, system. With a mound system, proper soils are imported to the site, in sufficient quantity for the required depth. The area is feathered to meet the surrounding grade and then the distribution piping is installed into the newly constructed mound. A mound system usually requires a pump station, and the required area for the mound is larger than that required for an at-grade absorption area.
If rock is encountered during site evaluation, only rock near the location of the septic tank can be blasted out to provide the required grade. Rock blasting is expensive and needs to be done by a licensed blasting professional. Rock underlying the proposed absorption area requires evaluation that may render the site unsuitable for an absorption area.
Any of these options for sites with inadequate soils will require the services of experienced design professionals.
Importance of Site Specificity
Each property is unique due to site-specific constraints, especially within the Lake George Basin. Each property owner’s relationship with Lake George is distinct and that relationship may span generations. In order to adequately promote stewardship of a property and of Lake George, every property owner needs to understand how site characteristics impact the ability for adequate and protective onsite wastewater treatment.
The following property constraints impact a site’s ability to properly treat wastewater:
- Proximity to water bodies (Lake George, streams, brooks, wetlands, etc.)
- Total area of site (available land without homes, garages, driveways, rock outcroppings, etc.)
- Onsite well or neighboring water wells, property boundaries, easements, stormwater management features, etc.
- Landscaping—large trees, retaining walls, site drainage swales, etc.
- Depth to seasonal high groundwater
- Depth to bedrock
- Depth and type of soils available on the site
- Site topography (level or steep sloped)
- Existing or intended use of the residence: occupancy, number of bedrooms, personal use or rental, year-round residency or seasonal, uncommon plumbing amenities, etc.
Commercial Onsite Septic Systems
This handbook is primarily intended for homeowners, yet many commercial property owners face the same challenges in addition to a range of additional design and operational issues.
Commercial establishments within the Lake George Basin vary widely and include condominium/townhouse associations; cottage colonies; restaurants; event venues with adjoining overnight rental rooms; special use summer camps; and small businesses. While the wastewater issues from these commercial facilities are somewhat similar to residential properties, their scale and scope differ substantially in both volume and intensity of use. Commercial facilities that discharge more than 1,000 gallons per day of treated wastewater per system are governed by a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Permit. 10 Commercial property owners must know that if their facilities lack appropriate wastewater discharge permits, there is no “grandfather clause” excusing them from regulatory requirements.
Inasmuch as each commercial property has unique facilities, populations served, and site constraints, as listed above, every property must be evaluated by a knowledgeable wastewater design professional. Operational considerations for commercial facilities with onsite wastewater treatment systems include, but are not limited to:
- Transient occupancy facilities with onsite laundry
- Rental units with full kitchen facilities (grease traps and garbage disposals)
- Rental units with specialty showers and/or jacuzzis
- Rental units and potential occurrence of flushing prohibited materials- chemicals, diapers, flushable wipes, or pharmaceuticals down toilets
- Onsite restaurants with grease traps and large dishwashers
- Facilities where maximum hourly wastewater flows can cause surges through the treatment tankage
- Facilities that carry out seasonal decommissioning of treatment systems, including pump out of solids holding tanks, protection of pump station equipment, and prevention of groundwater infiltration into treatment system tanks during seasonal spring high groundwater levels.
Many commercial facilities have installed conventional onsite wastewater treatment systems that have performed adequately for years. Continuing successful operation of such systems remains a challenge for commercial property owners given the fluctuating nature of facility use and the population(s) they serve, which differ dramatically from private residences. These added stresses demand high levels of care and maintenance to avoid adversely impacting their users and Lake George, the main attraction for their businesses.
Chapter 3: Signs of Septic System Failure
How to Know If Your System Is Failing
How do you know if your septic system needs replacement? Look and smell for these telltale symptoms to determine if your system is failing.
- Sewage backup in drains or toilets
- Often appears as gray or black liquid with a disagreeable odor
- Slowly draining sinks, bathtubs, and toilets
- Water drains much more slowly than usual even when using a plunger or drain cleaning product
- Surfacing of wastewater
- Sometimes seen as standing water, perhaps tar-colored, or damp spots near the absorption field
- Bright green, spongy lush grass over septic system even during dry weather
- Indicates an excessive amount of liquid from your system moving upward through the soil instead of downward
- High levels of nitrates or coliform bacteria in water wells
- Indicates inadequately treated wastewater may be flowing into the well through groundwater or over the surface. A water test should be performed to identify this issue. Information on what and where to test is readily obtained by contacting the NYS Department of Health.
- Algae blooms in ponds, lakes, or small streams near your home
- Indicator that nutrient-rich septic system waste is leaching into surface waters that increase the potential for a Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) in Lake George.
- Bad odors around the septic system
- Improperly vented or failing septic systems can cause a buildup of disagreeable odors around the house
Why Septic Systems Fail
- End of life span (estimated to be 30-40 years depending on loading)
- Improper maintenance by homeowner
- Improper location
- Poor original design
- Poor construction and installation
- Blockage caused by roots
- Crushed distribution pipes from driving or parking vehicles on field area
- Soil saturated by high groundwater
- Use of household toxics, household cleaners, garbage disposals, etc.
- Water softener regeneration wastes
- Overloading of the septic system
- Use of septic additives
Immediate Actions: Do’s & Don’t’s for Septic System Repairs
- Do evaluate the problem as best you can and contact a knowledgeable professional.
- Do exercise caution in working near an opened tank. Toxic and explosive gases present a hazard. Never enter a septic tank!
- Do conserve water until a repair is made. This is particularly effective if the system has not failed completely. It can help lessen the problem for a short time. Water-saving devices reduce consumption, especially in bathrooms, and can have a significant effect.
- Do rope off or fence the area where raw sewage appears on the ground to keep people and animals at a distance.
- Don’t cover a wet smelly spot with soil. This spot is probably where raw sewage has leaked from the system. Covering with soil will not solve the problem and may cause sewage to back up into your house. Raw sewage contains harmful bacteria that may cause sickness or death.
- Don’t pipe or ditch the sewage to a drainage ditch, storm sewer, stream, lake, sinkhole or drain tile. This will pollute surface water, groundwater, or both and cause a health hazard. And it is ILLEGAL.
- Don’t pipe, ditch, or run sewage into an abandoned well or other hole in the ground. This will pollute groundwater and cause a health hazard. And it is ILLEGAL.
- Don’t use Rid X or other septic system additives if your system is not working properly. It may make matters worse and clogs up disposal fields.
Chapter 4: How to Maintain and Protect Your Septic System
Property owners are generally conscientious about maintenance of systems that directly impact their lives: heating, cooling, plumbing and electrical, communications equipment, emergency power systems, etc. Onsite wastewater treatment systems are too often overlooked. Like any other utility system, an older and/or unmaintained septic system will require investment to keep it functioning properly.
As highlighted, many septic systems operating in the Lake George Basin are now well past their life expectancy and are not functioning properly. Some existing systems date back to the 1960s when the construction of the Adirondack Northway brought more visitors and more development to the Lake George area. Onsite septic systems dating back to the 1930s have also been documented. These outdated systems primarily serviced seasonal residences. With proper maintenance, such old systems can retain some level of treatment until the soils can no longer perform their essential role in the treatment process.
The key to preventing septic system failure is proper maintenance. Proper care of any septic system requires day-to-day maintenance as well as periodic management and repairs.
Here are the actions you can take to maintain your septic system. For system repairs, however, it is important to hire an experienced contractor and engineer.
For day-to-day management:
- Conserve water
- Use water-saving fixtures
- Repair leaks and dripping faucets
- Repair running toilets
- Disconnect roof downspouts, sump pumps, or footer drains from the septic tank
- Keep substances like motor oil, gasoline, paints, thinners, and pesticides out of septic system
- Keep materials like grease, coffee grounds, paper towels, flushable wipes, disposable diapers, etc. out of toilets and septic tank
- Keep water softener backwash out of septic system
- Keep heavy equipment and automobiles off your absorption field
- Maintain shallow-rooted vegetation over absorption field - no trees allowed 11
- Keep commercial biological additives out of septic tank - native microorganisms in the soil most effectively perform their functions without added yeasts, enzymes, or chemicals
For periodic management:
- Have your septic tank pumped out and inspected (every three to five years)
- Maintain the lawn area around and on the absorption field annually to prevent vegetation with large roots from establishing
- Maintain all septic system records including:
- Local permits and approvals
- Septic system installer and date of installation
- Septic tank pumper and records of all pump outs
- As-built drawings and engineer’s certification of installation
- For enhanced treatment units, all maintenance service contracts
These materials never belong in a septic system
- Household chemicals
- Paints & paint thinners
- Landscape irrigation
- Cat litter
- Cigarette filters
- Coffee grounds
- Feminine hygiene products
- Flushable wipes
When to Inspect Your Septic System
It is time to inspect your existing septic system when:
- the age of the system has exceeded its expected life span,
- the usage of the property has changed,
- there is a noticeable change in the free-flowing water from sinks or toilets,
- there are noticeable new wet areas of the lawn,
- there is noticeably greener grass over the absorption field, or
- there are newly rooted or floating algae beds offshore of your property.
How to Find Your Septic System
In order to inspect your onsite septic system, first locate it. Doing so can be difficult. If old plans for the system are unavailable, even from the Town Codes Office, then some detective work is necessary. From inside the house, investigate where and in what direction the sewer pipe exits the building. Also look for depressed areas in the yard or areas where the native vegetation grows very well, or not at all. Old systems that have not been maintained may be found where overgrown vegetation and/or even small trees are growing. Lacking any physical evidence of the system, contact the local septic tank pumper to assist in locating the septic tank and absorption field. Once found, the septic tank should be pumped out and a thorough inspection of the tank and related piping should be conducted. The septic tank should have an inspection manhole riser installed to grade to facilitate future pump outs and inspections.
What to do When You Buy a Home
If you are buying an existing home, the seller must provide information on the septic system including an updated inspection report. Here are the questions you should be asking:
- How old is the system?
- Where is the septic tank? Is there a pump station? Where is the absorption field?
- Where is the potable water supply well or lake water intake?
- When was the septic tank last pumped out?
- Can I see the pump out records?
- How often has the effluent filter in the septic tank (described in Chapter 2) been cleaned?
- Have there been signs of possible failure?
- Where is a copy of the permit and records showing if the system has been maintained?
- Have there been additions (bedrooms, bathrooms, etc.) made to the house that would necessitate increasing the size of the system?
- Have there been septic system repairs, and can I see documentation of the repairs made?
Transfer Laws Now in Effect
As recently enacted in the Towns of Bolton and Queensbury, new Septic Inspection Transfer Laws require property sellers to obtain a detailed inspection of the OWTS by a certified professional or a town-designated official. 12 During a house sale, the real estate agent is required by law to disclose any information about failing infrastructure on the property, including the onsite wastewater treatment system. Therefore, when the time comes to sell your property and the existing septic system is inspected and determined to be deficient, the cost of replacement shall be borne by the seller or this cost can be factored into the final sale price of the property. If the sale of your property is being contemplated, this law makes your decision very easy. Following the lead of Bolton and Queensbury, other towns in the basin are considering similar legislation.
Do-It-Yourself Septic Checklist
The goal of this handbook is to help you understand, maintain, and make necessary changes to your septic systems. The checklist provided is meant to gauge your knowledge and current state of your septic system or OWTS. More responses with “Yes” to the following questions demonstrate a good understanding of your septic system.
Understanding the OWTS and property:
- Do you know where your drinking water source is?
- Do you know where your septic tank and absorption field are located?
- Is your system less than 30 years old?
- Do you have records of the system (plans, permits, photos, inspections, etc.)?
- Is the absorption field at least 100 ft from the lake, stream, and/or well?
- Is the property flat with complete soil coverage and no visible bedrock?
Indicators of OWTS failure
- Do your sinks, bathtubs, and toilets drain well (no backups or slow drains)?
- Is the area above your system dry with no bright green, spongy, lush grass (no water surfacing)?
- Have you tested the quality of your water supply?
- Are there no algae blooms or algae growth in water near the home?
- Are there no bad odors around the septic system?
Maintaining the OWTS
- Do septic tank inspections and pump outs occur periodically?
- Do you keep records of OWTS pump outs, maintenance, and modifications?
- Do you keep heavy loads and traffic off of the absorption field?
- Are there no structures or concrete on the absorption field?
- Do you maintain shallow-rooted vegetation over the disposal field (no trees)?
- Do you have efficient water fixtures and low-flow appliances?
- Do you fix running toilets and other leaks?
- Are all downspouts, water softener backwash, sump pumps, or footer drains disconnected from the septic tank?
- Do you keep harmful chemicals or potential clogging material like grease, coffee grounds, paper towels, flushable wipes, paints, and paint thinners out of your drains/system?
- Do you dispose of food waste in compost or trash instead of using a garbage disposal?
Updating and reviewing septic systems with an Engineer
- Can you provide a history of any OTWS repairs and documentation to the engineer?
- Can you provide number of bedrooms or plans for conversion of rooms into bedrooms or rooms used for sleeping?
- Can you discuss any unique interior plumbing fixtures such as garbage disposals, jacuzzi tubs, and multi-headed shower fixtures?
- Can you provide plans for any future use changes, such as seasonal home, year-round home, or rental property?
- Can you provide the locations of adjoining property owners’ water supply, OWTS, and stormwater controls?
- Can you provide the location of property utilities like electric service, communications service, propane gas lines and storage, and backup power generation?
- Can you discuss any unique property amenities such as stormwater controls, water softener discharges, and landscape irrigation?
- Have you reviewed known high groundwater, seasonal flooding, or stormwater runoff issues?
- Have you considered costs, construction, environmental and health impacts of new or upgraded system options?
- Have you talked over with the engineer how to select a contractor?
- Do you understand all the operation and maintenance needs of a new system?
Chapter 5: Options for Septic System Improvements or Replacement
Getting Started with Onsite Wastewater Treatment System Improvements or Replacement
After locating your onsite septic system, carefully looking and smelling for those telltale signs of an under-performing septic system, and reviewing future plans for the property, perhaps the decision has been made to pursue improvement of the existing septic system or to install a new system. If so, the first step in this process is to retain an experienced, licensed design engineer knowledgeable of regulatory requirements. 13 The regional office of the NYS Department of Health has a listing of local engineers, as do your town’s zoning and code officials. To contact the Local Department of Health please call (518) 793-3893. Word of mouth is another good source for finding a reputable expert. You can also contact regional environmental groups such as LGA for a listing of practicing engineers in the region.
When meeting with a design professional, the following topics should be covered:
- Current and future use of the home and property
- Number of bedrooms or plans for conversion of rooms into bedrooms
- Unique interior plumbing fixtures (garbage disposals, jacuzzis, multi-headed shower fixtures, etc.)
- Plans for future expansion and/or conversion from a seasonal home to a year-round residence
- Plans for long- or short-term rental of the property
- Location of onsite water supply (onsite well or lake water intake)
- Locations of adjoining property owners’ water supply and septic systems (if known)
- Locations of other utilities on property (electric service, communications service, propane storage, emergency power generation, etc.)
- Other unique property amenities (stormwater control measures, water softener discharges, landscape irrigation, etc.)
- Location and details of the current septic system - age, maintenance history, repairs, etc.
- High groundwater, seasonal flooding, or stormwater runoff issues
- Major changes to adjoining properties impacted your property
- Other site-specific information that would assist the engineer in providing the most environmentally and economically responsible septic option for known water quality problems, such as high bacteria, nitrate levels, and/or algae.
During the site inspection and discussions with your design engineer, you may be asked to provide additional information and documentation. Specifically, the engineer may request site-specific information including property boundary and topographic survey maps that were done by a licensed land surveyor.
Given the appropriate information and documentation, your design engineer will then:
- Propose locations for soil testing (deep soil test pits and soil percolation testing)
- Suggest local contractors who can perform the soil testing (typically paid for by the homeowner)
- Be present during the soil testing investigation to document the results
- Review any and all of your documentation for the site and the existing septic system
- Request a physical inspection of the existing onsite septic system, including examination of the septic tank and related equipment
- Provide details of the various options available to the homeowner, describe the benefits and limitations of each, and answer questions regarding costs, schedules, system longevity, dependability, and maintenance
- Discuss various enhanced wastewater treatment units (ETUs), if an ETU is determined to be the best option based onsite constraints
- Assist you in making the most economical and environmentally sound decision for your site, possibly providing references for similar septic systems used in the area
- Provide detailed plans and specifications of the selected septic system upgrade or replacement
- Obtain a local municipal permit that may require presentation of the final plans to the local municipality’s Planning Board and the local Board of Health (usually the Town Board)
- Assist you with selecting the contractor for your new or upgraded system installation
- Assist you in reviewing quotes received from contractors being considered
- Make periodic visits to the site during construction to verify that the system and its components are being properly installed
- For ETU installations, work with you and the ETU supplier/installer during system start-up and make sure you have all the necessary ETU operation and maintenance materials, including an annual maintenance contract
General Construction Considerations
Having a reputable contractor is vital to having a high-performing, properly functioning septic system. The design professional should have experience with local contractors that can be recommended to you. To find the right contractor for your project, be sure to request a written proposal, references, and insurance certificates. In particular, you should check those references, the contractor’s timeliness, adherence to construction plans, actual project cost compared to the amount stated in the signed proposal/original estimate, and attention to protecting the property.
Good construction practices include:
- Obtaining all necessary permits, scheduling required municipal site inspections, and contacting necessary pre-construction utilities
- Providing a pre-construction project schedule including a completion date
- Providing adequate site protection before and during construction
- Carefully preparing the site for construction
- Informing you of any unknown site conditions that could increase the project cost
- Scheduling necessary installation checks with the local municipality
- Providing equipment information, warranties, and required supporting documentation for equipment and labor receipts
- Providing for system start-up and troubleshooting to correct any issues
Systems Comparison and Cost Analysis
Costs for a new or replacement onsite wastewater treatment system will depend upon a variety of factors, including type and size of system, project schedule, site constraints, weather and time of year, contractor’s availability, and equipment lead time.
The types of systems previously described are summarized in the table below, listing the pros and cons of each system. Additionally, the second table compares four types of systems by their respective costs to design, construct, and maintain. Costs presented in this table can help guide discussions with your septic system design professional.
Also note that the costs presented in this table and graph are based upon recent residential projects for three-bedroom systems design with favorable site conditions. The project costs for the enhanced treatment option are from the Dunham’s Bay district and based on replacing the existing septic tank with a specific ETU model with connecting to the existing distribution facilities. A variety of options are available, so have a detailed discussion with the design professional to explore all of them. Even for a conventional septic system replacement, local contractors quote between $8,000 and $60,000, depending on site conditions and constraints. As always, you are encouraged to do your homework, find an experienced design professional, have detailed discussions with that design professional, engage an experienced contractor, and monitor the construction to gain an awareness of how the system operates and how best to maintain it. Upgrading or replacing a septic system is a big investment and with proper operation and maintenance it will serve the homeowner for many years to come.
|Type of System
|Conventional System (Septic Tank/Absorption Field)
|Enhanced Treatment Unit System (ETU)
|Gravel-less System (Chamber System, Eljen In-Drain, Presby)
|Conventional Septic System w/Gravity Distribution to New Absorption Field
|Conventional Septic System w/Pumped Distribution to New Absorption Field
|Conventional Septic Tank & New Gravel-less Absorption Field
|Enhanced Wastewater Treatment Systems w/Existing Distribution
|2020 Capital Cost
|5 Years O&M Cost
|*Replacement of old septic tank with one type of ETU using existing distribution (Dunham’s Bay area)
Chapter 6: Paying for your Septic System
Cost is, without question, the most intimidating factor influencing whether and when to replace or upgrade your septic system. Frequently, concerns about the project’s cost put off necessary actions until a major problem arises. When actions are delayed the cost can be expected to escalate. The problem often begins underground and goes unseen until the failing system starts backing up into the house or leaking effluent onto your lawn or worse, into surface waters.
To help ensure you avoid the costs of delaying upgrades to your septic system, LGA is partnering with Adirondack Trust and Glens Falls National Bank to provide zero interest/low interest loans for homeowners and small businesses.
Adirondack Trust is offering zero interest loans for qualifying property owners in certain areas of the southern Basin.
For more information, please call Matthew Harrison, Vice-president, Residential Lending: 518-584-5844 x2222.
Glens Falls National Bank
Glens Falls National Bank is offering several low interest loan options for qualifying property owners throughout the entire Basin.
For more information, please call Christine Fowler, branch manager of the Lake George Office: 518-668-5461.
In both cases, loan applications will be processed quickly with no closing costs.
LGA’s partnerships with Adirondack Trust and Glens Falls National Bank are the product of substantial work by all three entities to address the financing barrier and solve one of the greatest threats to the future health of Lake George. The participation of these two institutions is a testament to how much the Lake means for all concerned, from businesses to homeowners, for generations to come.
- Chris Navitsky, P.E., Lake George Waterkeeper. LGA. 2018. Town of “Lake George Septic Initiative Program - An analysis of the management of onsite wastewater treatment systems in the Town of Lake George”. Lake George, NY.
- Chris Navitsky, P.E., Lake George Waterkeeper. LGA. 2011. Do-It-Yourself Water Quality. Lake George, NY.
- Lake George Basin Information - Lake George Watershed Analysis
- Current Septic System Information - Town of Lake George Septic Initiative Program
- Lake George Basin Information - Lake George Watershed Analysis
- Charles Boylen, Lawrence Eichler, Mark Swinton, Sandra Nierzwicki-Bauer, Imad Hannoun, Jeffrey Short. 2014. The State of the Lake: Thirty Years of Water Quality Monitoring on Lake George. Lake George New York. 1980-2009. LGA publication
- Lake George Basin Information - Lake George Watershed Analysis
- Lake George Property Value - The Lake Real Estate Market Report lakehomes.com bizjournals.com
- Voigt, B., Lees, J., & Erickson, J. (2015). An Assessment of the Economic Value of Clean Water in Lake Champlain (Report No. 81). Grand Isle, VT: Lake Champlain Basin.
- State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) Permit Program
- Landscape Maintenance - Landscaping Over Septic Systems with Native Plants
- Bolton Transfer Law – Bolton Septic Inspection Program, Queensbury Transfer Law – Septic Inspection Upon Property Transfer
- Department of Health Treatment Standards – Appendix 75-A Wastewater Treatment Standards, Design Standards for Wastewater Treatment Works in the Lake George Basin