Teaching homeowners septic ‘secrets’ to protect water

A man kneels in snow as he works on a septic system.
Tim Haeg, a professional septic system designer and installer, works to replace a malfunctioning switch in a septic system in St. Joseph, Minn., on Monday.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

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.

A 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.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

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."

‘More stuff in our wastewater’

On a cold January day, professional septic system designer Tim Haeg was on his knees, peering into the open tank outside a home in rural St. Joseph, Minn.

Haeg was replacing a malfunctioning float switch that could have caused wastewater to back up into the house. Fortunately, an alarm sounded and warned the homeowner, who called Haeg.

Without routine maintenance, a septic system like this one might not work properly — or it could fail and create a health hazard, Haeg said.

But he said many homeowners don't really understand how their septic system works and what they should be doing to maintain it, like having the tank pumped every two or three years. And Haeg said they don't realize that what they flush down their toilet or pour down the sink can have a big impact.

“There’s more stuff in our wastewater these days than ever before,” Haeg said. "And it’s not just household products either. It's medications. We're trying to keep folks in their homes a lot longer. There's a lot of chemo and heart meds that can definitely affect how a system performs."

Haeg said it's important for homeowners to understand how to care for their septic system — both to protect their investment in their home, and the environment. Most people want to do the right thing, he said.

"These are water recycling systems. We're treating the water before we put it back in the ground,” Haeg said. It's pretty important to keep the resource clean."

Protecting Minnesota’s lakes

Roughly a third of Minnesota households have septic systems. They are common in rural areas and suburban developments with large lots.

Most comply with state regulations. But in 2018, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimated that about 15 percent of systems failed to meet the state's requirements for protecting groundwater.

The stakes are especially high near a lake or river. When septic systems fail, they can be a major source of phosphorus, which fuels algae blooms that can leave a lake looking like pea soup in the summer.

"Failing septic systems can have a huge impact on water quality, and it doesn't take many of them,” said Jeff Forester, executive director of Minnesota Lakes and Rivers Advocates. He and Heger are working together to offer the class to lake property owners as a webinar in April.

"I think if people understand how their septic systems work and they can take steps themselves to keep them functioning, it will save them money. It will help protect water quality,” Forester said.

About 80 people attended one of the courses in June hosted by the Itasca Water Legacy Project, a nonprofit that works to protect lakes in Itasca County, said president David Lick.

Lick said the class fits in with his organization’s goal of engaging with property owners and encouraging them to take action themselves to protect the lakes they care about.

“We’re trying to get so much information out there that pretty soon, people are talking about it and it becomes, ’Of course, you want a compliant septic system,’” he said.

“Look where we live. I mean, we’ve got such unbelievable water quality here yet. And we’ve got to keep it that way.”

If you go: Septic and private well homeowner education

The University of Minnesota is offering its homeowner classes through June in cities around the state, including Austin, Ramsey, Waseca, Elk River, Milaca and Ottertail. Classes are free.

More information can be found on the university’s Onsite Sewage Treatment Program website.