Are you a Florida homeowner connected to a private well and/or septic system? Do you know want to learn more about your water and wastewater management systems at home?
If so, please join the UF/IFAS Central and Northwest Florida water resources regional specialized agents Yilin Zhuang and Andrea Albertin, in our four free private well and septic system webinars in February and March:
Thursday, February 9 at 2:00 p.m.: Private Wells 101
Thursday, February 16 at 2:00 p.m.: Septic System 101
Thursday, February 23 at 2:00 p.m.: Private Well Care Before and After Storms
Thursday, March 2 at 2:00 p.m.: Septic System Care Before and After Storms
After completing the webinars, attendees will also receive free mail-in well water screening for total coliform bacteria and E. coli.
Many residents in the Florida Panhandle rely on groundwater from private wells for home consumption. While public water systems are regulated federally to ensure safe drinking water, private wells are not regulated. Well users are responsible for ensuring the safety of their water.
Recommended practices to protect your well water quality
Basic care at and around your well will reduce the risk of contaminating your well water.
Make sure that the well is properly sealed at the surface to keep pollutants from getting directly into your well and groundwater. A sanitary seal or sanitary well cap (which caps the surface end of the well casing) keeps surface water, pathogens, insects and other animals, chemicals, liquid fuels, and debris from getting directly into your well. Grout, which works as a sealant, is used to fill the space between the well casing and the edge of the borehole when a well is drilled. It prevents surface water from flowing down along the outside of the well casing directly to the groundwater being drawn by the well.
Keep the area around your well clean and accessible.
Make sure there is at least a 75 ft separation distance between your well and your septic system (this is required in Florida).
A well shouldn’t be close to (no less than 75 ft) or downhill from an animal enclosure.
Don’t store chemicals, fertilizers, or fuel near your well or in a well house.
Don’t use a well (residential or agricultural) as a chemical mixing station.
What should you test your well water for and where can you have it tested?
At a minimum, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) recommends testing drinking water annually for bacteria (total coliform bacteria and fecal coliforms, usually E. coli). Other contaminants that they recommend testing for include nitrate, lead, and pH.
Depending on where you live and current or past activities in your area, other contaminants may affect your well water quality. Call your local health department to see what they advise testing for. It’s also important to reach out to them for testing recommendations when:
There is a change in the taste, appearance, or odor of your water
There is recurring gastrointestinal illness or other unexplained illness in the household
Your well is flooded or damaged
You have a spill of oil, liquid fuels, solvents, or other chemicals into or near your well
Any time services or repairs are done and the sanitary seal on your well is opened
Many county health departments provide testing for bacterial contamination at a minimum. If they do not offer testing for a particular contaminant, they can help point you to commercial labs in the area for testing. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) also maintains a list of certified water testing labs, which you can search by county. Through good maintenance practices and annual testing, you can help maintain your well water quality.
A conventional septic system is composed of a septic tank and a drainfield, where most of the wastewater treatment takes place. Image: US EPA
Why do you need to maintain a septic system?
Conventional septic systems are made up of a septic tank (a watertight container buried in the ground) and a drain field, or leach field. In the septic tank, solids settle on the bottom (the sludge layer), and oils and grease float to the top and form a scum layer. The liquid wastewater, which is in the middle layer of the tank, flows out through perforated pipes into the drainfield, where it percolates down through the ground. Most wastewater treatment takes place in the drainfield.
Solids settle to the bottom of a septic tank (sludge), oils and greases float to the top (scum) and wastewater (effluent) flows out of the tank into the drainfield for further treatment. Image: Soil and Water Science Lab, UF GREC.
Although bacteria continually work on breaking down the organic matter in your septic tank, sludge and scum will build up, which is why a system needs to be cleaned out periodically. If not, sludge and scum can flow into the drainfield clogging the pipes and sewage can back up into your house. Overloading the system with water also reduces its ability to work properly by not leaving enough time for material to separate out in the tank, and by flooding the system.
Should you use additives in your septic system?
Septic systems do not need any additives to function properly and treat wastewater. Although there are many commercial microbiological and enzyme additives sold on the market that claim to enhance bacterial populations and reduce the time between septic system pumping, there really isn’t any peer-reviewed scientific literature that shows that these additives are effective in doing what they claim.
In Florida, the Department of Health (DOH) reviews commercially sold additives to ensure that they are safe to use in septic systems. DOH clearly states that although products are approved, it does not mean that this is an endorsement or a product recommendation. Approval simply means that as required by Florida law, the additive doesn’t interfere with septic system function and that when an additive is used, the effluent (wastewater) leaving the septic system meets Florida’s water quality standards. Only products in compliance with this law can be sold or used in septic systems in Florida. You can find a list of approved products and more information regarding additives on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) septic system website. Access the list of products directly here (updated 10/18/2021).
How can you properly care for your septic system?
The best way to keep your system functioning properly is to follow some common-sense practices.
Only flush human waste and toilet paper down the toilet. Wet wipes do not break down in the septic system even though the packaging labels them as septic-safe!
Be mindful of what you put down sinks and flush down toilets. All drains in your home lead to the septic tank. Image: A. Albertin
Think at the sink. Avoid pouring oil and fat down the kitchen drain. Avoid excessive use of harsh cleaning products and detergents which can affect the microbes in your septic tank (regular weekly cleaning is fine). Prescription drugs and antibiotics should never be flushed down the toilet.
Limit your use of the garbage disposal. Disposals add organic matter and additional water to your septic system, which results in the need for more frequent pumping.
Take care at the surface of your tank and drainfield. Don’t drive vehicles or heavy equipment over the system. Avoid planting trees or shrubs with deep roots that could disrupt the system or plug pipes.
Conserve water. Reduce the amount of water pumped into your septic tank through water conservation practices like (1) repairing leaky faucets, toilets, and pipes, (2) installing, low-flush toilets, low-flow showerheads and faucet aerators, and (3) only running the washing machine and dishwasher when full.
Have your septic system pumped by a certified professional. The general rule of thumb is every 3-5 years, but it will depend on household size, the size of your septic tank, how much wastewater you produce and what you flush down your toilet.
Even when conventional septic systems are well maintained, they are still a source of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, to groundwater. They were designed from a public health perspective to remove pathogens, not nutrients.
Jackson Blue Springs discharging from the Floridan Aquifer. Jackson County, FL. Image: Doug Mayo, UF/IFAS Extension.
Florida has one of the largest concentrations of freshwater springs in the world. More than 1000 have been identified statewide, and here in the Florida Panhandle, more than 250 have been found. Not only are they an important source of potable water, springs have enormous recreational and cultural value in our state. There is nothing like taking a cool swim in the crystal-clear waters of these unique, beautiful systems.
How do springs form?
We have so many springs in Florida because of the state’s geology. Florida is underlain by thick layers of limestone (calcium carbonate) and dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) that are easily dissolved by rainwater that percolates into the ground. Rainwater is naturally slightly acidic (with a pH of about 5 to 5.6), and as it moves through the limestone and dolomite, it dissolves the rock and forms fissures, conduits, and caves that can store water. In areas where the limestone is close to the surface, sinkholes and springs are common. Springs form when groundwater that is under pressure flows out through natural openings in the ground. Most of our springs are found in North and North-Central Florida, where the limestone and dolomite are found closest to the surface.
Springs are windows to the Floridan Aquifer, which supplies most of Florida’s drinking water. Image: Ichetucknee Blue Hole, A. Albertin.
These thick layers of limestone and dolomite that are below us, with pores, fissures, conduits, and caves that store water, make up the Floridan Aquifer. The Floridan Aquifer includes all of Florida and parts of Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. The thickness of the aquifer varies widely, ranging from 250 ft. thick in parts of Georgia, to about 3,000 ft. thick in South Florida. The Floridan is one of the most productive aquifer systems in the world. It provides drinking water to about 11 million Floridians and is recharged by rainfall.
How are springs classified?
Springs are commonly classified by their discharge or flow rate, which is measured in cubic feet or cubic meters per second. First magnitude springs have a flow rate of 100 cubic feet or more per second, 2nd magnitude springs have a rate of 10-100 ft.3/sec., 3rd magnitude flows are 1-10 ft.3/sec. and so on. We have 33 first magnitude springs in the state, and the majority of these are found in state parks. These springs pump out massive amounts of water. A flow rate of 100 ft.3/sec. translates to 65 million gallons per day. Larger springs in Florida supply the base flow for many streams and rivers.
What affects spring flow?
Multiple factors can affect the amount of water that flows from springs. These include the amount of rainfall, size of caverns and conduits that the water is flowing through, water pressure in the aquifer, and the size of the spring’s recharge basin. A recharge basin is the land area that contributes water to the spring – surface water and rainwater that falls on this area can seep into the ground and end up as part of the spring’s discharge. Drought and activities such as groundwater withdrawals through pumping can reduce flow from springs systems.
If you haven’t experienced the beauty of a Florida Spring, there is really nothing quite like it. Here in the panhandle, springs such as Wakulla, Jackson Blue, Pitt, Williford, Morrison, Ponce de Leon, Vortex, and Cypress Springs are some of the areas that offer wonderful recreational opportunities. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has a ‘springs finder’ web page with an interactive map that can help you locate these and many other springs throughout the state.
Prepare an emergency drinking water supply for your household before a storm hits. Image: Tyler Jones, UF/IFAS.
Storm season is upon us. During a natural disaster, normal drinking water supplies can quickly become contaminated. To be prepared, collect and store a safe drinking water supply for your household before a storm arrives.
How much water should be stored?
Store enough clean water for everyone in the household to use 1 to 1.5 gallons per day for drinking and personal hygiene (small amounts for things like brushing teeth). Increase this amount if there are children, sick people, and/or nursing mothers in the home. If you have pets, store a quart to a gallon per pet per day, depending on its size.
Store a minimum 3-day supply of drinking water. If you have the space for it, consider storing up to a two-week supply.
For example, a four-person household requiring 1.5 gallons per person per day for 3 days would need to store 18 gallons: 4 people × 1.5 gallons per person × 3 days = 18 gallons. Don’t forget to include additional water for pets!
What containers can be used to store drinking water?
Store drinking water in thoroughly washed food-grade safe containers, which include food-grade plastic, glass containers, and enamel-lined metal containers, all with tight-fitting lids. These materials will not transfer harmful chemicals into the water or food they contain.
More specific examples include containers previously used to store beverages, like 2-liter soft drink bottles, juice bottles or containers made specifically to hold drinking water. Avoid plastic milk jugs if possible because they are difficult to clean. If you are going to purchase a container to store water, make sure it is labeled food-grade or food-safe.
As an extra safety measure, sanitize containers with a solution of 1 teaspoon of non-scented household bleach per quart of water (4 teaspoons per gallon of water). Use bleach that contains 5%–9% sodium hypochlorite. Add the solution to the container, close tightly and shake well, making sure that the bleach solution touches all the internal surfaces. Let the container sit for 30 seconds and pour the solution out. You can let the container air dry before use or rinse it thoroughly with clean water.
Best practices when storing drinking water
Store water away from direct sunlight, in a cool dark place if possible. Heat and light can slowly damage plastic containers and can eventually lead to leaks.
Make sure caps or lids are tightly secured.
Store smaller containers in a freezer. You can use them to help keep food cool in the refrigerator if the power goes out during a storm.
Keep water containers away from toxic substances (such as gasoline, kerosene, or pesticides). Vapors from these substances can penetrate plastic.
When possible, use water from opened containers in one or two days if they can’t be refrigerated.
Although properly stored public-supply water should have an indefinite shelf life, replace every 6-12 months for best taste.