Tuesday, September 26, 2023, 9:00 am – 11:30 am, at the Washington County Agriculture Center, 1424 Jackson Avenue, Chipley and virtually via Zoom.
As a private well owner, you are responsible for making sure that your water is safe to drink. Do you know where your well water comes from and what can contaminate it? If you want to learn how to help ensure your drinking water is safe and what you can do to help protect groundwater quality, join us at our upcoming workshop. We will cover how private wells and septic systems work, their maintenance, what to have your water tested for, and how to protect your drinking water quality.
This workshop is being presented by UF/IFAS Extension Bay, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties. Registration is $5.00 per person. Facilitated water testing is available; water testing rates will vary depending on the test requested. For testing prices, additional details and to register, please visit our Eventbrite page at https://JacksonCountyFCS.Eventbrite.com/ or call 850-482-9620. Pre-registration is encouraged as seating is limited; virtual options are also available. For persons with disabilities requiring special accommodations, please contact the Extension Office (TDD, via Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771) at least ten working days prior to the class so that proper consideration may be given to the request. UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
After floods or heavy rains, the soil in your septic system drainfield can become waterlogged. But, for your septic system to treat wastewater, water needs to drain freely in the drainfield. Special care needs to be taken with your septic system after a storm in order to ensure its proper function.
What should you do if flooding occurs?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers these guidelines:
Relieve pressure on the septic system by using it less or not at all until floodwaters recede and the soil has drained. Under flooded conditions, wastewater can’t drain in the drainfield and can back up in your septic system and household drains. Clean up floodwater in the house without dumping it into the sinks or toilet. This adds additional water that an already saturated drainfield won’t be able to process. Remember that in most homes all water sent down the pipes goes into the septic system.
If sewage from the septic tank has backed up into your house, clean up the affected area and disinfect the floor using a chlorine solution of a half cup of chlorine bleach to each gallon of water for thorough disinfection.
Avoid digging around the septic tank and drainfield while the soil is waterlogged. Don’t drive vehicles or equipment over the drainfield. Saturated soil is very susceptible to compaction. By working on your septic system while the soil is still wet, you can compact the soil in your drainfield, and water won’t be able to drain properly.This reduces the drainfield’s ability to treat wastewater and leads to system failure.
If you suspect your system has been damaged, have the tank inspected and serviced by a professional. How can you tell if your system is damaged? Signs include: settling, wastewater backs up into household drains, the soil in the drainfield remains soggy and never fully drains, a foul odor persists around the tank and drainfield. The tank shouldn’t be opened or pumped if the soil is waterlogged. Silt and mud can get into the tank if it is opened and can end up in the drainfield, reducing its drainage capability. Pumping under these conditions can cause a tank to float or ‘pop out’ of the ground and can damage inlet and outlet pipes. Only a licensed professional should clean or repair the septic tank.
For septic systems with electrical components, make sure to check all the electrical connections for damage before restoring electricity (to pumps, for example).
Have your private well water tested if your septic system or private well were flooded or damaged in any way. Your well water may not be safe to drink or to use for household purposes (making ice, cooking, brushing teeth or bathing). You need to have it tested for total coliform bacteria and E. coli to ensure it is safe to use.
Many county health departments provide testing for bacterial contamination. If they do not offer testing, they can help point you to commercial labs in the area for testing.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) also maintains a site where you can search for certified water testing labs by county: Certified Water Testing Laboratories
As a private well owner, you are responsible for ensuring that your water is safe to drink. What do you know about where well water comes from? Do you know how well water can become contaminated? If you want to learn about steps you can take to help ensure your drinking water is safe to consume and about what you can do to help protect groundwater quality, join us at our upcoming workshop. We will cover how private wells and septic systems work, maintenance, protecting drinking water quality, and disaster preparedness for this upcoming hurricane season.
The workshop will be offered on Thursday, April 13, 2023, from 5:00 pm – 7:30 pm at the Jackson County Agriculture Offices, 2741 Penn Ave., Marianna. You can also attend virtually viaZoom. Registration is $5.00 per person. Facilitated water screening for total coliform and E. coli bacteria is available for FREE! Please register using this Eventbrite link, or you can also register by visiting the Jackson County Extension Office, 2741 Penn Avenue, Suite 3, Marianna (850-482-9620). This workshop is being presented by UF/IFAS Extension Bay, Calhoun, Holmes, Jackson, and Washington Counties.
For lead and nitrate testing prices and additional details, visit our Eventbrite page or call the Jackson County Extension Office at 850-482-9620. Pre-registration is encouraged as seating is limited, but as mentioned previously, a virtual option is also available. For persons with disabilities requiring special accommodations, please contact the Extension Office (TDD, via Florida Relay Service, 1-800-955-8771) at least ten working days prior to the class so that proper consideration may be given to the request. UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
In Part 1 of Reducing Health Advisories, we discussed how owners of septic systems could develop a management plan to reduce such health advisories. In Part 2 we look at another option for septic system owners – converting to the local sewer system.
You might begin by asking – “why would I want to do that?”. It’s a fair question. If my septic system is working properly, do I need to convert to sewer? But is it? Some septic systems were not placed in a good location, and the general maintenance you would follow could still lead to leaking fecal bacteria. You may find that to move such a system to a better location would be more costly than tying in with the local sewer system. You may find that no where on your property is a suitable location for a septic system and conversion is needed. There is also the possibility that you septic system needs major repairs due to misuse or age, and that a sewer conversion is a cheaper option. There are several reasons why it might be time to convert.
Yet, across the state there has been some resistance to converting. In 2020, a University of Florida research team conducted a social survey across the state to determine why many septic system owners were resistant to converting to a sewer system. The survey was sent to 1,604 Florida residents in September of 2020 hoping to get 500 responses – usable responses were obtained from 517 people (32%). The key findings were broken down into categories – explained below.
Knowledge. The average score on the knowledge assessment was 54.7% – suggesting that they had some understanding of septic to sewer conversion topics. 64.8% could identify a graphic of a septic system, but only 57.1% could do the same for a sewer system. 82.8% could state who was responsible for maintaining a septic system, but only 48% could state who was responsible for the sewer. Only 33.1% could correctly state how often a septic system needed to be pumped out. They only slightly agreed that they understood the steps (or the costs) of converting from septic to sewer.
Attitude. Respondents had only a slightly positive attitude towards septic to sewer conversion. Most saw it as more useful and doable, but were not sure whether it was easy or not, and most felt it was too expensive.
Benefits and Barriers. Most agreed that converting reduced the maintenance responsibility on the homeowner and freed property for other uses. They agreed less that it made them a better neighbor. The major barriers to converting were (a) availability to hook up, (b) upfront costs, (c) and having to pay a monthly sewer bill. There was also a lack of interest in doing so. Suggested barriers they do not see as a major problem included (a) the fear of large scale sewer spills, (b) and having time to think about doing the conversion.
Diffusion and Innovations. Most agreed that sewer systems were more advantageous than septic systems – that they cause less trouble for the homeowner. They also believed that converting to sewer was within their needs, values, and beliefs. They believed that all communities should convert to sewer and that it was the responsible thing to do. 1
The results of the above study suggest that most Floridians believe that IF conversion is available, it is the right thing to do. The primary reasons why they do not would include costs and having a monthly bill. Many also felt there was no interest in doing so. An interesting note here… in my community, there is a cost share program available for specific communities within the city limits. Despite assistance with costs, no one has responded asking to participate. This suggested that the monthly sewer bill and disinterest in the issue are still large barriers. Another thought is that even with cost sharing, their portion of the bill is still outside of their price range. In 2022 we attempted to have a focus group meeting with these communities to see which of the assumptions were correct – but there was little interest in participating in such a discussion group – so, we are not 100% sure why they do not participate.
All that said, conversion to a sewer system is an option for those on a septic system and there are benefits in doing so. As mentioned in the study, it takes much of the maintenance issues and concerns off of the property owner. Though properly maintained septic systems do a good job of treating fecal bacteria, sewer systems usually have three levels of treatment (sometimes more) decreasing the chance of health advisories. But they are not without their problems.
The survey suggested that Floridians are less aware of how their sewers work than a septic systems. In Part 3 we will look at how the sewer process operates. If you are a property owner with a septic system and interested in converting to sewer, contact your county health department to see how the process is done locally, and whether there is a cost share program.
1 Rampold, S. D., Krimsky, L., Telg, R. W., & Warner, L. (2021). Florida homeowners’ knowledge, perceptions, and informational needs regarding septic to sewer conversion. PIE2020/21-05. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education.
Health advisories are issued by state and local health departments when levels of fecal bacteria become too high for the public to safely enter the water. Sewage can be a source of these fecal bacteria. They can harbor pathogenic organisms that can cause of a variety of health problems. State and local health departments routinely monitor local waterways, particularly where people recreate, to assure the level of fecal bacteria is not unsafe. It is understood that the presence of fecal bacteria in waterways is normal, animals do go the bathroom, but excessive levels can be unsafe.
In the Pensacola Bay area, most of the human recreation areas near the barrier islands rarely have health advisories issued. Once every few years there is an issue at the sewage treatment facility on Pensacola Beach and an advisory is issued, or a sewage line is broken either near Santa Rosa Sound or Big Lagoon with the same results. But is very rare.
However, our local bayous are different. The neighborhoods are densely populated with old or outdated infrastructure, and how we manage these systems can cause problems as well. We are going to do a three-part series on what property owners can do to help reduce the number of health advisories issued in waterways where they are more common. In Part 1 we will look at how to maintain your septic system.
Septic systems were commonly used decades ago when city limits, and treatment facilities, were smaller. Many communities within our counties are on a septic system, and it falls on the property owner to properly maintain them.
Most understand how the system works, but for those who are not familiar – here are the basics.
When you flush your commode, take a shower, or wash your clothes, the wastewater leaves your house through a series of pipes and empties into a septic tank buried in your yard. These tanks are usually made of concrete and there are different sizes. A typical tank will be about 8 feet long x 4 feet wide x 6 feet deep and hold around 1000 gallons (again, sizes vary). The solid material settles to the bottom where it is broken down by living microbes. The oils and fats float to the surface forming a scum layer. The remaining wastewater settles in the middle of the tank and drains into a drain field through a series of perforated pipes.
The drain field should be made of less compacted soils to allow percolation into the surrounding environment. There is some physical, chemical, and biological treatment of the wastewater as it percolates, but only if the drain field is properly designed and located. For obvious reasons you should not (and most communities will not allow) have your drain field next to an open or public water system. In Florida it is required that the loose uncompacted soils must be no less than 24 inches above the wet/water table.
It has been found that if the septic system is placed in the correct location and maintained properly, it does a good job of removing pathogens from the wastewater. However, it was not designed to remove nutrients, which can still leach into waterways and cause algal blooms. And the presence of pharmaceuticals and household chemicals are not always removed, which can cause problems for aquatic wildlife. But to reduce health advisories they can work.
How do we maintain our septic system so that it functions properly?
Watch what you pour down your drain. As mentioned above, many household chemicals and pharmaceuticals are not removed and become environmental problems when they leach from the drain fields into the local environment. Fats, oils, and grease (and even milk) can solidify and form the scum layer at the top of the septic tank. These solids can clog the lines running to the septic tank, or the drain field lines themselves. They can create back flows and could cause untreated sewage to back flow into your home. Our local utility offers the FOGProgram. In this program you can visit a local dispensing site (these can be found at ECUA’s website and there is one at the Escambia County Extension Office) to obtain as free 1-gallon plastic jug. Pour your bacon grease, oils, etc. into these containers. When full, return them to the dispensing location and swap out for a clean empty one. The service is free.
Watch how much water you use. As mentioned, septic tanks come in different sizes and are designed for a certain amount of water. “Flooding” of the system can occur if you are using more water than your system is designed for and this could include flooding of semi, or untreated, sewage.
The scum and solid layers of the tank need to be pumped out. It is recommended the septic systems are pumped once every 3-5 years, depending on the size of the tank. A pump out may cost you several hundreds of dollars, but a tank replacement is going to be in thousands – it is a good investment and will help reduce health advisories in local waterways.
Do not drive over your septic system, or drain field, with heavy vehicles. This could crack the tank and/or compact the soils within the drain field.
Studies have shown that a properly designed, properly placed, and properly maintained septic system will work well in reducing the presence of pathogenic fecal bacteria in our local waterways for up to 50 years. Note: like all things, even a good septic tank does have a live span. If you do not know the history of your septic system, we recommend you contact a certified professional to come do an assessment.
As always, if you have additional questions, do not hesitate to contact your county extension office.
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.