Multi-County Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Multi-County Private Well and Water Quality Workshop

Private well system in Florida. Image: C. Wofford, UF/IFAS Photography

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 via Zoom. 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.   

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 2 Septic Conversion

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 2 Septic Conversion

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. 

With increase housing development in the panhandle comes an opportunity to convert from septic to sewer systems. Photo: UF IFAS

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. 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.

Closed due to bacteria. Photo: Rick O’Connor
Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 1 Septic Maintenance

Reducing Health Advisories in Our Coastal Waters; Part 1 Septic Maintenance

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. 

Closed due to bacteria. Photo: Rick O’Connor

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. 

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 
A conventional septic system is composed of a septic tank and a drainfield, where most of the wastewater treatment takes place. Image: US EPA

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?

  1. 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 FOG Program.  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.    
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
The FOG gallon containers are found in these metal cabinets placed around the county. Photo: Rick O’Connor
1-gallon container provided free to dispose of your oil and grease. Photo: Rick O’Connor

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. 

Private Well and Septic System Webinars and Well Water Screening

Private Well and Septic System Webinars and Well Water Screening

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.

To register, please visit our Eventbrite page: These webinars are free, but we ask all attendees to register.

For more information, please contact Dr. Yilin Zhuang at, or Dr. Andrea Albertin at or via telephone: (850) 875-7111.

Maintaining your septic system: Should you use additives?

Maintaining your septic system: Should you use additives?

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.

  1. 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

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

For more information on septic systems, visit the UF/IFAS septic system website and FDEP’s septic system website.


Fecal Bacteria in the Bay… What Can You Do?

Fecal Bacteria in the Bay… What Can You Do?

For many in the Pensacola Bay area, water quality is a top concern.  Excessive nutrients, heavy metals, and fecal bacteria from run-off have all been problems.  In recent years fecal bacteria has become a major concern, forcing both health advisories at public swimming areas, and shellfish harvesting closures.  In a report from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last modified in 2021, 43 sites in the Pensacola Bay area were verified as impaired and 11 of those (22%) were due to high levels of fecal bacteria1.

Closed due to bacteria.
Photo: Rick O’Connor


As the name implies, these are bacteria associated with the digestive tract and find their way into waterbodies via animal waste.  Animal waste can harbor pathogenic organisms and contribute to algal blooms which leads to hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen in the water), and potential fish kills.  As bad as hypoxia and fish kills can be, it is the health issue from the pathogens that are often the larger concern.

The spherical cells of the “coccus” bacteria Enterococcus.
Photo: National Institute of Health


In saline waters, the fecal bacterium Enterococcus is the species used for indication of animal waste.  This bacterium is more tolerant of salt water than E. coli, or other fecal bacteria, and a better choice as an indicator for this reason.  Enterococcus is found in the intestines for birds and mammals and enters waterways through their feces.  Waterfowl, pets, and livestock can all be sources, but it is human waste that many point to when the bacteria counts are over the environmental thresholds set.  Human waste enters the waterways either by septic or sewer overflows.  It is the septic systems we will look at in this article.

A conventional septic system is made up of a septic tank (a watertight container buried in the ground) and a drain field. Image: Soil and Water Science Lab UF/IFAS GREC.

How the septic system works…


The process of course begins when you flush.  The wastewater leaves the commode and enters a pipe which leads to the septic tank outside.  Here the wastewater separates.  The solid waste will settle to the bottom forming a layer called sludge.  Fats, oils, and grease float on water and form a top layer called scum.  The untreated wastewater settles in the middle.  This wastewater will drain from the septic tank into a series of smaller pipes and leach into a drain field.  The drain field should be made of large grain material, like sand or gravel, that allows the filtration of the water as it dissipates into the environment.  On paper this system should work well, and often does, but you can see where problems can occur.


  • Was the septic system placed in the correct area? Often as a homeowner you have no control over where the tank is placed but there are regulations on this, and they should have been followed.
  1. Is there sufficient drain material for the effluent to effectively drain and filter (plenty of sand/gravel)?
  2. Is the site too close to the water table? Saturated ground will not allow for proper filtration and can create layers of untreated water to settle near the surface creating foul odors and leach into local waterways.  Over the last decade the Pensacola area has seen an increase in the annual amount of rain.  This increase can turn what was a suitable location into one that is no longer.

Again, many homeowners have no control over the placement of the septic but doing your due diligence when purchasing a home, you can do.  Checking the situation of the septic can save you a lot of problems down the road.

1-gallon container provided free to dispose of your oil and grease.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

The FOG gallon containers are found in these metal cabinets placed around the county.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

  • What are you flushing down the commode? Here you DO have control.
  1. Excessive amounts of fats, oils, and grease will increase the scum layer, and this can enter the pipes leading to the drain field causing clogging of those. Clogs can cause backups into the tank and leaks near the top as well as backups into your home.  Not only can these overflows create problems in the home, but they can also end in our waterways creating water quality problems.  So, what do you do with the oil and grease left over from cooking?  In Escambia County, the Emerald Coast Utility authority provides what they call the FOG program2.  This program provides free 1-gallon plastic jugs to place your oil and grease in.  You can find these in metal cages at locations around the county, there is one at the extension office.  You take it home, fill it up, and return it for a new one.
  2. Disposable wipes can be flushed, but they do not degrade. Excessive amounts of disposal products flushed into your septic system will certainly create clogs in the drainpipes and backups into the lawn, waterways, and your home.  Do not flush these!  Toss them into the trash can.
  3. Interestingly we are learning that milk will solidify after pouring down the drain. It forms solid chunks resembling concrete and can also create backups and overflows.  This is relatively newly discovered problem.  One suggestion is to pour unwanted milk on your garden, but you do not want to flush it down the drain to your septic tank.
  4. There has been discussion on chemical products marketed to clean your septic. Many of our experts believe that these can alter the good microbes within the tank that breakdown the solid waste layer, the sludge.  This is not something you want.
  5. The last one is water itself. Not that you cannot flush water down the drain, but excessive amounts can create situations where either the scum or the sludge layers reach the drainpipes and form clogs.  Do not use excessive amounts of water from different sources in your home at the same time.  Do not overload the system.


  • Driving over the septic tank or drain field.

Most understand that this can cause problems.  It can compact the soil being used for the drain field, thus making it less effective at draining and filtering.  It can also cause cracks in both the tank and the drainpipes, which can create leaks that allow untreated wastewater to travel away from the drain field.  Be careful where you use heavy vehicle traffic on your lawn.


  • Pumping out your septic system.

This is something few people do.  The untreated wastewater should flow into the drain field and percolate through the sand/gravel bed.  However, the scum and sludge do not drain and need to be pumped periodically.  The recommended cycle for pump outs is once every 3-5 years.  Again, this is something most homeowners do not do until backup problems occur.  We do recommend having your system pumped on that cycle.


  • Convert to a sewer system.

This is not an option for everyone, and we know for some in which it is, they are not eager to do so.  But converting to a sewer takes the maintenance issue off the homeowner and onto the local utility.  The conversion can be expensive but, in some communities, there are cost share programs to help with this.  Check with your local utility for more information.

If placed, used, and maintained properly septic systems can last 25-30 years and not be a major problem for local waterways.  Converting to a sewer system can help, but there are also problems here.  We will address those in our next post.




1 Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 2021. Verified Lists for Group 4 Basins Cycle 2 – Pensacola Bay.


2 Fats, Oils, and Grease (FOG).  Emerald Coast Utility Authority (ECUA).