Cluster Systems: Homeowners Beware

I first read about cluster septic systems in an article in the early 1990’s. The point of the article was how Americans have become isolated in their own neighborhoods because of the lot sizes when using septic systems. The article said that being so spread out was the reason neighbors didn’t talk anymore.

One solution to bring neighbors closer together was to “cluster” the homes. This way, people could sit on their porches at night and be neighborly again. But let’s not forget, they still needed to do something with the sewage, so this would be clustered, as well. Naturally, I saw a problem right from the start.

When dealing with septic systems, there are three types of people. The first are those who understand they have to practice common sense and regular maintenance with their systems. They watch what they put down the drain and have it pumped once in a while. But then there are also the two extremes.

You know those people who live in fear that their system is always on the verge of failing? They measure out water with an eye dropper, Dad stands at the bathroom door with a stop watch shouting, “Times up!” when his kids have reached their three minute shower allotment. The dish water gets tossed out the window, and the water from the washing machine is routed somewhere out behind the garage. The toilet only gets flushed a few times a day and some even keep a garbage bag next to it for used toilet paper rather than risk sending it out to the tank.

Then there are those who have lived on the city pipe and have an image in their mind that there is a magic machine at the end of the line that will take anything and everything they can dish out. And I’m talking everything—not just normal bodily function materials and the occasional goldfish. They flush feminine hygiene products, paint, used motor oil, insecticides and cleaning solutions that will strip the chrome off a bumper. They pour pharmaceuticals down the drain, and in some cases, even dump radioactive waste rather than pay the freight to do it right.
Of course, that magic machine isn’t all that magical because it doesn’t remove any of the contaminants people flush down the drain and that means they get discharged into our rivers, waterways and oceans. Now, these people accustomed to the city pipe move into their houses in the suburbs, complete with a brand new septic system. Problem is, they never read the directions or ask anyone if there is a difference in usage. It’s a failure in the making.

But clusters are even more susceptible to problems because, by putting people on a collection system, the chances increase that they will practice the pipe mentality. And when a cluster fails, the cost to fix it isn’t cheap. At least with individual systems, it’s right there in the yard, and some people will take the time to learn the rules.

One day, over a cup of coffee with the head septic inspector in my county, he told me the county had placed a moratorium on clusters because of the high failure rate. I already knew that cluster systems were not working out so swell since all the ones that I saw were constructed with a tank at each house that discharged to larger collection/pump tanks. From there, the waste went out to a sand filter for advanced treatment and then to a large drain field of some type. The problem was—those sand filters were plugging up after about five years.

The septic inspector mentioned there was a 56 home cluster currently in failure, and, needless to say, the people were less than happy. The cluster was only four and a half years old, and residents were not getting any help from anyone. I took the hint to go look at it.

I headed over to the development and drove around until I saw someone out in their yard. Spotting someone, I pulled into his driveway and introduced myself. At first, he was a little stand-offish until I told him that I had helped homeowners and communities with septic issues. He apologized, saying the entire development was fed up with the situation and didn’t know who to trust.

I tried to make him feel better by saying thousands of cluster developments around the country were in the same boat, so he wasn’t alone. I told him that a big part of the problem was that homeowners are never told anything about their systems, how to properly use them and how to protect them. I said if we were to look in his tank right then, we would probably find things in there that shouldn’t be, and I grabbed a shovel, hoping it wasn’t too deep.

He looked at me like I had two heads, “Septic tank? We don’t have a septic tank, we have a cluster system.” I said he must have a tank. “Nope,” he said. I asked how he got his sewage up to the sand filter, and he took me down into his basement where he showed me a sump pit with a grinder pump in it. I asked if every home was the same and he told me yes. Oh boy. This was starting out great.

We then walked over to the pump house. Although I couldn’t find any paperwork on the system, it appeared they had a large primary tank for settling, and a second deflocculating tank that was pumped to the sand filter from there. He said the engineering firm was going to put in a few more tanks at the pump station and replace the sand filter. He added, “They haven’t told us yet what the cost is going to be, but I’m sure it isn’t going to be cheap.”

I told him a few extra tanks at the station would help, but it was a band-aid, not a permanent solution. Then came the questions. Why, if it was such a bogus design, was it allowed in the first place? What was the $40 a month for? What would I suggest?

I explained that during the last building boom things were going so fast everybody was jumping in, and what looked good on paper and in theory didn’t necessarily work in real life. It didn’t help that developers were bringing in a bigger tax base so they carried a lot of weight with the local governments. That meant some things got pushed through over the objections of septic contractors and the county inspectors. And a goal of business is to maximize profits, which is why I suspect they left out the tanks because a pump alone is cheaper than a tank and pump.

As for the $40 monthly fee, I told him half was for maintenance and the other half was to be put in a fund for repairs. But from what I was seeing that fund was non-existent because people were still getting billed extra for those repairs.

My suggestion would be to put tanks in at every house, which would separate and store the solids, taking the load off the sand filter. More importantly, it would monitor the usage at each house. If you wanted to take it a step further you could put an aerobic system in at each house. He rolled his eyes and said it sounded like a lot of money.

I told him it was going to cost him no matter what. The engineering firm was probably going to nail him for $200,000 to $300,000, but in eight or ten years, chances were good he’d be paying to replace the sand filter again. If he did it the way I suggested, it would probably cost him more upfront, but it would be a permanent fix.

I knew they were on a time crunch because winter was about to hit, and they would need to do something before then. Plus, the engineers were looking for a payday and would want them to make a choice quickly. I started working on a plan.

The first call I made was to Plaisteads to get the price on 1,500 and 2,000 split tanks delivered and set. I asked what the cost would be for 56 tanks and the guy I spoke to asked if I was joking. When I assured him I was not, he came in with some pretty good discounts.

Then I called Eric Larson at Septic Check. I knew Eric was a straight shootin’ guy and asked what he would charge to do the sand filter. I liked what I heard. Then I asked what he would charge to do the tanks as well. The numbers got even better.
I also called Mike Catenzaro at Delta and explained the situation and told him I may have an opportunity to use their ATU’s. He’d heard about the cluster systems failing around the country and saw this as a way into this market. He not only offered a good price but would also send up his PE to help. I knew there would be some hurdles to clear with the state, but I was working on those.

As things started coming together, I called the homeowner to tell him the status. He said the engineering people were turning up the heat to get started. I suggested he schedule a meeting with their association, but because of the short notice, only a couple of them showed up, and I gave them the rundown.

To replace just the sand filter, it would cost $70,000 to $80,000. I didn’t check to see what the cost of extra tanks at the pump station would be because I didn’t feel they would be an effective solution, and, as long as they were digging, they may as well do it the right way by putting 1,500 gallon tanks in at each house, which would increase the cost from $200,000 to $250,000.

If they wanted to crank it up a notch, they could put ATU’s in each tank, which would put the cost at $300,000 to $350,000. I also suggested that Septic-Check handle the system maintenance because they could save them on the monthly operating expenses. Applying for grants through watershed groups, the county and the state were another angle I told them they could pursue.

After presenting all the facts and answering any questions to help put their minds at ease, I told them to carefully think things over and no matter what choice they made it would be wise to have an annual association meeting on how to properly use their cluster system.

About a month later, the homeowner called and said the engineering firm had put the pressure on saying they had to act now before the winter hit or they would be paying thousands to have the tanks pumped every week. That scared people enough to say just get it over with. He said they should have had me address the entire association, not just a few, because it narrowly passed. He said they didn’t have the final costs yet but knew my way would’ve been the better way to go.

The next time he called he had the numbers and to say he was angry would be an understatement—$387,000 and their $40 monthly fee jumped to $90! That’s more than what most people pay for city sewer and water!

He asked why my numbers were so much cheaper for doing more, and I told him engineering firms are used to doing things on a larger scale, can charge more and people accept it. Plus, a smaller outfit can do the job for cheaper because they don’t have the high monthly overhead of big companies.

That’s when he asked why I tried helping them, and I told him the truth, “It’s a business deal. There are thousands of cluster systems around the country going through the same thing, and they need someone to help represent them. I’ll help the first one for free, but if I were to save an association 100 grand, I do expect to get a slice of it.”

There are cluster systems all around the country facing the same predicament. Maybe you should take my lead and start knocking on doors and offer to help. People will thank you for it.

Story by Jim vonMeier

Jim vonMeier performs educational programs directed at homeowners teaching them the health and environmental need for proper septic systems and how to find a certified septic professional to inspect/design/install/maintain their systems. He has also represented homeowners in their fight against public sewer projects and speaks at contractor certification courses around the country on the subject of customer service.

Jim can be reached at 1-763-856-3800 or jvonmeier@septicprotector.com.

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