Because It’s the Right Thing To Do

People don’t like to spend money on things they can’t see. They will more readily drop large amounts of money on new windows, siding, or a pool because they can actually see what they are paying for, and so will any potential buyer down the line. But no one wants to spend money on something they can’t see, particularly when it deals with septic. However, if you get out there and educate your customers and neighbors and explain the financial and environmental advantages toward maintaining their septic systems, you may just be able to get them to start taking care of and upgrading them.

Last fall, I began talking to my own neighbors about getting on an annual inspection program. Naturally, they all had the question that everyone always has: why? I listed two financial reasons right off. First, if the township says we have to start pumping our tanks according to their schedule, our cost to pump could double—even triple.

Second, if we don’t start taking care of our systems, the nearby city could use that as an excuse to run the pipe out, which could cost us $20- to $30,000 apiece, and that would not include the hook-up charges. Plus, we would have to pay the monthly fees, then, too.

Then I gave them the ultimate reason: to protect our water supplies. With septic systems, we keep our water local, but if we get hooked up to the pipe, we would still be taking our water out of the ground. The treatment facility would be shipping that water downriver to the Gulf of Mexico. Eventually, our wells would run dry, and then we would be paying to either punch our wells deeper, or pay the city to run water lines out to us.

In Minnesota, where I live, the only times you have to upgrade a system are:

• The system is in obvious failure, there is sewage bubbling up in the yard and a neighbor complains. Even then, most counties are slow to act because they do not want to be the septic police. Often, these systems will go on for years before they are repaired.

• If you pull a permit to do other work on the property, like a new roof or an addition. When you pull that permit, you must have your system inspected for compliancy, and if it doesn’t make the grade, you are supposed to do the septic at the same time. Again, enforcement is seldom and spotty.

• When you sell your property. This is the big one because they will not allow you to transfer the property with a non-compliant system, and this one is enforced. Good plan and should have been started 30 years ago all over the country.

Of course, I explained to them that if we had good systems and were maintaining them with an annual inspection, we could tell the township and city, “no need, no dice.” I continued to make it clear that all we would have to do is make sure our systems would fall into the compliancy guidelines and, for most, that would mean a riser, secure cover and filters. I knew most of the systems were good to start with, but there were a few, in particular, that were bottomless tanks that would need to be totally replaced.

Ron and Marilyn Walker had one of those tanks. The Walkers bought their house back in the 1970s. They raised two children in that house, and today, they’re living the life many of us wish we could: retired. Ron told me he was having issues with his septic system, and I asked him if he’d ever had any work done on it. His answer was yes, around 1983, but he couldn’t quite remember what it was, “Added on to the drainfield maybe?”

I asked if he thought his system was legal. He gave a shy smile and said, “I have no idea.” I said we could check to see if the county had anything on file, which, to my surprise, they did. Looking at the plan, I could see it was dicey from the start, with per size and depth, however, I cautioned Ron that what was on paper did not necessarily match what was in the ground. In the old days, numbers were often fudged as a favor to the homeowner. I suggested to him that we actually start digging.

Ron may be retired, but he’s not sitting around watching the time go by. He plays guitar with a group who gigs locally several times a month, and he and Marilyn like to day trip, get in the car and drive around to see the sights. Ron is also in phenomenal shape and got ready to grab a shovel on my say-so, but after sticking the tank with a probe, I told him no matter how much he liked exercise, his system was too deep for a hand operation. So I borrowed a small excavator from a friend and got to digging…and digging and digging. Finally, after what felt like halfway to China, we found the tank.

According to the plan, it was supposed to be a rectangular 1,000 gallon tank that went to a distribution box and out to the drainfield. In reality, it was a round block tank. The “distribution box” was a second round block tank. A few scoops in the drainfield revealed that it was right in the seasonal water table.

I hopped off the excavator and gave Ron the news, “Well, here’s the deal. What you have is way out of code. However, since you have no plans to sell your house or pull a permit for anything else, you are so far in the woods that if your system ever does go belly-up with surface discharge, no one will complain. You can leave it as is.”

I started back for the excavator, but Ron stopped me and asked what it would cost to put in a proper system. I told him that, because of the small lot size, he would need a pressure bed, so it would run $6- to $7,000, but because I could get some bulk discounts on material, we could shave it down a bit. He said, “Let’s do it.” I stood there with a stupefied look on my face and said, “Ron, you don’t have to do this. You could live with this for the rest of your life, and no one would be the wiser.”

He said, “I know, but I have always been concerned about the environment. I may not march in protests or attend global warming lectures, but I do think people should start thinking about this stuff. When you told me last fall about us running out of water, I remembered reading about a development 15 miles west of here that was having problems with their well water. That made me realize what you were saying was true. Plus, I don’t want to get hit with a mandatory pumping rule or the city sewer, and I would hate to be the reason they use to stick all of us with those assessments. Besides, most of all, it’s the right thing to do.”

I stood there looking at him and my stupefied look turned into one of newfound respect. No one was forcing him to get out the checkbook, but he did. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. I gave him the reasons, and, in the end, he chose the ultimate one: to protect the water supply. Now, as more of our neighborhood has learned about Ron upgrading his system, they are getting onboard with the program, too.

And I’ll bet there are a lot more Ron Walkers out there living in your neighborhoods who, if you took the time to tell them why, they would hire you to upgrade, replace and manage their systems for them. For you, it’s about generating revenue in a down economy. For them, it’s about saving money in the long run while also protecting their future water quality and supplies. Everybody wins…

Well, maybe not the large scale engineering firms, developers or the city—they only win when people don’t manage their systems and the pipe goes in.

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 at

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