The Ongoing Septic vs. Sewer Debate: How to Win Over a Crowd

“Okay, how many of you want to stay with your septic systems?” I asked a community of 2,000 who I spoke to recently, “Let’s see some hands.” An arm shot up like it was on a spring. With that, a few more followed and a few more followed after that until about 10 percent of the crowd had their hands in the air.

After years of public speaking, I’ve learned how to read my audience. I can tell a lot about a person by how they’re dressed, their age, the look on their faces, even they way they sit in their chair.

So I walked up to one older gentleman with his arm in a salute. I like the older guys because they often have spunk. They’ve done their time here on earth, say what they want and don’t care if they offend anyone. I asked why he wanted to stick with his system, and his answer did not disappoint.

“I already pay enough in fees and taxes—I’m not going to pay anymore,” he said. That brought nods from a few others. Then I approached a little old lady who said in a whisper, “I’m on a fixed income, and I can’t afford the $8,500 assessment.” Good answer.

“How many of you want the public sewer?” I asked. This time, only about half the crowd had their hands in the air. I asked one particularly surly looking gentleman why he wanted the pipe, and he growled into the microphone, “Because you can’t put septic systems in this soil. I’ve been here 22 years and gone through three systems. Besides, I would have to put in one of those sand mounds for $30- to $40,000, and I end up with a big ugly lump in my yard.”

I walked through the crowd asking and getting the usual answers—septic’s too expensive, there’s too much pollution, they’re too dangerous. But then I got a bonus answer when a lady said, “I own a restaurant, and I would have to pay over $100,000. No thanks, I’ll pay the $8,500 for the sewer.”

Now we were getting somewhere. But I noticed some people didn’t have any opinion at all. When I asked one man why that was, he said, “What difference does it make? If the city wants to build it there isn’t anything I can do about it. Besides, I’m only here because my wife made me.”

After the laughter died down, I headed back to the front of the room but stopped mid-step, turned around and asked, “By the way, where did you get all this information?”

People started shrugging their shoulders and looking at each other. Finally, one guy spoke up and said, “A firm was brought in to study options and supplied the information to the county.” I told them they may want to consider the source. That same firm involved in the study will most likely be involved in building the project.

Then I went to work—it was time to win this crowd over. I turned on the projector and started listing the benefits of the big, bad pipe: more development, less chance of pollution in your yard, more taxes to build more schools, shopping malls, chain restaurants and fast food joints on every corner. The list could go on.

Then I went into the disadvantages, and those took a little longer. Homes shoehorned in so tight you can hear your neighbors flush their toilets, yards the size of postage stamps with gardens so small you can plow them with a set of tweezers, listening to teenagers doing burnouts in the fast food parking lot and lights from the 24-hour big box retailer shining in your bedroom window at night.

Pollution also becomes an issue. Factories belch out smoke and dump heavy chemicals down the drain. That eventually makes its way into the waterways and water supply. There are also occasions where sewer pipes break and become backed up.

I told of one family in my small town that had 6,300 gallons of raw sewage sucked out of their finished basement when the city pipe backed up, and it wasn’t covered by insurance or the city. Then I mentioned that if you have wells, they will go dry in a few years because all of the ground water is now getting shipped downriver to the ocean. I waited for that one to sink in before launching into the biggest disadvantage of all.

“Let’s do the math. This is a $62 million project, right? Your assessment is only going to be $8,500. That adds up to about $20 million. That leaves you about $40 million short. Where’s that money going to come from?” Someone said something about a stimulus grant. I said that may amount to $5- or $10 million, which would still leave you a good $30 million behind.

“Any other ideas?” I asked. I could hear crickets chirping, the room fell so quiet. “All over the country people have the same story,” I said, “They were told choosing to go with public sewer would be cheap, but by the time they were done, it was $30- to $60,000 a piece. One woman I know was told that running the pipe past her house wouldn’t cost her anything because businesses would pay for it, and she would never have to hook up.” Not true. I explained that the businesses never showed, and she got hit with a bill for $47,000. Now, seven years later, she is being forced to hookup for a grand total of $72,000. That’s a lot of cash for something that was supposed to be free.

To be fair, I also listed the disadvantages of septic systems. That, however, took all of a minute and a half. The advantages took a lot longer: there’s less pollution, there’s controlled growth, residents can keep their water supplies. What really got their attention, though, was the price. It would cost $500 to install filters, risers and covers, and $5- to $15,000 for a new system (if they were to buy in bulk and all have them installed at the same time). Someone asked about the $30- to $40,000 price tag, and I answered, “For a business maybe, but not for a home. That was a tactic to scare people away.”

I circled back to my original question, but, this time when I asked how many people wanted to stay with their septic systems, at least 75 percent of the hands shot up. Sure, there were still a few that wanted the pipe, but that was to be expected, and there were still a few undecided. One person cited the reason for their indifference as not knowing whether or not I was telling the truth.

“You’re right,” I said, “I could be lying, as well, so don’t take my word for it—do your own research.” The internet is loaded with stories of water shortages. In fact, there are so many hits on the subject, it’s a wonder why it isn’t front page news every day of the week.
I admitted that finding communities that got burned by the pipe are a little tougher to come by because not many people are willing to advertise that they were suckered for millions of dollars. Those stories are out there but you really need to look for them.

It doesn’t make any difference if this was a crowd of 50 in Iowa, 500 in California or 1,000 in New York, the results are always the same: coming in, they want the pipe but going out, they want their septic systems. So what does this have to do with you? This was a community of over 2,000 customers who will be gone forever if the pipe goes through (which it will unless you step in to help). There will be no more designs for new homes, no more installs, no more upgrades, no more pumping. If you want work you’ll have to drive further and expand your service area.

There are thousands of these communities all over the country and most of your customers are just waiting for the opportunity to hook-up to that city pipe when it runs by. I can turn those people around—it’s what I do, but I can’t do it by myself. I need the support from you and the industry. Unfortunately, I have bills to pay just like you and can’t keep doing this part-time and squeezing it into an already hectic schedule. Nor can I afford to continue doing it as a volunteer program.

For those reasons, I am looking into setting up a foundation that would target end-users who pay for these projects. The purpose is to give them the septic side of the story before they get totally sold on the pipe and you and your business floats away with it. I will be looking to affiliate with existing national foundations like the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, as well as local and regional groups.

I hope to have an organizer on staff to help set-up these presentations and act as a liaison to the local contractors, a professional engineer to assist in proper design when necessary, and a grant specialist to help homeowners get funding (so you get paid) for these upgrades and replacements. The way you can help is to tell me when these expansion projects are taking place in your area. Right now, the way I learn about them is when a citizen calls me, and often, by that time, it’s too late. I need boots on the ground that see them coming before the digging starts.

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

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