“Stay at home” orders have kept most of us confined to our homes for several weeks now. Personal needs that are usually satisfied during the day at school or work are being shifted to the home facilities. For families living inside municipalities with water and sewer services provided, disposal of waste product is pretty much a government issue. However, especially in rural Northern Michigan, a majority of homes are located away from municipal water and sewer services and depend on wells and septic disposal systems
The question is what effect if any, the Corona Virus Pandemic is imposing on these systems and what health risks do they present to the rural residents?
The typical rural septic system accepts both “gray water and black water” as waste from the household. The affluent flows into a large, concrete holding tank where bacteria break down any pathogens and sludge which then settles to the bottom of the tank. The remaining liquid flows into a “tile field” which slowly releases the liquid into the soil. As the liquid flows into the ground towards the water table it is further purified by the soil it flows through and eventually ends up ready to use again.
The first possible COVID -19 consequence is the potential for “over loading” the system. All family members, being confined to the home, could saturate the system to the point of being unable to function as it was designed. Slow flushing toilets, clogging, jams and leaks are just a few of the signs of an overworked system.
This time of year the grass usually turns green over the septic system first, (more moisture and better nutrients). It’s easy to find the access hole to the tank. If the system is overloaded the gray sludge and aroma seeping up around the access hole or further out in the tile field, are sure signs that your septic system is not working properly and needs attention.
The first step is to pump the tank. Most tanks should be pumped every two to four years. The extra load imposed by the “stay-at-home” orders have placed and additional load on septic systems tanks that have been operating on marginal levels will be pushed to failure.
J. C. Millikin. owner of Jack Millikin Excavating in Grayling, said he has seen a definite increase in the number of calls they have received for septic tank pump-outs since the start of the pandemic. J.C. said it’s still too early to directly relate the increase to the pandemic but they are seeing a definite increase in calls for pump-outs.
So you had your tank pumped, now what? With more meals being prepared at home more dishes are being washed causing an increase in the use of the dishwasher and garbage disposal. This all goes into the septic system.
An increased emphasis on disinfecting to prevent the spread of the virus introduces sanitary wipes and other disinfectants into the septic system. A septic tank relies on bacteria to break down the solids and kill viruses and other pathogens. The introduction of strong disinfectants slows down the chemical reactions that take place inside the tank and hinders the tanks ability to treat the affluent properly.
So far, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it appears that a properly working septic system will destroy COVID-19 along with other harmful materials but, according to the experts, it’s still pretty early in the pandemic to tell for sure. In a May 5th, , 2020 release from the World Health Organization, they indicate that “there is no evidence to date that COVID-19 virus has been transmitted via sewerage systems, with or without wastewater treatment.
So it appears that the biggest risk to rural residents using septic systems, is over loading. Help keep your septic system working efficiently by:
- Not flushing sanitary wipes down the toilet. Dispose of them in a trash container instead.
- When doing laundry try to minimize the amount of bleach used, no more than one cup per day if possible.
- Use regular soap for washing hands, not soaps containing anti-bacterial agents.
- Save up your laundry until you have a full load.
- Take showers instead of baths which tend to use more water.
- Try to minimize the use of your garbage disposal. Take food scraps to your composting pile or feed to whatever critters you may be supporting, (chickens, pigs, etc.).
- Stop using the little pellets that help sanitize your toilets but turn the water blue. They are a strong sterilizing agent and could kill the beneficial that keep the system working.
The best thing that a homeowner can do to protect their septic system is to not introduce materials it wasn’t designed to handle and pump it out before it becomes full. These two aids will help assure that your system continues to function properly.
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