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Septic system rules face upgrade

December 23, 2018

Proposed changes to Allen County’s septic ordinance could increase system costs for homeowners by several hundred dollars next year.

Allen County Department of Health officials say those costs are relatively minor compared with the cost of a failing septic system.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is mainly to keep up with changing technology and different types of septic systems,” Health Department Administrator Mindy Waldron said. “A good portion of what we’ve proposed in (the ordinance) are clarifications on the intent of the rules.”

Waldron said the department reviewed 14 years of data from the county’s Wastewater Management District inspections to revise the ordinance and make it more clear for “those who must enforce and who must adhere to it.”

“There’s nothing novel in it. Many of these things are what the State Department of Health would hope to have in their rule at some point,” Waldron said. “The state has indicated (the ordinance changes) looked very good. Mainly, it’s about the functionality of systems and how to increase their longevity.”

The cost of septic systems can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. It varies depending on size of household, type of property and number of occupants in a home. Prices can also vary from county to county, depending on the rules in place. One local installer, J&S Liquid Waste Service Inc., said prices can range from 35,000.

Most of the changes, Waldron said, are inclusions of best practices, some of which have been used in the industry for 25 years. A few hundred dollars more when installing a system could prevent having to pay thousands for a failed system, she said.

One notable change in the ordinance is a ban on flexible couplings secured mechanically to sewer pipes by steel hose clamps. The exception to that would be if they are “used to connect an existing building sewer which is constructed of different pipe material ... which is not compatible with the new building sewer pipe material being installed.”

Additionally, on-site sewage systems must be equipped with a cleanout for the purposes of visual inspection to verify elevation and maintenance. The ordinance sets forth specifications for how that equipment must be installed.

These requirements codify best practices to ensure a safe and long-lasting system, Waldron said.

“We are seeing these ways of doing things are better. There is, to be honest, potential for some requirements to be several hundred dollars more for certain types of systems, to make sure they have the right type of electrical panel or junction box, those types of things,” Waldron said.

“But when you amortize that over the life of the system, about 10 to 30 years, a few hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to one sewage backup into your home or the potential for early failure.”

Data provided by the Department of Health show there are 14,195 properties in Allen County that should be connected to a septic system. Of those, 10,403 have septic systems on record with the department.

The remaining 3,792 have no known status. However, health department data indicate those homes may have only a septic tank, with no real system and no sewage treatment. Those systems are likely discharging untreated waste directly into the nearest body of water, the department says.

Of the 10,403 on record, 1,483 are more than 25 years old and in danger of failure or noncompliance.

About 3,703 are using filter bed systems that are no longer allowed under the ordinance and often fail. Those systems would likely have been installed when they were allowed under the ordinance.

“The fact that septic systems are installed and then all too often never maintained is a problem throughout the U.S.,” Waldron said. “Progressive states that want to protect homeowners and the environment look to prolong the life of septic systems. I don’t think Allen County is any different from the others.”

But some aren’t so sure the proposed ordinance changes are a good idea. The Allen County commissioners are seeking public input.

One man, who identified himself as the owner of J&S Liquid Waste Services, told the commissioners Dec. 14 he’s concerned that people are terrified of the county health department. Enforcement is the issue, he said, not the new technology requirements. The ordinance is going to make the jobs of septic installers harder, he said.

“The simple issue for me is, how do you go about doing these corrections with the guidance of what they need to do on the enforcement side without us being the stepping stone to that enforcement?” the man said.

Several installers did not return phone calls last week.

In an interview Wednesday, Commissioner Nelson Peters said while septic installers were consulted during drafting, the issue extends beyond septic installers to septic users.

“I don’t know if there will be changes, but the input will give us an opportunity to decide how well-fitting that ordinance is and everybody it affects,” Peters said.

“We’ve already made some changes to the ordinance based on input received from septic installers. It just makes sense to hear from the full universe of people that septic systems affect.”

dgong@jg.net

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