When thinking about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, your septic system probably isn’t something that comes to mind. However, with more people staying at home for longer periods of time and tasks like handwashing increase, septic systems are working overtime.
Terry Gibb, a Michigan State University Extension educator, teamed up with Macomb County Environmental Health Division to host a webinar on septic education to help those with septic systems keep things running smoothly through the COVID-19 pandemic. She says septic education is now more important than ever.
In this Q&A, we asked Gibb to explain the issues people are experiencing with septics during this time and what can be done about it. It is part of our blog series highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting water resources in unexpected ways.
How are septic systems being impacted by people staying at home?
Gibb: People are having issues because they are using more water – whether it’s because they went from 4 to 5 hand washings a day to 10 to 12, or making more meals at home. Plus, in many households, people are gone 8 to 10 hours a day during the week, but now they’re there 24/7. We were hearing that people were having backups and overflows. If you were getting close to needing your tank pumped or having some other kind of maintenance done, you’ll probably need that sooner than you would have to normally.
What can people do to best maintain their septic systems during the pandemic?
Gibb: Some real basic things are first: Conserve water wherever you can. This means turning off the water while you’re brushing your teeth and only do full loads of laundry, for example. You also need to check for leaks. Second, be very mindful of what you’re putting down the drain and flushing down the toilet. Don’t put greases, fats, or oils down the drain. Put them in a can or a jar. No wipes of any kind; I don’t care if it says flushable. Also, be very careful about medications. If you or your family members are on heavy-duty medications, you probably need to have your tank pumped more frequently. Some of those chemicals can kill the good bacteria in your septic tank.
If people run into trouble with their septics, what should they do?
Gibb: First, some of the things that might tell folks if there is a problem is if pipes start running slowly and the water doesn’t drain as quickly as it normally did. If there is gurgling in the pipes, that is another indication that it is running slow. If you go outside and see water where the tank should be, or your drain field is soft, mushy or, heaven forbid, there is actually water sitting on top and it hasn’t rained, those are other indications that you have a problem. If you think you have a problem, first call the pumper and get your tank pumped because that is going to buy you some time. Second, call your local health department and get them out there to help you figure out what the problem is. It could be a minor fix, but unfortunately, it could be a big fix. In most places, you’re required to have a permit to do any repairs, so [the health department] will help you make sure the repairs you’re having done is what needs to be done.
What implications might the pandemic be having for the future of septic systems and water resources?
Gibb: As people start having problems that they didn’t before, they’re going to become more aware. We had several people on the webinar ask, ‘how do I know where my septic system is?’ The first thing you need to know is if you’re on septic or sewer. The second thing you need to know is where it is. You can get that information from your local health department because a lot of times they keep records. If you tell them where you live, they can give you a diagram of where your septic tank is and where your drain field is. If the home is older than the late 1960s, there probably are no records since they were not required. But, the health department can give the homeowner some tips on locating it if there are no records. People also should be aware that, on average, you should pump your tank every three to five years based on the size of your family and the type of soils you have.
For more resources, visit Michigan State University Extension’s Septic System Education website.
These answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Photo by Ian Haycox via Flickr