When the first cottages were built there was very little thought to health concerns and managing human waste. The early cabins typically had outhouses. Eventually bathrooms were brought indoors requiring some form of septic system. The first systems were gravity fed toward the lake and usually consisted of a tank to contain solids and some form of leaching field to absorb the liquid. There was very little engineering and no town or Farmington Valley Health District (FVHD) regulation to monitor what was built. As time has gone on, many of these systems have failed and been replaced. Some have not! .
New Hartford joined the FVHD in July of 1977. FVHD gets involved with you when you plan to build and have a water source entering your dwelling (“have a change of use” — PHC Section 19-13-B100a). If you have an existing cottage without plumbing and an outhouse, then FVHD doesn’t weigh in on your life unless you plan to improve or become a public health problem. When you have a change of use from summer cottage to year round dwelling, then there is the expectation of evaluating the land’s ability to process the proposed wastewater based on today’s regulations. Year-round use with laundry and dishwasher, etc. will increase the amount of water to process.
Today’s septic systems require approval by the FVHD as well as the town’s commissions that may include Inland Wetland Commissions for anything within 100 feet of the lake. The approval process requires an engineered plan to determine size, location, and design. A new system has to be setback from property lines by 10 feet and 75 feet from any well (not just your own!). With typically small lots around the lake, improving systems requires space and creativity. A new septic system will require a tank capacity of 1000 gallons for the first 3 bedrooms, 250 gallons for each additional bedroom and garbage disposal. With leach fields being located away from the lake and uphill, these systems many times will require another holding tank and pump to move effluent to the leach fields (gravity works against the process). The size of the leach field is determined by the number of bedrooms, the slope and quality of the soil, and the type of leaching system chosen. These systems require space to fulfill setback requirements and are not inexpensive—they will likely require a reserve area for use in case a system ceases functioning. Some leaching systems—such as teepee galleries—have higher effective leaching area (same capacity – smaller area) than traditional fields. This means smaller areas, good for tight quarters. This may also allow retaining native vegetation such as trees and woodland shrubs to better retain storm water and maintain privacy. Your engineer can advise.
There are property owners on the lake that do not have adequate lot size or soil conditions to replace or upgrade their systems with the typical solutions. There are specialized systems called Advanced Treatment Systems that use various methods to filter the effluent which require smaller leach fields and produce extremely pure waste water. These systems are used in neighboring states but are yet to be approved in Ct. These systems are more expensive and require more specialized maintenance than conventional systems. They also may be a seasonal solution due to considerations associated with freezing temperatures. Coastal communities like Old Saybrook have issues similar to ours and are aggressively prompting the state to allow these new systems on waterfront property. If your situation requires “thinking out of the box”, then be sure to ask your engineer if one of these solutions might be worth considering.
As a homeowner, you effectively treat your waste and thereby protect nearby West Hill Pond and our groundwater. Untreated effluent is a health hazard and is potentially toxic. These systems can reduce or eliminate the addition of nitrates, nitrites, and phosphates to the lake and groundwater. Maintaining the system not only protects our health, it protects the value of the property, the investment in an expensive system, and the quality of our lake.
Correcting problems and fixing failing systems should be high priority. Maintaining them is key.
Septic System Basics (Subsurface sewage disposal)
Systems start with a pipe from the house to the septic tank where solids settle to the bottom of the tank. Oil and grease rise to the surface and stay within the tank. The effluent drains away from the tank into the dispersal (leaching) fields and then into the soil where microbes finish the process.
Property adjacent to West Hill Pond should hopefully have the leaching fields as far from the water as possible. This, in many cases, requires a second holding tank and a pump that moves effluent to leaching fields on ground typically higher and away from the pond.
The home’s wastewater contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and bacteria. Regular maintenance of this system will allow effective treatment of the discharge (to prevent raw sewage and nutrients from entering the pond!) and extend the life of an expensive to replace system.
Farmington Valley Health District is the body that oversees design, installation, and problem solving for West Hill. Pat Gigliotti (8/2013) at FVHD can be contacted at 860-352-2333 or www.fvhd.org/ for advice and assistance.
Signs of a poorly maintained and/or failed system
–accumulations of muddy soil/water near the tank, the leaching fields, or the basement
— sewage smell from septic areas
–toilet or sink backups in the house.
These reflect a potential public health hazard that affects more individuals than just the homeowners and need to be addressed and corrected ASAP!
Frequent pumping is key to keeping your system in good shape!!
Inspection and pumping—depends on size of the tank and system usage—in general every 2-3 years. Your septic system hauler will pump the contents of your tank and examine and clean its filters and baffles. A simple system for keeping track involves cleanouts on an “odd” or “even” year schedule—some septic system service companies provide stickers that can be put on the main drain pipe to keep track of cleaning dates. A clipboard or a post it note on the pipe can help you keep track of cleanings.
Water flow into the system should be spread out over time and minimized—
- water softener discharge is not permitted in new systems and should be diverted as recommended by FVHD
- install low volume fixtures. New toilets use 1/3 of the volume of older ones (toilet flushing can account for 40% of a septic system’s volume!) Water-saver shower heads and faucets can save even more. High efficiency dishwashers and washing machines use a fraction of the older fixtures (remember, go phosphate free)
- laundry loads done over several days vs all in one day prevent overloading and system failure
- watering, fertilizing, or irrigation of the leaching fields should be avoided
- excavate swale drains to divert surface water away from fields
Things to avoid
- hazardous wastes (paints, chemicals, cleaners, gas, oil, etc)
- things that clog pipes (paper towels, coffee grounds, rice, potatoes, diapers, feminine hygiene products, etc.)
- septic system maintenance products and additives are not recommended!
- minimize use of garbage disposals
- Planting grass is a good simple solution for ground cover to avoid erosion—not plants with deep or invasive root systems. www.lakegeorgeassociation.org/ provides a list of plantings to consider for your new leach fields.
- Heavy vehicles that might compact soil or crush pipes should not be allowed onto the fields unless the system has been constructed with load rated galleries or is specifically rated for heavy loads.
- Prevent surface water from entering system—roof water, sump pumps, water treatment systems (water softeners), other surface water. Avoid watering and fertilization of leach fields—keep them dry. Consider swale drains to divert runoff. Plastic sheets, gravel, bark mulch, patio blocks, etc are not as good as plants! Plants remove moisture and nutrients from soil and prevent erosion. Grass and perennial flower mixes are good. Plants that are shallow rooted and have noninvasive root systems are recommended. Keep trees and shrubs back at least 20 feet (or more!) from leach fields. No vegetable gardens!!
Map out your system so you (or the next owner of the property) can find, maintain, and repair the system. A map with several easy reference points and measurements from them to the tank top avoids a lot of unnecessary digging and searching for a tank cover! If you are not sure where your system is located, a call to FVHD (860-352-2333) can get you a map of your system.
There do not appear to be any septic system requirements for lots without dwelling structures—there are less than 10 parcels presently identified. In the interest of public health and lake water quality, it seems appropriate to have some sort of portable toilet on site.
Consider an organized group approach to cleaning our systems regularly. With a group approach, we might enjoy cost savings with larger numbers of systems being cleaned by one hauler as well as the ongoing efficiency of getting many done regularly! Pete Humphrey (860-238-7706 or 860-921-7352) will assist with the group approach for those interested.
Maintaining our septic systems not only protects our ground water but also the Hartford watershed.
Contributed by Dave Miner and Pete Humphrey