Being “SepticSmart” ensures the health of your family, lake and waterfront investment

Learn how being septicsmart can bring important safeguards to you and the environment.

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Where does your water go when it goes down the drain? If you live in Michigan, it may be treated on your property via a septic system, unless your wastewater is connected to a municipal sewer system. One in three households in Michigan has a septic system. According to the 2017 Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) State of the Great Lakes Report, this equates to approximately 1.3 million households across Michigan that are serviced by septic systems. Nationally, the United States Environmental Agency (US EPA)  estimates that one in every five (20%) U.S. homes has a septic system.

September 14-18, 2020 has been designated “SepticSmart Week” by the US EPA. This week highlights proper septic system care because often what is out of sight is out of mind and the best way to protect your health and the environment is to understand how a septic system works.

Most septic systems have two basic parts:

  • The tank intercepts, holds, and partially treats wastewater.
  • The drainfield, or soil absorption field, helps treat and disperse wastewater when it leaves the septic tank. Liquid waste, called effluent, enters the drainfield through rows of perforated pipes. It is slowly disperses through a gravel base into the soil below where additional physical and biological processes take place to complete the treatment process.

When a septic system isn’t working properly it can release excessive nutrients and disease-causing pathogens into soil and water. Pathogens such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) from malfunctioning septic systems can cause flu-like or gastrointestinal symptoms. Nitrogen and phosphorus can cause fast-growing algae and aquatic plants to grow out of check and can lead to reduced oxygen levels and water clarity in lakes, impacting fish and wildlife.

Septic system maintenance is critical, and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic when families are home more than usual. Here are some simple tips to help you be SepticSmart:

  • Shield your field. Redirect downspouts and water away from the drainfield. Don’t park your car or drive heavy equipment over this area to protect the soil from compaction. Don’t plant trees, shrubs, or plants that have deep, woody roots over or near the drainfield area to avoid damage from root growth.
  • Don’t overload the commode. The only things that should be flushed down the toilet are stool, urine, and toilet paper. While personal care products like flushable wipes may say they are flushable and/or septic safe, they cannot be properly broken down by a septic system.
  • Think at the sink. A septic system is not designed to break down food waste, so avoid using a garbage disposal. Keep fats, oils, and greases out of the drain to prevent clogs in the system. Carefully select the cleaners/detergents you use as they may impact microbial activity in the tank.
  • Don’t strain your drain. Be wise with your water use so you don’t overwhelm your septic system. Avoid using a lot of water at one time by spacing out laundry, dishwasher cycles, and showers.
  • Protect it and inspect it. Have your system inspected by a licensed contractor. Your local or regional health department can help educate you on how to evaluate your system.
  • Pump your tank. A septic tank should be pumped every 3-5 years, depending on the size of your household and your septic tank. Systems operate more effectively when the tank is no more than one-third full of solids. When not pumped regularly solids can build up and cause clogging of the drain field.
  • Keep it clean. If you have a well water and a septic system, be sure to get your water tested annually through your local or regional health department.

Here are some signs that your septic system is experiencing trouble:

  • Gurgling sounds in the pipes when water is being used or the toilet is flushed
  • Drains that are slow running or backing up
  • Sewer-type odors
  • Soft, mushy ground over the drainfield
  • Grass over the drainfield that is greener, more lush and/or faster growing than the grass around the drain
  • Family members with frequent intestinal illness if a failed septic system contaminates well water that may be in close proximity
  • Excessive aquatic plant growth or algal blooms in the nearshore areas of surface water bodies such as ponds or lakes

Local or regional health departments are great sources for information about your septic system and have records about its design and installation. They can provide advice on the type of system that will properly treat your wastewater. They also handle permits for all new septic systems as well as repairs. County local or regional health department and the State of Michigan Onsite Wastewater Program have specific regulations regarding contractors and companies installing, repairing, inspecting and pumping septic systems.

Learning how you can be SepticSmart will help ensure full enjoyment of all the things you love about your lake.

For more information about septic systems, visit these resources:

A version of this article originally appeared in the July issue of the Lakefront Lifestyles Magazine.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources and support to lakefront property owners and managers. Contact your county MSU Extension office for more information, and visit the MSU Extension website ( to explore our Natural Resources programming and sign up for electronic newsletters on the topics of your choice.

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