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Septic systems can't be neglected forever

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Like hot water and electricity, your home septic system is one of those things you may not think about every day. That is, until it stops working. Then it's all you think about.

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension specialist Kent McVay says an easy way to prevent septic system problems is to have your system inspected every few years.

An ounce of prevention

"It's not a pleasant topic, but it's something that has to be dealt with," McVay said. "The easy way to remember it's time to have your septic system cleaned is to have it done every election year."

To help extend the life of your home septic system, McVay offers these tips:

* Minimize water usage. "Your system can handle only so much water at a time," he said. "Keep that in mind when you're washing clothes, taking showers and running the dishwasher."

* Don't use a garbage disposer. "If you're on a home septic system, compost your kitchen scraps," McVay said. "This can reduce the organic load by as much as 50 percent and help your home garden, too."

* Reduce harsh chemical usage. "Don't use chlorine bleach to clean everything in your home," he said. "Moderate use is okay, but excessive use kills the useful bacteria that are working to break down bacteria in your septic system."

Pay now or pay later

If you haven't had your home septic system inspected in five years, McVay recommends making an appointment with a septic tank pumper.

"You may not want to spent the $200 or $300 for the inspection and pumping now," he said, "but it's a lot cheaper than digging up your lawn and installing new drain fields because you neglected your system."

McVay recently joined the UGA faculty in Griffin, Ga., as director of the university's wastewater management education program. He teaches proper septic system installation procedures to installers across the state and at on-site training centers in Griffin and Hazlehurst.

Each site demonstrates various types of septic system designs. The sites and the training program are funded by the Georgia Department of Human Resources, with support from the Georgia Onsite Wastewater Association.

Training the state's installers

"Septic system installation used to be as simple as knowing a guy with a backhoe," McVay said. "Now, installation is much more professional. And the state requires installers to attend what amounts to one day of training every two years to earn eight hours of continuing education credits."

UGA specialists, engineers, state environmentalists and industry consultants teach with both classroom and hands-on field training in the UGA program.

About 4,000 Georgians are employed as installers. Another 400 soil scientists and engineers work in the field, McVay said.

With 70 percent to 80 percent of new home construction using on-site septic systems, McVay says septic system installation should be regulated because improper installation can severely impact public health.

"The soils in Georgia are capable of taking care of this waste," he said. "But the systems need to be installed correctly."

For a list of upcoming trainings, call McVay at (770) 233-5506 or email him at

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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