United States
Environmental Protection
                          Office of Water
July 2001
Source  Water  Protection

Practices  Bulletin

Managing  Septic Systems  to

Prevent  Contamination  of

Drinking Water

Septic systems (also known as onsite wastewater disposal systems) are used to treat and
dispose of sanitary waste. When properly sited, designed, constructed, and operated, they pose
a relatively minor threat to drinking water sources. On the other hand, improperly used or
operated septic systems can be a significant source of ground water contamination that can lead
to waterborne disease outbreaks and other adverse health effects.
This fact sheet discusses ways to prevent septic systems from contaminating sources of drinking
water. Septic systems that receive non-sanitary wastes (e.g., industrial process wastewater)
are considered industrial injection wells, and are not the primary focus of this fact sheet. Other
fact sheets in this series address prevention measures for contamination sources such as
fertilizers, pesticides, animal feeding operations, and vehicle washing.
About 25 percent of U.S. households rely on septic systems to treat and dispose of sanitary
waste that includes wastewater from kitchens, clothes washing machines, and bathrooms.
Septic systems are primarily located in rural areas not served by sanitary sewers.
                                A typical household septic system consists of a septic
                                tank, a distribution box, and a drain field. The septic
                                tank is a rectangular or cylindrical container made of
                                concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. Wastewater
                                flows into the tank, where it is held for a period of time
                                to allow suspended solids to separate out. The heavier
                                solids collect in the bottom of the tank and are partially
                                decomposed by microbial activity. Grease, oil, and fat,
                                along with some digested solids, float to the surface to
                                form a scum layer. (Note: Some septic tanks have  a
                                second compartment for additional effluent
                                The partially clarified wastewater that remains
                                between the layers of scum and sludge flows to the
                                distribution box, which distributes it evenly through the
drain field. The drain field is a network of perforated pipes laid in gravel-filled trenches or beds.
Wastewater flows out of the pipes, through the gravel, and into the surrounding soil.  As the
wastewater effluent percolates down through the soil, chemical and biological processes remove
some of the contaminants before they reach ground water.

Large capacity septic systems are essentially larger versions (with larger capacities and flow
rates) of single family residential septic systems, but they may have more than one septic tank or
drain field for additional treatment capacity. In some cases, an effluent filter may be added at
the outlet of the large capacity septic tank to achieve further removal of solids.  Many large
systems rely on pumps rather than gravity to provide an even flow distribution into the drain


Septic systems are a significant source of ground water contamination leading to waterborne
disease outbreaks and other adverse health effects. The bacteria, protozoa, and viruses found in
sanitary wastewater can cause numerous diseases, including gastrointestinal illness, cholera,
hepatitis A, and typhoid.

Nitrogen, primarily from urine, feces, food waste, and cleaning compounds, is present in sanitary
wastewater.  Consumption of nitrates can cause methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome) in
infants, which reduces the ability of the blood to carry  oxygen.  If left untreated,
methemoglobinemia can be fatal for affected infants. Due to this health risk, a drinking water
maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/1) or parts per million (ppm)
has been set for nitrate measured as nitrogen.  Even properly functioning conventional septic
systems, however, may not remove enough nitrogen to attain this standard in their effluent.


Septic systems can contribute to source water contamination for various reasons, including
improper siting, poor design, faulty construction, and incorrect operation and maintenance. Most
States and localities regulate siting, design, and construction of septic systems and only regulate
operation and maintenance for large capacity septic systems.  Some of the more widely used
prevention measures are described below. Your local health department should be able to
advise you on specific requirements for your community.

Please keep in mind that individual prevention measures may or may not be adequate to prevent
contamination of source waters.  Most likely,  individual measures should be combined in an
overall prevention approach that considers the nature of the potential source of contamination,
the purpose, cost, operational, and maintenance requirements of the measures, the vulnerability
of the source water, the public's acceptance of the measures, and the community's desired
degree of risk reduction


Most jurisdictions have adopted, for septic systems, minimum horizontal setback distances
from features such as buildings and drinking water wells and minimum vertical setback
distances from impermeable soil layers and the water table.  Septic systems  should be located a
safe  distance from drinking water sources to avoid potential contamination.  Areas with high
water tables  and shallow impermeable layers should be  avoided because there is insufficient
unsaturated soil thickness to ensure sufficient treatment.  Soil permeability must be adequate
to ensure proper treatment of septic system effluent. If permeability is too low, the drain field
may not be able to handle wastewater flows,  and surface ponding (thus contributing to the
contamination of surface water through runoff) or plumbing back-ups may result. If
permeability is too high, the effluent may reach ground  water before it is adequately treated. As
a result, alternative systems may be necessary in karst areas.  Well-drained loamy soils are
generally the most desirable for proper septic system operation.  In making siting decisions, local
health officials should also evaluate whether soils and receiving waters can absorb the combined
effluent loadings from all of the septic systems in the area.

Design and Construction
Septic tanks and drain fields should be of adequate size to handle anticipated wastewater
flows. In addition, soil characteristics and topography should be taken into account in designing
the drain field.  Generally speaking, the lower the soil permeability, the larger the drain field
required for adequate treatment.  Drain fields should be located in relatively flat areas to ensure
uniform effluent flow.
                                      ground surface
         backfill 4

  perforatod pipe -> (
   washed gravel ->
      original soil *  '
                                                         Effluent containing excessive
                                                         amounts of grease, fats, and oils
                                                         may clog the septic tank or drain
                                                         field and lead to premature failure.
                                                         The installation of grease
                                                         interceptors is recommended for
                                                         restaurants and other facilities with
                                                         similar wastewater characteristics.
                        Septic drain field
                                                          Construction should be performed
                                                          by a licensed septic system
installer to ensure compliance with applicable regulations.  The infiltration capacity of the soil
may be reduced if the soil is overly compacted.  Care should be taken not to drive heavy
vehicles over the  drain field area during construction or afterward. Construction equipment
should operate from upslope of the drain field area.  Construction should not be performed when
the soil is wet, or excessive soil smearing and soil compaction may result.

Operation and Maintenance

Proper operation  and maintenance of septic systems is perhaps the most crucial prevention
measure to preventing contamination.  Inadequate septic system operation and maintenance can
lead to failure even when systems are designed and constructed according to regulation.
Homeowners associations and tenant associations can play an important role in educating their
members  about their septic systems.  In commercial establishments such as strip malls,
management companies can serve a similar role.  Septic system owners should continuously
monitor the drain field area for signs of failure, including odors, surfacing sewage, and lush
vegetation.  The septic tank should be inspected annually to ensure that the internal structures
are in good working order and to monitor the scum level.

Many septic systems fail due to hydraulic overloading that leads to surface ponding.  Reducing
wastewater volumes through water conservation is important to extend the life of the drain
field. Conservation measures include using water-saving devices, repairing leaky plumbing
fixtures, taking shorter showers, and washing only full loads of dishes and laundry. Wastewater
from basement sump pumps and water softeners should not be discharged into the septic system
to minimize hydraulic load.  In addition, surface runoff from driveways, roofs, and patios should
be directed away  from the drain field.

If an excessive amount of sludge is allowed to collect in the bottom of the septic tank,
wastewater will not spend a sufficient time in the tank before flowing into the drain field. The
increased concentration of solids entering the drain field can reduce soil permeability and cause
the drain field to  fail.  Septic tanks should be pumped out every two to five years, depending on
the tank size, wastewater volume, and types of solids entering the system. Garbage disposals
increase the volume of solids entering the septic tank,  requiring them to be pumped more often.

                     Household chemicals such as solvents, drain cleaners, oils, paint,
                                    Pharmaceuticals, and pesticides can interfere with the
                                    proper operation of the septic system and cause ground
                                    water contamination. Homeowners should take
                                    advantage of local hazardous waste collection
                                    programs to dispose of these
                                    wastes whenever
possible. Grease, cooking fats, coffee grounds, sanitary
napkins, and cigarettes do not easily decompose, and contribute
to the build-up of solids in the tank. The use of additives
containing yeast, bacteria, enzymes, and solvents has
not been proven to improve the performance of septic
systems, and may interfere with their normal
operation. Bacterial "starters" are not necessary
because a wide range of bacteria are normally
present in sewage entering the tank. Additives
containing solvents or petrochemicals can cause
ground water contamination.

Vehicles and heavy equipment should be kept off the drain field area to prevent soil compaction
and damage to pipes. Trees should not be planted over the drain field because the roots can
enter the perforated piping and lead to  back-ups.  Last, any type of construction over the drain
field should be avoided.  Impervious cover can reduce soil evaporation from the drain field,
reducing its capacity to handle wastewater.


For information on septic system regulations in your community, contact your state or local
health department.  The information sources below contain information on measures to prevent
septic system failures.  All of the documents listed are available free of charge on the Internet.

Numerous documents on septic systems are available for download from U.S. Department of
Agriculture Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service State Partners.
Links to the various State Partners can be  found at
http://www.reeusda.gov/1700/statepartners/usa.htm.  Several examples of these documents are
presented below:

        Bicki, T.J. and D.G. Peterson.  "Septic Systems: Operation and Maintenance of On-site
        Sewage Disposal Systems." Land and Water: Conserving Natural Resources in
        Illinois, Number 15, Cooperative Extension  Service, University of Illinois at Urbana-
        Champaign.  Retrieved February 26, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

        Hiller, Joe and Andrea Lewis.  (October  1994). Septic System Failure:  What To Do.
        University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service. B-1007.  Retrieved February
        27, 2001 from the World Wide Web:  http://www.uwyo.edu/ag/ces/PUBS/Wyl007.pdf.

        Hiller, Joe and Andrea Lewis.  (October  1994).  Septic System Maintenance.
        University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service. B-1008. Retrieved February
        26, 2001 from the World Wide Web:  http://www.uwyo.edu/ag/ces/PUBS/Wyl008.pdf.

        Porter, E.,  R. Rynk, K. Babin,  and B.N. Burnell.   Care and Maintenance of Your
        Home Septic System.  University of Idaho College of Agriculture, Cooperative
        Extension  System.  CIS 1027.  Retrieved February 27, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

        Powell, G. Morgan. (March 1996). Get to Know Your Septic System.  Kansas
        Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University.  MF-2179.  Retrieved
        February 26, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

        Powell, G. Morgan.  (July 1992).  Septic Tank  Soil Adsorption System. Kansas
        Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State University.  MF-944.  Retrieved February
        27, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

        Powell, G. Morgan, Barbara L. Dallemand, Judith M. Willingham. (August 1998).
        Septic Tank Maintenance: A Key to Longer Septic System Life.  Kansas Cooperative
        Extension Service, Kansas State University.  MF-947.  Retrieved February 28, 2001
        from the World Wide Web: http://www.oznet.ksu.edu/library/H20QL2/MF947.PDF.

        Powell, G. Morgan, Barbara L. Dallemand, Judith M. Willingham. (December 1998).
        Why Do Septic Systems Fail?  Kansas Cooperative Extension Service, Kansas State
        University.  MF-946.  Retrieved February 27, 2001 from  the World Wide Web:

        Runyan, R. Craig, Septic Tank Maintenance.  Cooperative Extension Service, College
        of Agriculture and Home Economics, New Mexico State  University, Guide M-113.

        Washington State University Cooperative Extension and U.S. Department of
        Agriculture. (Reprinted  January 1998).  Properly Managing Your Septic Tank
        System. EB1671. Retrieved February 26, 2001 from the  World Wide Web:

The National Small Flows Clearinghouse has developed a series of brochures on septic systems.
They can be found at http://www.estd.wvu.edu/nsfc/NSFC_septic_news.html.

North Carolina State University Water  Quality Group.  Septic Systems. Retrieved February 27,
2001 from the World Wide Web: http://h2osparc.wq.ncsu.edu/estuary/rec/septic.html.

Septic Information  Website: Inspecting, Designing, & Maintaining Residential Septic
Systems.  Retrieved February 28,  2001  from the World Wide Web:

Storm water Manager's Resource Center.  Non-Stormwater Fact Sheet: Septic Systems.
Retrieved February 26, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  (September 1999). The  Class V Underground
Injection Control Study, Volume 5: Large Capacity Septic Systems.  Retrieved February 27,
2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.epa.gov/safewater/uic/classv/volume5.pdf.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Decentralized Onsite Management for Treatment of
Domestic Wastes.  Retrieved May 1, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Principles and Design of Onsite Waste Disposal
with Septic Systems. Retrieved May 1, 2001 from the World Wide Web: