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Septic vs Sewer: What You Need to Know

Thursday, June 11, 2015 - 3:53pm

Drainage systems make wastewater disappear whenever toilets are flushed or hands are washed in buildings and residential properties. But for all the functions that drainage helps make possible—dishes, laundry, showers—few people stop and think about the mechanisms that go into the process. The whole thing basically comes down to two types of systems: sewer and septic.

Sewer systems are more common because they're funded and maintained by local governments. Septic systems, however, are becoming more popular as an affordable, environmentally sound alternative that give homeowners full control over their drainage. The following article examines the facts, pros, and cons of the whole sewer vs septic system debate.

Sewer or Septic System: Myths and Facts

When it comes to the sewer vs. septic system debate, a lot of half-truths and outright inaccuracies persist in the minds of many homeowners. Sewers, on one hand, are generally viewed as the cheaper, easier option because there's no maintenance involved. All you need to do is wash something down a drain or flush it down a toilet and it's gone forever.

While septic systems are sometimes viewed as the more eco-friendly option, many people are apprehensive about the costs and maintenance involved. As a result, homeowners often perceive more resale value in houses linked to sewer lines over those equipped with septic systems. But does the latter really cost more and require frequent maintenance? Read on to learn the benefits of sewer vs septic systems.

Similarities Between Sewer and Septic Systems

In many ways, sewers and septic systems offer the same benefits. Both systems filter out black water — the water you flush — and grey water, which comes out of sink and shower drains. In terms of sanitation, both systems filter bacteria and pathogens from water before it flows back out into the environment. Basically, the two systems both offer reliable drainage of wastewater from houses and buildings with minimal problems the majority of the time.

Both systems, however, can also have their drawbacks. A sewer system connects whole communities to one centralized drain field. Consequently, sewers can sometimes get clogged with grease, hair, and hard elements, all of which can cause sewage to plug up sinks, toilets, and bathtubs. Since sewage systems are paid for and maintained by local governments, residents don't have to handle the maintenance and labor, but they do have to foot the fees.

Septic systems, by contrast, are generally the responsibility of private homeowners. A septic tank should perform without a hitch over expected time spans, providing the tank is pumped and maintained at recommended intervals. If a tank does malfunction, it's likely due to negligence on the part of the homeowner, and therefore it’s his or her responsibility to call out a service crew and pay for the needed repairs.

How Septic Systems Work

A septic system is a steel or concrete tank that's situated under the soil near a commercial or residential property. Wastewater goes in on one side and filters out through the other to a drain field. Most tanks are capable of holding 1,000 gallons of water. Inside the tank, the water splits into three layers. Everything that floats rises to the top, which is known as the scum layer. All the heavy material sinks to the bottom, which is known as the sludge layer. Between the two is a layer of clear water, which contains fertilizing chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen.

Wastewater is led into the tank through a series of pipes that connect to the toilets, bathtubs, sinks, and laundry machines in a given house or building. As scum is rinsed out of the wastewater, the tank produces rancid gases which are filtered through vent pipes that funnel out of rooftops. With each influx of wastewater, the tank empties earlier loads through distribution boxes that lead to drain fields.

Septic Tank vs Sewer Cost

While the considerable costs of septic system repairs are often discussed, what isn't as well known is the fact that municipal sewer systems can also come with some hefty costs. For starters, homeowners can be charged pricey fees for installation and repairs on newer sewage systems. Many communities even impose what are known as Sewer Betterment fees, which can rise into the five figures. As revealed by Hopkinton Mass.-based realtor Bill Gassett, the recent Betterment fee in his town was $16,000.

Debates have been waged between municipal boards regarding the best possible ways to handle sewer development costs, which are known to rise as new pumping stations are constructed. Certain municipalities have even gone so far as to impose liens on homes that haven't paid their fees. Houses everywhere could be subject to such costs, but properties situated in sparsely populated areas stand to pay the highest fees, due to the small number of taxpayers who reside in such areas to share the costs. Even if the pipes and pumps are already in place, there are still fees involved in linking a house to a nearby system, the costs of which can rack up into the thousands on top of maintenance and usage fees.

Sewer fees differ from city to city, but specific localized rates per household include the following:

  • Boston, Mass. – $832
  • Chandler, Ariz. – $612
  • Danvers, Mass. – $680
  • Lemoyne, Pa. – $651

On the other hand, the cost of having a septic tank is merely down to pumping, which only needs to be done every 3-5 years and generally falls within a price-range $200 to $300. With proper maintenance, some tanks can go for a decade or more between pumps.

Another issue that factors into the pricing comparison is the business surrounding sewage systems, which have become subject to an ever-growing set of complex, costly improvements. Septic systems, by contrast, only need minor touchups to work perfectly over lengthy spans of time. On average, a septic system for a standard-sized household on even land and healthy soil will run anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000. Depending on the type of tank, septic systems generally last for the following lengths of time:

  • Steel tanks - 15-20 years
  • Concrete tanks - 40 years

With proper maintenance, septic drain fields typically last 20 years, though some could possibly last for half a century.

Benefits of Septic vs Sewer

As the public becomes better informed about the needs of the environment, septic tanks are becoming a selling point for properties in the minds of younger homebuyers. The reason for this shift in opinion is that septic tanks are reputed to be the green-friendly alternative to old fashioned sewer systems.

With sewer systems, energy and chemicals are needed to pump and treat the water. Concerns have developed over the impact this could have on rivers as the bacteria of sewage stream outward. There are also issues involving the stability of treatment plants, which can overflow in times of intense downpour or overuse.

None of those problems are an issue with septic systems, which pump and treat water without the need for energy or chemicals. Used water is returned to the aquifer, which never overflows if properly maintained. Since such systems are evenly distributed, there's no single point at which treated outflows are run from large communities of houses and buildings. Wastewater, by contrast, is carried away in small, even amounts. In many communities, particularly those that are modestly populated, septic systems are the cost-efficient answer for sanitation and water quality concerns.

The Biggest Differences Between Septic and Sewage Systems

Perhaps the most liberating aspect of owning a septic system is the ability to set one up virtually anywhere with healthy soil. For a new house in a remote area, connecting to a sewer system is usually costly and difficult. In some cases, it’s even impossible due to the lack of nearby sewage lines. For those situations in particular, septic systems are a viable, cost-effective alternative. Furthermore, septic systems don't come with the municipal obligations of sewage lines, so there's no need to worry about pipes, pumping stations, replacements, or infrastructural renovation costs.

Nonetheless, sewer systems do have the power to handle large amounts of wastewater from the collective addresses of cities, towns, and suburbs. Due to the marketability of houses on sewer lines, many homeowners still prefer such properties. Sewer lines are also built to accommodate the largest possible amounts of water; as such, they can take on storms and periods of heavy downpour. Since the management of sewer lines fall on local governments, people often assume that such systems will be better managed in the most well-financed and capable of hands. Furthermore, the thought of having wastewater conveniently sent to one big treatment center is an attractive prospect to any homeowner who has endured a septic system backup.

Given these differences, the preference between one system or the other could largely be based on one's independent mindedness as a homeowner. If you don't mind the municipal obligations that can factor into your dependence on a centralized sewer system, then that might be the adequate option, especially if you're likely to change addresses every few years or less. But if you want independence as a homeowner and are looking to choose a remote or custom-built residence and have personal responsibility for the running of your wastewater, then a septic system would be the more ideal option.

The Choice: Septic or Sewer System

Whenever it comes to existing properties, the choice between a sewer or septic system is usually not even on the table. But if you move into a septic-based community where all the neighbors are lobbying to have a sewer line, the choice would likely be yours to either opt in or stick with a septic tank.

If you're having a home custom built on some remote hill, deep forest, or sparse rural environment, a septic system will likely be your only choice. Within this context, a septic system would be the more suitable option anyway. After all, the independence and responsibility of maintaining such a system would go hand-in-hand with the will to live in a remote, custom-built property. For instance, if you were to buy a few acres of land out in some deep, green, spacious forest area, and then you built a house yourself on that land and proceeded to own it free and clear, owning your own drainage system, independent of local government, would complete the picture.

When Septic Systems are Poorly Maintained

Problems with septic systems usually come down to the negligence of property owners. When a tank isn't adequately maintained, the outflow can be detrimental to lake water purity and hazardous to the surrounding environment. For example, if wastewater isn't sufficiently treated, it can spread contamination to other water and cause human health threats. As stated by the University of Minnesota Extension (UMNE) in its Septic System Owner’s Guide, the way to "guarantee effective treatment is to have a trained professional ensure [that] adequate, unsaturated, and suitable soil exists below the soil treatment area to allow for complete wastewater treatment."

UMNE has also linked contaminated sewage to the appearance of hepatitis and dysentery pathogens in tap water. Contaminants, for instance, can infect drinking water with higher levels of nitrate, which can take its toll on people with weak immune systems, as well as toddlers and pregnant women. Increased nitrates are even damaging to the air and water quality of surrounding ecosystems, thereby devastating the flora and fauna of a given area. Furthermore, bugs and rodents that fester in areas with sewage-contaminated wetlands can spread diseases to people, pets, and livestock. With all these things taken into consideration, it's crucial to keep your septic system well maintained throughout the time that you own and reside at a given property. To prevent the sludge layer from rising too high, the system should be cleaned and inspected at least every few years.

Of course, maintenance and pumping of the tank itself is merely half of what it takes to responsibly run a drainage system; a lot of it also comes down to how you treat the pipes that lead to the tank. In order to prevent the pipes from clogging, don't allow grease, hair, or hard particles to slip down your sink or shower drains. Furthermore, don't plant trees or other heavily rooted plants either on or near the area of soil in which the system lies, because roots and bulbs can grow stronger as time passes and ultimately damage drainage pipes. After all, the purpose of having a septic tank is to enjoy good, clean, affordable, eco-friendly drainage for the full span of your time on a given property. When you do decide to sell, a perfectly operating septic system could also add value to your property.

If you're in need of maintenance or pumping on your septic system, contact Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Syracuse. We provide plumbing repair, drain cleaning, maintenance, and installation of septic systems in the Greater Syracuse area. Call us today to learn more about our services or to schedule an appointment. We’ll send a licensed plumber who is certified by Onondaga County for plumbing leak detection or any plumbing related project.

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