Reading Time: 9 minutes
Diana Johns says she would not have bought her home in Leesburg, Virginia, if she had known it operated on an alternative septic system, which can be seen in background. (Amy Reinink)

Diana Johns had just moved into her four-bedroom, 6,500-square-foot Leesburg, Virginia, home in 2002 and was thrilled with its elegant pillars, golf-course views, and expansive, sunny rooms. But the bleating alarm tied to the home’s “nonconventional” septic system signaled that beneath the surface, something was terribly wrong.

An inspection revealed that excessive water use and other possible factors had caused the septic system to back up with untreated wastewater. Inspectors told the family — Diana Johns, her husband, Gregg, and their four boys — that if they cut their water use, stopped using the builder-installed garbage disposal, used only environmentally friendly cleaning products, and had the system serviced frequently, it should work just fine.

Johns pored over the documents she received when she bought the house new from M/I Homes and found information about “every single thing in the house, including the garbage disposal,” but nothing about the septic system except a maintenance company’s phone number. “Nobody told us about any of this stuff when we moved in,” Johns said, adding that had she known, “I absolutely wouldn’t have bought this house.”

The house the Johns bought uses what is commonly known as an alternative or nonconventional septic system, an advanced wastewater-treatment system that enables developers to build in remote rural areas not serviced by municipal sewers and lacking drainage appropriate for conventional septic systems. The problem is that these new systems are often quirky, demanding frequent inspections and maintenance to avoid leaching effluence into groundwater, which is typically the source of drinking water in these rural areas.

So problem-prone are the alternative systems that in November, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors imposed a five-year ban on approving new ones — except in special cases — and required annual inspections for existing systems. But faced with complaints from builders, developers and some landowners, the Virginia General Assembly has crafted legislation overturning the Loudoun County moratorium, which is expected to win easy approval and hit the governor’s desk before the end of this month or early in March.

“It’s the soft underbelly of development in Loudoun County,” said Dale Schulz, owner of Schulz Homes in rural Middleburg. “The arguments [against alternative septic] are coming from people who are hoping to reduce development by prohibiting these systems. It’s really about zoning — not about public health.”

Loudoun County Supervisor Jim Burton, the author of the moratorium, whose far western and heavily rural section of the county has been a key development battleground, flatly denies Shultz’ charge: “It is and always has been an issue of public health.” Burton said he’s written a letter to the governor asking him to veto the bill. Legislators “have put the profits of the building industry ahead of public health,” he said. Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Governor Tim Kaine, said the governor currently does not have a position on the issue.

The land-use decisions at stake make the success or failure of alternative septic systems an issue of future development, property rights, rural heritage, and public and environmental health.

A record of troubles

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that a quarter of all American homes and a third of new developments are served by conventional or alternative septic systems. In fast-growing Loudoun County, officials say that about 14,000 homes and businesses use septic systems, with about nine percent — some 1,200 units — relying on alternative septic. Diana Johns, a county resident, is hardly alone in her struggle to live with an alternative system. Among the problems:

• A 1998 West Virginia University study of alternative treatment units in six West Virginia counties showed that 92 percent of the systems tested were discharging effluent that didn’t meet health standards, with lax maintenance apparently only one of the causes.

• In communities around Lake Livingston in Texas, more than 20 percent of roughly 600 alternative treatment units studied by the Trinity River Authority and the Texas On-Site Wastewater Treatment Research Council in 1999 were discharging unacceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Inspection reports cited faulty chlorinators, faulty chlorine tablets, and poor maintenance as causes.

• In Loudoun County, located roughly 30 miles west of Washington, D.C., 18 alternative septic systems using various technologies are known to have failed since 2001 — although officials say the total failure rate could be much higher. At least three of those failures were in Beacon Hill, the Leesburg subdivision of more than 200 homes where Diana Johns lives.

Conventional septic systems rely on gravity to move wastewater from household plumbing into a septic tank. Solids settle in the tank, while liquids are dispersed over a drain field. The systems cost roughly $7,000 to $12,000 to install. Alternative septic systems are basically miniature wastewater treatment plants, with technology and machinery that can be as complex as those in large municipal systems. They can cost roughly $15,000 for a basic system or more than $40,000 for a more complicated system involving mechanical pumps or a mound.

Alternative systems add a step to the filtration process with materials like sand, peat moss, sponges, or textiles; aerobic treatment units, which use compressed air to break down organic matter; and other technologies that result in cleaner discharge, or effluent, being dispersed on the drain field.

The result is less pollution leaching into the groundwater, said Robert E. Lee, environmental engineering and policy development manager for the Loudoun County Health Department. A properly operating alternative septic system “allows the drain field to operate over a longer period of time, and allows for a smaller footprint of land,” as compared to conventional systems, said Lee, who came to Loudoun in 2002 after 32 years with the Environmental Protection Agency. But, he cautioned, Loudoun and other counties have experienced problems with newer systems relying on experimental technology.

Contractors dealing in alternative septic systems say these systems are greener than conventional alternatives because, when they work properly, they yield cleaner discharge.

Mike Lynn, owner of SES/Septic Care, which designs and maintains alternative septic systems in Loudoun, said alternative systems’ alarms alert homeowners to problems early, while problems with conventional systems usually aren’t discovered “until the septic tank backs up into the house and surfaces out in the drain field.”

In Loudoun — the nation’s fastest growing county from 2000 to 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — the Virginia General Assembly’s approval of alternative septic systems in the early 2000s coincided with a major residential building boom. The result was that “the state has looked to Loudoun as sort of a guinea pig,” said Supervisor Burton, who championed the local legislation that has placed a five-year ban on approval of most new alternative systems, during which officials hope to determine whether maintenance requirements will lead to properly functioning systems. “The state, in our opinion, did not do a thorough enough investigation on possible kinds of failures, the consequences of failures, and what to do about correcting problems that cropped up when systems failed,” Burton said.

For example, after the alternative septic system failed in his new Beacon Hill home in 2007, Sean Kennedy and county officials spent months trying to figure out the proper way to dispose of the ruined peat moss that served as the system’s filter. State regulations prohibited disposal in local landfills. Kennedy said the manufacturer eventually hauled the waste to North Carolina, where it was neutralized and used as fertilizer, but only after Kennedy paid $7,000 to repair the system.

Burton, a leading slow-growth advocate, said the ban aims to determine whether maintenance requirements will lead to systems that work, noting that some technologies will likely “come through with flying colors.” “I suspect others will not,” Burton said. “This gives us time to take a step back and decide which ones those are.”

The county’s course of action could have major implications for development: If the right standards and procedures for alternative septic systems can be established, it could serve as a boon for rural development; but if the technology is shown to be too costly or complicated to operate safely, it could become an argument for slow-growth.

Three causes for failure

Anecdotal evidence suggests that these systems fail most frequently for three reasons: improper installation or failure to match the filtration system to the local ground conditions; inappropriate use by owners; and, most important, lack of regular maintenance and inspections. “There are definitely a lot of things that can go wrong,” said Craig Mains, a staff engineer at West Virginia University’s National Environmental Services Center, which provides technical assistance to homeowners and communities dealing with alternative septic systems. “In most cases, it’s not that the technologies aren’t proven. It’s just that they’ve been misapplied.”

Frustrating efforts to make these systems operate properly is the lack of licensing requirements for contractors who maintain and install alternative systems. Lee said state regulations slated to become law in Virginia this summer will specify requirements.

Since most alternative systems use mechanical and electrical equipment to pump wastewater, they require more frequent servicing than conventional systems. NSF International, a Michigan-based independent nonprofit health and safety organization that has studied alternative septic systems, recommends twice-annual inspections.

Alternative systems are prone to failure due to changes in water levels, cold or wet weather, or household chemicals such as cleaning solvents and paint, meaning homeowners must watch what they put down the drain. Lee said factors as simple as a leak, a running toilet, or a heavy rainstorm can cause some alternative systems to experience problems. In other cases, he said, the cause is more obvious, such as the homeowner whose children left a garden hose running in the backyard.

Mains said the National Environmental Services Center frequently receives calls from homeowners who had no idea their alternative septic system required special attention — or who had no idea they even had an alternative system. “There’s been a lack of communication between the manufacturers, designers, and engineers who have proposed these systems and the end user, which is the homeowner,” said SES/Septic Care’s Lynn. “But we in the industry, as well as realtors and builders, are certainly more attuned to the impact on the end user now.”

Johns, who believes her system failed in part because it was overloaded with water, said her family was unaware they should be restricting water use. The system was set to process 300 gallons of water per day, which she said is “nearly impossible” with four boys and two adults in a household. Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Science webpage seems to confirm that on “laundry day” a family of six would likely use more than 300 gallons. She said she successfully negotiated with M/I Homes to replace her ruined peat moss but was still annoyed by the lack of information about her system.

Dennis Kelleher, president of M/I Homes for the Washington, D.C., region, declined to comment on specific homes, but said M/I Homes complies with local regulations for alternative septic systems and “discloses any requirements and shares the proper information with homeowners” prior to purchases. Kelleher stated that he was not aware of any widespread problems with alternative septic systems in M/I Homes in Loudoun and that the company has not built homes with alternative septic systems for several years. “We have had calls,” he said, “but not many.”

Inspections and maintenance required

Again and again, lack of strict maintenance is cited as the greatest weakness in alternative septic systems — pushing local authorities to contemplate inspection regimens, which critics say are intrusive. “I believe that if they are built and designed and loaded properly, these systems can function reasonably well,” said Alan Sexstone, a professor in West Virginia University’s Division of Plant and Soil Sciences, who co-authored the 1998 West Virginia study. “I don’t think there are any ‘deploy and forget’ kinds of systems.”

Poor maintenance was the primary cause of problems with roughly 600 aerobic treatment units around Lake Livingston, Texas, in the 1999 study by the Trinity River Authority and the Texas On-Site Wastewater Treatment Research Council. The study noted that most of the systems’ chlorinator units “work well during optimum conditions” but “fall short of expectations when conditions are not perfect.” Researchers recommended regular inspections and electronic monitoring as a fix.

In other communities, such as Harris County, Texas, where clay soil and heavy rainfall cause many conventional systems to fail, alternative systems have performed smoothly for years, according to John Blount, director of planning and operations for Harris County’s Public Infrastructure Department. The county’s first alternative system was installed in 1989. Today, roughly 13,000 alternative systems are monitored using a countywide electronic alarm system that alerts the homeowner and authorities if something goes awry. The county requires biannual inspections for electronically monitored systems and quarterly inspections for systems that are not electronically monitored.

Maintenance contracts in Loudoun run between $300 and $800, depending on the type of system, the frequency of inspections and the home’s location, according to the Loudoun County Health Department’s Lee. State regulations slated for approval this summer could double current requirements to mandate twice-yearly inspections. “The fact is that these systems need maintenance, and because there wasn’t a state law at the time stating such, it wasn’t being done,” Lee said. “I imagine that if people didn’t have to get their cars inspected, many people would never get their cars inspected. It doesn’t matter if it makes us safer; if things aren’t required, people won’t do it.”

Blount said he wasn’t aware of any backlash against Harris County’s strict maintenance requirements. Then again, he said, “people know that if they don’t want to maintain their system, they’ll get a subpoena so they can explain to a judge why they didn’t want to maintain their system.”

Loudoun resident Sean Kennedy said he happily signed a $500 annual maintenance contract recently, and has become more conscious about what he puts down his drain. He said that, when his system works, the treated water is “pretty darn pure.” As for Diana Johns, after her troubles seven years ago, she stopped using the garbage disposal and started using disposable plates to cut her dishwasher use. But she still does multiple loads of laundry per day, and still uses chemical cleaning products.

She’s gone years without a serious septic problem. But recently, she said, her alarm started bleating again.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.