Having a Septic System or connecting to Public Sewer, a widely discussed topic:
Way back in 1996, the writer Erma Bombeck penned a hilarious book titled The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, in which she dissected life in suburbia and the subtle, compulsive and anxiety-producing competition over houses, cars and achievement that suburbanites experienced.
We’re familiar with the idea, or rather the concern, that “the grass is greener on the other side,” but what if we’re thinking specifically about septic tanks and whether or not being connected to a public sewer system is somehow better? Or vice versa?
Should city dwellers pine for the rustic simplicity of a private septic system? Do folks in rural areas long for the sleek efficiency and “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” convenience being connected to a public sewer system?
Perhaps it’s simpler than all of that, a matter of understanding the pros and cons of each, and making the most of what we have by understanding how it all fits into the bigger picture of dealing with down-the-drain household waste.
In this article, we’ll explore the advantages and disadvantages of living with a private septic system, as well as those of living connected to a public sewer grid. In most circumstances, there simply isn’t much choice in which type of system we live with.
Pros and Cons of a City Sewer and Septic
Rural areas, and even some suburban areas, typically will not have a public sewer system. Digging trenches, laying pipe, and building and operating a sewage treatment plant, all the foundation of a public sewer system, is expensive and therefore not cost effective if it will serve only a few houses per mile of pipe installed.
In urban areas, by contrast, hundreds of households will be connected per mile of pipe, and costs of installing and maintain the system are supported by local government (through tax dollars) and individual households (through sewer bills).
On the other side of the coin, urban areas are too dense for septic systems. It would be an (ahem) interesting scenario for a city dweller, whose house sits on a 1/10th-acre plot, to decide he wanted a taste of the country life and installed a septic tank in his postage-stamp backyard.
Fortunately, this scenario would be restricted by local building codes. While we may not decide for ourselves whether to have septic or sewer systems in our home, knowing the pros and cons of each type of system will leave us a little more informed, and less likely to feel that the grass is greener on the other side.
As we’ll see, the grass isn’t necessarily greener, it’s just different grass.
Comparing private septic systems versus public sewers systems raises a range of general considerations. The primary consideration, of course, is the impact on the home and living with each kind of system, with issues like cost, maintenance and convenience.
Another consideration is the impact of each type of system on public health and environmental health. And yet another is how living with each type of system subtly influences our awareness of our environmental impact each time we wash dishes, take a shower, use the toilet or do the laundry.
Certainly, the most common and relatable consideration in comparing private septic and public sewer systems is the economic impact on the household.
With a septic system, the responsibility for installation, upkeep and repair falls entirely on the homeowner. Installation of a new system can cost $10,000 to $20,000 or more depending on the size of the home (i.e., the expected number of people who will be living there) and on specific features of the property and possible need for specially designed systems.
Routine maintenance costs will include periodic pumping of the septic tank and maintenance or repair of the tank or leaching field. Again, these costs fall to the homeowner, although in some areas financial assistance in the form of grants or maintenance rebates may be available.
A public sewer system is the responsibility of a local utility, and the burden of its operation and upkeep is shared by the users through local property taxes and annual or quarterly charges from the municipality. Connection to a public sewer system for new construction can run a few thousand dollars.
Homeowners can expect to pay anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars in annual charges, though sewer bills are typically combined with publically supplied water, and in some cases weekly trash removal, too.
Being connected to a public system does not entirely remove the potential for repair costs because leaks, blocked pipes and other problems do happen, and where the responsibility lies depends on whether the problem is on the “house side” or “street side” of the connection.
In either case, living with a septic system or a public sewer system will involve both one-time and recurring costs to the homeowner for a reliable means of removing and treating household wastewater, whether on-site or at some distant facility.
Beyond the cost of repairs with each type of system, it’s important to recognize where the problems that lead to repairs occur.
Household wastewater entering a septic system by design stays on the property during the treatment process. A septic problem – an overworked leaching field, for example, or one that is oversaturated due to periods of heavy rain – directly impacts the home and surrounding environment, and relates to the quality of the septic installation and the care with which the homeowner uses and maintains it.
That means greater attention to what goes down the drain – taking steps to minimize, among other things, fats and grease, harsh chemical cleaners, non-degradable items like cigarette butts or diapers or even coffee grounds – anything that will harm the microorganisms that do all the work of degrading the waste, or that they simply cannot degrade. It also means taking care of the quantity of what goes down the drain – so as to not overburden the capacity of the system.
A public sewer system is designed to carry wastewater away from homes to a central facility some distance from residential areas.
Also, by virtue of being designed and operated by professionals whose work it is to see that it runs smoothly, the homeowner has no need to pay close attention to what, and how much, goes down the drain.
And because they are large and designed to handle immense quantities of wastewater, they are able to handle excess water from periods of heavy precipitation.
Living with public sewer service can encourage an out-of-sight; out-of-mind attitude towards household wastewater, but problems do happen. Public systems are subject to breakdowns and delayed maintenance too. Recently, large metropolitan systems have been challenged with clogged pipes – the same problems we face as homeowners, but on a much larger scale. It’s even resulted in a new word being coined: the notorious “fatberg,” lumps of grease, wet-wipes and other bits of nastiness that congeal within sewer pipes in car-sized lumps, blocking the flow of sewage. Obviously, repairs of this magnitude are expensive, and eventually, go up as increases in sewer bills and taxes.
Beyond the personal and household-specific impacts of living with a septic system or with a public sewer connection, each type of system yields its own unique environmental impacts. To explore that, we need a brief refresher on the water cycle.
Although gazing at the ocean may bring up feelings of infinity, in fact, the amount of water on earth is finite (though vast – more than 1.4 billion cubic kilometres in oceans, polar ice, surface water and groundwater). Water evaporates from surface water (oceans, rivers, lakes and streams) and is given off by all living things – think of forests transpiring water and herds of animals (and us!) breathing out moist air.
Evaporated water in the atmosphere condenses into clouds, which returns water to the earth as precipitation – rain or snow. Precipitation falls directly on or runs off land to, surface waters. Precipitation that falls on land also permeates soil to enter groundwater, which is another source of recharging surface waters and is also a critical source of water for drinking, irrigation and other water needs. Some water recycles very quickly, as when evaporating and transpiring water in tropical rainforests form clouds that return that water as rain on a daily basis.
Water also can be locked away, in groundwater or polar ice, for dozens of months to hundreds of thousands of year. In most parts of North America, fresh water supplies are relatively abundant, but water scarcity is a reality in many parts of the world.
Now, think about a septic system. They are designed to return treated household wastewater to soil on the house property itself. This means water leaving the house stays local – to recharge the local groundwater supply and, if present, nearby surface water. That’s important because it is helping to maintain water balances in the local environment, which is healthy for plant and animal life and the local ecosystem in general.
Public sewer systems are part of a constructed urban or suburban landscape and are designed to take wastewater away from the local environment, by collecting the sewage of hundreds to thousands of homes and businesses and sending it to a central treatment plant. The treated water is then released to a major water body, typically a river, although in coastal areas treated water may be released into the ocean. In this way, public sewage treatment ultimately removes water from a local environment.
Public sewage treatment also has the potential to be a source of environmental pollution. Although they are subject to strict regulation and can employ advanced treatment technologies, there are issues that arise because of the immense scale of sewage treatment operations.
Treated effluent can be warmer than the water body into which it is discharged, altering the composition and diversity of aquatic life there. While designed to treat wastewater through biological and chemical degradation, there are a number of contaminants in wastewater that the treatment process does not remove.
For example, many pharmaceuticals have been detected in water bodies downstream of treatment plants. They enter the wastewater stream because they are flushed when no longer needed, or because they pass through the human body unchanged and are eliminated in the urine, but are not degraded during the treatment process. Many household pesticides that end up down the drain are also are not degraded during the treatment process, and so end up carried to surface water by treatment plant effluent.
Public Sewer or Private Septic?
It’s definitely a puzzle to point to private septic systems or public sewage treatment as the “best” way of dealing with wastewater. Public sewage minimizes the treatment “footprint” for large numbers of households and businesses and brings engineering efficiency and economies of scale to the process.
It also collects and concentrates vast quantities of wastewater that includes the “typical” waste that we’ve discussed in this blog at length – human waste, food waste, laundry and shower water – and a variety of chemical hazards too, like paints and solvents, pharmaceuticals and pesticides, and range of industrial chemicals. Older systems can be overwhelmed during heavy rains and cause raw sewage to be discharged untreated into water bodies.
Of course, things can go wrong with private septic systems too, except that septic problems stay local (you can’t get more local than your own backyard!) and are obvious to the homeowner in a way that those living on public sewer system will seldom appreciate.
Which brings us to a final consideration; the differing levels of awareness that is imparted by each of the two ways that we handle household liquid waste. Living connected to a public sewer system seems to discourage an awareness of household water use and the generation of household waste.
When every drain in the house leads to an underground pipe that carries waste to a distant treatment plant, “out of sight, out of mind” seems the rule of the day. And that can make it easy to not spend much thought on what we put down the drain. On the other hand, living with a septic system gives homeowners a lot of incentive to consider what goes down the drain, because it directly impacts what is happening right outside, in the septic tank and the leaching field, as mistreating one’s own “treatment plant” has very tangible, very smell-able and potentially very expensive consequences.
Where is the grass greener? Or, where is the water cleaner? It’s where ever we live when we realize that it’s pretty amazing to live with clean water at the tap, and safe and convenient ways of getting rid of household waste. So whether you live with a private septic system, or connected to a public sewer system, be glad for the knowledge, ingenuity and technology that makes it all possible.
Here at GroundStone as part of our services we do offer sewer connections. If City sewer has been constructed near your area and you are thinking of hooking up, we can help!
Call us today: 250-768-0056 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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