Straight Poop on Septic Systems

Board member and Aquatic Invasive Coordinator Ev McNeil represented ESSLA at the spring meeting of the New York State Federation of Lake Associations (NYSFOLA), where spokespersons for the DEC, various municipalities, exhibitors  and members focused on 46  different challenges affecting our lakes.  Ev filed this report summarizing a presentation by Eric Murdock, P.E. of Onsite Engineering PLLC covering pollution risks of failing septic systems.

Your home’s waste collects in your septic tank. Solids settle to the bottom where microorganisms reduce them; byproduct gases escape through household plumbing vents. Non-biodegradable materials that the microorganisms cannot digest accumulate as sludge, which must be removed periodically to prevent those materials from flowing into your leach field. Effluent water passes through baffles into your leach field, which consists of perforated pipes buried in trenches filled with stone to allow aerobic action.  From there the treated effluent water is absorbed by the soil and  joins the groundwater.

Waste treatment is all about surface area and septic systems have limited design lives, mostly dependent on use and maintenance. As systems age, biomass inevitably clogs the leach field, which interferes with soil absorption, causing hydraulic failure. Failure mode puts you at risk of:

  • Polluting your well with bacteria
  • Polluting your lake with bacteria
  • Discharging phosphorus (P) into the lake, increasing aquatic plant growth and driving eutrophication of surface waters.
  • Discharging nitrogen (N) into the lake and causing algal blooms

How do you know if your septic system is failing?

Here are some telltale signs:

  • System backups
  • Standing water that is not percolating through the soil
  • Odor
  • Tank needs pumping more often than every 2-3 years
  • Excessive aquatic weeds in front of your camp

Dye tests can identify failed systems.

What can you expect if you must replace your failed septic system?

Today’s  replacement and new construction codes base the size of your tank and leach field on factors such as the number of bedrooms in your house and whether you have a garbage disposal (kitchen waste processed through a disposal does not break down as fast in your tank).

To ensure that the sewage is treated adequately in the soil, today’s codes have minimum separation distances between leach fields, groundwater, streams, cut banks, water supply, houses and property lines.  When adequate separation and soil depth is not available, untreated sewage seeps from sides or sloping cut banks and enters streams and contaminates groundwater. Codes vary, but a new field may require 2 feet of vertical separation from bedrock or the seasonal high-water table and set off from wells and shoreline of 100 feet or more.

If your field fails code-separation requirements, you may need a treatment system. This may be as simple as passing the effluent water thru a transparent plastic pipe with an ultra violet light (cost as low as $60/yr.) to destroy excess bacteria.   N issues can be remedied by using a nitrogen-reducing technology,  or by simply ensuring that the leach field is properly sited to prevent direct entry of effluent into bodies of water. Other solutions to meet the code requirements include treatment tanks, sand filters/pits, de-nitrification and de-phosphorization systems, additional holding tanks and pumping systems, mound systems, peat biofilters, etc. (See link below for solutions to difficult siting locations.)

What can we expect in future regulation?

At least one municipality inside the Adirondack Park is taking proactive steps. The Town of Inlet enacted rules that, among other things, require septic inspections when a property transfers ownership. On average 35 properties in the Town change hands annually—with 3-5 failing inspection and requiring repair or replacement to meet current codes.

Inlet’s 10-15% failure rate should give pause to all of us around Schroon Lake.

Inlet’s philosophy is that the best time to get problems fixed is during buyer-seller negotiation. Inlet also created an owner questionnaire and developed a data base. Realtors and lawyers are constantly reminded of the inspection requirement, and after a couple of years there is little resistance. Now the number of failures is down as people know the rules and fix their own problems.

Inlet also has a renter program that requires frequently-rented properties to obtain permits and do not allow tents or trailers on those properties. Inlet’s philosophy is that rentals attract substantial numbers of people stressing septic systems that generally are not designed for such intensive use. For example, if a house has three bedrooms, it is allowed three parking spots for overnight guests. Compliance is high.

Lake George is implementing a similar program starting with cataloging and inspection to insure that properties in the watershed are operating properly.

Want to extend the design life of your system?   

  • Get rid of the garbage disposal, and compost kitchen scraps or put them in the regular garbage stream.
  • If you have a water softener, make sure that it is not connected to your septic system as the backwashed brine salts are very harmful to your system.
  • Have your system inspected and pumped every 3-5 years.
  • Use low- or no-P detergents whenever possible.
  • Minimize bleach use.
  • Never put  pesticides,  herbicides, solvents such as paint thinners, lye or other similar chemicals down the drain.
  • Excessive disposal of cooking oils and grease are difficult to degrade and can cause the inlet drains to block.
  • Cut the grass above your field at least once a year to prevent root penetration that clogs pipes.
  • Keep trees at least 20 ft. from your leach field.
  • Reduce water flow by using water saving shower heads, sink aerators and low-flow toilets which cut water usage in half.
  • Skip the more than 1000 septic system additives available. Studies conclude that they do not provide any substantial benefit and are not an alternative for maintenance.

Want more information? Here are some resources:

  • This report is based on the “Septic Systems & Lakes” presentation at the NYSFOLA spring meeting. Mr. Murdock’s company’s website provides additional information, including a wide range of solutions:   Onsite works with local installers. Note: This is not an endorsement of Mr. Murdock or his company but is provided to assist with additional information only. There are other companies that provide these services.
  • The Town of Lake George’s website has useful info:
  • NYSDOH Appendix 75-A Wastewater Treatment Standards – Individual Household Systems: 
  • Contact your town building inspector. Most towns require building permits and inspection when replacing systems.



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