A homeowner’s guide to septic systems and wells – Park Rapids Enterprise

Septic systems and wells are things that rural homeowners often don’t think about – until there’s a problem.

Kal Larson is an environmental specialist with the Hubbard County Environmental Services Office (ESO). While they primarily deal with septic systems, they also offer free water testing kits for wells.

All of a home's used water and toilet waste goes into the septic tank, Larson said. Inside the tank there are three layers.

Bacteria in the septic tank work to break down human waste and separate it into layers. The liquid is called wastewater. Above the wastewater there is a layer of foam and below the wastewater there is a solid layer called sludge.

The septic tank runs from the house into a tank and then into a drainfield. In drainage fields, pipes extend above the ground for inspection, not shown in this illustration.

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“What you want to prevent is the solid sludge layer or the foam layer from being sucked through the outlet baffle into the drainfield,” Larson said. “All you want is for the wastewater to flow through the outlet panel, and that’s relatively clear. Because it doesn’t contain large chunks, it doesn’t clog the system.”

Maintenance of sewage treatment plants

The recommended interval for pumping septic tanks is every three years. “Septic tank maintenance is critical to the longevity of the system,” Larson said.

The best time to have the tank pumped is spring or summer.

“When you have your septic tank pumped, they usually vacuum it pretty empty to maximize the amount of sludge they get out,” he said. “The microbial community needs time to recover after losing all of its volume. You want to give the bacteria time to recover from the discharge and rebuild their population before the ground gets cold.”

“After your tank is pumped out, the water volume and biological activity is less, so it is much easier to freeze a tank because there is not enough biological activity to keep it liquid.”

The outlet of a septic tank is not located at the bottom, but halfway up one of the walls.

“Once the tank is pumped, it needs to be refilled to get to the point where it can flow back into the drain field,” he said.

Larson said the lifespan of a septic system depends on variables such as drainfield materials, usage habits and maintenance.

“As a general rule of thumb, a septic tank will last approximately 20 to 25 years with normal use and maintenance,” he said.

He said garbage disposals are not intended for use with wastewater treatment plants.

“The extra material that goes into the tank can really cause problems, especially if there is a lot of water flowing through the tank,” he said. “Solids do not have time to settle properly and could be pushed into the distribution area of ​​the system. This may cause it to fail earlier than normal, shortening the lifespan of the system. Pouring fats, oils, or fats down the drain is also a really bad idea. You want to minimize the amount of organic material that goes down the drain that isn’t toilet waste.”

Signs of a failing sewer system

“The first signs that a septic tank is beginning to fail will manifest itself in the drain field,” Larson said. “If you walk into your drainage field and notice that water is accumulating or it is wet and muddy and there has been no rainfall, that is usually a sign that your drainage field is beginning to fail hydraulically.

“Another way to check this is to pull off the caps on the inspection pipes in the side lines in the drain field. Look inside and see what water levels you have. If all of your pipes are filled with water and the inspection pipes are flooding, it's usually a sign that your drain field is broken and it's time for a new one.

“You may also notice the smell of sewage outside as it collects on the ground above the drain field. The less pleasant way to find out is if a traffic jam starts at your house.”

Well water testing and resources

Larson said that while the Minnesota Department of Health handles all well permitting, the ESO is located on the second floor of the courthouse at 301 Court Ave. Free water testing kits will be provided in Park Rapids.

Instructions for obtaining a valid water sample are included in the kit. Water samples are tested at a laboratory in Bemidji. For more information, call the Minnesota Department of Health at 218-308-2100.

Available tests include nitrates, bacteria, iron, lead and arsenic.

“There is a fee schedule that depends on what tests are to be done,” he said. “Some home buyers want well water tested before purchasing a property so they know what the quality of drinking water is. If you are concerned that your water supply is being contaminated by agriculture, it makes sense to have a nitrate test done.”

Larson says fecal coliform bacteria, or E. coli, that shows up on a water test could be due to septic contamination.

“If you smell something strange or see something strange in your water, that's probably the best indication that something is wrong,” he said. “If it comes out discolored or has a strange smell, that's usually an indication of contamination.”

If the well pump runs even though no water is being used, this may be a sign of a faulty well.

“Old wells had iron casings, which hard water can erode over time,” Larson said. “You need a professional to check it out and find the problem. On newer wells they use PVC pipe.”

Larson said iron and other minerals that build up in well water can be problematic for equipment.

“Over time, things can get clogged,” he said. “A water softener binds the ions of the minerals in the water to pull them out.”

The Minnesota Well Index is a tool that allows homeowners to access recorded information about their well based on the property address or the number assigned to the well when it was installed. “It will show an overhead image, an image of your property showing the well location,” Larson said.

Anyone with questions about septic systems or water testing kits can call Larson at 218-732-3890, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m

For information about grants and low-interest loan applications to finance wells, call the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Office in Detroit Lakes at 218-530-3314.

The Hubbard County GIS Department has aerial photographs of properties. There is a tool to zoom in on each structure and interactive applications that allow you to click on a parcel to view title transfer information, structures, appraisals, environmental service records, and septic systems and building permits.

Visit the Hubbard County website at https://www.co.hubbard.mn.us. Select Maps and then Hubbard County GIS Hub. The Public Property Viewer application is available to the public. Aerial photos of the entire district and certain parcels of land are retrieved from the air.

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