Identifying Failing Systems2

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Identifying Failing Septic Systems and Straight Pipe Discharges

Goal of Presentation: 

Goal of Presentation To train all DENR field staff to identify failing septic tank systems and straight pipe discharges, and instruct them to notify the local health departments (and Shellfish Sanitation if adjacent to shellfish waters) when they identify them.

Who has a Septic Tank System?: 

Who has a Septic Tank System? In NC all buildings with plumbing must be connected to some type of approved wastewater disposal system. If a building (with plumbing facilities) is not on a city sewer system, then in most cases it has a septic tank system (also known as an On-site Wastewater Disposal System, or Subsurface Wastewater Disposal System) to dispose of the wastewater.

Who Regulates On-site Wastewater Systems?: 

On-site Wastewater Section (OSWW) Division of Environmental Health (DEH) Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Tel. (919) 733 2895 Authority is delegated to local health departments to issue septic permits, regulate installations and enforce NC Laws and Rules. Local health department staff are trained and authorized by the DEH and OSWW Section. Who Regulates On-site Wastewater Systems?

Basic Legal Requirements: 

Basic Legal Requirements A Permit (issued by the Local Health Department) is needed before any Septic System is installed or repaired. Before a Permit is issued an Environmental Health Specialist (EHS) must visit the site and do an evaluation (of the soil and site conditions). An EHS must also approve the installation before it is put into use, and before the electrical supply is permanently connected to the building.

What is an On-site Wastewater System?: 

What is an On-site Wastewater System? An On-site Wastewater Disposal System collects, treats and disposes of all the wastewater produced in a building. A conventional system includes a Septic Tank, a Distribution Device and a Drainfield.

What is a Septic Tank?: 

What is a Septic Tank? A Septic Tank is a below ground watertight box (concrete, plastic or fiberglass), often about 9 x 5 x 6 feet. It separates the liquids and solids, provides digestion of some organics (mainly by bacteria which live without oxygen) and storage. It discharges partially filtered and clarified effluent to the drainfield for final treatment.

What is a Drainfield?: 

What is a Drainfield? The Drainfield (also known as the nitrification field) is the area which contains the pipes (and/or other approved materials). It receives the effluent (partially treated cloudy liquid) from the septic tank for distribution, treatment ( mainly by bacteria that need oxygen) and absorption into the soil. Approved Drainfields in NC are made from many materials including pipe and gravel, plastic chambers, concrete blocks, polystyrene aggregate and other piping systems. For full information see:

What does an On-site Wastewater Disposal System do? : 

What does an On-site Wastewater Disposal System do? Avoids the spread of disease by preventing human sewage from contaminating the ground surface, well water supplies and streams and creeks.

Maintaining a Septic System Some things which can be done to prolong the life of a Septic System: : 

Maintaining a Septic System Some things which can be done to prolong the life of a Septic System: Pump out the accumulated solids from the Septic Tank regularly (check it every 3 years, and typically pump it every 5-7 years). Don’t overload it (minimize water usage). Don’t put things which don’t readily decompose into a Septic System (grease, cooking oils, sanitary napkins, chemicals, etc). Don’t drive on it, or build over it.

Maintenance Responsibilities: 

The person who owns or controls a facility served by an On-site Wastewater System is responsible for ensuring that it is working OK, including that: no sewage or effluent comes up on the ground surface, or goes into any stream, creek or lake, or contaminates the ground water (well water supply). no sewage or effluent backs up into the building. Maintenance Responsibilities

Maintenance Responsibilities (continued): 

Maintenance Responsibilities (continued) If a Septic System is malfunctioning, or failing, then it is the owner, or controller’s responsibility to ensure that it is repaired (with a repair permit from the Health Department).

Types of Failures and Violations : 

Types of Failures and Violations 1.Failure by surfacing Failing Septic Systems often show up as a wet or mushy area above the drainfield (often because the drainfield can no longer absorb the effluent).

Ways to spot a failing septic system: 

Ways to spot a failing septic system Failing septic systems can often be spotted from the road. Nutrients from effluent often cause the “grass to grow greener”.

Types of Failures and Violations 2.Straight pipes: 

Types of Failures and Violations 2.Straight pipes Some buildings discharge all their untreated wastewater (from washing machines, sinks, toilets, etc) through pipes directly onto the land surface, or into streams and creeks. This practice is called Straight piping, and is a violation of NC Laws and Rules. Some buildings have a Septic Tank, but Straight pipe some of their wastewater (such as from the washing machine). This is still a violation of NC Laws and Rules.

Types of Failures and Violations : 

3. Unpermitted Privies In some situations permits are issued for the construction of Pit Privies. In these situations a soil evaluation is completed, the privy has to be built and located to standards (including insect screening), and any plumbing inside the house must go to an approved wastewater disposal system. All other privies are in violation of NC Laws and Rules. Types of Failures and Violations

Methods of Identifying Failures and Violations : 

Methods of Identifying Failures and Violations Indications of a Surfacing Failing Septic System: The ground near the septic system maybe wet or mushy, even during dry weather. Surfacing liquid in these wet areas is often dark (sometimes nearly black). The area around the failure may have a distinctive odor. Flies are often attracted to the failure (especially in the hotter season). The vegetation may grow greener in these areas.

Methods of Identifying Failures and Violations : 

Methods of Identifying Failures and Violations Straight Pipes Some pipes coming from a house may be legitimate, for example from: Gutters Heat pumps Pond over flows, etc.

Methods of Identifying Failures and Violations Straight Pipes (continued) : 

Methods of Identifying Failures and Violations Straight Pipes (continued) Indications of straight piping can include: deposits collecting at the end of the pipe or on the ground underneath the pipe (including staining of the ground, collection of lint and fibers from the clothes washer, food deposits, toilet paper, etc). by flies & smells (from sewage, rotting food, etc). by witnessing the pipe in use (soap bubbles, or toilet paper, etc may be visible). by visually following the pipe back and seeing whether or not it lines up with anything (the house guttering system, etc).


If a home owner wishes to confirm whether they have a Straight Pipe: Refer the homeowner to the Health Department to see if they have a septic permit,with a site diagram for the system on file. Advise to use something with a distinctive color (ideally dye tablets ) in the plumbing fixtures and see if any of the color comes out the end of the pipe. How many wastewater pipes leave the house? Usually only one large pipe leaves to connect to a septic or sewer system. A second pipe going out may indicate some of the fixtures are straight piped.

What to do if you come across a Failure or Violation: 

If you come across a failing septic system or other related violation it should be referred to : The Environmental Health Section at the local County Health Department. Before any new Septic installation or repair can be started a permit must first be obtained from the local Health Department . For information about financial assistance contact: The Wastewater Discharge Elimination(WaDE) Program Tel. 1 800 9-SEWAGE or 828 251 6784. If failures or other violations are found in coastal counties also contact: NC Shellfish Sanitation Section, Morehead City Tel. 252 726 6827. What to do if you come across a Failure or Violation

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