Tough economy has homeowners neglecting septic systems

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Will Park of Cutchogue-based Coastline Cesspool digs up an aged cesspool at Starlite Auto Body located on Main Road in Mattituck.

Local experts agree that to keep a home septic system operating at its best, the tanks should be pumped out every four years.

Due to the souring economy, however, more and more homeowners aren’t scheduling this routine maintenance. And many residents with systems more than 30 years old aren’t upgrading old brick structures — which experts say are the most likely to cave in — to a modern version made of precast concrete.

Will Park, owner of Cutchogue-based Coastline Cesspool, said he’s starting to see a slight, upward trend of homeowners investing in replacing their old septic tanks before they fail. On average, his company installs or replaces about 20 systems a year, he said.

“People can’t afford what they need to do, but the public is now more aware of it because of the recent tragedies of people falling through,” Mr. Park said. “If a home was built prior to 1970, then I would fully advise the homeowner to, at least, get an inspection. Just to be on the safe side.”

Jenn Hartnagel of the Group for the East End, an environmental advocacy organization based in Southold, said not only are the newer septic systems structurally safer but they also help improve the environment.

“It’s important because they work better and release less nitrogen into our groundwater,” Ms. Hartnagel said.

The Suffolk County Health Department recently released a study showing a 40 percent increase in nitrogen contamination between 1987 and 2005 in the upper glacial aquifer, the source of most of the area’s drinking water closest to the land’s surface. The study also found a 200 percent increase in nitrates in the largely pristine Magothy Aquifer, which lies beneath the upper glacial aquifer.

These alarming trends are caused by wastewater seeping into the ground, Ms. Hartnagel said.

In addition to reducing nitrogen loading by upgrading their septic tanks, homeowners should also have their systems pumped regularly to prevent them from overflowing, clogging or bursting.

James Clifford, whose family has owned Clifford’s Cesspool Cleaning in Riverhead since the 1960s, said not having your septic tank pumped could destroy your entire system.

“You should maintain it, just like you would with your car, but nobody does it until there’s a problem,” he said. “Doing that could eliminate the need for big jobs down the road.”

Dan Palumbo of Emil Norsic & Son, a septic tank and cesspool maintenance and installation company based in Southampton, said more people are procrastinating about routine maintenance due to the economic downturn.

An average pumping service takes about 20 minutes and costs about $400. But put off too long, it could turn into a $1,000 job. Replacing a seriously neglected septic tank that has been backed up for years will cost around $35,000.

“If you build a new house, you have no choice but to purchase the newer system,” Mr. Palumbo said. He’s referring to a county law passed in the 1980s that aims to help reduce nitrogen loading.

“Older houses are grandfathered in,” he said. “But once they start having trouble, you’re better off getting a new system because it will save you money and the environment and we’re all concerned about saving our local waterways.”

Mr. Palumbo said homeowners can prolong the lives of their septic tanks by not clogging up their systems with female hygiene products and paper towels. He also said the use of bleach is detrimental to a sanitation system.

“Bleach kills bacteria that naturally grow in septic tanks,” he said. “Bacteria help because they eat away at the solids, which is good. The less solids are built-up, the better.”

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