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We’re pumped for local sewage management programs

September 21, 2022 10:00 AM

​Okay, so maybe it’s a slight exaggeration to say we’re pumped about local sewage management. But these programs in cities, townships, and boroughs across Pennsylvania play a valuable role in helping to protect Pennsylvania’s groundwater and streams, rivers, and lakes from sewage pollution. As part of National Septic Smart Week, September 19-23, we’re addressing some common questions to highlight how municipal sewage management programs benefit Pennsylvanians.

Why should my municipality manage my septic system?

When a treatment system malfunctions and discharges raw sewage onto public lands or private property or into waterways, the negative impacts are significant. Drinking water supplies can be contaminated. Pennsylvanians’ health and safety are endangered. The environment we depend on is degraded. Property and community value is damaged.

For this reason, Pennsylvania cities, townships, and boroughs are required by the Pennsylvania Sewage Facility Act of 1966 to manage all sewage within their borders. This includes not only public sewer systems, but also on-lot sewage treatment systems. In other words, if you have a septic system on your property, it’s considered part of your local municipal infrastructure.

Just like a home and car, a septic system requires maintenance. Regular maintenance extends the longevity of the system and significantly reduces the need for repair or replacement.  If maintenance is neglected, even expertly designed and installed systems can function well below capacity or fail completely.

In some cases when an on-lot sewage system malfunctions, it can’t be replaced. This is because many locations across Pennsylvania have soil conditions or steep slopes that won’t meet current standards for an on-lot sewage system. In addition, if you have a small lot, there may be no further space to install a new system. Expanding the public sewer system may be the answer, but that’s a major long-term undertaking and very costly to everyone.

A municipal local sewage management program ensures that the attention put into properly designing and installing an on-lot sewage system isn’t negated by a property owner’s lack of system maintenance. It ensures that you and your neighbors who also are on septic systems don’t just “flush and forget it” for years.

Almost 13 million people live in Pennsylvania, and over 26 percent use septic systems. If everyone simply ignored their septic system, we’d have, well, a crapload of problems.

What does a municipal sewage management program do?

A municipal sewage management program ensures the proper operation and maintenance of sewage treatment systems, mainly septic systems, in a city, township, or borough.

While each municipality tailors its program to its local needs, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulations to carry out the Sewage Facility Act require that all sewage management programs include the following minimum requirements:

  • Pumping the treatment tank once every three years, or after an inspection shows the tank is over one-third full;
  • Operation and maintenance of the electrical, mechanical, and chemical components of the system (piping, pressure lines, manholes, alarm and flow recorders, pumps, and other parts);
  • Maintenance of land contouring around the system to divert stormwater and protect the system from damage, flooding, or erosion;
  • Requirements for the use of water conservation devices to reduce hydraulic loading to the sewage system;
  • Requirements for pumping, hauling, and disposal companies; and
  • Requirements for holding tank maintenance.

Some municipal sewage management programs have their own additional requirements. These may include:

  • property owner education on the operation and maintenance of a septic system;
  • registration or licensing of septage haulers and other service providers, including standard procedures;
  • monitoring to assess quality of effluent treatment;
  • inspections to ensure proper operation; and
  • user fees.
A white truck pumps out a septic system in front of a residence.

Why is regularly scheduled pumping essential to septic system operation?

Pumping your septic tank on a regular basis ensures optimal tank performance and prevents the absorption area from clogging and malfunctioning.

Here’s an overview of the parts of a septic system and how they function. When wastewater enters the septic tank, heavier solids sink to the bottom of the tank, and lighter scum floats to the top of the wastewater. Septic tanks are designed with baffles and retainers to keep solids and scum from leaving the tank and entering the absorption area.

Your septic system may include other tanks, such as a lift tank, that accumulate solids, and these should also be pumped along with the septic tank.

What does a municipal sewage management program mean for me?

Most municipal sewage management programs in Pennsylvania schedule the three-year pumping requirements on a staggered basis, by simply dividing their coverage area into three pumping districts and requiring pumping in one district each year.

Although your municipality may be different, most municipalities notify you when it’s your year to pump your septic system and require you to contract with a septage hauler to have the pumping done. Either you or the septage hauler are required to provide the sewage management program with a written invoice or other official documentation that the pumping was completed.

Some municipal sewage management programs contract directly with a septage hauler to pump all the septic systems in the municipality according to the program’s schedule. A few sewage management programs purchase their own pumping equipment and conduct treatment tank pumping using qualified in-house staff.

Most sewage management programs limit the requirement for treatment tank pumping to the drier months of the year, so the process is not unduly hampered by wet site conditions or inclement weather.

At residences where there’s low sewage flow, municipalities may require pumping less frequently than once every three years. The municipality needs to do an inspection to confirm the tank is no more than one-third full.

Observations from your property during pumping are evaluated by the municipal sewage management program, to track the condition of on-lot sewage systems and reveal and correct deficiencies before they become problems. If needed, the municipal sewage enforcement officer might conduct a follow-up inspection.  

Municipal sewage management programs require property owners to comply with pumping every three years, but most also provide one or two reminders before taking more stringent action.

Have questions or want to learn more about municipal sewage management programs? Contact your city, township, or borough office!

Clean water in a reservior in Pannsylvania with blue sky and tree-covered mountains
Healthy waters in Pennsylvania are something to celebrate. Happy Septic Smart Week!

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