University of Georgia

Flushed and forgotten: Study finds septic tanks may require more frequent maintenance

Krista Capps
Associate Professor Krista Capps’ lab is dedicated to understanding how anthropogenic activities alter community structure and ecosystem processes in freshwater ecosystems. This research identified shortcomings in septic treatment, noting that owners should service tanks early and often to mitigate potential contamination of surrounding land and water. (Photo by Peter Frey)

Moved into a house with a “new” septic tank? You might want to have it inspected sooner than you think.

A recent study out of the University of Georgia shows that younger septic systems—those between two and 10 years old—often exhibited hydraulic issues similar to much older systems, a problem that can lead to impaired water quality in the surrounding environment.

Owners, therefore, should have their systems inspected at least late in their life—50 years or older—but also within a year of their installation. Given their findings, however, best practice indicates that more routine pumps would be ideal—but costly.

“Approximately 25% of U.S. households depend on septic systems to treat their sewage on their own property, and in some regions—such as the Southeast—dependence on septic is even more common,” said Krista Capps, an associate professor in UGA’s Odum School of Ecology. “Guidance suggests you should get your tank pumped every three years and have it regularly inspected. Most homeowners, however, do not follow these guidelines.”

One challenge, Capps said, is the financial burden. The cost of pumping a system by reputable companies has increased from a few hundred dollars to $500 or more locally over the past decade, due in large part to the limited number of vendors that can legally and affordably treat septage once it is removed from the tank.

“Replacing a system can cost tens of thousands of dollars,” said Capps, who shares a joint appointment with the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. “This far exceeds what many homeowners can pay.”

Improving maintenance of septic infrastructure, she said, will likely require new policies and accessible resources in support of affordable treatment.

Septic tanks, also known as onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS), are gray infrastructure common to most of the United States. Initially trained to work in relatively pristine rivers and streams, Capps collaborated with local and regional governments to address environmental concerns facing the Athens and Georgia communities. Along with colleagues in the River Basin Center, she examined systems around the Athens-Clarke County area to assess maintenance patterns in county septic infrastructure to try to identify characteristics of failing systems.

When systems malfunction, they can release untreated wastewater into the surrounding environment and compromise water quality for communities living downstream. In Georgia, many rivers and streams are impaired because of high concentrations of gut bacteria like E. coli. Untreated sewage from septic systems can cause or exacerbate this problem.


Krista Capps with students
Capps acknowledged the financial burden of servicing septic systems. To improve maintenance and septic infrastructure, she said, will likely require new policies and resources in support of affordable treatment. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski)

“Our understanding of what environmental characteristics, weather conditions and attributes of individual systems lead to system failure is frustratingly limited,” Capps said. “I am excited, however, to be working at an institution like UGA, where community-university partnerships are being leveraged to address real-world environmental problems, and amazing students and scientists from diverse disciplines are collaborating to tackle these issues.”

Moving forward, Capps will continue collaborating with local, state and federal government to enhance understanding of septic systems. She hopes investments from sources like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Acts will stimulate more research and support new collaborations.

“As a people, we need to embrace that septic systems and other decentralized wastewater infrastructure are a part of our planning for the future,” Capps said. “We have an opportunity right now to invest in the science of wastewater treatment and enhance the capacity, effectiveness and resilience of water infrastructure in Georgia, the U.S. and beyond.”

Kyle Connelly, a graduate student in the Capps Lab, was the lead author of the study, which was published in “Science of the Total Environment.” The co-authors on the study were Seth Wenger (Odum School of Ecology and River Basin Center), Nandita Gaur (College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences), Jacob M. Bateman McDonald (University of North Georgia) and Mike Occhipinti (Athens-Clarke County Unified Government).