Rules of Thumb

There is a lot to know when installing water wells on properties with septic systems.

 By William Wagner

When it comes to installing a water well near a septic system, contractors seemingly have to double as mathematicians. The regulations they must follow result in a head-spinning array of numbers to digest.

Consider this mouthful from Scott Kok, co-owner of Lovelace Well Drilling Inc. in Argyle, Wisconsin:

“We need to be 50 feet from a drain field, and we also have to be 50 feet from an alternative drain field if there is one. We have to be 25 feet from a septic tank, but if there’s city septic, we have to be 50 feet. We also have to be 25 feet from a shoreline or pond . . .”

You still with us? To sum it up, complex codes are the name of the game with septic systems. And making matters more complicated is these codes can vary significantly from state to state.

“Different states do things differently,” says Mark Layten, CWD/PI, of Kickapoo Drilling Co. in Downs, Illinois.

“From what I understand, Pennsylvania has codes per township as opposed to per state. They have a ton of different codes—it’s a mess out there. And then on the other side, I think New Mexico has no codes. You can do whatever you want.”

Nearly 25% of the population in the United States disposes of wastewater through onsite or unsewered, systems, the most common of which are septic systems. So what that means is coming across them at jobsites is a fairly regular occurrence. Septic systems use soil to treat small wastewater flows. When properly maintained, they are safe, reliable, and pose no threat to groundwater.

So, as we assess rules of thumb on what contractors must consider to ensure the water well systems they’re installing won’t be compromised by septic systems, it’s obvious where to begin.

Know Your Codes

Sixty years ago, it was like the Wild West when it came to installing water wells, but those days are long gone. To protect the purity of drinking water—which obviously should be job No. 1—codes relating to septic tanks have become increasingly restrictive.

More Information on Septic Systems
The National Ground Water Association published a consumer information sheet, “Septic Systems: What You Need to Know.” To access it and share it with your customers, click on the “Consumer information sheets” link under the Professional Resources tab at www.NGWA.org.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has information on septic systems. To access its information, visit www.epa.gov/septic.

“In the 1940s and ’50s, you’d go out the back door and have your water well, septic, and cistern right there,” Layten says. “Everything was in the same general area. Now everything is on different sides of the house. You put your geothermal on one side, your well on one side, and your septic on one side.”

The takeaway is contractors must know the ins and outs of the codes in the areas where they work. Layten certainly knows what’s expected of him in Illinois.

“You want to make sure you maintain your code-approved distances (of various components),” he says. “In the state of Illinois, they basically have a list of all the different things you need to stay away from. Everything is basically 75 feet (apart) for your geo, water well, and septic in Illinois. With those three things on a new house, usually they’re positioned in a triangle.”

Expect the Unexpected

Builders don’t always take septic/water well regulations into account when designing a new home. Meanwhile, old homes don’t always translate to new regulations. This can make things tricky for contractors.

“The worst thing is that (all the components) are trying to lead back to the same spot in the house,” Layten says. “In Illinois, we have to stay 10 feet apart where we enter and leave the house with water and septic. If the contractor who built the house made the room too small, then we have to come in through a bedroom closet or something. Things like that can be a pain. They’re the little things. But for the most part, they keep everyone on the up-and-up as far as doing things properly.”

Drill the Well Properly

This seems obvious, but it also couldn’t be more important.

“You have to make sure the well is dug right,” Layten says. “That’s a big one because it eliminates any path for (contaminated) material to get down through there. You always want to make sure the surface around the well isn’t sunken. It needs to be raised properly so that anything that gets near the well will slope away.”

Krok’s Wisconsin company typically goes the extra mile to ensure the well isn’t compromised in any way. Says Krok, “We put in extra casing as an added precaution.”

According to Krok, there’s a saying in Wisconsin: “The water supply is buried treasure.” It’s up to the contractors, then, to make sure it stays that way.

Tips for Homeowners
The contractor’s job only goes so far on a septic system. Once the work is completed, it falls upon homeowners to make sure well systems are protected from septic influence. Here are some tips along those lines we recommend contractors pass on to homeowners:

  • Always use a licensed, reputable contractor. Codes for septic systems are both complex and rigid. If routine maintenance isn’t done by a pro, it likely will lead to bigger problems down the road.
  • Don’t think of your system as a garbage can. In other words, avoid putting grease, paper towels, paint, pesticides, or other items in it. Doing so will clog it or potentially contaminate it.
  • Conserve water. This will prevent you from overloading your system. To use as little water as possible, you also want to repair leaky faucets and install low-flow fixtures in your home.
  • Have your septic system checked every one to two years. “And you want to get a number on those tests, not just a pass/fail,” says Mark Layten of Kickapoo Drilling. “Pass/fail doesn’t really tell you what you’re dealing with. But with numbers, you can tell if you have E. coli or whatever the problem might be.”
  • Have your septic system pumped every three to five years. “You want to make sure it doesn’t overflow,” Layten says. “Obviously, that will lead to other problems.”
  • Plant only grass near your septic system. Roots from trees or shrubs might damage your absorption field.
  • Keep water drainage away from the absorption field. If this area floods, it might prevent the soil from naturally cleansing the wastewater.
  • Use an environment-proof well cap. “This is important because earwigs can get into the well,” says Scott Kok of Lovelace Well Drilling. “They can cause bacteria.”
  • Remain vigilant. Pungent smells, soggy soil, waste flow, or excessive grass growth over the soil of the absorption area can be indicators something is wrong with your system. Always be on the lookout for abnormalities of this nature.
  • Don’t allow your pets or other animals to go to the bathroom near the well. This potentially could lead to contamination issues.

William Wagner is an award-wining writer, editor, and project manager for Wagner Communications. He has written for magazines, newspapers, books, and websites. He lives in the Chicago area

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