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Septic Systems: Preventing a Stink

¿ What about garbage disposals? Disposals are not recommended with septic systems because, rather than helping the decaying process, the resulting food particles can increase the solid load in the septic tank by as much as 50 percent. If some particles end up in the drain field, they clog the soil over time, making it harder for filtering to take place.

But many houses on septic have garbage disposals anyway. Woodbridge resident Amy Wilson said, "I don't put anything down the disposal to get rid of it, and I don't scrape plates, but [the disposal] is good for the residual that ends up in the sink."

¿ What about using additives? Countless companies offer products to improve the workings of your septic tank. Some even say that using their product means you'll no longer have to pump out sludge.

Don't use these additives, said Jared Sluzalis, an inspector with Montgomery County. "There's enough bacteria that comes out of your body to make the septic tank work. You don't need to add anything."

¿ What options do you have if the drain field fails? Drain fields fail when they become too saturated to process more waste. New construction is often required to have space for a 100-percent-replacement drain field, but older properties often don't have the luxury of that much space.

Aside from praying for public sewer access or allowing the field to completely dry out, which can take a year or more, you will have to rely on state and county officials to help you design an alternative. While there are numerous options, they are quite expensive.

In Western Maryland, "sand mounds" have become popular but are controversial. A large hill of sand and soil sits above the surface of the ground and receives effluent pumped up from the septic tank.

However, mounds are more susceptible to the effects of harsh winters, and their aesthetics often leave much to be desired. They can also run $10,000 or more to install.

Holding tanks are a last resort for a failed septic system because they have to be pumped out every month.

Neglect Has a Price

Contractors, local inspectors and many residents say public education on the care of septic systems needs improvement. Sluzalis said that half the time, septic system failures are caused by the use of substandard materials and a lack of maintenance.

County governments don't keep maintenance records. In fact, there are rarely requirements that septic systems be regularly maintained.

That troubles Joseph Hunter, a longtime resident of Laytonsville, where septic systems are common. "There needs to be an authoritative way to make people pump their septic tanks," he said. Hunter would like to see such stipulations added to Montgomery County's code.

Woodbridge homeowner Amy Wilson has done her homework. There have been no problems with the septic system on her family's 2 1/2-acre property in the 13 years they have lived there. Their septic tank is pumped regularly.

"It's only about $100," she said. "They do all the yucky stuff, and you just get out of the way."

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