Promoting Septic System Maintenance with a Tank Pumping Tracking and Reminder Registry

State: OH Type: Model Practice Year: 2007

Promoting Septic System Maintenance with a Tank Pumping Tracking and Reminder Registry targets the 17,000 household sewage treatment system owners in Mahoning County. This practice addresses the issue of water pollution and waterborne disease prevention. The goals and objectives are to improve water quality and home sewage treatment system performance to prevent waterborne diseases by reminding homeowners to maintain their household sewage treatment systems. Up to 2,750 household sewage treatment systems in Mahoning County (16% of all systems) are being pumped each year, a significant increase since the tracking and reminder registry was created, effectively extending the useable life of soil absorption fields and avoiding the human health and economic consequences of system failure.
In Mahoning County, a rapidly suburbanizing community where the extension of sanitary sewerage has not kept pace with growth, over 400 new septic systems are installed each year, prompting concerns from homeowners and local officials about what impact this increasing density of systems will have on water quality. This tracking and reminder registry is part of the District Board of Health’s response to these concerns from the community. Preventing water pollution from septic systems requires that homeowners service their systems periodically to prevent failure of soil absorption fields where on-site wastewater treatment takes place. Septic tanks allow solids to settle out of household sewage and hold these solids in the tank where they are partially decomposed. These solids accumulate over time, begin to escape from the tank with the wastewater flow, and threaten to clog the soil in the absorption field. Properly sized tanks can accumulate solids for at least three years before pumping is required to protect soil absorption areas from damage. The necessary frequency of pumping depends on tank capacity, amount of wastewater flowing into the tank related to size of household, amount of solids in the wastewater (for example, there will be more solids if garbage disposals are used), and performance of the final treatment system. Local health departments are alert to potential “teachable moments” for educating homeowners about the benefits of regularly pumping their tanks. In health jurisdictions where tank pumping is a voluntary practice, these opportunities have typically been limited to the time of HSTS installation, whenever the health department responds to a complaint about a malfunctioning HSTS, or when a home is evaluated for sale. However, in the late 1990’s a team of sanitarians, health educators and support staff at the Mahoning County District Board of Health believed that some of the marketing and promotion strategies developed in another area of public health practice – childhood immunizations – could be successfully applied to the challenge of promoting HSTS maintenance. Over the last decade state and local health departments have been able to boost compliance with recommended childhood immunization schedules by creating immunization registries that track children who require immunizations and generate reminder letters or telephone messages to parents when immunizations are due. These so-called “tracking and reminder” registries are credited with the steady increase in on-time immunization of young children since the early 1990’s. The District Board of Health has applied the tracking and reminder strategy to promoting compliance with septic system maintenance practices by generating and mailing pumping reminders to owners of the approximately 17,000 household sewage treatment systems in the Mahoning County General Health District.
Agency Community RolesThe District Board of Health received financial support from Ohio’s Environmental Education Fund to implement this best practice after seeking guidance from multiple stakeholders, e.g., home builders, contractors, soil and water conservation officials, local zoning officials, township trustees, state environmental protection officials, and environmental planners. The Board of Health fosters collaboration with these stakeholders by providing program updates and by supplying advance notices of reminder mailings to township officials. The local print news media have provided favorable publicity the reminder mailings through the publication of frequent feature articles and public service announcements.  Costs and ExpendituresFunding sources for this practice include a grant from the Ohio Environmental Education Fund and local permit fees and property taxes. Project costs included: $20,000 in start-up costs and approximately $7,000 a year in recurrent costs. ImplementationA 1997 grant from the Ohio Environmental Education Fund (OEEF ID No. 96 G 155) provided start-up funds for an educational program for HSTS maintenance that resulted in the creation of a database registry populated with all available information about household sewage treatment systems in the health district. Pumping reminder letters to homeowners are generated from this registry by a custom application written for the District Board of Health by CHC Software, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, for its Health District Information System™ (HDIS) software suite. This software and custom application was acquired in 1999 to create a management information system for all environmental health activities performed at the District Board of Health, including all aspects of the sewage program. Prior to the development of this custom application by this vendor, the District Board of Health generated postcard reminders using the Dunamis™ system developed by a sanitarian at the Wood County Board of Health, Bowling Green, Ohio. The reminder letters are mailed to eligible homes once each year with each of the 14 townships in the health district targeted for a mailing during particular month of the year. Registered tank cleaners are required by local regulation to submit reports of each HSTS pumped to the Board of Health. HDIS filters out the HSTS in the targeted townships for which a pumping report has been received from a cleaner in the last 36 months, or that have been newly installed during this time period. Homes that have been connected to sanitary sewer are permanently eliminated from the registry. Advance notices of these mailings are provided to township officials. The local print news media have also publicized the reminder mailings through the frequent publication of feature articles and public service announcements. HSTS owners’ names and addresses are merged with a formatted pumping reminder letter that advises the homeowner of the benefits of regular pumping. The letter also contains a list of all tank cleaners registered by the Board of Health and instructions on how to report any relevant changes, e.g., sanitary sewer connection, using the Board of Health’s telephone reporting “warm-line” available to callers 24 hours a day. The letter is accompanied by an Ohio State University Fact Sheet on septic system maintenance that provides the homeowner with information about maintenance, water conservation practices, soil absorption field protection, and includes a table of recommended pumping frequency based on the size of the septic tank(s) and the number of people in the home. The reminders are mailed to homeowners via regular mail; mailing addresses of undeliverable notices are cross-referenced with the Mahoning County Auditor’s property ownership information database and other published directories to verify the accuracy of these addresses. Erroneous addresses are then corrected and notices reissued to the proper mailing address or completely removed from the database following on-site verification by a Board of Health sanitarian.
The Board of Health mailed 41,308 reminder notices and received 15,559 pumping reports from registered tank cleaners between January 1, 1998 and December 31, 2005 for an overall response ratio of 46%. Reminder and pumping receipt data from the registry’s first eight years are presented in the figure below. The response to the pumping reminders was most evident in the first two year of the program. Before the first postcard reminders mailings began in the second half of 1997, the District Board of Health had received only 49 pumping receipts in the first half of 1997. This number increased to 505 in the first half of 1998. Although the pumping report-to-reminder response ratio declined after 1999, it has remained relatively stable since then. The number of reminders mailed has declined since 2002; homeowners who have their HSTS pumped every three years do not receive a reminder from the Board of Health, resulting in fewer reminder mailings being generated by the tracking and reminder registry each year. Objective 1: Create a registry of household sewage treatment systems.  Performance Measure: Inventory of all existing systems in Mahoning County.  Feedback: Results received by program managers, front line staff, Board of Health, external stakeholders, practice community. Objective 2: Improve sewage treatment system performance and reduce surface water pollution.  Performance Measure: Evaluate nuisance and non-nuisance status of sewage treatment systems tested.  Feedback: Sewage treatment system performance was received, and analyzed by BOH managers, to establish the nuisance status of the systems related to pumping of septic tank. The pumping reminder program was continued.
The District Board of Health has decided to make the tracking and reminder registry a permanent feature of its wastewater control program. Registry costs (about $7,000 per year) have proven to be manageable and sustainable through property tax and fee revenue. The District Board of Health will continue to rely on its tracking and reminder registry to promote HSTS pumping and, in doing so, help homeowners avoid the unnecessary environmental health and economic consequences of premature soil absorption field failure.