Septic Care

A standard layout of the components of a septic system.
Background Information

What is a septic system? Septic systems are comprised of three components: the tank, the drainfield, and the soil. Septic tanks are made out of a number of different materials including concrete or plastic, and their sizes and specifications are determined by the size of a dwelling and the number of people that inhabit it. The waste leaves the house and undergoes separation/treatment in the tank before moving on to the drainfied. The drainfield consists of a series of perforated pipes buried in gravel filled trenches to allows the water to move from the tank into the soil. The waste water then permeates through the soil allowing the infiltration to neutralize the remaining pollutants. The treated water is then incorporated into the groundwater.

The waterways in Clinton County are being threatened due to high levels of E. coli. Human bacteria has been determined as a major source of the E. coli, suggesting that there is a significant amount of failing septic systems within the county and surrounding watersheds. Without proper maintenance, septic systems can degrade over time and start to leak waste water into the ground where it has the potential to reach drinking water sources and/or public waterways. The only sure way to make sure that you are not contributing to this issue is to have your septic system inspected on a regular basis and pumped as needed. The general rule of thumb is to have your system inspected once every 1-3 years and to have it pumped every 3-5 years.  This may vary depending on the size of your septic tank, the number of people living in your dwelling, and the soil profile surrounding your system.

Currently there is no statewide law that sets a standard to which septic tanks must be maintained. In fact, Michigan is the only state without some kind of statewide septic legislation. It is because of this that septic standards are established on a countywide basis. There are only a handful of counties in Michigan that have an active governance over septic system standards. Clinton County currently does not have an ordinance establishing a septic system standard.

E. coli

Escherichia coli is coliform bacterium that is found in the intestines of warm-blooded organisms. Most forms of E. coli are harmless, however certain strains produce a powerful toxin that can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, kidney failure, and death in extreme cases. While E. coli does occur naturally in waterways due to the warm-blooded organisms that utilize the surrounding habitat, both the Maple and Looking glass river were found to have E. coli levels that surpassed what occurs naturally. Upon further investigation through DNA analysis, it was discovered that human sourced E. coli was a major contributor to the elevated E. coli levels. The most likely reason for this much human-sourced E. coli making its way to the river is septic systems located in the watershed that are not functioning properly. While human sourced E. coli in the rivers presents its own associated health risks, it is used as an indicator of potential other contaminants such as protozoans or viruses that can be even more harmful to human health.

An extreme example of a failed septic system that caused the ground above it to collapse. Photo courtesy of the Barry-Eaton Health District.

Due to the potentially high number of failing septic systems in Clinton County as well as Gratiot and Montcalm counties, the Mid-Michigan District Health Department is teaming up with conservation districts in order to consider programs to better protect public health. Ideally a program would be created to ensure proper maintenance of systems in the county. The most common flaws addressed are:

  • The system fails to treat raw sewage. This is usually a result of corroded or missing outlets.
  • The system drains into soils which cannot absorb waste.
  • The system connects to a pipe that directs sewage to unapproved sites.
  • Overloaded tanks where raw sewage backs up into the dwelling.
  • Broken pipes or degraded components of a tank due to infiltrating tree roots.
  • Various parts of the system are missing or located on a neighbors property.
  • The system is too close to an existing well.

Ensuring that your septic system is functioning properly through regular maintenance makes sure that whatever is leaving your home does not end up in our waterways or your drinking water source.

Marcus, the Health Officer with the Mid-Michigan District Health Department made this video to better help you understand the proposed septic system ordinance.


General Information Regarding Septic Systems

What goes in a septic system?

Septic systems are designed to safely get rid of the human waste and waste water in your home. Putting anything other than the waste or toilet paper into your septic system can increase the chance of a problem occurring. For example, putting an excess of non-organic solids can potentially clog components of your tank. Too much organic matter can be harmful to your system as well. An abundance of food waste can cause a shift in the microbial community that works to treat your waste to the point where your waste is not being treated properly.

Do household septic tank supplements replace my need for pumping or inspections?

The answer is no. While these products can help in some cases, they can also damage the microbial community. These things also do not take into account all of the other potential problems that can only be discovered through an inspection.

Educational Water Conservation Games for kids

Tip the Tank Matching Game

Thirstin’s Word Scramble Game 

How Water Works Interactive Tour

More games and educational resources!


Additional Resources:

Department of Environmental Quality

Mid Michigan District Health Department

Michigan E. coli Pollution and Solution Mapper

MSU Extenstion Part 1

MSU Extension Part 2

Environmental Protection Agency       

Michigan Integrated Database      

2015-2016 Maple River E. coli Source-tracking Study