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The effectiveness of education as a tool to manage onsite septic systems.


The treatment of wastewater from unsewered rural areas presents challenges quite different from those confronting municipal treatment facilities. Rural areas rely fairly heavily on unsophisticated technology, primarily using individual septic tanks for settling and anaerobic treatment, followed by dispersal and further treatment by percolation through leachfields. Often this technology is used even when land area is insufficient or soil types are inappropriate. Alternative technologies are available but entail additional expense. Local political realities often discourage implementation of effective regulatory controls requiring advanced (and expensive) treatment systems that match the physical limitations of the land. Regardless of the technology mandated for development of rural property, monitoring of wastewater treatment performance is usually not required. Typically, failure is identified only sporadically, following gross pollution or other unusual circumstances.

Proper operation and maintenance can greatly extend and improve the performance of onsite septic systems. Not overloading or poisoning a system, periodically pumping accumulated solids from the tank, and regularly alternating leachfields (many systems are constructed with dual leachfields to allow each side to periodically rest and recover) can greatly improve and extend performance. Individuals using onsite septic systems are often, however, unaware of the techniques for optimizing system performance and their value (some are even unaware that they have an onsite septic system!). Physically alternating the drain-fields is simple but may be distasteful (as the drainage pipe from the septic tank typically is accessed and manipulated by hand). Pumping costs usually vary between about $50 and $150. A final obstacle to proper operation and maintenance may be that these systems are simply not thought about until they fail dramatically.

In many areas, local health departments are the only agency actively involved in onsite-septic-system control. They usually operate a permitting system that requires initial installation to be done appropriately. No National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is required for individual systems discharging into leachfields, so state agencies with responsibilities for wastewater treatment management typically are not actively involved. Although some health departments regularly look for failing systems, most agencies are directly involved only during initial siting and installation, or if a failure is detected. Failures may be difficult to detect, and local agencies often do not try to comprehensively evaluate problems from onsite systems within their jurisdictions. If gross failure is obvious, local health departments then usually take a lead role in seeking remedy. With the magnitude and impact of the overall problem unclear, no regulatory authority or funding to implement an active local enforcement program, and little public sentiment supporting active enforcement, local health departments rarely aggressively pursue active management of onsite septic systems.

Recognizing that something should be done to manage onsite septic systems, some local health departments turn to education. It would be convenient to be able to control this pollution source through voluntary activities supported through relatively inexpensive delivery of educational materials and programs. G. Tracy Mehan III, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) assistant administrator for water, reinforced the preference for this approach in a March 3, 2003, news release (Mehan, 2003). Public education is key to improving septic-system management. Citizens need to better understand the potential harm improperly managed septic systems can have on the environment and public health and what they can do to help. The ability of education to change behavior toward the environment is not, however, well established.

For example, a variety of studies have shown that the success of recycling programs does not primarily depend on education--such factors as accessibility and ease of use may be more important influences on individual behavior (Bamberg 2003; Barr, Gilg, & Ford, 2004; Garces, Lafuente, Pedraja, & Rivera, 2002). Recycling programs are similar to onsite-system programs in that both are usually predominantly locally controlled, with problems, opportunities, and solutions that are diffuse. Other examples from behavior research demonstrate that individuals may not change their behavior following education about an activity that would be personally (rather than societally) beneficial. For example, many school programs were implemented in the 1960s and 1970s to educate students about adverse health effects associated with smoking but did little to reduce the onset of smoking (Thompson, 1978). The current widespread publicity about the growing epidemic of obesity in the United States is another excellent example of education not directly leading to beneficially changed behaviors.

Proper management of onsite septic systems has both societal value (a decrease in pollution migrating off site and polluting surface water and groundwater) and personal value (a reduction in system failures that lead to conditions such as marshy, odiferous backyards; plugged drains; and even backup of sewage into the home). To explore the potential of education to meaningfully influence onsite-system management, the study reported here measured linkages between delivery of educational materials and management practices. It was hypothesized that providing education, including mechanisms for low-cost interventions, would change household behavior. Also of interest was examination of current management practices to help determine the need for intervention programs.


During the late spring and summer of 2000 and 2001, rural households in a 10-county area in northwest Ohio (Figure 1) were visited by college students (majors in environmental health or a related science area) who educated residents about their onsite septic systems. The students delivered a survey testing residents' knowledge about their systems and documenting household practices. Students then discussed the system with the residents (often walking around the property and looking at the system as part of the discussion), providing basic information and answering any questions. The students left the residents educational materials on their systems. All households with onsite septic systems and leachfields were given three small informational brochures produced by the National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC) (NSFC, 1995a, 1995b, 1995c), and individuals interested in learning more about their systems than was available in the brochures were given a larger informational guide also produced by NSFC (1995d). Households were resurveyed in the late summer of 2001 and winter and spring of 2002. During the summer resurveying, students again visited residents in their homes to deliver the survey. During the winter and spring of 2002, residents were resurveyed by phone.

The local health departments supported this work in several ways. Local sanitarians provided training to the students on septic system technology. Office staff provided access to their files and help in identifying appropriate households (goals were to survey about 2 percent of the systems between two and 20 years old). Sanitarians were available to work with the students when questions arose. To encourage participation, local health departments did not receive reports from the students regarding individual system performance. This arrangement allayed fears of residents that cooperation with the educational program might lead to expensive regulatory obligations.

Results and Discussion

The study surveyed 699 households and resurveyed 111 households. Although targeted systems were between two and 20 years old, systems that fell outside of this criterion still were included if it was discovered during completion of the survey that they were newer or older. Mean system age was 8.7 years and ranged from 16 days to 41 years, with a standard deviation of 5.9 years. As shown in Table 1, residents rarely reported problems with their septic systems.

To determine if water use was concentrated during certain periods of the day, information was obtained about time-of-day use of dishwashers, clothes washers, showers, and baths. Using estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey (2004) of water use associated with a bath (50 gallons), a shower (20 gallons), a dishwasher (20 gallons) and a clothes washer (10 gallons), the authors calculated water use in the morning, afternoon, and evening. As shown in Table 2, overall water use was slightly higher in the evenings than in the mornings, with substantially less use during the middle part of the day. Similarly, restricting examination of the overall patterns of water use to only those households that were resurveyed revealed highest water use in the evening, followed by water use in morning, with much less use in the afternoon.


What was not revealed by examination of overall distribution of water use was changes in individual behavior. To examine if the education program had resulted in individuals shifting toward the desired outcome of more evenly distributed daily water use, a measure of water use evenness was determined. The evenness measure was calculated as the sum of the absolute values of the differences between daily water use morning and afternoon, morning and evening, and afternoon and evening for each of the resurveyed homes--the lower the number the more even the use. The evenness measure was smaller after the intervention (12,734 gallons) than before the intervention (14,126 gallons), a desired outcome of the education program as it signifies more evenly distributed water use. Use of the paired t-test statistic did not reveal that this difference was significant (p = .091). Reported total water use had risen by about 2.2 percent, however, which may have had the effect of masking real differences in water use distribution.

Another educational objective was for residents to learn the importance of periodic pumping of their septic tanks, and to respond to this information by having their systems pumped at appropriate intervals. Surveying revealed that about half of the residents initially believed that their tanks had never been pumped (Table 3). Resurveying revealed that 15 of the households had pumped their tanks following the initial survey. Among 96 households responding to the second survey, this was a pumping rate of about 16 percent in the intervening period (of 12 to 23 months). It is not safe to conclude, however, that education was the causal factor in the decision to pump their systems. For example, 71 households in the initial survey, or about 11 percent of the responding households, reported pumping their septic tanks in 1999, when no education was provided. This rate of pumping may provide a reasonable estimate of the local annual base rate for septic-tank pumping without an educational program. The number of households reporting pumping for a given year declined over time (Figure 2), perhaps reflecting difficulty in remembering if and when a tank had been pumped. The resurveyed households probably would have remembered if they had pumped their tanks over the period between surveys, which immediately preceded the resurvey question. In addition, the period between surveys averaged 17 months, so the 15 households pumping were doing so at a rate of 11 percent--the same rate as reported for 1999. Thus, many of the 15 households that reported pumping after the educational program may have pumped their systems even without the intervention. At best, only a handful of residents who would not have ordinarily pumped their tank responded to the educational program by pumping their systems.

Another common maintenance practice is the use of an additive, often called an "enzyme," advertised to help improve the performance of septic systems. The education program advised against the use of such additives which have not been shown to help systems and may actually cause harm (Morse 1999, NSFC, 1995a). Almost 30 percent of the households reported use of additives before the educational program. In those households resurveyed after the education program, the reported use of additives increased by about 8 percent (Table 4). Although no statistically significant trend is observable, the apparent trend was in the opposite direction of that sought through the education program.

Residents who want to maximize the utility of their leachfield diverters (which allow half of the leachfield to rest and regenerate while the other half accepts wastewater) need to switch them regularly to enhance the effectiveness of their leachfields. Inquiries about the use of diverters revealed that many residents did not know if this was being done (Table 5). The educational program did not result in an increase in the use of system diverters among the resampled households.

To investigate if the educational program was successful in providing knowledge to the households about the need to maintain their systems, participants were asked, "Did you know that your septic tank should be pumped out every three to five years to remove solids?" and "Did you know that large water usage may cause poor performance of your treatment system?" Responses to these questions (Table 6) indicate that the majority of respondents believed they knew these basic principles related to septic-system maintenance. Although having received education about their systems may have increased awareness among those who directly participated, the education did not seem to extend into the household. In resurveyed households in which a different individual responded than during the initial survey, awareness of the value of these maintenance practices did not increase. Only in households in which the same individuals were resurveyed and changed their response was there a significant increase in reported knowledge of these management practices.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Results of this investigation are consistent with those of studies looking at mechanisms to voluntarily elicit socially or individually desirable changes in behavior. Education alone generally will not change behavior, even if the benefits of change are well understood. The results of the study reported here do not support its hypothesis that educating residents about maintaining septic systems will result in changed behaviors.

A possible reason for the lack of success in changing behaviors is that this specific educational approach was not effective for this audience. Additional research could focus on how to best deliver the information. The approach used in this study should, however, approximate the maximum educational effort that could be reasonably provided by a local health department. Efforts were made to maximize the ease and value of the education, including personalized examination and discussion of individual onsite septic systems. Reading materials were provided at various levels of complexity to meet individual needs. Individuals receiving the educational program reported increased understanding of the need to maintain their systems. Although this conclusion was not directly tested, the lack of changed behaviors does not appear to be due to failure in this study to use the best available educational techniques.


U.S. EPA views onsite-septic-system management as an important enough problem that it recommends (but does not require) implementation of active management programs. The agency has published the Voluntary National Guidelines for Management of On-site and Clustered (Decentralized) Wastewater Systems (2003) to detail five recommended model management programs for controlling septic-system performance:

1. inventory and maintenance reminders--homeowner awareness,

2. management through maintenance contracts,

3. management through operating permits,

4. responsible management entity operation and maintenance, and

5. responsible management entity ownership and management.

Each of these programs would require agency investment to implement an increase in accountability by individual system owners/operators, and would entail additional costs to participants. It is unclear what association there is between the costs and benefits of implementing any of these alternatives. It would be very useful to have results from future research examining each of these management models and determining their efficacy in protecting the environment at a societally acceptable cost. Also needed is future work examining various models for distributing costs.

Local health departments face a dilemma. Clearly, onsite septic systems can substantially harm regional environmental quality, and U.S. EPA is promoting implementation of active control programs. Data show that many people do not properly maintain their systems. Yet the least expensive intervention is not effective. Most individuals do not respond voluntarily to educational programs that demonstrate the value--to themselves or to their communities--of properly maintaining their systems. Imposing a regulatory or other type of management program comes into conflict with the tradition of property ownership in the United States that allows individuals to manage their own property without government intervention. Imposing an active management program would impose substantial costs in terms of funding and public support.

The results of this study of onsite septic systems also should call into question assumptions regarding the efficacy of a variety of other environmental educational programs. For example, a local health department may have a perception that an educational program is very effective and that it serves the public at low cost while providing public-relations benefits. Without careful outcome measurement, however, a comprehensive assessment of the value of an educational program cannot be made. Perceptions of utility can be very different from actual utility, and measuring performance can be difficult. The results presented here--and in other social science literature regarding behavior change--suggest that educational programs often are not successful even though there may be a perception of success. It would be very interesting to conduct further studies testing hypotheses that the educational practices of local health departments are effectively dealing with a variety of environmental problems.

Although education programs will not be effective in isolation, this work should not be interpreted to suggest that an educational program should not be a part of a system to control onsite septic systems. Clearly, people cannot practice proper management if they do not have the necessary information. Education may productively be part of an agency program, but it must be combined with other elements to be successful. An important challenge is to discover the best combination of education and more invasive management techniques to solve the problem of onsite-septic-system control.
TABLE 1 Self-Reported Problems with Onsite Septic System (n = 699)

Self-Reported Problem Percentage Reporting

Swampy areas during springtime (wettest season 3.2
 in Northwest Ohio)
Occasional ponding 3.0
Other than shallow rooted groundcover (usually 15.0
 grass) over leachfield
Attempts to remedy swampy areas 1.0
Difficult access to tanks for cleaning 4.0
Septic tank port not easily found 3.0

TABLE 2 Daily Distribution of Water Use (in Gallons)

Survey Subjects Time N Minimum Maximum Mean Deviation

All households before Morning 694 0 779 169 128.9
education program Afternoon 694 0 589 39 67.8
 Evening 694 0 887 166 152.4
Portion of households Morning 111 0 741 188 141.7
surveyed before Afternoon 111 0 379 33 54.3
education program Evening 111 0 784 142 146.6
that would be sub-
sequently resurveyed
Households resurveyed Morning 110 0 416 161 94.3
after education Afternoon 110 0 379 36 60.1
program Evening 110 0 860 175 163.8

TABLE 3 Septic-System Pumping

Survey System Pumping Number Percentage
Subjects History of Systems of Systems

All households before Have been pumped 320 47.3%
education program Never pumped 301 44.5%
 Unknown 55 8.1%
 Total 676 99.9%
Portion of households surveyed Have been pumped 43 39.8%
before education program that Never pumped 59 54.6%
would be subsequently Unknown 6 5.6%
resurveyed Total 108 100.0%
Households resurveyed after Have been pumped 54 56.3%
education program Never pumped 39 40.6%
 Unknown 3 3.1%
 Total 96 100.0%

TABLE 4 Reported Use of Additives in Septic Systems

Survey Additive Use Number Percentage
Subjects History of Systems of Systems

All households before Used enzymes 202 28.9%
education program No use of enzymes 475 68.0%
 Unknown 22 3.2%
Portion of households Used enzymes 27 24.3%
surveyed before education No use of enzymes 79 71.2%
program that would be sub- Unknown 5 4.5%
sequently resurveyed
Households resurveyed after Used enzymes 36 32.4%
education program No use of enzymes 73 65.8%
 Unknown 2 1.8%

TABLE 5 Reported Use of Diverters in Leach Fields

Survey Diverter Use Number Percentage
Subjects History of Systems of Systems

All households before Used diverter 245 39.4%
education program No use of diverter 232 37.3%
 Unknown 145 23.3%
Portion of households Used diverter 63 60.0%
surveyed before education No use of diverter 26 24.8%
program that would be Unknown 16 15.2%
subsequently resurveyed
Households resurveyed after Used diverter 48 60.0%
education program No use of diverter 22 27.5%
 Unknown 10 12.5%

TABLE 6 Households Found to Be Knowledgeable About Septic-System

Survey Subjects Pumping Important Water Use
 Number Percentage Number Percentage

All households before 521 74.9% 433 62.1%
education program
Portion of households 78 72.2% 73 66.4%
surveyed before education
program that would be
subsequently resurveyed
Household resurveyed 71 89.9% 65 84.4%
with original respondent
Household resurveyed 21 65.6% 17 53.1%
with different respondent

Acknowledgements: Funding supporting this work was provided by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Education and is greatly appreciated. Special thanks go to the many registered sanitarians in the participating counties whose support was integral to the success of this work. Also very much appreciated is the work of the seven student surveyors.


Bamberg, S. (2003). How does environmental concern influence specific environmentally related behaviors? A new answer to an old question. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 23(1), 21-32.

Barr S., Gilg, A.W., & Ford, N.J. (2001). A conceptual framework for understanding and analyzing attitudes towards household-waste management. Environment and Planning A, 33(11), 2025-2048.

Garces, C., Lafuente, A., Pedraja, M., & Rivera, P. (2002) Urban waste recycling behavior: Antecedents of participation in a selective collection program. Environmental Management 30(3), 378-390.

Mehan, G. T. III. (2003, March 3). EPA provides tools to city and county public health officials to improve septic system management. EPA Newsroom. (7 Dec. 2004).

Morse, K. (1999). Urban septic legends. Journal of Environmental Health 62(5), 29-30.

National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC). (1995a). The care and feeding of your septic system (WWBRPE18) [Brochure]. Morgantown, WV: Author.

NSFC. (1995b). So ... now you own a septic system (WWBRPE20) [Brochure]. Morgantown, WV Author.

NSFC. (1995c). Groundwater protection and your septic system (WWBRPE21) [Brochure]. Morgantown, WV: Author.

NSFC. (1995d). Maintaining your septic system--A guide for homeowners. Pipeline 6(4). (22 Dec. 2004).

Thompson, E.L. (1978). Smoking education programs, 1960-1976. American Journal of Public Health 68(3), 250-257.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water. (2003). Voluntary national guidelines for management of onsite and clustered (decentralized) wastewater treatment systems (EPA 832-B-03-001). (28 Dec. 2004).

U.S. Geological Survey (2004). Water science for schools. (2 Jun. 2004).

Gary S. Silverman, D.Env., R.S.

Corresponding Author: Gary S. Silverman, Professor and Director, Environmental Health Program, Bowling Green State University, 223 Health Center, Bowling Green, OH 43403-0280. E-mail:
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Title Annotation:FEATURES
Author:Silverman, Gary S.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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