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On-Site Sewage System Program

In this Section:

BEDHD's On-Site Sewage (Septic) System Program is meant to help residents in the district avoid exposure to untreated sewage and to reduce contamination of groundwater and surface water resources.

Getting a Sewage System

Before a resident installs a sewage system, BEDHD must evaluate the site and issue a permit, as well as do a final review once the system is installed.

Site Evaluation

A site evaluation (previously called "perk test") is the first step in the process of determining if an existing or proposed land parcel that does not have municipal wastewater services (city sewer) available can be considered for an on-site sewage system. After an application has been submitted, a sanitarian will evaluate the proposed site to determine if the conditions on the site meet the requirements that are in the Sanitary Code. Some of the specific items that are examined during the evaluation are:

  • Soil type and permeability
  • Depth to seasonal high water table
  • Slope
  • Landscape position
  • Horizontal separation distance from wells, surface water bodies, county drains, etc.
  • Amount of suitable area available
  • Area hydrogeology
  • Runoff patterns
  • Proximity to available public sewer
  • Proposed land use
  • Estimated wastewater flow volume
  • Size of parcel (one acre land division vs. one acre)
  • Easements, right-of-ways, and building setbacks
  • Location of buried utilities and other site improvements
  • New development site verses repair site

To obtain an application for a site evaluation, visit the "Forms" webpage.

Permit

If the results of the site evaluation allow for the parcel to be developed, the next step in the process is to apply for a sewage system permit. Once the application has been submitted and the appropriate fee is paid, the system’s construction can be authorized by one of our sanitarians.

To obtain a sewage system permit, visit the "Forms" webpage.

Final Inspection

Final inspections are performed on newly installed systems after BEDHD is notified by the installer that the sewage system has been completed. A sanitarian will visit the site and inspect the system, ensuring that it was installed according to the requirements that were indicated on the permit. After the system is been given final approval by the sanitarian, an approved tag is provided and the system can then be covered.

Mounds and Alternative Systems

Not all land parcels meet the minimum requirements for a conventional system. In these cases, parcels may be candidates for alternative-type sewage systems. The following types of alternative systems are currently recognized by BEDHD (other system types may be approved ):

  • Low-pressure dose mounds
  • Sand filter systems 
  • Lagoons

Each type of alternative sewage system requires certain minimum standards in order to be used upon a parcel.

Certain wastewater treatment technologies—such as low-pressure dose mounds over slowly permeable soils, lagoons, and alternative (pretreatment) systems—may only be installed by individuals certified by BEDHD. To view a list of Certified Alternative Wastewater Treatment System Installers, click here. (Conventional wastewater treatment systems do not require a certified installer.)

Mounds

To learn more about low-pressure dose mounds, including common misconceptions, see the "All About Mounds" fact sheet. See also this mound information packet, which includes information from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) about the use of mounds in the Barry-Eaton district and general mound information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other sources.

If you have any questions regarding the use of an alternative-type sewage system, contact Environmental Health.

Sewage System Basics Diagram of a sewage system

How Sewage Systems Work

On-site sewage (septic) systems are underground wastewater treatment structures commonly used in rural areas. They use a combination of nature and technology to treat household wastewater. Treating household wastewater is important because untreated sewage contains disease-causing organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Once a sewage system properly treats wastewater, it is safe to be introduced to groundwater and surface water.

A typical sewage system consists of a septic tank (see Septic Tank Purpose and Function PDFand a soil-absorption component (usually a drainbed or drainfield). The primary purpose of the septic tank is to separate solids and oils from liquids.Its secondary function is to slowly break down organic matter. The soil-absorption component takes the liquid sewage released from the septic tank into a series of pipes with holes that are buried in a drainfield, drainbed, or other special unit designed to slowly release the sewage into the soil. Natural bacteria break down the potentially harmful organisms in wastewater.

How a typical sewage system works:

  1. All water runs out of the house from one main drainage pipe into a septic tank, a buried, watertight container usually made of concrete.
  2. The septic tank holds wastewater long enough for solids to settle to the bottom and for grease to float to the top. An outlet device (baffle) prevents the solids and greases from leaving the tank and traveling into the soil absorption area.
  3. Liquid wastewater exits the tank into the drainfield. Each time water leaves the house, water also leaves the septic tank. For example, flushing a toilet that holds 1.6 gallons of water means that 1.6 gallons of liquid wastewater in the septic tank flow into the drainfield.
  4. The drainfield, or soil absorption area, is a shallow, buried area usually made up of pipes and stone. Wastewater moves through the piping into porous surfaces, which allows the wastewater to slowly filter into the soil.
  5. Finally, the wastewater trickles down into the oxygen-rich soil, which naturally reduces harmful coliform bacteria, viruses, and nutrients.

Operation and Maintenance

Proper sewage system maintenance can prevent premature failures and contamination problems from occurring. This helps keep the community and our water resources healthy. It will also help ensure that your system operates effectively throughout its expected lifetime. Replacing a sewage system is costly, so proper maintenance makes good economic sense. There are several important things that homeowners can do to ensure that their sewage system is properly maintained:

  • Know the location of your sewage system. Keep a sketch of the location and the dimension of the system with your maintenance records for service visits.
    • If you don’t find a system, you may not have one and thus need to get a permit to have one constructed. Tiles that connect your sewage to a county drain, lake, stream/river, or field drainage tile are NOT sewage systems.
  • Divert other sources of water such as roof drains, footing drains, water softener discharge, and sump pump discharge away from the sewage system.
  • Keep soil slightly mounded over your sewage system to help surface water run off, and provide a grass cover on the top of the system.
  • Keep automobiles, heavy equipment, machinery, and livestock of the drainfield.
  • Practice water conservation—repair dripping faucets and leaking toilets, run washing machines and dishwashers only when full, avoid long showers, and use water-saving devices in faucets, shower heads, and toilets. Spread out your water usage: for example, don’t do all of your laundry on one day—spread it throughout the week.
  • Use bleach, disinfectants, and drain and toilet bowl cleaners sparingly and in accordance with product labels.
  • Take leftover hazardous household chemicals to an approved hazardous waste collection center for disposal.
  • Use your garbage disposal in the kitchen sink as little as possible—or not at all!
  • Put coffee grounds, oil, fat, or food in the trash or compost bin, never down the drain.
  • Do not flush feminine hygiene products, floss, paper towels, diapers, or any other non-degradable items—this includes “flushable” wipes.
  • Have your system inspected annually by a licensed professional, and have your tank pumped regularly (typically every 2 to 3 years).
  • Keep a detailed record of permits issued, inspections, pumping, repairs, and other maintenance activities.
  • Contact BEDHD whenever you experience problems with your system or if there are signs of system failure

For more information on prolonging the life of your sewage system, visit the following resources:

System Failure

If a sewage system has failed or is not working properly, wastewater passing through the system might not be treated completely before it is released. This means that it can contaminate groundwater and surface water, which is a danger to public health.

Sewage systems can fail for many reasons:

  • They are old and have outlived their lifetime (the average life of a properly maintained sewage system is about 30 years).
  • They are not properly maintained.
  • They are not properly designed (systems constructed without permits and/or any BEDHD involvement may not be designed or built properly). 
  • The drainfield is overloaded with water. 
  • There is structural damage to the septic tank or crushed pipes in the drainfield. This includes roots from trees or shrubs plugging the drainfield pipes.

Failing sewage systems are not always obvious—a system can still be failing or near failure even if a home has no obvious signs of problems. Often, the only way to know that a sewage system has failed or is near failure is to have it carefully inspected. However, the following can be signs of system trouble (some could also be caused by plumbing issues):

  • Drain and toilet issues (e.g., slow, sewage backup)
  • Unusual yard condition (e.g., wet areas or very green grass around your sewage system)
  • Unusual growth of weeds or algae in bodies of surface water around your property.
  • Unpleasant smells around your home and property.

If you think that your sewage system has failed or is having problems, you should call BEDHD right away. BEDHD will help you determine what to do next. If wastewater is coming up in your yard, make sure the area is fenced off so that no one—including pets—will come into contact with it.

If sewage backs up into your home, read this guide to learn how to clean up safely!

Sewage Systems and the Environment

Sewage systems that are failed or missing important parts can allow untreated sewage to flow into groundwater, ponds, streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. This untreated sewage can contain bacteria (including E. coli), parasites, and viruses that can make humans and animals sick. When the untreated sewage enters the ground or nearby bodies of water, the health of many people can be impacted—even people who don’t live on the property with failed sewage system. This untreated sewage can make water used for activities such as swimming and fishing unsafe, and it can contaminate the groundwater that we all share.

For a map of E. coli—impaired surface waters in our district, see this map.

Request for Investigation

Complaint investigation is one part of On-Site Sewage System Program. Residents within the district can file a written request to BEDHD regarding a failed on-site sewage system, water supply problem, or other potential health hazard. Once BEDHD receives the request for investigation, a sanitarian will investigate the complaint and, if warranted, require that corrections be made to remedy the situation. To download a complaint form, visit the "Forms" webpage.

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