Wake County residents with septic systems could soon be shelling out more than $200 every few years for inspections.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners Tuesday listened to a proposed ordinance change that would require regular inspections of septic systems. The inspection system would be similar to that of vehicle inspections, with residents required to get one every five years from an independent contractor. Homeowners would likely pay $200 for the inspection, plus the cost of uncovering the tank and pumping it out.
The change would also require septic system owners to install water meters to monitor the system’s intake. Such meters could cost an estimated $300. If approved, the changes would take effect July 1.
A study of 1 percent of Wake County’s septic systems found 10 percent were failing. At that rate, more than 1 million gallons of sewage a day is spewing out into people’s yards, ditches and more, said Tommy Esqueda, director of Wake County Environmental Services.
The county’s estimated 50,900 conventional septic systems are not regulated. That includes some systems within Raleigh city limits. Other types of septic systems are regulated by a combination of state and county agencies.
Esqueda said septic systems are here to stay; connecting to municipal lines could cost a homeowner around $13,000 in some parts of the county. Yet homeowners with septic systems may not understand them and often do not report issues until their yard is full of waste or until their toilets overflow.
“We have really exhausted everything we can do to the developer, builder, the installers,” Esqueda said. “Once the keys are turned over to the homeowner, that’s where we have these issues. So we’re trying to close this gap.”
Septic repair costs can be as high as $2,000 or even $3,500 to replace an entire system.
The county issues educational materials, he said, but regular inspections would ensure residents would know about and fix troublesome systems. Many septic issues are caused by too much water entering the system at once, which is why water meters are suggested.
Commissioners weren’t so sure such costs were a necessary imposition on taxpayers. Commission Chairman Paul Coble asked if a crisis or some environmental danger was the reason for this new regulation.
“Why, other than we just decided we ought to be doing this?” he said. “My system — I should be taking care of it. When it gets beyond my property, or gets into public water, that’s when it becomes a problem for government to take care of.”
Commissioner Tony Gurley asked if there were other solutions.
“You don’t want to be the person coming onto my property telling me I have to pay $300 to put [in] a meter when I’ve never had a problem,” he said.
A man who identified himself as Billy Meyers said he has installed septic systems for decades. He said with uncovering the system and pumping it out, inspections might cost $1,100, something some “little old lady” can’t afford.
“Are there better ways to educate people?” he said. “We don’t need to make nine people pay for what one person needs.”
Mike Hoover, a professor of soil science at NC State University, said septic systems are capable of working permanently – under the right conditions. Certain soils do not handle the systems well. Permitting for septic systems is already based on soil conditions, but many areas of Wake County have poor soil. And as the county grows, developers will be moving into those areas, Hoover said.
Hoover, who helped conduct the study of Wake County septic systems, has conducted similar studies in other areas of the state and country. He said the fail rate of septic systems is higher when a structure is placed over the system or when the drain field is not shaped properly. In cases with both poor drainage shaping and poor soil, systems have a fail rate of 67 percent, he said.
Management techniques such as inspections in other parts of the state led to a 5 percent fail rate, he said.
“Those are the kinds of impacts management can have,” he said. “We don’t know which are those 10 percent [failing] until we go and check. The homeowner will not report it.”
Commissioners agreed they needed more information and will revisit the issue at a later date.