It hasn’t been that many years since the Maryland Department of Natural Resources filled in the communal outhouse style comfort station that graced the western side of Stafford Road. Heck, private privies remain in use in remote camping and park areas throughout the country, though increasingly they’re being phased out.
There’s a reason for the demise of night soil production stations, back yard garbage dumps and bans on burning trash and yard waste: There are just too many people and, if everyone decided to use the disposal methods that prevailed well into the mid 1900s, the smell would be oppressive, and the effect on ground water would be sickening.
Something that is likely to go the way of outhouses is the standby version of the residential septic system that has been in use and largely unchanged at least since the 1950s. State-of-the-art technology for its day, a septic system is something of a recycling wonder. It consists of a settling tank where solids flushed from a home sink out of the water that carried them there. Water exits the system through a drain field into the nearby soil. If everything is working properly and the system isn’t overloaded, the water ends up being cleansed by the action of bacteria and other natural forces.
Starting Jan. 1, new, more strict, regulations regarding septic systems for new houses built away from access to public sewer systems will go into effect, and the regulations promise to add $11,000 to $14,000 to the cost of a new home built on a well and septic system in Harford County. The new state law demands septic systems for new homes be built using the “best available technology,” or BAT.
From a certain perspective, it’s hard to see why the buyers of new homes on septic systems wouldn’t be demanding the best available technology when it comes to waste disposal. As a rule – and there are exceptions – homes served by septic systems also draw their water from wells. While theoretically, there’s not supposed to be any crossover between the two systems, in practice, sometimes well and septic fields overlap.
Reality being what it is, however, questions about septic system technology take a back seat to square footage, storage space and curb appeal when people are buying houses, so often the most inexpensive available technology allowed by law is what ends up being used. No change in law, means no change in industry standard.
Is a change in the industry standard called for? Probably so. While septic systems have proven to be largely reliable, they have their problems, and a failed or marginal septic system has the potential to pollute nearby groundwater and springs with excess nutrients, which often manifest themselves as bright green algae blooms in standing water and nearby creeks.