Health District spreads septic wisdom

While debates continue about the best way to bring sewers to its urban growth areas, the Kitsap County Health District is taking steps to inform the public about the care and feeding of individual sewage systems.

The Health District estimates 60,000 septic systems are in use countywide, serving as many as 180,000 people. Which means a majority of Kitsap residents do not have the convenience or flexibility of a city sewer system and must be aware of certain special needs.

“It’s important to maintain these systems,” said Environmental Health Director Jerry Deeter, “in the same way you need to maintain your car or house. If you don’t take care of it, then it will cost you a lot more to fix in the long run.”

Not changing the oil can decrease the life and value of a car, but not maintaining a septic system brings its own set of consequences.

Septic systems require a certain dedicated area. If they fail, the area cannot be reused, and the new system must be installed elsewhere.

Since individual lots are often smaller than an acre, it’s not easy to find alternate space.

If alternate space is available, the chances are the new system will be of the “alternative” variety. Not only are these more expensive — often upwards of $15,000 to install — but they also require inspection and maintenance at least once a year.

Thus, the septic owner’s inability to manage an inspection every three years can lead to a penance of a far more rigorous and complicated process.

“Land and real estate are limited,” said EHD Assistant Director Keith Grellner. “So with the less space, you have fewer options available.”

The Health District offers septic inspections, charging $185 to determine whether the system is working properly and making a recommendation as to whether pumping is necessary.

This is the only way to get a letter of compliance, which may be required when the property changes hands.

Otherwise, property owners can contact an approved contractor, listed on-line, who will both inspect the system and pump it if necessary.

Currently, septic maintenance is voluntary. If a property owner doesn’t want to pay for an inspection, preferring to watch the system fail and pay to install a new one, there’s nothing the county will do to stop them.

This will change in the next few years, however.

The Health District has records of the countywide septic systems and their inspection status and that data, when properly organized and incorporated, will allow the county to notify property owners when they are due for an expectation and maintenance — and require those who ignore the notice to comply.

By then, the Health District hopes residents will have a better idea about what is required and recommended. This month it is republishing a 28-page “Homeowner’s Guide to Onsite Sewage Systems” in order to educate the public about what it can and cannot do.

The booklet provides a look at basic gravity systems, along with an explanation of each available alternative. (These systems, which are found more often in newer houses, have different maintenance requirements.)

The pamphlet will be available throughout the county, at all Health District offices and on the Internet.

It recommends use of concentrated detergents and advises users to avoid toilet bowl cleaners, chemical drain cleaners or sewage additives. There are common sense guidelines, warning against flushing cat litter, diapers or cigarettes.

“We don’t recommend people put additives into their systems,” Deeter said. “They may not hurt anything, but they are expensive and unnecessary.”

A more controversial statement is the recommendation that homeowners not use their garbage disposals.

“Disposals are a modern convenience people don’t want to do without,” Deeter said. “But if we had our way, houses built on septic systems would not include garbage disposals. The grease and solids put into the system decrease its life.”

Deeter said any septic user with a disposal should limit the use and be very careful what they put down the drain.

With maintenance and inspection, a septic system will last indefinitely. If it passed inspection three years ago, chances are it will have no problems today, as long as no significant remodeling or landscaping has taken place.

Capacity requirements are based on the number of bedrooms, so a house addition could add strain to the system.

The most common problem comes when a property owner inadvertently constructs something over a septic field, such as a parking lot, swimming pool or outbuilding.

For more information, go to and select the environmental health sub-menu, or call (360) 337-5285.

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