Estimates vary, but a common figure puts the number of septic systems in the U.S. at around 26 million with approximately 10 – 20 percent of these septic systems failing. Many areas in the U.S. have reported even higher failure rates, highlighting the need to understand more about the health of septic system inventories and develop effective strategies to reduce failure rates in our communities.
Yet understanding the true nature of the problem, and targeting programs and funding to mitigate systems most at risk of failure remains challenging for regulators. The problem is complex and multifaceted, but a contributing factor is the lack of good data about septic systems. The lack of good data makes it difficult for regulators to better understand the problem, but it also limits how data is used to identify at risk systems and address problems before failure occurs.
Good data should start with the basic premise that it is digital, but this is a very low bar to set. Often a scanned PDF site plan and permit is considered digital, yet these digital records have little value beyond record keeping. Permit records in a database are digital, but in many communities these records are not complete with a significant amount of the septic system inventory remaining on paper in a filing cabinet. Permit databases are also not designed to represent the location of a septic system on a property, which limits using location in risk assessments and data driven insights.
System data includes digital permit, inspection and maintenance records about septic systems. It should be complete and offer system variables like age, tank size, drain field type and size, maintenance records and more. Enhanced location data simply means that the data should provide the location of the system on a property, whether a full digital site plan or a permit point that is mapped on a system feature like the drain field.
Enhanced location data is what opens the door to using system data with other location data, such as soil characteristics, and derivative location data such as septic system density, proximity to water, proximity to wells and more, to assess risk. Location also allows regulators to consider impact when assessing risk, so that not only are at risk systems identified, but also their potential impact to the community if failure occurs.
The inclusion of impact during risk assessments helps regulators gain a deeper understanding of septic system inventories, making it possible to target often limited resources and programs to those systems that pose the greatest threat to public health and water quality. But getting to a point where we are using data to help regulators protect public health and water quality means we first have to have good data.
Good data is the key to new efficiencies, improved access to site plans and septic information, and providing regulators with tools that will help them better manage inventories and reduce failure rates. But good data is also the foundation that is needed to fully understand the health of septic systems in our communities. It is hard to imagine developing effective solutions to reducing failure rates without good data as the centerpiece to start from.