First, if I didn’t have a septic system, I might look at my proposed amendment to the current city ordinance as crazy. My amendment will allow homeowners, who have successfully completed the basic TCEQ course, the option of maintaining their own septic system and thereby be exempted both from contracting with a licensed maintenance provider and providing maintenance reports to the city.
Some bristle at the thought, presuming that homeowners who opt-in would not fulfill the obligation of regular “maintenance” on their systems. However, I will explain how the current requirement does not accomplish what it was intended to do and how this deregulation will have literally no negative impact, though it will save homeowners who take advantage of this, a lot of money!
The problem with the current ordinance comes in the word maintenance, which is misleading, because, apart from cleaning an above ground and easily assessable air filter, there is no actual maintenance that is required of a company under a contract that comes to a home three times a year. Instead, they “inspect” the system, again, a misleading term, to be sure that it is running properly, at the time.
To support my assertions, visit to the ”Maintenance Contract” page of White Eagle Services’ website (or review any of the websites of other Licensed Contractors listed on the Rockwall County Website), which I understand is the “big dog” in our city and is the current maintenance contract provider of the Steinhagen home, the second that we’ve hired. The reason it’s the second company we’ve used is that two weeks after “inspecting” our system, the first provider was MIA when our tank started overflowing last July 4…because it was full! (Tanks need to be emptied every five years or so, and ours had never been emptied since the system was installed in 2005. Our licensed contractor never informed us in January 2013, after we purchased the home, that we had to get the tank emptied, which would have been very helpful to us since this was the first house either of us had ever lived in with a septic system.) There is no requirement that the septic service company under contract must educate the homeowner about the system. Now, of course, I should take time to educate myself about the systems throughout my home, but the fact that the ordinance requires a “maintenance contract” creates a false sense of security for homeowners like me because words mean things, so when I sign a contract for maintenance, I believe it means maintenance.
When reviewing the White Eagle Maintenance Contract page, the question you should be able to answer is what maintenance is being performed? What exactly does the minimum maintenance contract, to be in compliance with the ordinance, provide? In reality, no “maintenance” is being performed. They are simply coming out to inspect the system to see that it is working at the time. Typically, the service contract provider will leave something on the door of the home to let the homeowner know that they had come and, when necessary, remind the homeowner that a chlorine tablet needs to be dropped in, which typically needs to happen every two months (they come out every four, pursuant to the ordinance).
However, it is a common fact that the system can be working properly when the company representative comes out to inspect and the very next day, week, or month the system can go down. For instance, it is impossible to predict when a pump, which is one of the more common problems, will fail.
More importantly, a concern for many is that if the homeowner does not maintain their system, then it can create an avoidable environmental hazard. However, a maintenance contract with a company does not prevent that from happening. The company doing the inspection would have to be there on the very day, and at the very time that the system has faltered to prevent that from occurring.
The state requires that all septic systems include an alarm, which has both a red light that turns on and a loud (and unmistakably obnoxious) alert goes off (if you don’t hear it, your neighbors certainly will). The sprinklers (in our case with the aerobic system we have) can also stop working, which is another sign of a problem. However, if those two indicators don’t get a homeowner’s attention, then the backup in the sinks, showers, and toilets certainly will.
In addition to all of that, if the problem is a full tank, which was what happened to us last year, then raw sewage at the tank will indeed come out (it’s notable that none of the service contractors that I can find inspect the tank because that’s the job of a different company, which is not covered under the ordinance).
My point about all of this is that when the system goes down, the homeowner knows it fairly quickly. It is up to the homeowner to call a septic service company to come out and fix it. Now if a homeowner is on one of the more high-end contracts, all the better for them, because in many of those cases when something goes wrong they are covered for the payment of the repair. We’ve never paid for the higher-end contract but had to find a service company, since our’s just up and vanished, on July 4th and pay extra for being on a holiday, but the point is that our service contract did nothing to prevent the problem that we had. When another service company came out (since our service contractor could not be reached) and diagnosed our problem as being a full tank, not a problem with the system, we then had to call another company (none of the service companies empty tanks and are not covered even if one has a high-end contract), which cost us even more money, plus we had to pay the holiday rate!
Ordinances like these are intended to protect neighbors and communities when either a significant enough number of unthinking or irresponsible citizens disregard the negative impact that their behavior is having on the majority of citizens or because there exists a high likelihood that there will be.
Some may argue that allowing people to personally maintain their OSSF without any recourse will allow people to NOT maintain their OSSF because no one is checking on them.
However, I will argue that asserting that there is no recourse is an unfounded notion, and there are two reasons why:
First, the state law requiring that the system “shall be maintained” is still in effect and those who violate that law is subject to penalties. One citizen asked me the following question: “If no regular inspections are being made, then how is it even possible to know that the statute is being violated so that penalties can ensue?”
- For those who live on remote properties, just like we can’t know that someone is growing marijuana, we can’t know that someone isn’t maintaining their system. But that’s the cost of liberty, which I know most citizens embrace. It’s a matter where fundamental freedom and property rights come into the equation.
- For those in neighborhoods like mine (1-acre tracts), it’s impossible to be unaware when a neighbor is having a significant problem with their septic. The alarm system annoys all of us and the smell makes it obvious. Keep in mind that our little neighborhood of 69 homes has had many instances where septic systems have had problems like these, and remember, the ordinance has been in effect and is being enforced as everyone in our neighborhood has a maintenance contract. The current ordinance is simply not preventing what it was intended to keep from happening, and I’ll explain why in my second point. My case last July is not an exception, it’s happening to most of us who have septic systems.
Second, I will argue that the biggest drawback, for a violating homeowner, is a septic system that is not working properly. That problem is completely the homeowners, and I know of no homeowner in the city that wants to have to deal with that! It’s not something that a homeowner can put off for a week or two either, it must be dealt with immediately or their sinks and toilet will not drain. I will argue that for a homeowner to allow such a problem to fester, then the aforementioned repercussions will soon make the home uninhabitable.
But, even if one considers a worst case scenario where a homeowner refuses to stop a leak and raw sewage continues to seep out of their system where the stench of raw sewage is pervasive, under this scenario, the state statute has teeth and is enforceable at that point because there is probable cause for the state to investigate. However, I contend that the only way for a worst case scenario to become a reality is if a homeowner were to abandon their home (since the home will be uninhabitable due to stopped up sinks and toilets) and leave a faucet on, which can occur under the current ordinance.
The citizen who alerted me to the state statute allowing homeowners the right to maintain their own systems is hired by builders to design septic systems and his work is submitted to cities for approval when septic systems are to be installed. He’s the guy who determines where the system is placed and where leech field, drip system, or sprinklers are to be set (depending on the type of system being installed). This gentleman, who also lives in my neighborhood, sees few drawbacks and is the one who recommended that the city council consider it.
For the last five years, Hunt County has allowed homeowners that have successfully completed the TCEQ course, to take care of their own maintenance. Since then, the number of complaints regarding septic systems has remained flat, which further affirms my contention that most all systems fail at some point, regardless who it is that is authorized to conduct the maintenance. I know of no homeowner that will replace a ten-year-old working pump, for instance, just in case it may falter in the coming years. My pump is sixteen years old. I’ll replace it when it stops working and the current ordinance does not, and should not, establish any mandates on when a working and fully functioning pump should be replaced.
When I look at a prophylactic ordinance, like the one we have that is currently in place, I have to ask myself a few questions.
- Does this ordinance do the most good, for the most people, at the lowest cost? I can find little evidence that this ordinance, which requires homeowners to pay an average minimum annual contract fee of $175 (plus another $30 in filing fees to the city, which is all going to a company that the city has hired) actually protects our community from the environmental hazards that concern you and me.
- Are we governing for the exceptions, rather than the rule? I know that there will indeed be homeowners who pay the $150 and invest their time to sit through the four or five hour TCEQ course who let their septic systems go and fail to live up to their promise to maintain their own system just as we have septic companies, like the first one that I used, who are signing customers up for maintenance contracts and doing little more than dropping by the house, opening the cap, reminding us to put in a chlorine tablet and leave a bill every quarter. I can’t think of any rule, ordinance, or law in existence today where there aren’t some who willingly, intentionally, or negligently violate them. This ordinance is focused on the exceptions, not the rule. Besides that, my amendment will only grant this right to those who elect to become TCEQ trained.
- Is the ordinance restrictive or prescriptive? The Ten Commandments and the US Constitution are largely restrictive covenants, which is what makes them so powerful. The most common reason why laws or ordinances do not have the intended effect is that they are, as this ordinance is, prescriptive in nature. In other words, they instruct you about how or what to do, rather than what actions or outcomes are not allowable. This is why governments spend most of their time chasing down loopholes to try and force an intended result. I have no doubt that someone who is opposed to my amendment will argue that it’s not the ordinance that’s the problem, that we just need to clarify or tighten it up a bit. Of course, the problem starts with the state statute but is exacerbated by the city ordinance. Just as laws do not prevent crime, but assess a penalty when a law is broken, an ordinance should assess a penalty when standards are not met, not dictate how to reach the intended result.
- Who receives the greatest benefit; the citizen, the government, or another party? Septic service companies are the true beneficiaries of this ordinance, not the citizens of M-C since these companies are required to do very little for the money that they are paid. The company that processes the service maintenance logs for the city receive an even greater benefit, as they are paid $10 per inspection report, three times a year for approximately 800 homes, that adds up to $24,000 per year out of the pockets of citizens and into the pockets of a private third party company that does little more than file reports and send out notices (to the homeowner, not the service provider) when an inspection report is delinquent.
It’s important to note that my proposed amendment does not allow the homeowner to make repairs to their septic system when it falters. This amendment only allows a homeowner the right to conduct the very basic minimum state required inspection and when repairs are needed, a licensed contractor still needs to make the repair.
Requiring a homeowner to submit inspection reports is also completely unnecessary since that rule was established to help protect citizens by providing a layer of accountability on companies licensed to service homeowners, not to hold homeowners accountable because, as stated previously, a homeowner that does not maintain their system only hurts themselves.
So what impact will this amendment to the ordinance, should it pass, have on the community? NONE! Systems will continue to break down and full tanks will continue overflow, just as they do now under the current ordinance. But now, homeowners will be able to keep the money they needlessly pay to septic companies in their own pockets!