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 Rural Home Improvements Should Begin With Water and Sewer

by Steve Alberg
Alberg Water Services, Annandale, Minn.

Many homes outside the boundaries of city utility services are plagued with sewer and water deficiencies. Weak water pressure, foul water and outdated sewer systems lead the list. I dare say most of you would address these problems if cost were not the problem. Our fellow city residents seem to enjoy better utilities, for the most part. A great deal of effort and expense went into the construction of water and sewer utilities. The users have to pay for it, in terms of taxes and periodic utility bills. Rural property owners around our area of the state don’t have the comforts of  “piped-in” water and sewer services. They own and maintain a private well and septic system. Cost of maintenance and repair appears suddenly in large chunks.

Wells and septic systems is a subject that relatively few people understand. Not meaning to belittle some folks, but I have encountered customers who cannot identify the most basic components of their water and sewer systems. Nothing wrong with that. Let the professionals deal with it, right? However, some people are moving out of town, thinking that those city pipes are extending out there. A few are blind-sided, when they discover they have emergencies to deal with.

The majority of people who live in our world live in communities and access their domestic water and discard it through a pipe. Few understand where it comes from and where it goes. As long as the water is clear and steady, and as long as it leaves quickly, life is normal. Country folks have a different situation. So what do you do if you experience water or sewer woes? Move to town? Probably not. First, assess your options. Those options normally result in expenses, and that is hard for most to except.  Water and waste come and go to a source that is mostly out of sight and out of mind. It is hard to anticipate and save for those types of expenses. Things like cars and homes are easier to maintain and better anticipate expenses, because there are visual cues. You can see the rust, or the rotting wood, or the peeling paint.

Look at the growth of the home improvement stores today. Home improvement and installation of efficient technologies are huge. We have grown to believe this increases the value of a home, and that’s a good thing to most of us. Lenders have jumped in and created endless loan products to help us on our way. To most, home improvement includes areas like bathrooms, kitchens, HVAC or exterior treatments. What about the well or septic system? Why spend money on that? We can’t see it.

Ask a potential property buyer if they would consider a purchase, knowing a septic system or a well has a problem. When viewing a home, how many actually go turn on the water and wait a while to see what happens? How many ask to see the results of previous water testing? Many don’t. After moving in they discover problems and start calling. Buyers beware. Many urban buyers now use consultants to inspect the home prior to negotiation. Rural buyers are catching on, but the consultants probably know just as little about the water and sewer. Most ownership transfers include what the real estate agents and banks term as a “well inspection”. In reality, that’s just a water test. It addresses nothing related to pressure and performance. It is the same with a “septic inspection”. There is some rudimentary visual investigation. Nothing certain can be offered to guarantee future performance.

A home is not a home without plenty of safe water. A home is not a home without a place to discharge its waste and water. What are people’s priorities, appearance or livability? First, should be livability. The subject of livability should be taken seriously. Those old systems originally met the owner’s needs. Do they meet today’s owner’s needs?

An example would be a sand point well installed at many of the dwellings here in the heart of the lakes. Those wells are often a simple pipe driven into water-bearing gravel at a shallow depth of less than 30 feet. A fine slotted or perforated pipe called a screen filters out sand and soil particles, and nothing more. A form of waste disposal is commonly found nearby. It can be an old open-bottomed tank called a cesspool. Or, it can be a more modern system using a drainfield, with a series of shallow perforated pipes. The waste liquids are allowed to seep back into the ground. Your water is drawn from that tainted soil. That’s frightening. Construction standards have come a long way in the water and sewer business. We know the dangers of septic seepage. Bacteria and disease are far better understood.

Those familiar with history, know that disease and sickness wiped-out millions in previous centuries. The cause of sickness was most often attributed to the water they drank. The popularity of alcoholic beverages rose, due to the fact that fewer people were getting sick if they didn’t drink the water. Chalk one up for beer! Seriously, beer played a large part in the development of large population centers. At the time, nobody had any understanding of bacteriological pathogens. Today we do. Our understanding has led to the development of technology, and we have applied it to the modern construction of wells and septic systems.

My intentions are not to scare people into seeking installation of new wells and septic systems. My foremost concern is to advise homeowners to pay attention to the safety of their water supply. Periodic testing is the primary defense. Have your water tested for coliform bacteria and nitrates. Other contaminants are worth considering, but primary consideration should be given to bacteria and nitrates. There are numerous water analysis laboratories available. Even the county health officials offer low cost testing. Water well drillers can be of assistance too. To learn more, the Minnesota Dept. of Health Well Management Section is available through the web @ www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh. The presence of contaminants, if identified, could lead you to further action. There may be low cost corrective measures offered by various well drillers or septic system installers.

Under more extreme circumstances, replacement is the only solution. Both water and the septic system contractors can amaze you in the improvements we now have at our disposal. Higher output, constant pressure and advanced filtration is available in wells today. Septic systems using some expanded technology can be installed, using much smaller areas of your property. There is no better satisfaction for a contractor than to see the expressions on customer’s faces, once a new system is up and running. Many later wonder why they waited and suffered so long. Now they see how wisely spent money can significantly improve the value of their home. The value can also be the realization that now their family is drinking the safest water possible.

Most rational people would want a safe or better water supply. Yet our finances may be a limiting factor. There are some good alternative sources of help for individuals or families with low-to-moderate income. If you are looking to construct, repair or improve household water, you may want to look up the National Ground Water Association’s web site @ www.ngwa.org. There, you will find a link to the Foundation for Affordable Drinking Water. They will explain a low cost, low interest loan program. In addition, the USDA Rural Development has some programs assisting property owners in matters concerning both wells and septic systems. Visit www.rurdev.usda.gov and check out their loans and grants. The USDA has an office in Waite Park. They will discuss these matters by phone @ 320-251-8860, extension 4.

People living in a country setting generally feel blessed. Quiet living, fresh air, abundant recreation, you name it. We can also be cursed in some respects. Lacking municipal services like water and sewer, we can get a bit stretched when upkeep and maintenance become reality. Prioritization is in order. Safe and plentiful water should be at the top of your list. A close second should be the disposal of that used water. The local area is well served by a number of fair and knowledgeable contractors. Their value is immeasurable.

Call Steve or Greg  320-274-8656  Anytime

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