An Examination of Failing Private Septic Systems in Pennsylvania

Results of a Penn State study on the condition of septic systems statewide, funded by a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
An Examination of Failing Private Septic Systems in Pennsylvania - Articles

Updated: August 8, 2017

Executive Summary

More than 1.3 million housing units, or about 25 percent of all housing units, in Pennsylvania use on-lot septic systems (OLS). However, the true extent of statewide OLS failures and the associated costs for homeowners have not been quantified. Neither the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) nor most local governments have maintained effective record keeping systems that allow for the analysis of failure issues. Further, as growth continues in rural Pennsylvania municipalities, there is some concern that there is not enough suitable land for OLS, which may slow future growth.

To evaluate these issues, the researchers conducted this study in 2006 by estimating the number of private OLS in Pennsylvania; evaluating septic system repairs to quantify OLS failures, including failure rates, nature of failures, cost of repairs, and causes of failures; evaluating the amount of land available for future housing development using OLS at the municipal level; and examining the relationship between the effective date of Act 537 plans and the number of repair permits issued.

Some of the most significant findings from the study are as follows:

  • About 25 percent of all households in the commonwealth use OLS.
  • Approximately 20 percent to 25 percent of all OLS permits are for system repairs.
  • Repairs related to improper site selection and/or installation account for less than 20 percent of all repair permits, and approximately 5 percent to 6 percent of all permits issued. This indicates that current approaches to system installation and site selection appear to be working reasonably well.
  • In 2005, nearly 24 percent of all repairs were for old, pre-1972 systems that were being brought up to modern standards.
  • In 2005, nearly 52 percent of all repairs were for mechanical failures (tanks, pumps etc.) that were unrelated to site selection, system installation, or system design.
  • Some municipalities are facing land shortages for OLS.
  • Future work is needed to evaluate the lands available for OLS and the farmland value of these lands.
  • Act 537 plan adoption may have little impact on repairs of OLS problems in many municipalities.

The complete report is available on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania website.

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