Sunday, October 28, 2012

Storm Prep and Cleanup for Well and Septic Owners

With tropical storm Sandy approaching the east coast and potentially heading for Virginia and much of the mid-Atlantic and northeast, the Governors along the eastern seaboard have declared states of emergency. The local utilities have already requested additional workers to restore power lines, so it seems a good time to discuss basic storm preparations for your home and how intense rainfall associated with tropical storms and hurricanes can impact your drinking water well and septic system, and what you should do if your well and septic system are impacted. I am posting this blog entry a little early, so I can run off to the grocery store and pick up some more milk, orange juice, coffee and produce and any other emergency supplies I don’t have on hand.  

My home is on well water and without electricity I have no water, no septic, no sump pumps, my freezer containing a quarter of a cow (grass fed) that is in danger of spoiling, and my life generally disrupted with the loss of the all the modern conveniences. So five years ago, I had a Guardian 16 kilowatt automatic generator manufactured by Generac installed. When the power to the house is cut, the generator automatically kicks in to power most of the house in about 20 seconds. The generator runs on liquid propane from a tank buried in my yard that also powers my hot water heater, furnace, gas grill and stove. The generator can supply the house for more than two weeks depending on whether the gas furnace is running, and is housed in an insulated aluminum casing under my deck (muffling the sound) and looking good as new even after five years of sitting outside.
My Generator

The generator was serviced over the summer after the last storm and was filled with oil, and the propane tank was filled last week in preparation for winter. (Note that if the generator runs more than a few days especially when new it will need oil.) So, I am all set to go on those fronts. However, it is a little late to be installing a whole house generator and I understand that there has been quite the run on portable generators, so you may not be able to get one today. So, you need to make sure that your sump pump or pumps are operational and have battery backup (check those batteries and make sure they work), clear all the leaves out of your gutters and make sure the down spouts drain away from your foundation. Keeping water away from the house will protect your home and minimize the work that the sump pumps will have to do. Make sure you have batteries and flash lights. Even with the generator, we keep flashlights around. If you do not have a generator, fill plastic bags with water and put as many as you can in your freezer today. The water will freeze by tomorrow and the frozen water will serve to keep the freezer cold without power- just like a cooler.  If the power goes out, you might also want to use some of the ice bags to keep your refrigerator cold. In the end you can drink the water. Bring in all outdoor furniture, decorations, garbage cans and anything else that is not tied down, put them in the garage-that includes the pumpkins on the stoop.

Without electricity your well pump will not work, so you will need to fill the bathtubs and gallon jugs with drinking water when the storm hits to make sure that you will have water. If your home and well are on low ground, and the area floods then it is possible your well could be impacted. After a storm, brownish or dirty water coming from the well is a common occurrence and indicates surface water infiltration carrying dirt and contaminants into the well. If your well was flooded or your water appears dirty or brownish you need to clear your well and disinfect it and the stored water may have to last you a few days.

Septic systems should not be used immediately after flooding. Drain fields will not work until underground water has receded. Septic lines have been known to break during significant flooding, so keep an eye out for that. Whenever the water table is high or your septic drain field has been flooded, there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less. Basically, there is nothing you can do but wait it out, do not use the system if the soil is saturated and flooded. The wastewater will not be treated and will become a source of pollution, if it does not back up into your house, it will bubble up into your yard. Conserve water as much as possible while the system restores itself the drain field dries out and the water table fails. Also, if the septic system is not and entirely gravity system you will need power to run the pumps and need to understand if there is adequate gravity flow to move the sewage from the house.

The available volume in the septic tank (assuming you occasionally pump it) should give you several days of storage and water use if you conserve water to allow your drain field to recover. The biggest single use of water in the home is laundry- a top loading washer uses 52 gallons and a front load washer uses 27 gallons- do not do laundry until the system has dried out.  Toilets manufactured before 1992 use 5 or more gallons per flush while newer, low flush toilets use 1.5 gallons per flush. Only flush older toilets when you have to- not for urine. Go easy on your water use. The septic system operates on the principals of settling, bacterial digestion, and soil filtration all gentle and slow natural processes that will have been battered by the storm. Do not pump the septic tank while the soil is still saturated. Pumping out a tank that is in very saturated soils may cause it to “pop out” of the ground. Recently installed systems may “pop out” of the ground more readily than older systems because the soil has not had enough time to settle and compact.

If your well was flooded or your water appears dirty or brownish after the storm you need to clear your well and disinfect it. Your power must be restored to disinfect the well. Run your hoses (away from your septic system and down slope from your well) to clear the well. Run it for an hour or so and see if it runs clear. If you have a robust recharge rate as I do it will take hours to clear the well. If not let the well rest for 8-12 hours and run the hoses again. Several cycles should clear the well. What we are doing is pumping out any infiltration in the well area and letting the groundwater carry any contamination away from your well. In all likelihood the well will clear of obvious discoloration. Then, you need to disinfect your well. This is an emergency procedure that will kill any bacteria for 7 to 10 days.
Well with a sanitary cap

Determine what type of well you have and how to pour the bleach into the well. Some wells have a sanitary seal which must be unbolted. Some well caps have an air vent or a plug that can be removed. On bored or dug well, the entire cover can simply be lifted off to provide a space for pouring the bleach into the well. Carefully pour the bleach down into the well casing using a funnel if necessary. For a typical 6 inch diameter well you need 2 cups of regular laundry bleach for each 100 foot of well depth to achieve about 200 parts per million chlorine concentration. If you don’t know the depth of the well, pour a half gallon down the well. Wear rubber gloves, old clothes and protective glasses to protect you from the inevitable splashes, and don't forget a bucket of bleach mixed with water to wash the well cap.

After the bleach has been added, run water from an outside hose into the well casing until you smell chlorine coming from the hose (depending on the depth of your well and the recharge rate, this can take an hour or more). This step is important to mix the chlorine in the well. Then turn off the outside hose. Now go into the house and if you have a water treatment system, switch it to bypass before turning on the indoor faucets, then one bathroom and sink at a time, turn on the cold water faucets until the chlorine odor is detected in each faucet, then shut it off and move on to the next sink, or bathroom (if you have an automatic ice maker turn it off and dump the ice. Do not turn on the hot water. Once the inside system has been done, go back to the outside spigots and run the hoses until you smell chlorine coming out. Warning if you have iron bacteria in your well, your water may turn completely rust colored. Do not panic it will flush out of the system, but do not use the hot water until the water runs clear or you will have to drain the hot water tank to prevent staining.

Wait 8 to 24 hours before using the water. You want to run the hoses until the water runs clear if you have iron bacteria or simply run the hoses to prevent killing all the bacteria in the septic system. It is important not to drink, cook, bath or wash with this water during the time period it contains high amounts of chlorine whose by products are a carcinogen. After at least 8 hours, run the water into a safe area where it will not kill your lawn, your trees or plants pollute lakes, streams or septic tanks. Run the water until there is no longer a chlorine odor. Turn the water off. The system should now be disinfected, and you can now use the water for 7 to 10 days when the effects of the disinfection wear off. After 7 to 10 days you need to test your well for bacteria to make sure that it is safe.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office will be hosting a drinking water clinic for well owners in Prince William County as part of the Virginia Household Water Quality Program and subsidizing the analysis cost. So you may want to attend to test your well. The Kickoff Meeting will be on November 5, 2012 at 7 - 8:30 pm at the Old Courthouse, 9248 Lee Avenue in Manassas, VA 20110. Unlike public water systems, private systems are entirely unregulated; consequently, the well testing, and treatment are the voluntary responsibility of the homeowner.


  1. In the second to last paragraph it says,

    "The system should now be disinfected, and you can NOW use the water for 7 to 10 days when the effects of the disinfection wear off"
    Should this say "you can NOT use the water for 7 to 10 days"?

    1. Once you disinfect the well, it is safe to drink for 7 to 10 days. However after that you need to check to make sure that the well is still sanitary. If you test a well after disinfection, you will not find bacteria, though if you look you will find chlorine.