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In the nearly eight years since I have been the lead On-Site Septic system inspector here in Kittitas County, I have witnessed a great many interesting things when it comes to septic systems and especially tanks or what someone’s idea of a tank may have been.

Historically, prior to any state regulations, pioneers and homesteaders were very creative in their techniques of getting rid of human waste. Of course, this story begins with privies (outhouses) and eventually plumbing and sewers that generally discharged directly into surface water, a technique which proved to be sub-standard, as history has shown. This type of primary waste treatment led to disease and many other health issues related to poor water quality. Many third world countries, unfortunately, still don’t have running water or proper sanitation, leading to epidemics such as cholera, E. coli and giardia.

Although civilizations have tried improving sanitation over the last 3,000 years, it was not until the early 1860s when the first “septic tank” was invented and put to use using concrete and clay pipe. However it was not until the 1940s when somewhat of a standard was used in the populated areas.

Many of the first septic tanks were concrete tanks that were formed out of wood and poured in place in the ground and covered with a concrete lid or often some type of lumber. Many of the first “precast tanks” were made of metal commonly known as “dickey tanks,” and were mass produced and sold as a unit with a 500-gallon round metal vessel with a metal lid. Many of these tanks are still functioning in the county. At this point in history, you could also order an entire house in a kit from Sears and Roebuck catalog.

The idea of the septic tank is to trap the solids and to let the clear effluent from the tank drain into an underground drain field, or often times as in previous decades, drains were plumbed into the nearest ditch or stream. Most of these situations have been corrected over the years but many are still operating and contributing pollution into our ground and surface water. Some tanks I have been fortunate enough to be involved in replacing were made of stacks of railroad ties, old barrels and even an old car.

In the 1960s, precast concrete tanks became more prevalent as the standard of practice improved. Most tanks were still single compartment 750, 1,000 or 1,200-gallon tanks, usually depending on the size of the house. In the 1970s, the standards of practice again improved and 1,000 and 1,200-gallon two-compartment tanks became the standard. It was also at this time that many county health departments began regulating the installation and methods of septic system design and construction. As old systems failed, they were brought up to more modern standards of the time, and have helped to improve overall water quality.

On-site septic systems are a temporary means of disposal. They will not last forever, and at some point will need to be repaired or completely replaced. Big regulations changes came in the 1980s, specifically addressing the potential of ground and surface water pollution from septic systems.

The biggest change came in 1995 when Washington state implemented WAC 246-272, which defined very specific regulations mainly regarding setbacks and separation from ground and surface waters. This period also recognized many new technologies and types of septic systems like pressurized and sand mound systems.

All in all, the idea and purpose of the septic tank has not changed, however, stricter regulations have been established regarding minimum tank sizing and water tightness. Technology and regulation will continue to evolve with the goal of protecting general public health and welfare.

Health Watch runs the third Tuesday of each month in Scrapbook. Columns are coordinated and submitted by the Kittitas County Public Health Department.

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