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Whether building your dream home or buying an existing home, it is important to understand the type of systems for the drainage and treatment of wastewater.  Some neighborhoods are on public utility sewer systems and some neighborhoods use septic systems. In many instances, the choice of what system you will need to use will be based on the planning and zoning municipality where your property is located. If the area has a sewer system, the home is more likely to be connected to that system. However, a septic system gives the freedom to live in a rural area not served by a sewer system or where the connection to a sewer system is too expensive.

Large public sewer systems charge a monthly fee for their use, but offer the convenience to the homeowner of not having to maintain anything related to waste water outside of their home. Septic systems are the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain, but have no monthly fee, so are usually less expensive in the long run. Having some basic knowledge of the pros and cons of each type of waste water system will help in choosing between neighborhoods that are on public utility sewer systems compared to those on septic systems.

While sewer systems and septic systems serve the same general purpose, which is the drainage and treatment of wastewater, each system operates differently and on varying scales. So what’s the difference between a sewer system and septic system?


Where does the waste go?
Septic System: The waste goes into a holding tank.
Sewer System: Sewers lines carry waste to a treatment facility.

How does it work?
Septic System: Bacteria break down the solid waste and the liquid effluent is then released into the drainfield.
Sewer System: The facility removes contaminants and then discharges water back into local water supplies.

What type of maintenance is needed?
Septic System: Depending on the usage, septic tanks need to be pumped out yearly or every few years.
Sewer System: None

Who is responsible for the maintenance?
Septic System: It is the homeowner’s responsibility to maintain the septic system.
Sewer System: Your local municipality is responsible for maintaining the public sewer system.

What do you do if it fails to work?
Septic System: Call a professional septic repair company.
Sewer System: Call your local municipality public works department

What is the cost?
Septic System: If buying a new home from a reputable new home builder, then the cost of the septic system is included in the price of the house.
Sewer System: The cost to use a public sewer system varies depending on location.  Some areas separate the cost of water and sewage, while others combine the two.

What are the benefits?
Septic System: If maintained properly a septic system generally has fewer ongoing costs.
Sewer System: Sewer systems are very convenient and the homeowner has no responsibility for repairs.


The Difference Between a Sewer System and Septic System

Below is an overview of the two systems along with some pros and cons of each.

Septic System Overview

Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.

A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.

The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.

The pros of a septic system:

  • No monthly fee
  • Pumping performed every 2-5 years is generally the only ongoing cost and typically costs between $100-300 depending on your area.
  • Often considered a greener option due to being powered entirely by gravity and no chemicals are used to treat the wastewater
  • Allow homes to be built in rural areas where sewer systems are not available or where the connection to a sewer system is cost-prohibitive

The cons of a septic system:

  • Maintenance is the responsibility of the property owner
  • The cost of installing a new septic system may be a larger upfront cost versus the fee to connect to a sewer system
  • If not properly designed and maintained, a septic system can be more susceptible to malfunction or overflows during periods of heavy rains
  • If not properly designed and maintained, the water may not be properly treated and outflow can contaminate the surrounding area
  • You will need to allow space on your property for the underground septic to be located


Sewer System Overview

The Sewage collection and disposal system was non-existent. Human waste was disposed of in the open pit privy, while household wastes found their way into open gutters. Such unsanitary conditions gave rise to typhoid fever, yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases, which decimated the population at regular intervals.

Sewer systems connect an entire community using city-owned pipes and sewer lines that lead to a centralized treatment facility. The treatment facility treats the water in various stages to remove solids, organic materials, bacteria phosphorus, and nitrogen from the water and discharge it back into the local water supply.

The pros of a sewer system include:

  • No individual maintenance by the property the property owner because all maintenance is performed by the municipality
  • Sewer systems are designed to manage large volumes of wastewater and storm water and are less susceptible to overflow during large rainstorms (although overflow can occur)
  • If there is a problem, the property owner calls the local municipality instead of having to fix themselves
  • Flush or wash down the drain and forget it…the wastewater is gone
  • Due to their familiarity, sewer systems are often preferable by homebuyers

The cons of a sewer system include:

  • Municipalities charge a monthly fee to the property owners for use of the sewer system and periodically assess a larger fee for maintenance, repairs, and new installations
  • When building a new home, municipalities generally charge an “impact” fee to connect the new home to the sewer system, which can be very expensive
  • Ideally, a sewer system will take advantage of gravity as much as possible to get the wastewater to the central treatment facility, but the lay of the land often requires that energy be used to pump the wastewater throughout the system to get to the treatment facility
  • The centralized treatment facility uses chemicals for treating the wastewater before returning back into the environment or local water supply


Given these differences, the preference between one system or the other could largely be based on one’s independent mindedness as a homeowner. If you don’t mind the municipal obligations that can factor into your dependence on a centralized sewer system, then that might be the adequate option, especially if you’re likely to change addresses every few years or less. But if you want independence as a homeowner and are looking to choose a remote or custom-built residence and have personal responsibility for the running of your wastewater, then a septic system would be the more ideal option.

At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you don’t have time to deal with septic problems. If you think that your system has reached capacity, please give us a call right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.