2.5 Deliver targeted education and incentives to improve operation and maintenance of septic systems and encourage upgrades for enhanced nutrient treatment

Key Message: Regular septic system maintenance is economical compared to other costs of home maintenance and to central sewer fees. Education is needed to encourage proper maintenance of systems, along with incentives to upgrade to newer technologies with improved nutrient reduction.


Improper disposal of items and chemicals down toilets and drains, compaction of soils over drainfields, disruption from roots of shrubs or trees, aging components, inundation with rainwater from gutters, rising sea level and/or water table, or lack of regular maintenance can all reduce performance or lead to failure of septic systems. Proper operation and maintenance of septic systems can reduce their impacts on water quality and public health. It can also reduce costs of ownership and extend the life span of systems. When septic systems require major maintenance or when homes are remodeled, enhanced nutrient treatment technologies can be installed to retrofit or replace older conventional systems.


While Sarasota County Code (Sec. 54-221-223) provides design, permitting, and installation criteria, there are no operation and maintenance requirements for septic system owners to ensure their systems continue to function safely. Sarasota County’s Water Pollution Control Code (Sec. 54-181-193) provides for enforcement of leaking septic tanks on private property. In practice, enforcement only occurs when citizens report suspicious conditions that can be investigated by County enforcement agents. Unless the state or county mandates inspection and maintenance (see Chapter 2.4), the primary management tools available to encourage proper operation and management are outreach and education. 

Regular septic system maintenance is relatively inexpensive compared to other costs of home maintenance and compared to central sewer fees. The homeowner’s cost of pumping out a septic system every five years is $250-$400. In contrast, central sewer service costs homeowners about $5,400 over the same time period. Nevertheless, incentives may be necessary for low-income households.

Enhanced nutrient treatment technologies now exist as new systems or retrofits for older conventional systems (Figure 2.2.1). Technologies include in-ground nitrogen-reducing biofilters, nitrogen-reducing aerobic treatment units, or nitrogen-reducing Performance-Based Treatment Systems (FDOH 2019). Advanced nutrient-treatment upgrades to conventional septic systems in Sarasota County remain voluntary. Education and outreach about these technologies, together with targeted incentives for their installation, can be important tools for reducing nutrient pollution in priority water bodies. The Clean Waterways Act (2020) requires FDEP to fast-track permitting for advanced septic systems in basins with impaired water bodies. This measure also creates a wastewater grants program that provides a 50% match to local funds for upgrading septic systems with advanced nutrient removal technologies.

Figure 2.2.1 Septic system with additional nitrogen treatment in the flow pathway from tank to leaching field. Source: EPA

Sarasota County Stormwater Environmental Utility, in collaboration with the Science and Environment Council, developed an informational rack card to promote responsible septic system operation and maintenance. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science (UF/IFAS) Extension posts educational materials on their website about proper septic system practices. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed an online SepticSmart Homeowners education program that provides information about proper care of septic systems and other technical information.


Education and outreach about proper operation and maintenance of septic systems should be targeted toward citizens using septic systems in priority areas (see Chapter 2.3). Outreach and education should focus on:

  • negative impacts of septic systems on water quality, including consequences for public health, quality of life, environmental health, economic activity, recreation, and property values.
  • personal responsibility for personal pollution and the disproportionately small costs of maintaining a septic system compared to higher costs of centralized sewer service.
  • comparisons of financial tradeoffs for septic system owners related to relatively inexpensive regular maintenance expenses versus repairing or replacing failing systems.
  • costs of polluted water in terms of reduced community appeal, economic activity, family health — and its effect on real estate values, sales, and commissions.

Postcards could be designed using information from Sarasota County’s septic system rack card plus more community-specific messages relevant to the target audience. For example, highlighting landmarks in a community such as the nearest beach park could be effective. Postcards could be mailed to each household in the priority area; alternatively, informational door hangers could be distributed. Outreach experts could attend local community events to provide information and answer questions. Social media messages, including Facebook and Next Door, could also target priority communities. Repetition across multiple delivery methods is an effective tool to encourage behavior change. Incentive programs could be developed to encourage septic system maintenance by low-income households in high-priority areas. Information about enhanced nutrient treatment technologies for septic systems could be included on a rack card and given to property owners seeking to redevelop properties in priority areas when they apply for permits.



Education – Planning; Incentives – No Activity

Performance Measure

One message delivered to each septic system owner in Sarasota County per year.

Experts or Leads

Education – Sarasota County Government, Science and Environment Council, UF/IFAS; Model Incentive Program – FDEP

Cost Estimate

$50,000-$100,000 Education and Outreach

$1,000,000+ Maintenance Incentive Program

Related Activities

Chapter 2.1, Chapter 2.4



Other Septic System Activities

2.1 Quantify annual nutrient loads from septic systems

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