July 26, 2002 – Here's where Julie Wright stands on one of the biggest, shall we say, areas of disagreement in households around the country: Yes, it is all right to use a bit of bleach in your toilet bowl once a week.
But "don't pour bleach in every day," the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service program supervisor advises.
Her suggestion is to use a "teeny weenie" bit to remove chemical stains in weekly bathroom cleaning. But actually, she'd prefer you to use less-toxic alternatives such as borax and lemon juice, which she says can do the job just as well.
The Cooperative Extension Service has published a handy booklet called "Recipes for a Non-Toxic Household" that spells out numerous natural — and typically less expensive — alternatives to commercial household cleaners. The booklet also suggests baking soda for regular toilet bowl cleaning.
On Thursday, Wright and CES agent Dale Morton took their message on the road to St. John, where they conducted the latest workshop in a series on how to deal safely with everyday things around your home.
The topic for this one was "Understanding Your Septic System." Wright explained in more detail than most lay persons would ever have imagined how septic systems work and how to best take care of them.
The bleach issue occupied a fair amount of time at the workshop. Wright said yes to measuring and no to dumping bleach into your toilet bowl as well as into your wash machine. She recommended following the label directions on how much to use. Bleach in the laundry is crucial if your washer empties into your septic system, she said; however, most people's washers empty into the ground.
But don't put bleach in your dishwashing water, she said. Residue that remains on the dishes is definitely not good for health.
Wright shared a laundry list of things not to put in the toilet: No tissues, dental floss, swabs, paper towels, tampons or cigarette butts. A magnet that came with the workshop handouts also listed disposable diapers; coffee grounds and cat litter as no-no's. And while neither mentioned sanitary napkins, common sense should tell you that they're in the same category.
"The toilet is not a garbage can," Wright said.
The problem, she said, is that items which do not break down easily in the septic system cause it to stop functioning properly and can clog up the pipes. Toilet tissue matters, too. If your toilet paper dissolves too well, it won't settle into the bottom of your septic tank, where it becomes part of the sludge layer. Instead, it goes into your drain field and can clog it up.
Wright also touched on the impact of water usage on septic systems. If you're taking showers like Niagara Falls is next door, the excess water can overwhelm your septic tank.
And you know that liquid soap so many people prefer over bars? It has more oil than regular soap, and that isn't so good for septic tanks, either.
She also advised against spending money for septic system additives that you flush down the toilet. Touted as a way to put a septic tank back into bacterial balance, they work for a couple of days at best, she said, but after that you're back to your same old problems.
"Wastewater entering your septic tank has all the bacteria it needs. If it could handle more, it would make more," Wright said.
A septic tank should last about 40 years if operated and maintained properly, she said. This includes pumping it when there's a need — every three to five years on average. If you've got a puddle of smelly water in your yard, a mushy spot over your drain field or a bad odor hanging about, you may need to call the professionals to check things out.
And if your toilet won't flush or your drains back up, you're in deep doo-doo. You've probably got a failed septic tank, and "you'll have to start over with a new septic tank system," Wright said.
Plant banana trees over your drain field, Wright advised. Bananas and other broad-leaf plants love the nutrient-laden water that seeps up from the drain field. However, that water probably contains bacteria your stomach won't like, so this is not a good place for planting herbs and vegetables. Don't plant trees, either, she said, because the roots can clog the drain field.
Also, don't cover your drain field with concrete, mulch or gravel because that will inhibit water absorption and evaporation.
And if you're building, don't let the construction workers drive their heavy equipment over the area planned for a drain field, because that will compact the soil, which in turn will prevent the drain field from working properly.
To request a copy of "Recipes for a Non-Toxic Household" or to obtain more information on septic tank construction and care, contact Wright by calling 693-1082 or e-mailing to Julie Wright.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Sea Grant program has prepared an easy-to-understand article on septic tank care and maintenance called "Septic Sense, Scents, Cents." It's available online at the Fearless Flush web site.
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