Of course, when facing a major storm or hurricane, your first priorities are to assure the safety of your family. Included in those priorities are concerns about safe drinking water and proper sewage disposal. Below are some concerns about private wells and onsite sewage systems when Virginia faces major storms or flooding followed by links to other sources of information. If you have specific questions before or after the storm, call your local health department. While the emergency is in progress, Virginia Department of Health personnel will be working in Emergency Operation Centers at state and local levels.
Power outages can cause problems for homeowners with wells and/or certain onsite sewage systems. If your home is served by a well, the well pump will not work when the power goes out. Keep sufficient potable water on hand for drinking and cooking. Toilets can be flushed by pouring a bucketful of water either into the tank and using the handle, or by pouring a bucketful into the bowl. Many well pumps operate on a 240 volt circuit, so if you plan to use a generator to run your well pump during a power outage, have the connections established by a licensed electrician. Remember – water and electricity are very dangerous together!
Some onsite sewage systems may also fail to operate properly during a power outage. The pump won’t work without power in systems with pumps, but most onsite sewage systems with a pump should have 100-200 gallons storage capacity above the high level alarm. Exceeding this storage capacity could cause the pump chamber to overflow, spilling raw sewage on the ground. Use water sparingly.
Many alternative systems also have electrical components such as aerators, flow control switches and other equipment. Many alternative systems also include a pump and therefore should have a limited amount of storage capacity as noted above. Alternative system owners should call their licensed Alternative Onsite Sewage System Operator as soon as possible once the power returns if some components do not seem to be functioning properly.
People who rely on private wells for their water should consider their well contaminated if it was submerged or they believe it is possible the well became submerged during the hurricane.
If the well was flooded and underwater, do not turn on the pump until you are sure the electrical system is completely dried out. See the EPA link below – What to do After the Flood. Consider a well that has been submerged contaminated and disinfect the well and the water system using this procedure once you are sure the electrical system is safe:
http://www.wellwater.bse.vt.edu/files/SHOCK442-663_PDF.pdf. The water should not be consumed until bacteriological testing indicates the well is not contaminated. Two satisfactory bacteriological tests performed on samples taken at least 24 hours apart will indicate your water supply has been properly disinfected. Labs certified to test drinking water are available at this website: http://www.dgs.state.va.us/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=4DnwLDKzC5g%3d&tabid=508
If you are unsure if the well was flooded, assume that it was and use another water source until the the water supply is disinfected.
A satisfactory water test following disinfection indicates that the water supply has been disinfected initially. The second water test, taken at least 24 hours later, indicates that there is no ongoing contamination of the water supply. Be sure to follow the instructions from the lab carefully when collecting your water samples. Exposing the water or container to a source of bacteriological contamination (fingers, breath, etc.) could give a false positive result.
Onsite Sewage Systems
For any type of onsite sewage system, conventional or alternative, a hurricane or flood could submerge the system, causing a backup of sewage into the house. Look for sewage backups in the plumbing fixtures at the lowest elevations in your house. The wax seal between the toilet and the floor and the first floor or basement bathtub. Wear gloves and other protective gear when cleaning up sewage.
Flooding can wash soil away from the septic tank, drainfield lines or other components, causing damage to the components or introducing raw or partially treated sewage into the yard. Flooding may also just cause the onsite sewage system to operate sluggishly because the soil in the dispersal area is saturated, preventing effluent from the tank from seeping into the ground. Hurricane Isabel in September 2003, left Virginia with acres of fallen trees from high winds combined with saturated soil. Some homeowners found that the roots of falling trees pulled up some shallow drainfield lines and damaged some other components such as septic tanks and distribution boxes.
If your septic tank/drainfield system is damaged by the storm or if the soil is saturated, minimize water use within the house to prevent raw sewage from discharging to the ground surface. Minimize contact with sewage contaminated waters. Use gloves and protective gear and wash any exposed skin with soap and water as soon as possible. Disinfect any exposed human contact surfaces with diluted bleach water.
Following the storm, saturated soils should begin to drain and restore function to many sluggish systems. If your system has been damaged or remains sluggish, you will need to complete an application to repair your damaged system with the local health department or contact your Alternative Onsite Sewage System Operator to inspect your alternative system.
Here are some links you may find helpful:
- Shock Chorinating your Private Well (link also given above) – Virginia Cooperative Extension
- Virginia Certified Laboratories (link also given above) – Dept. of General Services
- General Food and Water Sanitation in Emergencies (CDC)
- What to do After the Flood – EPA
- Coliform, Fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria explained:
- Well Testing- CDC
- Water Related Diseases and Contaminants in Private wells – CDC