By Stephanie Lipcius Palko
People who want to build new homes or extensively renovate existing homes on properties not served by public sewer systems have to have a percolation test on the property.
This test, often referred to as a perc test, involves digging deep holes on the property to examine the soil composition. Water is poured into the holes to see how quickly the water drains into the ground at a site. The success of the test determines if a septic system can be installed on the site and whether that system needs any enhanced design, such as a mound system, in order to perform properly.
The percolation tests are done by the health department’s environmental services division.
Recently, the Cecil County Council expressed concern that the health department has suspended the tests this years due to weather conditions.
Fred VonStaden, Director of Environmental Health at the health department, visited the County Council this week. He gave them a several page report on the topic of percolation tests and explained the regulations.
The county’s environmental health personnel monitor four test wells in the county. They are in various areas of the county. Two are in the coastal plain and the other two are in the piedmont.
The goal of a percolation test is to make sure a septic system will work well during the time of the year when the area expects the underground water tables to be at their highest. That means that percolation tests are conducted between January and April/May each year, VonStaden explained.
The test wells are monitored weekly and the levels determine whether enough snow has melted and/or rain has fallen to bring the water level up high enough to allow good percolation tests.
“When people come in to apply, they are put on a waiting list,” VonStaden said.
If the water tables are at the right levels, the tests can be conducted, he said.
This year, the health department considers the county to be in a drought situation, as shown by levels in the monitoring wells. VonStaden said rainfall totals were down seven inches in January.
“The monitoring wells never got above the 25th percentile,” VonStaden told the County Council about this year’s levels.
The situation in the county prompted the health department to send out a letter in late April announcing no percolation tests will be done this year in the county.
One problem is the “when it rained, it poured,” VonStaden said, explaining that the heavy downpours this winter and spring ran off the land, instead of having time to filter down into the water table. The county also had very little snow. Snow melts into the ground, raising watertable levels
Vegetation is also a factor. VonStaden said once the leaves open on the trees and bushes, the vegetation starts to pull the moisture out of the ground, ending any possibility of a good test of the soils.
To further prove these factors, VonStaden said that after last weekend’s heavy rains, the test wells were checked on Monday. their water levels remained unchanged.
VonStaden said the closing of the percolation tests for the year has affected two dozen people who wanted to build homes in the county this year. They will have to wait until next January to see if conditions will allow a percolation test to be conducted.
There were six other people who originally needed to have percolation tests for renovation projects, but were able to modify their plans so that a perc test was not needed, VonStaden said.
County Council members told the environmental services director that their goal is to promote growth in the county. They also want to see the building permit process expedited. VonStaden said he cannot change the regulations for septic systems, but can offer suggestions to property owners to make the process go more smoothly. Since percolation tests are not needed for homes on public sewer systems, people can make sure they know if their property is served by public systems or if a septic system is needed, VonStaden said, noting that a significant number of people do not know that information about their property. He also urged homeowners to be more meticulous when they draw up their plans for what they want to do on their property or how they will add onto their homes. Poorly drawn plans slow the approval process, he said.
Additionally, VonStaden said the health department has several jobs to fill in the environmental services division.