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Oct 12, 2017 5:08 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

A Homeowner's Guide To Navigating The Installation Of New Nitrogen-Reducing Septic Systems

The installation process at the home of Ann and David Rhoades.
Oct 12, 2017 5:08 PM

Elected officials, environmental activists, scientists and concerned citizens on the East End have been hard at work over the last several years coordinating efforts for a common cause: preserving, or restoring, the ecological quality of local bays and waterways.

Crucial in achieving that goal is the replacement of outdated and, in some cases, failing septic systems with new, nitrogen-reducing systems.

Suffolk County, Southampton Town and East Hampton Town have all created programs providing incentives to homeowners to get on board. Money is available to cover some or all of the cost of a new system—which can run anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 to install—through a combination of grants and rebates at the county and town levels.

Officials spoke recently about steps homeowners should take, and what to expect along the way, if they are interested in replacing an old septic tank or cesspool with one of several Suffolk County-approved nitrogen-reducing septic systems.

Current Progress

At both the county and town levels, progress is being made, slowly but surely, in replacing outdated systems with advanced ones.

As of this month, 657 Suffolk County residents have registered for a septic system replacement through the various programs, and, of those, 170 applications have been completed, and 104 grant certificates have been issued, according to Justin Jobin, the environmental project coordinator for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

“Things are starting to work their way through,” Mr. Jobin said.

Flanders homeowner and architect Anthony Hobson became the first county resident to have a new system installed, and the cost was covered entirely via an $11,000 grant from the county and $15,000 through Southampton Town’s rebate program, which is funded by a portion of the town’s Community Preservation Fund revenues. Voters in 2016 agreed to allow up to 20 percent of CPF revenues to be used for water quality improvement efforts, and both Southampton and East Hampton towns plan to fund septic rebate programs in that manner.

Because the county only has enough funding this year for between 185 and 200 applicants, money available for this year—$2 million—will run out soon. But Mr. Jobin said that current applicants “will stay in the queue” and will be first on the list when another $2 million becomes available on January 1.

In East Hampton Town, the rebate program has seen 25 applicants, although fewer than half have Health Department approval, according to Kim Shaw, the town’s environmental protection director. Ms. Shaw said she believed a handful of people were fairly far along in the process of securing money from both the county and town, and that she and her colleagues were “waiting to see when they’d put the shovel in the ground.”

Southampton Town Councilman John Bouvier said he believed there were eight to 10 applications in progress in Southampton Town, and pointed out that a slow and steady approach to replacing the systems is what the town is looking for right now.

“We expected a slow build-up to get it right,” he said. “One of my biggest worries was that it would be a Wild West thing, with a lot of people trying to do it at once. But I don’t want to discourage people from putting them in.”

Know Your Zone

Geographic location is perhaps the biggest determining factor in how much town rebate money is available to homeowners, although income plays a role as well.

East Hampton Town was the first East End town to adopt a septic improvement incentive program, and the first municipality in the state to adopt laws mandating the use of nitrogen-reducing septic systems in any new or replacement project. In East Hampton, rebate money is not restricted to people living in certain areas—although more money is available to homeowners in areas closer to the water.

In Southampton Town, rebates are only currently available to homeowners living in areas where wastewater makes its way underground and into local bodies of water in two years or less.

East Hampton Town offers eligible property owners in a designated water protection district—closer to affected water bodies—a rebate for 100 percent of the cost, up to $16,000. In other areas of the town, the rebate is for up to 75 percent, with a maximum of $10,000.

The rebates are available for both residential and commercial property owners, though residential property owners must meet Basic STAR income eligibility requirements—an annual family income of less than $500,000.

In the Town of Southampton, families with an annual income of less than $300,000 can receive a rebate for up to 100 percent of the cost, with a maximum rebate of $15,000, if they live in qualifying areas. Households earning between $300,001 and $500,000 annually can be rebated up to 50 percent of the cost, with a maximum of $15,000.

Start At The County Level

Mr. Jobin suggests that homeowners start the application process at the county level, and says the first step is to gather paperwork: a copy of a property’s deed, proof of homeowners’ insurance, a copy of the most recent property tax bill, a copy of the certificate of occupancy, the first two pages of the property owner’s most recent tax return, a Social Security number, and, if applicable, proof of septic system failure, as residents who don’t live in priority areas can still qualify for grant money if they have a documented septic system failure. The application on the county website will tell homeowners if they live in a priority area once they type in an address.

Mr. Jobin pointed out that town rebate program applications will request much of the same information, so filling out the applications simultaneously isn’t a bad idea.

Other Considerations

The new systems are not one-size-fits-all.

David Rhoades is a civil engineer based in Sag Harbor who has been designing nitrogen-reducing septic systems for more than 20 years, and he recently installed one at his waterfront home in North Haven. He did not qualify for any grant or rebate money, but is as knowledgeable about the systems as anyone.

Applying and securing available money is a big part of the process for homeowners on a budget, but choosing the right system is key as well. Suffolk County has currently approved four different systems, made by three different manufacturers, to choose from—but it’s a choice that requires professional help and advice.

“Homeowners can choose, and they need to hire an engineer or architect to sit down with them, since every site has its own constraints and aesthetic,” Mr. Rhoades said. “It’s a decision between the owner and designers about what will fit and where it will look best.”

Suffolk County requires homeowners to choose from a list of approved engineers, who consult with homeowners about which system will best fit their needs and their properties, and where to install the systems.

The systems do a lot more than older septic systems, and because of that, they are more visible. Mr. Hobson’s system has two manhole covers and a remotely located control unit, but he said some systems have as many as four manhole covers.

Depending on a homeowner’s needs and the layout of a property, the installation of a new system can require significant changes first, such as tree removal, alteration of flower beds or other landscape changes—all at an extra cost to the homeowner.

Mr. Hobson said he learned this the hard way. He needed several trees removed and also needed to replace his driveway to facilitate his system; last week, he found out that he needed additional electrical work to pass the inspection. In total, those unexpected expenses cost him nearly $5,000.

But he was quick to point out that his entire septic system was paid for through the combination of money from the county and the town—and a new traditional septic system would have cost him upward of $8,000 out of pocket.

The fact that the new nitrogen-reducing systems require electricity is also an important consideration, one Mr. Hobson said many people may not know about initially. Maintenance, including electricity to run the systems, can cost around $300 per year, but those costs for the first three years are included in the county’s grant program.

For now, the biggest hurdle for homeowners could be laying out the additional money not covered by the county’s grant program. With the grant only covering $10,000 toward the cost of the system—an additional $1,000 is available for homeowners who need a pressurized shallow drainfield—homeowners are left to come up with several thousand dollars, which is only reimbursed by town governments after the installation is complete and the system has passed all inspections.

Several lawmakers said they are pursuing options to provide some type of low-cost loan to help homeowners lay out the cash they need until they are reimbursed through the rebate program, but that is still a work in progress.

As it stands now, the homeowner must complete the work within six months and submit receipts for all the actual costs to receive a rebate check.

Mr. Hobson, whose system was installed on September 7, said he was still awaiting his rebate check as of last week. He pointed out that Southampton Town and Suffolk County seem to have streamlined the process for new applicants in recent weeks, and said he suspects because he was the first homeowner in the town to have one installed, the process took longer for him.

Overall, Mr. Hobson said he is happy with his new system and the efforts made by the town and county to help homeowners install them.

And lawmakers are happy that the hard work they’ve put in over the years is starting to pay off.

Important Resources

Homeowners interested in installing a new septic system by taking advantage of the county and town programs should visit the following websites, which provide more detailed information about qualifications and necessary paperwork, as well as maps of priority areas:, and

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