On-Site Septic

Berrien County Health Department (BCHD) staff protect the health and environment of the rural and suburban population of Berrien County by regulating the placement of on-site sewage systems for homes where a public sewer is not available.

Septic Tank DiagramAbout On-Site Septic Systems

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid materials. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet in the septic tank prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drainfield area. Screens are also recommended to keep solids from entering the drainfield. Newer tanks generally have risers with lids at the ground surface to allow easy location, inspection, and pumping of the tank.


Septic SystemThe wastewater exits the septic tank and is discharged into the drainfield for further treatment by the soil. The partially treated wastewater is pushed along into the drainfield for further treatment every time new wastewater enters the tank. If the drainfield is overloaded with too much liquid, it will flood, causing sewage to flow to the ground surface or create backups in plumbing fixtures and prevent treatment of all wastewater.

A reserve drainfield, recommended in Michigan, is an area on your property suitable for a new drainfield system if your current drainfield fails. Treat this area with the same care as your septic system. Septic tank wastewater flows to the drainfield, where it percolates into the soil, which provides final treatment by removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and nutrients. Suitable soil is necessary for successful wastewater treatment.

Septic Maintenance

The health department recommends having your on-site septic system pumped every three years. Having your tank pumped will save you thousands in repair costs! In addition, a poorly functioning system can affect surface water quality. View a list of licensed pumpers in Berrien County.


  • Learn the location of your septic tank and drainfield from your septic company
  • Have your septic system inspected every three years
  • Call a professional whenever you experience problems
  • Keep a detailed record of repairs
  • Conserve water to avoid overloading the system
  • Divert sources of water, like roof drains, house footing drains, and sump pumps away from the septic system


  • Ever go down into a septic tank - toxic gases in the tank can kill in minutes
  • Allow anyone to park or drive over the system
  • Plant anything besides grass over or near the drainfield
  • Dig in your drainfield or build anything over it
  • Make or allow repairs without obtaining the required health department permit softeners to enter the septic system
  • Allow lid to be off tank

Installing or Replacing a Septic System

Homeowners or contractors must file an application with the health department to put in a septic system. Costs for permits can be found in the Environmental Health Schedule of Fees (PDF). Download a Septic Permit Application (PDF). For more information, call the Berrien County Health Department Environmental Health office at 269-927-5623.