How to Properly Maintain Your Septic System

The septic system probably isn’t something most of us think about, unless problems arise. However, it is one of the hardest working systems in a home. Although it’s not visible, buried deep underground, it is working endlessly to keep you and your family safe by routing sewage away from your home. It’s basically a personal wastewater management facility--fortunately, it shouldn’t need a lot of upkeep.

 

As long as a septic system is properly installed, maintaining it is neither difficult or expensive. However, when a septic system isn’t fully functioning, many safety hazards can occur. The biggest risks include contaminating surface and groundwater, and there’s also the possibility of being exposed to airborne bacteria and septic fumes that can lead to respiratory issues.

 

In short, an improperly maintained septic system is a scary thing. The following guide will discuss how to care for your septic system to help you avoid problems for years to come.

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Protect Your Septic System with These Five Tips

Worried about potential issues with your septic system? Avoid problems with these five tips.

#1 Have a professional do a septic inspection regularly.

A septic inspector will carefully evaluate the condition of your septic system and identify any issues before they develop into costly problems. Calling in an expert on a routine basis will give you peace of mind knowing that your system is functioning normally, and they’ll give you a heads up if they spot anything out of the ordinary. That saves time, money, and prevents costly and unfavorable system emergencies.

 

#2 Have the septic tank pumped as necessary.

A septic tank holds all the gray water and sewage that leaves your house. Over time, solid waste, sludge, and grime accumulate in the tank and need to be pumped periodically. The general rule of thumb is every 3 to 5 years, but that frequency varies based on the size of your tank, household size, and amount of wastewater and solids leaving the house.

 

During routine checks, an expert will let you know what the levels are looking like and advise you on whether or not you should plan to schedule a pump in the coming months or year. This heads-up can help you maintain your septic system to the best extent and plan for the small cost associated with the pumping process, too.

 

#3 Use water efficiently.

Practicing water conservation habits at home not only saves you money, but it also helps prevent the tank and drainfield from filling up as quickly. That’s why efficient water usage is a big tip to follow if you’re looking to maintain your septic tank with ease. Try installing low-flow toilets and faucets, cut back on long showers, and turn off water when you’re not using it.

 

#4 Never use sinks or toilets to dispose of hazardous wastes.

Your septic tank contains living organisms that help breakdown sewage waste. If chemical or toxic substances, like drain cleaners, cooking grease, paint thinners, or baby wipes, are put down the sink, toilet, or garbage disposal, they end up in the septic tank where they will kill these vital bacteria. These substances compromise the functionality of a septic tank, and they’re not good for your pipes, either.

 

#5 Maintain the drainfield.

A septic drainfield consists of a series of perforated pipes that lead from the tank and route wastewater away from the house, usually in a flat, open area several hundred feet from the house. You should know where this general area is so that you can maintain it properly.

 

Although the pipes are underground, they can sustain damage. Therefore, you should never drive in the drainfield area or plant trees or bushes near it, as this could lead to damaged pipes and drainage issues.

Understanding How a Septic System Works

Understanding the general design and function of this system is beneficial when it comes to routine maintenance and preservation. Basically, there are four primary parts, including a pipe for wastewater, a septic tank, a drainfield, and soil. Following is a breakdown of each component. 

 

Drainage Pipe from the House

This is a large drainage pipe that all plumbing runs throughout the house connect to, allowing wastewater to drain into the septic tank.

 

Septic Tank

A large watertight tank buried underground, the septic tank holds all wastewater from the house. These holding tanks are typically made of fiberglass, concrete, or polyethylene. This is where the breakdown of wastes begins. The solids eventually settle to the bottom of the tank, and the remaining liquids flow through a screened opening into the drainfield.

 

Septic tanks have various other names, such as onsite or on-lot system, individual or onsite sewage disposal system, and onsite wastewater treatment system. Whatever the alias, unless your home is directly connected to the city sewage utility, you have a septic system.

 

Locating Your Septic System

It’s important to know where your septic tank and drainfield is located. Prior to installation of a septic system, drawings are created as part of the zoning and permit requirements. Check with your local land records department for a copy. If that’s not an option check your yard for a metal lid.

 

Most of the newer septic tanks are equipped with an easy-access lid at the surface. This setup makes locating the tank much easier and also makes it easier for inspections and pumping. If all else fails, your local septic inspector can locate the tank and drainfield during an inspection.

 

Drainfield

The drainfield consists of a series of perforated pipes that is connected to the septic tank. These pipes are located in gravity fed trenches that route wastewater from the house. As the water travels through the perforated pipes and soil, contaminants are removed and the wastewater is partially treated.

 

Soil

The soil around the drainfield works to absorb and purify wastewater, as well as protect the drainfield pipes. Should the surrounding soil ever become saturated, appear sunken in or unleveled, it could indicate plumbing issues that need to be immediately addressed for safety reasons. 

 

Non-Traditional Septic Systems

You may need an alternate septic system if your area has unsuitable soil. Also, if you live in close proximity to a lake or river or if the area already has an abundance of septic systems, an alternative system may be required. Unlike traditional septic systems, the alternative systems rely on advanced technology, pumps, flotation switches, and other electrical components that typically require additional maintenance.

 

In lieu of soil, some of the alternative septic systems treat wastewater with peat, plastic media or sand. There are also systems that use aerators, marshlands, disinfection devices, or lagoons. Because of the various proprietary functions and components involved the alternative systems should be inspected annually. To learn more, check with a local septic company or health department.

Why Maintain a Septic System?

Household wastewater is full of bacteria and pollutants that pose risks to human health and the environment. A well-maintained, operational septic system helps eliminate such risks by ensuring the contaminants remain in the septic tank prior to the remaining wastewater being routed to the drainfield. When a septic system is routinely maintained, it not only saves money, but ensures safety and its effectiveness.

 

Routine Maintenance Saves Money

First and foremost, maintaining your septic system will save you money! In contrast, poor maintenance often leads to faulty septic systems that are costly to replace or repair. The cost of replacing the entire septic system is much higher than having your septic system inspected regularly.

 

At some point, having your septic system pumped will be required depending on water usage, the number of people in your household and the size of the septic system. Regardless, the benefits of routine inspection and pumping far outweigh the expense of major repairs or replacements. In fact, if a septic system is inoperable, it not only lowers property value but may also become a legal liability.

 

A Well-Maintained System Protects Your Family and the Environment

Aside from preventing the spread of infection and disease, a properly functioning septic system is capable of effectively treating sewage and protecting nearby water resources. Household wastewater typically contains nitrogen, phosphorus, and pathogenic germs and bacteria. However, a well-maintained septic system is capable of removing the majority of these pollutants.

When you consider the fact that once the wastewater leaves the septic tank, it is eventually absorbed back into the soil, making it crucial for each component of septic systems working efficiently. To put this into perspective, an average of 4 billion gallons of wastewater is produced each day by the 25% of U.S. homes that rely on septic systems.

 

A septic system that is not properly maintained can groundwater contamination, resulting in a serious threat. This contamination could affect drinking water wells, nearby surface waters such as lakes and rivers, as well as human and animal health. Such health risks may include eye and ear infections, gastrointestinal illnesses, and life-threatening diseases like hepatitis.

How to Maintain a Septic System

Maintaining a septic system is not difficult and consists of the following four steps.

 

Inspect and Pump Regularly

It’s recommended that you have a professional inspection performed on a standard septic system at least every three years and have it pumped every three to five years.  However, with alternative style systems, equipped with pumps and electric float switches should be inspected annually.

 

During a septic inspection, the system will be checked for leaks and the amount of scum and sludge in the tank will also be gauged, as well. Overall, the depth of these layers of waste (six” from the bottom of the outlet tee, or less than 12” between the top of the sludge layer and outlet tee) will determine if your tank needs to be pumped. Maintaining this information in your records will give you an idea of how often your tank should be pumped.

The following four factors influence the frequency of pumping:

 

  • The number of people living in a household.

  • The volume of wastewater produced.

  • The amount of solid matter in wastewater. The use of garbage disposals increases this volume.

  • The capacity of your septic tank.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of septic tank additives that are marketed as being so proficient at breaking down septic tank sludge that the need for pumping is eliminated. However, this claim isn’t proven. The fact is, septic tanks naturally contain microbes that do effectively break down waste matter. However, all septic systems should be pumped periodically to ensure they work well and last a long time.


Whenever your system is inspected or pumped, you should receive a detailed service report. And, in the event they recommend any repairs, be sure to have them addressed by a professional as soon as possible.

 

Conserve Water

Typical single-family homes use an average of 70 gallons of water daily per person. Toilet leaks can waste up to 200 gallons of water every day and a faucet that drips a single drop per second can waste up to 3,000 gallons per year. Conserving water means less water enters the septic system, allowing the microbes to work better. With efficient water use, septic systems operate more smoothly and last longer.

  • Invest in high-efficiency showerheads.

  • Use the least amount of water possible in the bathtub.

  • Don't leave faucets on while shaving or brushing your teeth.

  • Only run the dishwasher and clothes washer with full loads.

  • Flush only sanitary waste down the toilet. Use trash cans to dispose of diapers, kitty litter, and other trash.

  • Always turn off faucets completely, when not in use.

  • Maintain your plumbing regularly and fix any leaks immediately.

  • Install aerators on all faucets.

  • Upgrade old clothes washers, dishwashers, and toilets with new, high-efficiency models.

To learn more about water conservation, visit http://www.epa.gov/watersense/index.html

 

Using High-Efficiency Toilets

On average, 25 to 30 percent of household water use comes from the toilet. Have you ever wondered how much water your toilet uses to empty the bowl? Toilets usually found in older homes typically have a 3.5- to 5-gallon tank capacity, whereas newer high-efficiency toilets use no more than 1.6 gallons of water per flush. A septic system can actually become flooded if too much household water is used within a short amount of time. To reduce the chances of this, consider replacing older toilets with high-efficiency models.

 

High-efficiency showerheads and faucet aerators
You can reduce your water usage and the septic system's water volume by using faucet aerators. Water is also saved by installing high-efficiency showerheads or shower flow restrictors.

Plumbing Fixtures

Small leaks can waste several gallons of clean water in a short time. For example, during the course of a single day, a faucet with a small drip can actually send a lot of unused water to your septic system.

 

A simple way to determine how much water you are wasting is to place a cup under the drip for 10 minutes. Once you’ve measured the amount of water captured (i.e. 3 TBSP, 1/3 cup, etc.), multiply that number by 144. Why 144? There are 1,440 minutes in 24 hours, which is divided by 10 (minutes). The answer equals the amount of clean water that is travelling along your septic system each day from what seemed like a small leak.

 

A toilet leak is also a major culprit for wasted water. You can check to see if your toilet tank is leaking by doing a simple test. Before going to bed, add five drops of liquid food coloring to the tank (or reservoir). The next morning, if any dye is present in the toilet bowl, the reservoir has leaked and should be repaired.

 

Properly Dispose of Waste

Don’t treat your drains like trash cans because everything that’s washed down, flushed, or ground up in the garbage disposal ends up in the septic system. Things like cooking grease, starchy water from cooking, coffee grounds, or pharmaceuticals can wreak havoc on a septic system by killing the beneficial organisms living there. Without these organisms, the sludge and scum will fill a septic tank at a much faster rate, resulting in more frequent pumping.

 

Washing Machines

You can conserve water usage by only washing full loads of laundry. Likewise, be sure to choose the right load size. For instance, small loads of laundry should not be washed on the large-load cycle, as this wastes water.

 

Additionally, while it might seem convenient to do all the laundry in a single day, this could be hazardous to your septic system. The back-to-back wash loads prevent the septic tank from having time to treat wastes properly. This may also cause your drainfield to flood. If possible, spread out the use of water over the week. Another suggestion is upgrading to a new Energy Star washer as these use 50 percent less water and 35 percent less energy compared to a traditional model.

 

Maintain Your Drainfield

Because the drainfield is an essential part of your septic system, proper care and maintenance is vital. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Avoid planting anything other than grass near your septic system. This is because the roots of trees and shrubs can clog pipes or damage the drainfield.

  • Never drive over or park on the septic system area, as this will likely compact the soil in your drainfield. Also the weight of vehicles may damage the various components of your septic system.

  • All other water drainage systems like gutters, sump pumps or roof drains should be routed away from your drainfield. This will prevent drainfield flooding and interruption of the septic system process, which may cause plumbing backup in your home.

What Could Cause System Failure?
There are several circumstances that could result in system failure. For instance, overloading the system with more water than it is designed to handle, the result could be wastewater backing up into the home or flowing into the yard; both of which pose health hazards. 

 

Other telltale signs include unpleasant odors being emitted from drains or wastewater rising to ground level. In most cases, damage is already done by the time you detect such problems. 

 

Oftentimes, these issues can be avoided by being proactive. Whenever possible, try to limit (or at least spread out) your usage of water. This will help the septic system run more efficiently. Additionally, always keep the septic system area free of obstacles such as trees, shrubs, pavement, or vehicles to ensure accessibility for routine maintenance.

 

In order for a system to work properly, it must be accurately designed and constructed for the area and environment. It’s also important to have your system inspected and pumped as necessary in order to address minor issues before they develop into costly problems like system failure.

Signs of System Failure
The following signs are common when a septic system is failing.

  • Standing water near the septic system or in your basement.

  • Whenever you flush the toilet or do laundry, the toilet or sink backs up.

  • Bright green grass grows effortlessly around the drainfield.

 

Another more difficult sign is if your septic system’s partially treated wastewater comes into contact with groundwater. If this is a possibility, contact a septic professional immediately, as it can lead to contamination of nearby surface water or wells.

 

Common Causes of Septic System Failure

The risk of septic system failure is greatly reduced when you understand the do’s, don’ts, and whys of daily use.

 

Toxic Chemicals In the Home 
Is there anyone in your house who washes paint rollers in the sink or flushes toxic cleaners down the toilet? Septic systems are not designed to handle toxic cleaners, oil-based or even latex paints in large volumes, as they will kill the living microbes in the tank that are responsible for digesting and treating waste.

 

When cleaning rollers and brushes, it’s best to use newspaper to remove excess paint or stain, before rinsing. Then, any leftover paints/stains should be taken to a local collection center that specializes in hazardous waste disposal.

Household Cleaners

Most household cleaning agents are safe for septic tanks, as long as the manufacturer instructions are followed. Be sure to use “non-toxic,” or “Septic Safe” products, steering clear of those products labeled “Warning,” “Poison,” or “Danger”. Your septic tank is designed to withstand a certain amount of household cleaners, and as long as it isn’t overloaded with chemical cleaners, the living organisms in the tank recover fairly quickly.

 

Hot Tubs

There’s no denying the benefits and enjoyment provided by a hot tub. However, septic systems were not designed to withstand the high volumes of water from hot tubs, or swimming pools for that matter. When draining a hot tub, be sure to route the water to a landscaped or grassy area away from the septic tank or drainfield. This will eliminate the possibility of flooding the system and causing damage or hazardous backups of wastewater.

 

Water Purification Systems

Water purification systems are great for supplying your house with chlorine-free, high quality water. However, these treatment systems can produce several hundred gallons of wastewater. With that said, it’s best to have these systems routed to an alternate drainage system, otherwise the excess water will likely overfill a septic tank and contaminate the drainfield with bacteria ridden solid wastes that should remain in the septic tank.

 

Garbage Disposals

Garbage disposals are designed to grind food into smaller bits which are washed down the drain into the septic tank. Along with these food particles is greasy, starchy residue that contributes to the overall volume of wastewater that your septic system must treat. While the living bacteria in the tank does breakdown some of the food and grease, it increases the buildup of sludge, resulting in the need for more frequent pumping and septic system service.

 

Bottom line, it’s worth considering eliminating the garbage disposal and opting for making a compost pile which is much better for the environment.

 

Poor Design or Installation

Even though a septic system consists of only four primary components, each part is important. Whether you’re having a septic system installed or buying a house with a septic system, rely on the experts to install and evaluate the property. Failure to have every aspect covered could result in costly repairs or replacement in the future.

 

For example, the septic tank should be watertight and large enough to sustain the size of the house and number of residents. The water tightness of the tank prevents dangerous wastewater from leaking out or nearby groundwater from entering in and overfilling the tank. Conversely, the size of tank is generally determined by the square footage or number of bedrooms and/or occupants in a house. Other factors that affect the tank size include the type of soil, and type of material the tank is made of.

 

Additionally, the soil plays a major role in proper design and installation, as well. The soil level of absorbency will help determine the type of septic system required for the property. At this stage, typically a soil analysis is performed. Then, the location and size of the drainfield is yet another vital feature. Ideally the drainfield is at a lower elevation on level ground. This prevents system backup and purification of wastewater. 

 

However, even when a system is installed properly, carelessness can result in damage. Making the mistake of driving on top of the septic system or planting vegetation with large root systems, such as trees and shrubs can damage pipes, the tank, or compact the soil which helps in filtering the wastewater. All in all, these aspects make it obvious why you should rely on experts to design, install, or repair a septic system.

The Dos and Don’ts of Caring for Your Septic System

Here’s a cheat sheet of do’s and don’t to make caring for your septic system that much easier.

Do:

  • Have your system inspected regularly.

  • Ask an expert if your system can support a garbage disposal.

  • Route a water purification drainage system away from the septic system.

  • Dispose of wastes and chemicals properly.

  • Plant only grass around your septic system.

  • Keep records of all inspections, repairs, maintenance activities.

  • Confirm the location of your system and properly mark the tank access point for easy access.

  • Only use cleaners that are deemed septic safe, or better yet consider mild detergents, vinegar, or baking soda.

  • Repair plumbing leaks.

  • Pump the tank every three to five years.

Don’t:

  • Wash or flush trash items or grease down the toilet or drains.

  • Use large quantities of water consistently.

  • Don’t plant trees or shrubs near the septic system or tamper with/dig in the drainfield area.

  • Put toxic chemicals or harsh cleaners down drains or toilets.

  • Pave over, drive over, or park anywhere on the septic system.