Maintaining your septic system

July 28, 2015

There's a good chance if you live in a rural area, you have a septic system. Follow these steps to keep it well-maintained and functional. 

Maintaining your septic system

Conserve water

  • This is one of the surest ways to maintain the health of your septic system. Large volumes of water, especially when delivered over a short time (as happens when too many showers are taken back to back or too many loads of laundry are washed in one day), can flush suspended, untreated waste particles into the drainage field, eventually clogging it.
  •  Take shorter showers and replace old shower heads with water-saving models.
  • Repair dripping faucets and turn off the tap when you're shaving or brushing your teeth.
  • Replace old toilets, washing machines, and dishwashers with new water-saving models.
  • Wash full loads of clothes, or set the washing machine water level for smaller loads.

Pay attention

  • Also have the tank pumped as necessary to remove built-up sludge and scum. How often the tank will need to be cleaned out depends on its size and on the number of people in your home.
  • If there's foul-smelling water rising from the drainage field or if water backs up out of drains, the septic system is failing. Call your septic service company as soon as possible.

How a septic tank works

  • In a traditional private septic system, household waste is piped into a waterproof holding tank (the septic tank), where anaerobic bacteria (microorganisms that grow in the absence of air) break the waste down into solids (sludge), liquid (effluent), and scum.
  • The solids settle to the bottom, where bacteria further decompose them. The scum, composed of waste that's lighter than water, floats to the top. The middle layer of effluent flows out via a distribution box and travels through underground perforated pipes into the drainage, or leach, field. There, gravel and soil act as biological filters to purify the wastewater as it is absorbed into the ground.
  • Excess grease and other contaminants can destroy the bacterial action essential to the proper functioning of a septic system and interfere with effluent absorption in the leach field.
  • In some systems, a grease trap in the waste line removes excess grease from wastewater before it flows into the main septic tank. Being careful about what you pour down your drains is the key to avoiding septic system problems. You just want to avoid clogging the system, and you want to keep the bacteria in it alive, healthy and on the job.
  • Such problem items include grease, fat, oils, coffee grounds, any paper product other than toilet tissue, cat litter, disposable diapers, feminine hygiene products, condoms, bandages, discarded prescription medicines, aluminum foil and cigarette butts.
  • These toxic liquids are no-nos too: drain cleaners, bleaches, antibacterial soaps, disinfectants, acids, oil-based paints and solvents, pesticides, and fertilizers. The ground-up solids the disposer sends down the drain can overload a septic tank's filtration system, allowing food particles into the leach field, where they can cause or accelerate clogging. If you don't have a disposal, try to continue making do without one.
  • Water constantly seeps from the septic tank into the drain field. If the drain field is saturated with rainwater, the water from your septic tank has nowhere to go.
  • A septic drainage field needs oxygen to work properly. Driving over it compresses the soil, squeezing out the air in it.
  • Only grass should be planted over and near your septic tank and drain field. Tree and shrub roots could damage the system.
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