Septic system basics: what you should know

July 27, 2015

Living in the country brings freedom — and some challenges: you need your own water supply, sewage treatment system and garbage disposal. Here's what you need to know about your septic system.

Septic system basics: what you should know

A quick introduction to septic systems

Homes that are not connected to a municipal sewage system have a septic system, a personal sewage treatment plant in the backyard.

  • In a typical system, waste water runs into a septic tank, where microbes break it down into solid sludge and liquid effluent.
  • The effluent flows out of the septic tank into a distribution box; from there, it is piped into a series of perforated or clay pipes that run through the drainage field.
  • The sludge settles to the bottom of the tank and must be pumped out every two or three years.
  • In areas where water shortages are a concern, systems are available that recycle gray water, the water leftover from showers, baths, sinks, dishwashers and sometimes laundry (as long as diapers or other items containing unhealthy substances aren't included).
  • This recycled water is often fine for watering lawns and gardens.

Warning signs of blockage

Given a modest amount of attention every few years, your septic system should run smoothly.

  • If you hear a gurgling sound when water drains from a tub or washer, or if it drains slowly when flushing a toilet, act immediately. These are warning signs that the intake pipe of the tanks may be blocked.

How to maintaining a septic tank

  • Check the sludge level. Once a year, use a long pole to measure the sludge line. The level of semi-solid sludge in the bottom of the tank should be no more than halfway up from the bottom of the tank to the surface of the liquid that floats above it. Have the tank pumped if the buildup is near the halfway point.
  • Pump it away. The only maintenance a well-installed septic tank needs is periodic pumping by a professional service. As a general rule, a 3,600 litre (1,000 gallon) tank that serves four people in a home will need to be pumped every three years or so.
  • Don't delay pumping. You may save a little money in the short run, but you may ruin the system, which will be very expensive to repair.

Committing to country living means taking an active role in basic services. Understanding the fundamentals of your septic tank with these simple tips will make rural life more relaxing.

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