Many homeowners and urban dwellers do not have to worry about anything when it comes to the way their household waste is disposed of. Whether building your dream home or buying an existing home, it is important to understand the type of systems for the drainage and treatment of wastewater. Some neighborhoods are on public utility sewer systems and some neighborhoods use septic systems. In many instances, the choice of what system you will need to use will be based on the planning and zoning municipality where your property is located. If the area has a sewer system, the home is more likely to be connected to that system.
Being a good septic owner requires a few steps and a lot of foresight. Taking care of your septic system is not complicated and doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money. NOT taking care of your septic, however, could cost you big bucks in the end, as digging up and replacing a septic system can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Septic System Overview
Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.
A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.
The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.
Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.
What Are the Parts of a Septic System?
Septic systems essentially have a pair of primary elements: the tank and the drain field.
After passing from the house, the wastewater collects in the septic tank. Septic tanks typically range from 1,000 to 2,000 gallons and are made of concrete, heavy plastic or metal. High-quality concrete tanks are the most durable and should last 40 years or more if they are not damaged. Many modern tanks have two chambers to increase efficiency.
Also known as a leach field or absorption field, the drain field is a portion of area that is attached to a septic tank for an individual home and makes up the final processing step or sewage treatment in a septic system. The drain field is a network of underground pipes containing many small holes that works as a disposal filter for contaminants and liquids after they have been anaerobically digested and pass through the septic tank. The leach field will typically contain a system of trenches and gravel (or another porous material) covered in soil.
The main purpose of the drain field is to disperse liquids from the septic tank in an area of soil by means of drains which eventually gets spread out in the large area known as the leach field. When the liquid waste passes through the leach field that is made up of earth, gravel and other similar material, it gets all the organic matter removed and transformed into useful substances.
A properly designed drain field considers hydraulics so the material can properly move through it, and catabolism for the biochemical oxygen demands of the wastewater.
Ways to Be a Good Septic Owner
If you own a septic tank, you are responsible for it. That means professional maintenance, vigilant care, and proper treatment. The main benefits of proper maintenance are cost savings and environmental protection.
1. Get a Professional Inspection Every 3 Years
If you are buying a home and it has a septic tank, make sure it is professionally inspected before you move forward. Important information to gather includes the age and location of the septic tank, including any installation and maintenance details. Some signs of a damaged septic tank system are damaged vents, soggy lawns, and odors.
Without a septic inspection, you are taking a gamble on whether the home you are buying will be safe for your family. A failing septic system creates many issues for the household and the environment, potentially contaminating drinking water, soil, and any nearby bodies of water. Inheriting a failing, damaged, or inadequate septic system from a previous owner may mean you have to foot the bill for costly repairs or upgrades. You may be okay with making those repairs, but at least a septic inspection will allow you to make an informed decision about the home you’re buying, ensuring your dream home isn’t actually a money pit.
Have your septic tank inspected by a licensed professional every 3 years. Schedule septic tank pumpings whenever necessary or every 3 – 5 years. Alternative septic systems should be inspected annually.
Professional septic tank inspections include:
- Locating the tank and uncovering access holes and vent stacks
- Testing plumbing system for proper drainage
- Checking for odors and signs of a backup
- Measuring sludge and scum layers
- Detecting leaks and other structural issues
- Testing and inspecting mechanical parts
- Pumping sludge if necessary
2. Have Your Septic Pumped When Needed
Generally speaking, you should have your septic tank pumped every 3-5 years or if you notice that it is getting full. It is a good idea to visually inspect your septic tank at least annually, and you should schedule routine septic system maintenance by a licensed professional.
If you are not sure whether or not your septic tank is due (or overdue) for a professional pumping, look for the following signs:
- Pooling Water
- Clogged Drains
- Noises from Pipes
- Flow Flushing
- Backed Up Sewer
- Flooded Lawn
- Strange Odors
3. Watch What Goes Down Your Drains
There are many things that people flush or put down their drains that seem innocent (and may even be labeled “flushable!”) but can cause plumbing problems. This is especially true if you have a septic system, which can more easily get clogged. You may already know not to pour chemicals, grease, oil pesticides, gasoline, antifreeze, or paint down your drains, but read on to find out about the things you may not know about.
Avoid putting any of these things down any drain in your home:
- Toilet paper that is too thick
- Condoms or feminine hygiene products
- Cotton balls or swabs
- Dental floss
- “Flushable” cat litter
- “Flushable” wipes
- Glass or plastic
- Paper towels
- Produce stickers
- Stringy vegetables
- Anything that is tough, sharp, or does not seem likely to break down naturally
4. Use Water Efficiently
Too much water entering the septic tank can cause overflow and flooding problems. Besides saving money on your water bill, you can help maintain your septic system by watching how much water you use. Make efficient use of water and do not operate several water-intensive appliances at the same time.
Luckily, there are some easy ways to minimize your use of water:
- Switch over to low-flow plumbing fixtures and high-efficiency toilets.
- Install or replace faucet aerators
- Run full loads of dishes and laundry
- Periodically test your plumbing system for leaks
- Take shorter showers and be mindful of water waste
- Upgrade to energy-efficient appliances
- Only use toilets for flushing toilet paper and human waste
- Sign up for a plumbing maintenance plan or remember to schedule professional plumbing maintenance every year
4. Repair Leaks Immediately
If a municipal sewer pipe leaks or backs up on your property, the government is responsible to fix it. But if your septic system backs up or a pipe leaks, the cost of repairs is on you. However, knowing how the system works and being vigilant about calling for service when a drain slows or a soggy patch appears in your yard will prevent significant problems.
Before repairs are made, the tank should be inspected for the extent of damage. If the cracks are situated in places that are easy enough to repair, and if they are minor or superficial, then it might be possible to save the old tank. In case of severe cracks, your septic tank will need to be replaced entirely. If this happens, the old tank is decommissioned first. This involves busting up the concrete and burying it. For a steel or fiberglass tank, they may be crushed first and then buried. The new septic tank is then installed in a whole different location. Below is a more detailed look at how the cracks are repaired.
5. Maintain Plants and Vegetation Near the System
As long as you carefully select the landscaping for near your septic system, you do not have to overly stress about the potential of damage to septic systems caused by roots that you abstain from planting these areas altogether. Growing the right kind of vegetation here is not only permissible but actually advisable. Plants will prevent erosion and suck up some of the excess moisture from the drain field.
Perennials and grasses (including ornamental grasses) work best around your septic tank and drain field. Their shallow root systems are less likely to invade the underground system and cause it damage. For the same reason, small, non-woody ground covers are a good choice. There are, of course, many examples of such plants, so you will want to narrow down your choices. A good way to start is to consider growing conditions:
It is not safe to eat food crops grown in the ground around a drain field because eating them might entail ingesting harmful bacteria. If you must grow trees and shrubs, shallow-rooted kinds are better to grow around septic tank drain fields. Shallow-rooted trees and shrubs include:
- Dogwood trees
- Japanese maple trees
- Eastern redbud trees
- Cherry trees
- Azalea shrubs
- Boxwood shrubs
- Holly shrubs
6. Care for Your Drainfield
Your drainfield—a component of your septic system that removes contaminants from the liquid that emerges from your septic tank—is an important part of your septic system. Here are a few things you should do to maintain it:
- Planting only grass and removing any trees or plants that can cause root intrusion
- Not driving or parking on the drainfield. The soil can compress and damage parts of your septic system.
- Diverting other water sources away from the drainfield. Make sure rainwater, sump pump drains, and other excessive water is diverted elsewhere. Drainfield flooding is a common problem that can cause septic tank problems and plumbing fixture backups.
Call West Coast Sanitation Today!
Like everything else, your septic system requires regular maintenance. Have it inspected by a septic company near you at least once every year. During a maintenance session, your contractor will pump your septic system, conduct a drain test, and look for & rectify issues.
At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you don’t have time to deal with septic problems. If you think that your system has reached capacity, please give us a call right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.