The human world is full of big things. Big houses, big cars, big electronics… you get the point! Because the things we build are typically big, we sometimes find it difficult to think on the microscopic level. There, a whole world goes on invisibly aiding us in ways we never think about–especially in the operations of our septic systems.
Although their work is not glamorous, bacteria in septic tanks are the work horses of your system. They are the ones responsible for breaking down organic waste in our septic system or elsewhere.
Keeping the bacteria in your septic tank happy and healthy is of utmost importance to the health of your septic system.
An Introduction to Septic System Structure
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.
Septic Tanks Have Many Microbes
Your septic tank is home to an array of microbes, including various kinds of bacteria, nematodes, and fungi. Since solid materials need to remain within the septic tank to prevent clogging the drainage field and causing serious backup, they must be removed with the use of septic pumping trucks. What may be surprising is how infrequently pumping is needed (typically only once every 3-5 years).
This infrequency is all thanks to the vast colonies of microorganisms living within the tank. These work non-stop to break down waste materials, converting much of the solids into liquids that join the stream of effluent and gases that simply dissipate through the soil or leach field. A healthy bacterial environment is vital to maintaining septic system health. Without it, you would be faced with frequent maintenance and nasty, inconvenient issues.
Just as your own body processes the solids and liquids you eat and drink, these helpful bacteria further digest and break down the organic waste deposited into the septic tank. Naturally occurring and able to thrive both with and without oxygen, these sturdy microbes work together to further process our waste before it can be sent out of the tank and into the drainfield.
The very act of using the septic tank as intended encourages bacterial growth. You do not need to purchase septic tank bacteria. Instead, use the tank for its intended purpose and let bacterial colonies take over. Under their direction, solid waste is transformed into liquid or gaseous waste, thereby creating more space in your tank to prevent overfilling. These tiny microbes keep your system running as smoothly as possible.
Why Is Septic Tank Bacteria Important?
Solid waste is flushed down to the septic tank all the time. When solids enter the tank, they settle to the bottom and collect there. Over time, those solids will start to build up. This is why the tank needs pumping every three to five years — because the solids in the tank always rise to the top. If the solids reach the drainfield pipe near the top of the septic tank, tiny particles will enter the drain. This could cause the entire tank to clog.
Bacteria slows down the buildup of bacteria in the bottom of the tank. Beneficial bacteria float around in your septic system and breaks down solids, turning them into liquid waste. When the liquids in the tank reach the drainfield, they drain safely into the yard without causing a clog.
With solid waste often settling on the bottom of your septic tanks, it is hard for the flow, pumps and filters to reach it once it is on the bottom. Enter bacteria! They work to break down solids by digesting the waste as their fuel and excreting is as liquids and gasses. In fact, they are so efficient that they can handle decomposing up to 50% of the waste in your septic tank.
How Bacteria Function
Bacteria are separated into two categories: Aerobic and Anaerobic. Aerobic Bacteria are more efficient than their counterpart when it comes to breaking down and using waste as fuel. However, they need plenty of oxygen to survive and are highly sensitive to environmental changes. With little to no need for oxygen and more resilience to environmental changes, the climate of a septic tank suits Anaerobic Bacteria better.
- Aerobic – These bacteria need oxygen to flourish. They break down and use organic waste as their only food source. They are larger than the anaerobic and are very sensitive to environmental changes.
- Anaerobic – These bacteria can operate with little or no oxygen. They are smaller than their counterparts, but far more resilient. The solids in your tank are eaten, digested, and then passed through the anaerobic bacteria. This transforms the solids into gases and liquids. This natural process changes the waste into an effluent that then passes through to your drain field.
Maintain the Balance
To maintain the bacteria balance in your septic tank, it is imperative to have it regularly pumped and inspected. Solids that are not digested by the bacteria will start to accumulate in your tank, which will need to be pumped out. An inspection is also necessary every three years or so to make sure all your system components are in good shape.
What Can Disrupt Septic Tank Bacteria?
Bacteria will grow naturally in your septic tank. You promote growth of bacteria by flushing more solid waste down into the tank all the time. However, you can do some things to your septic tank that could inhibit growth of bacteria.
Antibacterial soaps, bleach, antibiotics, and other products designed to kill bacteria could all enter your tank and destroy some of the beneficial bacteria in your tank. If you flush these products down your drains on a regular basis, you could significantly disrupt your septic tank’s natural processes.
You may need to change the way your household functions in order to avoid flushing these things down the drain. For example, baking soda and vinegar are both excellent bleach alternatives that you can use in household cleaning and laundry.
Soak stained clothes in vinegar before washing them, and add baking soda to your laundry detergent before putting it in the wash. Spray dirty surfaces around the home with vinegar and water.
If you need somewhere to dispose of your medicine safely, talk to your physician to find out where you can get rid of medicines safely. Your physician may know about medicine take-back events in your area.
Although not on purpose, there are a few common household chemicals and practices that can hurt bacteria colonies over time. This list includes:
- Household Chemicals
Avoid pouring an excessive amount of household cleaners such as bleach, laundry detergent, soaps or other chemicals into your septic tank. Your septic tank contains waste-eating bacteria and these cleaners can reduce the amount of bacteria present in the septic tank. The level of bacteria within the tank fluctuates and recovers quickly if small amounts of household cleaners are used. Over time, excessive amounts of these cleaners can destroy all levels of bacteria within the septic tank system.
“Nontoxic” and “Septic-Safe” means the products are safe for your septic tank, but follow the instructions on the label and only use the recommended amount of cleaner noted on the label.
- Antibacterial Cleaning Products
Marketed to kill bacteria, hand soaps and other antibacterial cleaners are designed to not only keep your hands, counter tops and household clean, they can also kill off the bacteria in your septic system. Antibacterial hand soaps and any product claiming to be antibacterial should be avoided, not only because of the obvious harm they could do to the bacterial colony your septic system needs to function, but they are now being linked to the development of antibiotic resistant “super-bugs”. Good old soap and water works fine.
- Flushable Wipes
Disposable wet wipes marketed as “flushable” and “septic-safe” have many uses, such as personal hygiene, baby care and household cleaning. In recent years, these wipes have emerged as a toilet paper substitute. But you may have wondered whether or not these wet wipes are actually flushable. Given that septic systems are both vital in function and sensitive to what gets put in them, these are valid concerns. Over the years, cases have come up where the answer to the question “is flushable wipes safe?” Turns out the answer is NO, especially if you rely on a septic system.
Flushable wipes do not decompose leaving layers and layers of unbroken down solids that bacteria have a hard time decomposing. Even though these wipes do eventually break down, they take much longer to do so compared to toilet paper. Since the breakdown of wet wipes is not as rapid, clogged pipes and blockages occur more frequently. This puts your home’s plumbing at risk for serious clogs and could result in added hassle, mess and expense for you.
- Septic Additives
Like many things, the natural process does not need your help. In fact, septic additives may actually hinder effective septic system operation by destroying useful bacteria that aid in the degradation of waste, resulting in disrupted treatment activity and the discharge of contaminants. The stakes are high to keep your septic system in top condition, and that means keeping the trillions of bacteria happy and healthy. You do not want to add anything that will upset the system.
What You Can Do to Help Your Septic System
There are some things you can do to help out your septic system:
- Perform regular maintenance and pump your tank regularly. This is a good way to lower the amount of solid waste build-up, but if you do it too frequently you can also remove the naturally occurring bacteria and waste money. Generally it is good to pump it every few years as needed.
- Avoid Antibacterial and Bleach when possible. It is important to balance this one wisely. You may not want to cut out all antibacterial soaps from your home, but you can use them in moderation. Consider not using bleach in the laundry and checking the labels when purchasing cleaning supplies.
Call West Coast Sanitation Today!
Within your septic system, maintaining the balance between anaerobic and aerobic bacteria is extremely important. At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you do not have time to deal with septic problems. One of the ways you can maintain this balance and keep your septic system working like it should is to have your tank pumped regularly.
Please give us a call at (951) 780-5922 right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.