If you live in a rural area, chances are you have a septic system. Septic systems are generally very effective at managing household waste in a safe and environmentally friendly way, but they do need to be properly maintained if you want to avoid very messy and costly repairs. In this article, I’ll go over the basics of how a septic system works as well as some “do”s and “don’t”s if you own one.
A typical septic system consists of a septic tank that the house waste water travels to, a distribution, or “D,” box to distribute the waste water (effluent) after it leaves the tank, and a leachfield where the remaining water leaches out into the soil. In a properly functioning system, waste is broken down naturally and without causing harm to the environment or human health.
The waste that enters into the septic tank from the toilets and drain lines in the house settles into one of three layers. Solids settle at the bottom of the tank and form what’s called the “sludge” layer. Oils, greases and other lighter materials float to the top to form the “scum” layer. Liquid waste remains in the middle “effluent” layer between the sludge and scum. With all the waste that goes into the tank, it’s hard to believe septic tanks don’t need pumped more often, but this is because bacteria naturally eats away at the waste and keeps the level low.
Bacteria is a vital part of the process, and nothing should be done to kill the bacteria that is needed to manage and break down waste in the tank. If your washing machine ultimately drains into your tank, it should be rerouted as the detergent can kill bacteria and render the tank ineffective.
As a general rule, septic tanks should be pumped at least once every three to five years, although this depends on usage, the number of household members, and other factors. If the tank is inspected and either the scum or sludge layer is equal to or greater than one-third the total depth of the tank, pumping should be done. The process for inspecting the tank is relatively simple but poses health risks and should, therefore, only be done by a qualified professional.
It goes without saying, but nothing other than normal human waste should be put into any toilets or drains that will end up in the tank. Most septic system owners are aware of this simple rule, yet many break the rule often. Some diligent homeowners (especially ones who have had issues with their septic systems) put written notices above their toilets to remind family members and guests to not flush foreign objects or other inappropriate items that can obstruct the septic system.
Knowing how your septic system works will enable you to manage and care for it effectively and avoid unnecessary and expensive repairs. Follow the basic rules outlined in this article and schedule periodic inspections of your system and pumping, and you can rest at ease knowing your household waste is effectively and safely managed.
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