Cesspool vs Septic Tank – How to Choose the Right Option

Cesspool or septic tank—which one is best for your household? If you live in a rural area or have a camp or second property that is off the grid somewhere, chances are that you will be out of the service area of the nearest city’s centralized sewer system.

Proper disposal of waste, however, is still a necessity for any household because the waste we produce daily can accumulate quickly and turn into a nasty situation for both your family and the environment. In situations like this, homeowners generally have two options to manage their waste: cesspools or septic tanks. 

This page will discuss the differences between cesspools and septic tanks, how they work individually, and the costs involved with installation and annual maintenance to help you decide which one would be best to fit your needs.

What’s the Difference Between Cesspool and Septic?

So, what’s the Difference Between Cesspool and Septic? Good question. The differences between these two terms are night and day, even though some people use them interchangeably. In simple terms, a cesspool is a hole in the ground used for collecting wastewater. A septic tank, on the other hand, uses bacteria to break down waste in  a much more complex system

It’s ok to consider both options when choosing a sewage system for your home, but due to the intricacies of rules, regulations, and applications surrounding them both, you should always consult a professional before deciding.

Here’s what we know about cesspools and septic tanks… Let look at the cesspool first:

What is a Cesspool?

Neither cesspools nor cesspits are intended for treating domestic waste. A cesspool is a buried enclosure, which is pumped out by a cesspool or septic pumping company. A cesspool acts as a temporary storage place for wastewater prior to it percolating into the ground.

There are two main types of cesspools: sealed pits made of brick or concrete and manholes for accessing them.

Cesspool Illustration
Cesspool Illustration

With a cesspool, generally, a manhole is present that allows access to the underground chamber. These pits, however, may contain hazardous materials because they contain a cocktail of chemicals and waste. For this reason, cesspools should never be opened by homeowners without the proper protection.

Now let’s discuss how a cesspool works:

How Does a Cesspool Work?

Typically, cesspools are underground concrete cylinders with an open bottom and perforated sides to protect the soil around the pit. The environment and the wastewater input are not separated in some cesspools because they are not lined.

Inlet pipes allow wastewater to enter the cesspool. Grease and oils float on top of wastewater as they have a low density, while denser solids sink to the bottom due to gravity and density differences. Bacteria naturally found in cesspools decompose settled solids through anaerobic decomposition. 

How Cesspool Works
How Cesspool Works
Photo Credits: www.getpumpedli.org

The liquid wastewater, called effluent, leaches into surrounding soil when cesspools are set up properly and working as they should. In a conventional septic system, a shallow, covered soil absorption field called a drain field sits beneath a buried, watertight septic tank.

The organic matter then breaks down into effluent, which is then discharged into a drain field, where soil filters out harmful pathogens and contaminants before effluent flows into groundwater. 

How Long Does a Cesspool Last?

Cesspools can last up to 40 years depending on their use and maintenance. To be perfectly honest, you should budget for an upgrade to a newer septic system if your home has an old cesspool.

Annual Cesspool Maintenance Cost  

An average homeowner pays $480 to have an average-sized cesspool cleaned. Depending on the size of the tank, cesspool pumping costs about $0.50 to $0.70 per gallon. In general, cesspool pumping costs $315 to $925.

Important Facts About Cesspools:

  1. Cesspools Are Dangerous: Cesspools are often located beneath the water table, in direct contact with groundwater, because the system is designed to collect and concentrate wastewater underground at one location. Water entering cesspools often contains human waste and disease-causing pathogens. 

This waste can contaminate groundwater and groundwater wells, surface streams, and oceans. As a result of that contamination, human health and the environment are adversely affected, including the health of our beaches, marine life, and coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs.

  1. Cesspools Do Not Treat Wastewater Properly: Cesspools do not treat wastewater properly. There are two problems with the waste sinking too deeply into the ground. In addition, the waste sinks deeper into the ground, increasing the likelihood that it will enter the groundwater before being treated by bacteria. 
  2. Cesspools Tell You When They Are Aging: Cesspools drain slowly as they age. If you notice more odors than usual coming from your cesspool, or your lawn starts to look overly healthy, your cesspool may be at the end of its lifespan. 
  3. Cesspools Can Collapse: The walls of a cesspool can collapse with old age. They can also collapse if they are left empty for a while.

So, that covers everything you need to know about a cesspool, but what about a septic tank? These next few sections will tell you everything you need to know about septic tanks:

What is a Septic Tank?

A septic tank is an underground concrete or plastic tank that collects and treats liquid waste from your home. Water from the toilets, sinks, kitchen garbage disposals, drains, washing machines, and bathtubs are collected and broken down by the septic tank.

Septic Tank Illustration
Septic Tank Illustration

Household size, water usage, number of bedrooms, and number of people in the household determine the size of a septic tank. The typical septic tank size for a residential property is between 750 gallons and 1,250 gallons.

Just to give you an example of how big a septic tank needs to be for a home, a three-bedroom home with a square footage of less than 2,500 square feet would require around a 1,000-gallon septic tank.

How Does a Septic Tank Work?

The septic tank treats and disposes of the waste you generate inside your home. Sink, toilet, and bathtub runoff are removed from your house by this system. 

How Septic Tank Works
How Septic Tank Works

Waste is separated into three layers in a septic tank:

  • At the top, there is scum
  • In the middle, there is wastewater
  • On the bottom, there is sludge

So, here’s how a septic system works:

Toilets produce blackwater, but septic tanks also handle greywater from bathtubs, sinks, and washing machines. The top layer; the scum, comes from bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms entering the tank. The scum in the tank is caused by this residue floating to the top.

The bottom layer; the sludge, is caused by contaminants being left in the tank when the liquid drains decomposing over time and remaining at the bottom of the tank. (sludge)  

After this, the liquid is discharged into the drain field, where it is neutralized by natural bacteria in the ground. 

How Long Does a Septic Tank Last?

When constructed with high-quality materials and designed well, a concrete septic tank can last 40 years or longer.  Baffles and components of concrete septic tanks can fail due to poor-quality concrete and acidic soils.

The acidity of the soil and the quality of the septic tank will eventually cause a steel septic tank to rust out.  Septic tanks made of steel over 15 to 20 years old are likely to have rusted to the point of losing their baffles and possibly suffering degradation of their bottom. Corrosion will also occur on steel tank covers over time. 

The life of a conventional septic drain field depends on soil percolation rate, drain field size, and usage level, according to Inspectapedia.com. It’s possible to maintain a septic drain field for more than 50 years on good soil with a well-maintained septic tank. It’s important to get your septic tank installed properly. Poorly installed piping on a new septic system can cause drain field failure within 24 hours of first use.

Annual Septic Maintenance Cost      

Most people spend around $375 on cleaning and pumping their septic tanks, which ranges from $295 to $610. Pumping a 750-gallon septic tank could cost as little as $250 while pumping a 1,250-gallon tank could cost as much as $895. 

Important Facts About Septic Tanks:

  1. Septic Tanks Back Up: By releasing too much wastewater into your drain field, you can flood it. In addition, it can cause your toilets and sinks to back up.
  2. Installation Requirements Must Be Followed: Septic tanks must be buried at least 10 feet away from houses. Your state or county may require a different distance.
  3. Septic Tanks Must Be Installed Away from Well Water: It is also essential to consider the distance if you use well water. There must be a minimum distance of 50 feet between your septic tank and you’re well to ensure your health.
Comparison FactorsCesspoolsSeptic Tanks
DefinitionHolds biodegradable wasteHolds and breaks down biodegradable waste
MaintenanceRequires More MaintenanceRequires Less Maintenance
Treatment OptionsNoneYes
Sewage DisposalLess PracticalMore Practical
Wastewater DumpSmaller Available SpaceLarger Available Space

Cesspool vs Septic Tank – What We Recommend

It is highly recommended to replace the cesspool with a much more environmentally friendly septic tank system (like concrete or plastic tanks) since it requires excessive maintenance, has a high failure rate, and damages the soil and environment around it. In some states, using a cesspool is illegal, so you must replace it immediately when discovered. 

It may also be necessary to replace a cesspool when the home is sold. Depending on your state, you may not be able to repair it, so you will have to replace it once it starts malfunctioning.


Hopefully, this information has helped you understand the difference between cesspools and septic tanks, so that if you are deciding on your home’s sewage system, you can make an informed one. It is still always recommended to get a professional opinion before you make a decision and dish out your hard-earned money on your sewer system. 

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