A properly installed septic tank will last for many years, but a neglected tank can fail catastrophically. In fact, a poorly maintained septic system could be responsible for thousands of dollars in damage every year or, even worse, put your family’s health and safety at risk.
The most important thing to remember is that regularly inspecting your septic system will help keep big problems from happening. There are also things to be mindful of between inspections that will help ensure that the tank keeps working properly, such as being mindful of your water usage, not putting any solids or harmful chemicals down your drains and toilets, and avoiding obstructions to your drainfield.
In this article, I will teach you everything you need to know about your septic system, from how to check your tank to how to fix problems before they become big issues.
How a Septic System Works
Septic systems are wastewater treatment systems typically found in rural homes. They consist of an underground tank that treats waste before it flows into a drainfield. The three main parts of a septic system are the drainfield, the treatment area, and the effluent pipe.
Septics work differently than most people realize. They aren’t just big tanks full of sludge. They’re actually holding tanks that collect wastewater from the house, treat it, and slowly release it into the ground over time.
They work by allowing waste to flow through pipes into large tanks, or septic tanks. As the water passes through the tank, bacteria break down the solids and convert them into liquid. After this process takes place, the treated water flows out of the tank into a drainfield where the liquid gets filtered down through layers of soil and rock, gradually moving away from the home.
This natural filtration process helps to keep everything clean and clear. But it’s important to know the do’s and don’ts of maintaining a septic system to avoid potential problems.
What You Must Do For Your Septic System
1. Inspect your septic tank annually
An annual inspection can help identify potential problems early, allowing you to take action sooner rather than later. This includes testing water quality, inspecting pipes, checking pumps, and looking for leaks.
2. Use less water
A septic tank is designed to hold a certain volume of water, and if the tank exceeds its capacity, it may not be able to effectively treat wastewater. That said, using less water may increase the life of your septic system.
Some simple ways to save water around your home include reducing showering times, washing clothes less often, and turning off the faucet while you brush your teeth.
3. Direct water from downspouts and roofs away from the drainfield
If you live in a house with a septic system, it is important to keep your drainfield clean. This is where the waste from your toilet goes. If there are large amounts of water sitting around your drainfield, it could cause problems.
The best way to prevent this problem is to make sure that rainwater doesn’t go directly onto your drainfield. Instead, use downspouts to divert the water away from the drainfield.
4. Keep cars and trucks off the septic tank and drainfield areas
Vehicles should never be driven or parked over a drainfield. They are designed to absorb wastewater and allow it to percolate into the ground where bacteria break down waste products.
So, if you park a vehicle over a drainfield, you risk damaging the system and creating an environmental problem. Parking your car on your drainfield could also contaminate the water supply since there’s no drainage system.
5. Use phosphate-free detergent
The use of phosphate-based detergents in toilets and washing machines can cause problems for septic tanks and sewage systems.
Phosphate-based detergents contain phosphorous, which can damage pipes and increase the amount of sludge produced by wastewater treatment plants. This can lead to clogged pipes and increased maintenance costs. Check the EPA website for a list of phosphate-free detergents.
6. Install risers for easier access
Risers are a great addition to your septic system. They allow you to easily gain access to the bottom of your septic tank without having to remove the lid completely.
You can use a ladder to reach the top of the tank and then simply lift up on the riser to give yourself better access to the inside of the tank. Risers are an inexpensive solution to improving your home plumbing system.
7. Know and mark where your septic lid is found
Knowing the location of your septic system will make your life much easier when you need to access the tank. You can find it by sticking a metal probe in the ground where you think it might be. Most lids are buried between 4 inches and 4 feet underground.
Once you find it, be sure to mark it so you don’t have to go searching for it the next time you need it.
8. Inform houseguests that you are on a home septic system, and give them a few guidelines to follow
Some guests who don’t have a septic tank at their own house may not know how to properly take care of a septic system.
So there is no harm in placing a sign above the toilet asking them not to flush anything but toilet paper down the toilet, or giving them a rundown of the do’s and don’ts on this list.
What You Shouldn’t Do
Don’t misuse your garbage disposal
Garbage disposals are great tools for getting rid of trash, however, they sometimes encourage people to put more solids into the drain. This encourages grease buildup that can eventually lead to clogs and backups in your septic tank.
So while garbage disposals aren’t ideal for septic tanks, you can use one if you use it carefully.
Don’t put food scraps or fat-based cooking oils directly into your garbage disposal. Instead, place them in a container and put them in the trash for proper disposal.
Composting is a great alternative for recycling food waste and turning it into fertilizer for gardening.
Don’t use septic tank additives
Additives can cause problems if they are improperly added or if they contain too much solid material.
These substances can not only harm the environment but also damage pipes, tanks, pumps, filters, and other components of a wastewater treatment plant.
Don’t dispose of water from hot tubs into the on-site sewage system
Hot tubs are great places to relax and unwind after a long day, but draining them directly into your sewer line could destroy your septic tank.
Chlorine destroys bacteria in the septic system and drains, which makes it unsafe to dump those chemicals down into the septic system.
Don’t flush solid wastes into the septic system
You’ve probably heard it plenty of times before, but you should never flush anything other than toilet paper down the drain – especially if you have a septic tank. Flushing items such as sanitary pads, tampons, diapers, cotton balls, hair ties, etc., can clog the pipes and cause backups in the system.
Don’t put strong chemicals, such as cleaning products, down the drain
Using harsh chemicals like bleach and ammonium hydroxide will damage your septic system. They can corrode pipes, clog drains and contaminate groundwater. You don’t want to put anything into your septic tank that could hurt you or your family.
Instead, try using biodegradable cleaners like vinegar, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide, borax and lemon juice.
Don’t construct patios, carports or use landscaping plastic over the drainfield
Not only is building a patio, carport or using landscaping plastic over the drainfield a bad idea, it could be against your local building codes.
Compacted soils and paving on top of the drainfield could trap the oxygen that is necessary for bacteria to break down the waste out of the soil. Stick to putting only grass over your septic system drainfield.
Don’t plant trees or shrubs on your leach field
It’s important to know that planting trees or shrubs near your leach field could block the flow of water into the system and damage the pipes.
A tree or shrub planted too close to the leach field could also interfere with the absorption of nutrients and chemicals that make up the treatment solution. When this happens, the bacteria won’t work properly and the leaching process will stop working.
Products You Can Use in/with Your Septic System
Remember that the cleaning products you use in the house will make their way to the septic system so it’s best to use non-chlorine, ammonia-free, non-antibiotic, non-toxic and biodegradable natural products whenever possible. Distilled white vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda, and salt are a few safe cleaning products you may consider.
For treating your septic system, biological treatments, like bacteria and extracelullar enzyme, are the only acceptable options.
How to Tell If Your Septic Tank Is Full
There are several ways to tell whether your septic tank is full. One way is to look at the color of the water coming from the tank. The darker the water, the fuller your tank is. Another way is to smell the water. If it has a strong odor, it means that there’s a lot of waste in the tank. A third way is to look at how much sludge is floating around in the tank. If there’s a lot of sludge, then you probably need to empty the tank.
If the tank is too full, it may start to overflow into your house. In addition to being unsanitary, this can cause damage to your home, including mold growth and structural issues, so you want to make sure to check if it is full before it gets to this point.
When to Pump Your Septic Tank
The EPA recommends pumping your septic tank at least every 3-5 years, however, this will vary depending on your household size, tank size, how much water your household uses, and the amount of solids that have accumulated in the tank.
Sludge buildup can cause your septic tank to become blocked, preventing the tank from releasing enough sewage to the rest of the system. When this happens, the tank needs to be pumped out and cleaned.
Make sure to inspect your tank regularly as I mentioned above so that you can look for any signs of a full tank or leakage which may be a sign your tank needs to be pumped.
Maintaining a Healthy Septic System Is Important
The most important part of maintaining your septic system is keeping it clean. This includes cleaning out the tanks and drains periodically. If you don’t do this regularly, the bacteria and solids build up inside the tanks and pipes and cause odor problems, leaks, and even structural damage.
Here are some quick tips to keep your septic system running smoothly.
- Clean drains regularly.
- Avoid pouring grease down the sink.
- Do not put any food scraps or other items down the drains or toilets.
- Keep an eye on the water level and pump your tank when needed.
Call a Professional
Septic tanks are complex pieces of machinery, and it is recommended to seek professional help when cleaning, repairing or pumping them. It may be a good idea to learn how to inspect your septic system yourself, but don’t try to fix things yourself, or you could damage the system.
In conclusion, septic tanks are a necessary evil in today’s modern society. However, like anything else, there are certain rules that must be followed to ensure that your system operates safely and efficiently.
If you follow the basic rules I have outlined in this list, you’ll ensure its longevity and safety for years to come.
Ruben has a diverse background in the home services industry, with experience running a construction company, a kitchen and bath showroom, and a moving and relocation company. This breadth of experience has provided him with a wealth of knowledge and expertise in various areas of home improvement in general and specifically in the heating and plumbing niche.