Owning a home with a septic tank can come with a big learning curve. Homeowners already have a long list of things to maintain. If you’re unfamiliar with a septic tank, you may be concerned about how often you should pump your septic system to avoid an expensive problem.
Most service professionals recommend homeowners pump their septic tank every 2-5 years. However, that’s not always the case. There are several factors that determine how frequently you should pump your tank. The size of your septic tank, the number of people in your household, and your water efficiency usage must be considered.
It seems like a lot to worry about, but this doesn’t have to become a huge headache for you. We’re going to break it down, so you can determine how often your septic tank should be pumped without pulling your hair out. Let’s get started!
How To Care for Your Septic System
Learning to care for your septic system takes some time and a decent amount of research. But don’t worry because we condensed everything you need to know into this helpful guide. Let’s talk about how to care for your septic system.
The Specific Septic System Type
It may come as a surprise to learn there are about a dozen specific types of septic systems for residential homes. Each type falls into two categories, which are conventional and alternative systems.
Conventional systems are often just referred to as conventional systems or chamber systems. Alternative systems are a broader category and include drip distribution, aerobic treatment, mound, and recirculating sand filter systems.
Conventional systems follow the same general model. These systems involve a large, water-tight tank buried near the property and use gravity to drain wastewater from the home into the tank.
In conventional systems, gravity causes solid waste to sink to the bottom of the tank, while grease and lighter waste float to the top. A water line drains wastewater from the tank to the ground, and that area is called the drain field.
Bacteria will eventually break down the solid waste in the tank and creates a sludge, which settles at the bottom of the tank. With these systems, you need soil that’s able to allow the wastewater to rise to the surface and eventually evaporate.
You also need to pump these systems frequently to prevent a build-up of waste in the tank. When waste builds up, it can cause wastewater to flow back into the home.
Alternative systems work a little differently. These systems are ideal for homes that require a septic tank but don’t have land that’s porous enough to be an efficient drain field.
Essentially, if your ground is too hard and the water can’t penetrate through it and evaporate, then you’ll need an alternative system. These systems use internal methods to help water separate and dissipate from the system.
There are a dozen different types of septic systems between conventional and alternative systems, and they all need to be pumped every two to five years. How frequently your system needs to be pumped depends more on other factors than the type of system you have.
Regardless of what type of septic system you have, you’ll need to check it regularly so you can pump it once it’s full.
How To Find Out if Your Septic Tank Is Full
Finding out whether your septic tank is full will take some hard work and probably won’t be a fun task. The first step is to find your septic tank lid, which will be buried between four inches to four feet underground.
If you haven’t already marked the perimeter of where your septic tank lid is, then you may need to do some shallow excavation to find it. However, if you have a metal detector lying around, this is a much easier way to find your septic tank lid.
Once you’ve located the septic tank lid, you’ll need to lift it and look inside. The first thing you want to look at is the scum trap. If the scum has reached 6 inches or higher, your septic tank is full, and it’s time to pump it.
The next thing you want to do is measure the sludge in the bottom of your tank. There’s a specific sludge level measuring tool you can purchase to use. If the sludge in the bottom of your tank measures 12 inches, then your tank is full and needs to be pumped.
You could check both of these things yourself, but it isn’t necessarily the most pleasant task. Many people prefer calling out an inspection company to do the work for you.
A septic tank service professional can perform the inspection and help you set up a regular schedule for how often your tank needs to be pumped.
The Size of Your Home & Number of Household Members Affects How Often You Should Pump the Septic Tank
Several factors go into how often your septic tank needs to be pumped. The biggest contributing factors are the size of your home and how many people are living in your home.
A family of 4 living in a 2-bedroom home will need to pump their septic tank far more frequently than a single person living in a 1-bedroom home. We’ve broken it down for you in this handy table:
Pumping Frequency (In Years)
As you can see, there’s a huge variance in how frequently septic tanks need to be pumped. A single person living in a six-bedroom home may only need to pump their septic tank once every 19 years!
The timeline could be much shorter. For example, a family of ten living in a six-bedroom home needs to pump their septic tank every one and a quarter years, so roughly every sixteen months.
Minimum Septic Tank Capacity
Before you move into a home with a septic tank or replace your old system with a new one, it’s important to understand the minimum capacity septic tanks have. A septic tank needs to be big enough to support the influx of wastewater from the home.
Most companies will determine the size of a septic tank for a home based on how many bedrooms a home has. Plenty of research has been done to calculate how much wastewater is produced. These measurements generally rely on how many people live in the home based on how many bedrooms there are.
Bigger homes are likely to have more people living in them, so they’ll be equipped with a larger septic tank and a larger drain field to support the wastewater being produced.
Here’s a simple table to show you what we mean:
|Number of Bedrooms||Minimum Septic Tank Size (Gallons)||Minimum Drain Field Size|
|1-2||1,000-1,500||800-2,500 square feet|
|3||1,000-2,000||1,000-2,880 square feet|
|4||1,250-2,500||1,200-3,200 square feet|
To answer a common question: there’s no such thing as a septic tank that’s too big. If you’re building your own home and want to install a septic system, you can always do one size up from the recommended size based on the number of bedrooms you have.
These numbers are just the minimum recommendation, and putting in a larger septic tank actually has many benefits. You’ll be able to have guests stay long term without having to worry about your septic system being unable to handle the extra load.
Having a larger septic tank also means you’ll pump it less frequently, saving you money. Regardless of your septic tank size, it’s still important to have an inspection performed every three years.
Inspect and Pump Frequency
Getting your septic tank inspected and pumped frequently is a necessity. Staying on top of your septic tank’s maintenance can prevent serious and expensive repairs down the road. It will also prevent an unfortunate occurrence such as wastewater backing up into the home.
Most conventional systems should be inspected every three years. A service professional will come out and look for leaks and damage. They’ll also check to see if your tank is ready to be pumped. You should keep a record of when your septic tank was pumped and serviced, so you have a reference when it requires maintenance.
Alternative systems need to be inspected more frequently, about once a year. Most alternative systems have several mechanical parts, such as electrical float systems and pumps, so these parts need more frequent inspection.
Make sure you’re getting your conventional or alternative systems pumped every two to five years. You’ll also want to make sure your tank is actually full before you have it pumped, otherwise you could spend far more money on this chore than necessary.
Most Homeowners Pumping More Often Than Necessary Are Overspending
Not only are most homeowners overspending by pumping more often than necessary, but they’re also minimizing the efficiency of their septic tank! There’s a reason septic tank service professionals tell you to wait until sludge levels hit a certain mark before pumping.
Every time waste flows into your septic tank, it adds to a pool of bacteria. That bacteria is essential for the breakdown of sludge and effluent. When you pump your septic tank too frequently, bacteria don’t have a chance to grow to proper levels in the tank.
When the bacteria in your tank isn’t at a proper level, the sludge and effluent won’t get broken down. This can cause backups and leaks. If you pump your septic tank too often for a long time, then the bacteria won’t have enough sludge and effluent to break down.
Without the presence of enough sludge and effluent, the bacteria can end up in your drain field. Your septic tank could become clogged or fail entirely when this happens.
Pumping septic tanks too often creates a large, unnecessary financial burden for homeowners and damages the functionality of their septic tanks. Stick to the recommended pumping schedule to keep your septic tank in proper working order.
What You Need To Know for a Service Provider
You want to keep a few things in mind when you call a service tank provider. Their main job is to inspect for leaks and check the levels of scum and sludge in your tank.
It’s helpful to keep detailed recorders when you get your septic tank serviced. You should note whether the service provider found any leaks or damage and record the sludge and scum levels. Your records should also indicate each time you’ve pumped your septic tank and when the next pump needs to happen.
Your service provider will give you a service report with their findings, and you should keep this in your records. If the service provider indicates that repairs are needed, then you’ll need to hire a repair person.
Use Water Efficiency
Homes with septic systems need to be extra mindful of their water usage. It’s estimated that a single person uses as much as 70 gallons of water every day. A leaky faucet or toilet could add an additional 200 gallons of water used every day.
Increasing the efficiency of your water usage will help increase the lifespan of your septic system and extend the time between pumps. All the water a household uses goes into the septic system, so the less water you use, the better.
Not only will it increase the time you have between pumps, but increasing water efficiency will also improve the operation of your septic tank and lower the chance of a malfunction.
Here are a few ways you can increase your water efficiency:
- High-Efficiency Toilets: Toilets account for about 20-30% of a household’s water usage. That’s a pretty significant number, and using high-efficiency toilets will greatly reduce your overall water usage. Older toilet models have a reserve tank of 3.5-5 gallons. Newer, high-efficiency toilets have a reserve tank of about 1.6 gallons, so you’re saving multiple gallons of water with each flush.
- Faucet Aerators and High-Efficiency Showerheads: High-efficiency showerheads and faucet aerators will help reduce the volume of water you use. It will also limit the volume of water going into your septic tank each day, which will help increase its lifespan and the time between pumps.
- Washing Machines: Washing machines use a lot of water, so you want to ensure you’re using them properly. Always select the proper load size for the amount of clothes you’re putting in the washer. Also, it’s best to spread your loads of laundry throughout the week rather than trying to get them all done in one day. This allows your septic tank time to treat the water in between each load and allows the bacteria to remain at proper levels.
Properly Dispose of Waste
Everything that goes down the drains in your home will end up in your septic system. This includes anything flushed down the toilet, ground up in the garbage disposal, or forced down your sink drains.
You need to make sure that everyone in your household knows not to treat the toilet like a trashcan. Only flush human waste and toilet paper. Never flush sanitary napkins, wet wipes, cigarette butts, cat litter, paper towels, household chemicals, or any other household items.
Remember, just because something doesn’t clog your toilet doesn’t mean it’s safe to flush it! Only flush toilet paper and human waste to avoid damage to your septic system to avoid harming your septic system
Watch What You Put In Your Sink
Just like with your toilet, you want to be careful with what you put down your sink. There are a lot of bacteria in your septic tank, which is necessary to treat wastewater and break down sludge.
You need to be careful with what you pour down your sinks. Chemicals and non-organic substances can kill that bacteria and damage your septic tank.
Avoid allowing the following products to go down any sink drain:
- Chemical drain clog removers
- Cooking oil and grease
- Oil-based paints, solvents, and cleaners
It’s also helpful to limit the use of your garbage disposal because this will reduce the number of fats, grease, and other solids entering your septic tank and potentially clogging your drain field.
Maintain Your Drainfield
Maintaining your drainfield is essential for keeping all parts of your septic tank system working properly. The drainfield is responsible for removing contaminants from the liquid that comes out of your septic tank, so maintaining it is crucial.
Here are some suggestions for maintaining your drainfield:
- Never park or drive on your drainfield.
- Make sure you plant trees a safe distance away from your drainfield to avoid their roots growing into the septic tank. A septic tank service professional can help you determine the appropriate distance.
- Keep rainwater drainage systems like sump pumps and roof drains a safe distance away from your drainfield. Excess water can impede the water treatment process.
Frequent Questions On Caring For Septic Systems
Can A Septic Tank Be Too Big?
Septic tanks generally can never be too big as long as they’re installed properly. Most service professionals recommend installing a larger size because it’s better to overestimate the amount of wastewater your household will produce than underestimate it.
Having a larger septic tank also comes with a couple of benefits. It’s safer for you to have long-term guests or extend your family without having to worry about placing too much strain on your septic tank or causing backups.
Having a larger septic system is also helpful because you’ll need to pump the tank less frequently. This will save homeowners money in the long run and increase the lifespan of their tanks.
Does Using A Garbage Disposal Unit Impact My Septic System?
Garbage disposals do impact septic systems. It’s actually recommended not to use garbage disposal units with septic systems, or to greatly limit their use. Garbage disposals will reduce the effectiveness of your septic system.
All solid waste sent into your septic system is referred to as sludge. Bacteria eat and break down solid waste to keep the sludge levels in check. You end up disrupting the bacteria levels when you continuously put food into your septic tank through a garbage disposal.
When bacteria levels are disrupted, your sludge levels will rise. This decreases your tank’s capacity and the bacteria’s ability to treat wastewater.
What Can I Flush Down The Toliet?
The best thing to remember with toilets is you should only be flushing human waste and toilet paper. Nothing else should get flushed down your toilet. Paper towels, wet wipes, q-tips, cat litter, cigarette butts, and other inorganic matter can damage your septic system and your toilet.
Should I Avoid Driving Or Building On My Drainfield?
You need to be very careful in maintaining your drainfield. This is where contaminants are removed from the water that emerges from your septic tank, so keeping this area in working order is essential.
Driving or building on your drainfield is not safe. This can cause the pipes responsible for carrying and treating wastewater to crack, which can lead to a very unpleasant situation in your yard.
Proper septic tank maintenance can seem challenging to first-time homeowners, but it’s actually pretty simple. You want to make sure you’re getting your septic tank inspected and pumped regularly to avoid unnecessary expenses and keep it in working order. Make sure you only flush human waste and toilet paper down the toilet and be very careful about what goes down your sink drains.
To keep your septic system working best, use high-efficiency equipment, maintain your drainfield, and limit the use of your garbage disposal. Make sure to keep detailed records of when your septic tank was inspected and pumped, so you always know when it needs to be serviced again.
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.