If you're like most people, you don't give another thought to the water that goes down the drain after washing dishes, taking a shower, or flushing the toilet. But, if you are one of the many homeowners who rely on a septic tank to dispose of your wastewater, it would be smart to give your septic system some attention every so often.
There are four main parts to your septic system:
- A pipe from your home to the septic tank
- The septic tank, which is where wastewater, sludge, and scum accumulate
- The drain field, also known as the leech field, where wastewater is directed after going through the tank
- Soil, which filters the wastewater and aids in removing bacteria and viruses from it
It's the homeowner's responsibility to make sure all four parts of your septic system are in working order. A failed septic system is costly to repair or replace, can lead to health hazards in your home and community, and may even lower property values in your neighborhood.
A Homeowner's Responsibilities
Every homeowner who uses a septic system needs to ensure it stays functional. There are three elements to maintaining the system:
- Septic system failure prevention
Inspecting a Septic System
Inspections should be at least an annual task. Some systems may require more frequent inspections. A homeowner can perform these inspections on his or her own, but hiring a professional is recommended. Contractors who regularly work with these systems generally have a better idea of what to look for and can better identify problems.
To begin, locate your septic tank. If the entry point is buried and there is no map, start by looking at the direction of the outbound pipes in your basement. Follow the pipes' direction into your backyard to locate the tank. When you think you're close, insert a probe into the soil until you find the piping. Your inspector should come ready with an insulated probe to use.
You should only have to go through this process one time. Once you find the piping and the tank, sketch a map for future use. Doing so will not only benefit you and future contractors you hire, but also the next owner of the home.
When the tank is located, you or the contractor will have to dig to uncover the manhole cover to access the tank's interior. Next, test your household water systems to make sure the septic system is working properly. Flush the toilets, turn on the faucets, and run any appliances that use water, like the dishwasher or washing machine. If water drains noticeably slowly, there could be an issue in your septic system that needs immediate attention.
Once you've determined that the system is in good order, it's time to measure the sludge and scum levels. Sludge collects at the bottom of the tank and is comprised of solid wastes. Scum floats to the top of the tank and is comprised of fats and oils. Both enter the tank through the inlet tee baffle, or the pipe that directs outbound water from the home to the tank. On the opposite side of the tank is the outlet tee baffle, which directs treated water to a second compartment in the tank for further treatment, or to the drain field. This baffle is the marker to measure scum and sludge against.
Scum levels should be at least 3 inches above the bottom of the outlet tee baffle. Sludge levels should be no more than 1 foot below the bottom of the baffle. If either of these are closer to the bottom of the baffle than they should be, it's time to have the tank pumped.
Next, take a look at the drain field, tank walls, and pipes. Any cracks in the walls or pipes need to be addressed right away to prevent septic system failure. The drain field should not have any odd or foul smells, and the grass shouldn't be soggy or full of puddles. Uncommonly green grass is also a sign that the drain field isn't functioning properly.
Pumping is usually necessary every three to five years, but it ultimately depends on the size of the tank, the number of people in the household, and the types of appliances that are used. For example, a family of six with a 1,000-gallon tank might pump every 1.5 years, but a family of three with the same size tank might pump closer to every four years. Additionally, garbage disposals fill up the septic tank more quickly and result in the need to pump more often.
A professional should always pump the tank. They will have the right equipment and expertise to know how to safely and effectively remove the sludge and scum from the tank. Additionally, the fumes that are emitted from the tank are noxious and can be dangerous if inhaled.
Always be present for the pumping process. Though the contractor will have the right education and experience to do this task properly, it's important that you oversee the project. The maintenance of your septic system is ultimately your responsibility, not the contractor's. When observing the contractor's work, make sure:
- The contractor uses the correct point of entry - the manhole opening should be used, not the inspection ports.
- All scum and sludge is removed - there is no reason to leave any behind.
Septic System Failure Prevention
While inspections are usually an annual task and pumping occurs two or three times per decade, prevention is something that must always be kept in mind.
Never flush or pour chemicals down the drain. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Drain openers
- Household cleaning chemicals
- Motor oils and fuels
- Cooking oils and grease
- Pesticides and herbicides
Introducing these substances to your septic system can cause damage to the tank or piping and contaminate the groundwater in your area.
Don't flush garbage down the toilet, including:
- Cleaning cloths
- Dental floss
- Sanitary napkins or tampons
- Cat litter
Practice water conservation to prevent flooding your system. Though your tank can handle many gallons of water, too much water at one time can overwork the system and cause solid waste to enter the drain field. Some tips for water conservation include:
- Upgrade to low-flow faucets, toilets, and showerheads.
- Use Energy Star appliances that are designed to use less water.
- Don't let the water run excessively.
Preventing septic system failure also involves keeping the drain field clear. Never drive or park over the drain field, and don't allow livestock to walk over it. Heavy equipment should also be kept away from this area.
Common Septic System Problems
In general, a septic system is safe and easy to maintain, especially if you regularly inspect and pump it. However, there may come a time when you run into a problem that needs to be addressed quickly and correctly.
Clogs or backups are usually caused by improper or too-infrequent pumping. Your tank is completely full, and solid waste is being forced through the outlet tee baffle and clogging it. Some signs that you have a clog include:
- Wastewater backing up in your drains in your home
- Foul odors in your home
- Water draining slowly
To address this problem, call a professional to clean out your tank right away.
Broken Lines or Pipes
Broken elements of your septic system need to be addressed as soon as they are spotted. A number of factors can cause baffles, lines, and pipes to break or crack, including:
- Digging in the wrong place
- Sulfuric acid or rust deterioration
- Tree-root infiltration
Using a special camera, a contractor should be able to locate the crack or leak and replace the part.
To prevent pipe damage, call 811 before you begin any project that would require you to dig. A professional can detect which areas you need to stay away from. Remember, there could be more than just your septic system beneath your land - wires and cables may also run through your property.
Prevent damage due to tree roots by periodically having a professional take a look at the trees nearby and assess their risk. Don't attempt to remedy the issue yourself using chemicals like copper sulfate or by cutting down the tree. A professional will know how to solve the problem for the long term and should be knowledgeable of any local environmental regulations regarding chemicals.
Health Hazards Associated with Septic Systems
When a septic system is working properly and is adequately maintained, harmful bacteria will be removed and won't affect the groundwater, people living in the home, or neighbors. However, a septic system failure comes with health risks that are best to avoid as much as possible.
Illnesses Caused by Failed Septic Systems
Nitrates normally get filtered out before wastewater reaches the drain field. However, if they are still mixed in with the water exiting the septic tank and make their way into drinking water, they can lead to an illness that affects infants. Methemoglobinemia, more commonly referred to as "blue baby syndrome," reduces infants' ability to move oxygen through their blood.
Other diseases that are associated with failed septic systems include:
- Typhoid fever
Water Pollution Caused by Failed Septic Systems
If your septic system is near a body of water, there is a chance that harmful bacteria and viruses from a failed septic system could spread farther than your property using the local waterways. Nutrients in the wastewater can cause algae to grow much faster than normal, blocking necessary sunlight from shining into the water to support other plant and animal life. Additionally, these plants will reduce oxygen levels in the water, leaving the environment less habitable for some animal life.
Too much algae and other plant life can also reduce the ability for people to use a body of water for recreational purposes. What's more, the bacteria and viruses included in the wastewater can also cause disease in the people swimming, boating, or fishing in the water. Fish and shellfish can also become contaminated, making them harmful to eat.
How to Choose a Septic Company
Your septic system is highly important to your home, and as such, it's vital to find a good company to help you with maintenance. Before hiring anyone, do some research into the company. Look online for reviews and testimonials. Also, ask your friends, family, or colleagues who have septic systems who they work with and why.
Program Benefits and Costs
Every contractor will offer different products and programs, even though they'll generally be able to accomplish the same tasks. Be sure to read the fine print and determine what services the company includes in their different programs.
These programs will also vary in cost between different contractors. In 2016, septic tank pumping and cleaning cost anywhere from $200 to $900, with most people spending about $375. Compare and contrast pricing as well as services covered by the program you choose.