4 Essential Points Everyone Needs to Know About Their Septic System

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  • Author Noah Ferreira
  • Published June 18, 2011
  • Word count 1,119

It is not just about being environmentally friendly. Yes, allowing your septic tank to overflow due to negligence can cause all sorts of pollution problems, not the least of which could include contaminating your drinking water. It is also about saving your pocketbook.

Did you know that a neglected septic system can easily cost you $6,000 or more? Rates are higher for emergency septic tank pumping, but you also have to consider that you may need additional repairs or replacements for your system and could have caused damage to other parts of your property or even your neighbor’s. That is probably not the way you intended to greet your new neighbors!

The good news is, you do not have to find yourself in that situation. There are certain things to know and guidelines to follow which can keep you from experiencing an embarrassing, expensive, or even dangerous situation with your septic system. Read on to learn four essential things you need to know about your septic system.

• What is a septic system?

If your home is connected to the main sewer line from the city or township, your waste water flows by gravity or lift pumps to the sewage treatment plant, where it is safely processed and managed. Those homes in outlying areas may not have access to the sewer lines, and as a result, an on-site septic treatment system is necessary. Essentially, the septic system is meant to process and neutralize biological and sanitary waste locally. This waste can be most any liquid or solid that exits your home from toilets, sinks and other plumbing fixtures.

For a typical septic system, there are four main components:

  1. A pipe which leads the waste away from the house;

  2. A septic tank where the waste is allowed to separate: solids sink to the bottom, oil and grease float to the top, and water stays in the middle;

  3. A distribution box which takes the wastewater from the septic tank and directs it to several perforated pipes. Those pipes lead the water to:

  4. Your soil. A large soil surface area, usually called a drain field or leach field, filters the waste, as it slowly percolates into the ground and ultimately the groundwater.

• Alternative septic systems

Most alternative septic systems are just slight variations of the typical septic system described above. One reason why you might need an alternative system could be that there are already too many typical septic systems surrounding you. Another cause could be that you live too close to surface water (stream, river, pond, or lake), a source for well water, or you live in an area with a high water table. One of the main reasons, though, is poor soil conditions.

There are plenty of ways to work around these potential issues. Many alternative systems use sand, peat, or artificial filters instead of soil in a drain field. Some use mechanical components such as float switches and pumps to maintain the system. Alternative septic systems, especially ones with mechanical components, should be inspected annually.

By law, all septic systems must be registered with your local health department. So if you are unsure about your type of septic system, or you would like to install one, your local health department is a good reference.

• What should never go down your drains and toilets?

There are quite a few items which can cause problems for septic systems. Some are obvious, but some may surprise you. We can’t list ALL of them here, but these are some examples:

Dirt – Anyone who washes their flower pots in the sink or bathtub may not realize they have a clog waiting to happen. The dirt will build up in pipes and at least cause slow draining, if not worse: complete blockage of the drain field.

Cotton swabs – Sure, they are small and seem harmless, but keep in mind they are not biodegradable. Even if you are lucky enough not to have a cotton swab clog your drain, that thing will be sitting in your drain field for years to come.

Kitty litter – Unless your cat is trained to sit on the toilet every time it has to go, keep its waste out of there. Remember, kitty litter is meant to clump. If it does not create a clogged drain, it is adding to the solid waste in your tank, which will require more frequent pumping.

Paper towels and tissues – These items are not toilet paper! They don’t break down easily like toilet paper does and are known to cause problems.

Chemicals – You wouldn’t pour paint thinner on your front lawn, would you? Well then, why would you put it down your drain? Remember, anything you put down your drain ends up in your leach field – don’t contaminate your own soil with any harmful chemicals such as antifreeze, used oil, paints, etc. Ultimately, they may end up in the groundwater.

Again, the above list is not comprehensive, but it does give you some good examples of what not to put down your drains. Any items which are not biodegradable or can cause clogs need to be kept away from your septic system. If in doubt, leave it out.

• How often does your septic tank need to be pumped or serviced?

There are three major factors which play into how often your septic system requires pumping:

  1. The number of people in your household - more people means more wastewater is generated.

  2. The amount of solids in your wastewater – the more solid waste, the quicker a tank will fill. One habit to avoid is using a garbage disposal too often as it can greatly increase the solid waste in your tank.

  3. Tank size – Tank sizes can vary from a few hundred to 1500 gallons. Most homes will have a tank around 1000 gallons. Obviously, the bigger the tank, the longer it takes to fill.

A general rule is that most tanks should be pumped every 2-5 years. With a higher water table or nearby surface water, annual pumping may be required. However, with so many variables involved, it is best to not make assumptions with your particular system. Get it inspected regularly, typically every 3 years. Alternative systems should be inspected annually. The inspector can give you a good estimate of how often the tank should be pumped.

The best way to determine how often your tank needs to be pumped is by actually getting it pumped! Ask your service provider about the sludge and scum levels in your tank. Note those details in a document and keep records from one pump to the next. Doing so lets you know how quickly the tank is filling up and whether or not you can wait longer between pumps.

Written by Noah Ferreira for Kingston Park Utilities, Inc., the premier septic system maintenance company in suburban Atlanta and Northern Georgia.

This article may be freely reprinted or distributed in its entirety in any e-zine, newsletter, blog, or website, royalty free. The author’s name, bio, and website links must remain intact and be included with every reproduction.

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