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How Does a Septic System Work? 7 Things to Know

Septic systems are something most homeowners avoid addressing until absolutely necessary. Understandably, they can seem hard to repair, expensive, or difficult to maintain. However, they don’t need to be scary. With a good maintenance plan and regular inspections, a septic tank can easily last for years.

More than 60 million homes use septic systems, and approximately 1/3 of new developments have them installed, making these systems more common than you might think.

If your home has a septic system, here are seven things that you should know about how they work.

1. Septic systems filter wastewater.

Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures. Typically, they are more prevalent in rural areas that don’t have centralized sewer systems. Most septic systems consist of a tank that collects waste and a drain field.

The tank processes the wastewater, separating floatable matter (for example oil) and solids. This separation leaves three layers: scum (floatable solids), wastewater in the middle, and sludge at the bottom.

Soil-based septic systems discharge the wastewater, also known as effluent, from the tank into perforated pipes. These pipes usually lie buried in a leach field or other special unit designed to release it into the soil slowly.

There are alternative systems that use pumps or gravity. These systems remove pollutants by pushing the wastewater through organic materials, such as sand, wetlands, or other media. Some other systems evaporate wastewater or clean it before discharging it into the soil.

2. There are some things you can’t put through the system.

If you’re on a centralized sewer system, you likely don’t think about what you send through the system. However, if you’re on septic, you need to be careful of what you send through it.

Things like cat litter, diapers, feminine products, and other matter can clog the system.

Here’s a list of what you shouldn’t put into your septic system if you wish to avoid clogging it:

  • Cigarette butts
  • Paper towels
  • Cat litter
  • Condoms
  • Disposable diapers
  • Plastics
  • Non-biodegradables
  • Oils
  • Gasoline
  • Paint thinners
  • Solvents
  • Weed or insect killers
  • Cooking grease
  • Pharmaceuticals

Besides these items, avoid washing food scraps, coffee grounds, and other food items down the drain. You should also avoid using an in-sink garbage disposal, as these can increase sludge accumulation.

3. There are some essential do’s and don’ts of septic tank use and maintenance.

Maintaining a septic system isn’t difficult, but there are some things you must do, and other things you should avoid, to ensure it works properly:

  • Minimize the use of chemical and biological additives. These products can accelerate the breakdown of solids to improve the state of the drain field. However, they also wreak havoc on the bacteria that should help the system work well.
  • You should never park over your drain field. The weight of the vehicle could damage the drainage pipes and ruin your system. Know where your drain field is and keep a map of it just in case.
  • Be careful where you plant bushes or trees near your drain field. Some water-loving species of greenery, such as weeping willows, can send roots into the drain field. These roots are stronger than you may think, and there have been cases of tree roots going into outlet pipes and even septic tanks themselves. As a rule of thumb: if your tree will grow to be 25 feet tall, keep it 25 feet away from your drain field.
  • Get your tank pumped out every 2-3 years by a professional septic service. These services will come out to your septic tank with a pumping truck, park it carefully near the inspection utility hole, and pump the tank out. They will usually conduct a visual inspection as well, making sure there are no defects or repairs needed for your septic tank.

A Collection Of Stained White Pipes

4. You need to know the first signs of septic system failure.

Septic system failure isn’t just a stinky mess. If you don’t recognize the signs of failure and act immediately, it can be a very costly stinky mess.

The signs of septic system failure might be subtle at first and may include:

  • Your drains aren’t emptying as fast as they once did.
  • You hear gurgling sounds from your exterior drains.
  • There might be bad smells emitting from the septic tank or drains in your home.
  • Your drain field has suddenly become lush and full.

Any of these could be due to a blockage or break in outlet pipes. These are almost always the first signs of failure.

Make sure to call in a professional if you think your septic system might be failing. Even if you’re not sure, getting a professional opinion can save you thousands of dollars in repairs.

5. Septic systems are not the money holes that people think they are.

Many people think that owning and maintaining a septic system gets to be extremely expensive over time. While this is the case for some people, it’s not the case for everyone.

Maintenance costs depend on:

  • The tank and how often it needs maintenance
  • The size of the household
  • The size of the drain field
  • Tank accessibility
  • How far away the waste pumped from the system must get hauled for disposal

Check with a septic company to determine actual costs and have a blueprint or drawing of the septic system handy for reference.

Generally, pumping the tank costs between $250-500. However, this is a cost you must pay only every 1-5 years (depending on your tank specifications). When using a septic system, you’re not paying sewer fees for a municipal sewer system, and your waterline doesn’t have a meter.

Since these systems can last for well over 30 years with proper maintenance, the cost of a septic system might be more worth it than connecting to municipal sewer lines.

6. You may need to get a septic system inspection depending on where you live.

If you’re in the market to buy or sell a home, you need to research your state’s rules on septic systems. Some states require an inspection before a title transfer.

Even if your state doesn’t, home lenders may require it. Even if nobody requires that you inspect the system before you purchase or sell the house, you should still get it looked at just in case any repairs are necessary.

You need to know the condition of the system. It will help to determine if the system is far enough from a well to avoid contamination and confirm no invasive tree roots are in the drain field. Finally, you must know the age of the system to determine if it needs replacing.

7. You can easily find the best septic tank inspector near you.

When seeking out any professional for home maintenance, it’s best to find one that has an excellent reputation. You can find out from local realtors and neighbors who they recommend. Make sure to call around and ask what their inspection process is like to ensure they know what they’re doing!

The other quick solution is to call All Dry USA.

Conclusion

For more information on septic systems and maintenance, call an expert at All Dry USA. We have professionals who can help you get your septic tank in perfect running condition.

Ben Suiskind
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