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Septic Systems - Homeowner Maintenance


Did you know that about 25 percent of the U.S. population relies on decentralized—or onsite—wastewater treatment systems? About 95 percent of the onsite wastewater disposal systems are septic systems.  (If a property is not connect to a public sewer system, then it probably has an onsite septic system.)


What is a septic system?

Typical Septic System For A ResidenceA septic system is a highly efficient, self-contained, underground wastewater treatment system. Because septic systems treat and dispose of household wastewater onsite, they are often more economical than centralized sewer systems in rural areas where lot sizes are larger and houses are spaced widely apart. Septic systems are also simple in design, which make them generally less expensive to install and maintain. And by using natural processes to treat the wastewater onsite, usually in a homeowner's backyard, septic systems don't require the installation of miles of sewer lines, making them less disruptive to the environment.

A septic system consists of two main parts-a septic tank and a drainfield. The septic tank is a watertight box, usually made of concrete or fiberglass, with an inlet and outlet pipe. Wastewater flows from the home to the septic tank through the sewer pipe. The septic tank treats the wastewater naturally by holding it in the tank long enough for solids and liquids to separate. The wastewater forms three layers inside the tank. Solids lighter than water (such as greases and oils) float to the top forming a layer of scum. Solids heavier than water settle at the bottom of the tank forming a layer of sludge. This leaves a middle layer of partially clarified wastewater.

 Septic System - Tank, D-Box and Drainfield (leachfield)

The layers of sludge and scum remain in the septic tank where bacteria found naturally in the wastewater work to break the solids down. The sludge and scum that cannot be broken down are retained in the tank until the tank is pumped. The layer of clarified liquid flows from the septic tank to the drainfield or to a distribution box (D-box), which helps to uniformly distribute the wastewater in the drainfield. The distribution box may be attached directly to the septic tank or connected to it by a short length of pipe. A standard drainfield (also known as a leachfield, disposal field, or a soil absorption system) is a series of trenches or a bed lined with gravel or course sand and buried one to three feet below the ground surface. Perforated pipes or drain tiles run through the trenches to distribute the wastewater. The drainfield treats the wastewater by allowing it to slowly trickle from the pipes out into the gravel and down through the soil. The gravel and soil act as biological filters.


Septic Systems Maintenance for the Homeowner

Septic System Diagram

If you own a septic system, it is important that it be properly maintained. How often you need to pump the solids out of your septic tank depends on three major factors:

  1. the number of people in your household;
  2. the amount of wastewater generated (based on the number of people in the household and the amount of water used); and
  3. the volume of solids in the wastewater (e.g., using a garbage disposal will increase the amount of solids).

Although your septic tank absorption field generally does not require maintenance, you should adhere to the following rules to protect and prolong its functional life:

  1. Do not drive over the absorption field with cars, trucks, or heavy equipment.
  2. Do not plant trees or shrubbery in the absorption field area, because the roots can get into the lines and plug them.
  3. Do not cover the absorption field with hard surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt. Grass is the best cover, because it will help prevent erosion and help remove excess water.
  4. Do divert surface runoff water from roofs, patios, driveways, and other areas away from the absorption field.

 

 

Septic Tank Maintenance

Homeowners wanting to take good care of their septic systems should make note of the following items that should never be flushed down the drain or toilet. These items can overtax or destroy the biological digestion taking place within the system or clog pumps and pipes.

Take care not to flush the following:

  • hair combings
  • coffee grounds
  • dental floss
  • disposable diapers
  • kitty litter
  • sanitary napkins
  • tampons
  • cigarette butts
  • condoms
  • gauze bandages
  • fat, grease, or oil
  • paper towels

and NEVER flush chemicals that could contaminate surface and groundwater, such as:

  • paints
  • varnishes
  • thinners
  • waste oils
  • photographic solutions
  • pesticides
     

The National Small Flows Clearinghouse (NSFC) offers a series of brochures about septic system operation and maintenance. These brochures describe how septic systems work and give some general guidelines to help protect the groundwater and prolong the life of your septic system. 

Source: NSFC - Septic Information
 

How often should you pump your septic tank?

As a rule of thumb, many experts recommend cleaning out an average septic tank at least every 3 to 5 years.  However, use the chart below to determine what is better for your specific level of usage and tank size.

 

Time Table for Inspecting and Pumping Your Septic Tank (in years):

 
Household size (number of people)
  1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9+
Tank Size (gals)
Duration (in years) Between Pumpings and/or Inspections
500 5.8 2.6 1.5 1.0 0.7 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.1
750 9.1 4.2 2.6 1.8 1.3 1.0 0.7 0.6 0.4
900 11.0 5.2 3.3 2.3 1.7 1.3 1.0 0.8 0.7
1000 12.4 5.9 3.7 2.6 2.0 1.5 1.2 1.0 0.8
1250 15.6 7.5 4.8 3.4 2.6 2.0 1.7 1.4 1.2
1500 18.9 9.1 5.9 4.2 3.3 2.6 2.1 1.8 1.5
1750 22.1 10.7 6.9 5.0 3.9 3.1 2.6 2.2 1.9
2000 25.4 12.4 8.1 5.9 4.5 3.7 3.1 2.6 2.2
2250 28.6 14.0 9.1 6.7 5.2 4.2 3.5 3.0 2.6
2500 31.9 15.6 10.2 7.5 5.9 4.8 4.0 3.5 3.0
For example, if there are 4 people living in your house and your septic tank can hold 1,000 gallons, the tank should be inspected and pumped at least every three years. 

Source: Adapted from "Estimated Septic Tank Pumping Frequency," by Karen Mancl. 1984. Journal of Environmental Engineering. Volume 110, via http://h2osparc.wq.ncsu.edu/info/farmassit/f_septic.html.

 

Additional Resources:
Septic Systems and Their Maintenance - Maryland Cooperative Extension
Your Septic System - Univ. of Fl.
Septic System Owner's Guide - NCSU

EPA's Homeowner's Guide: Your Septic System [PDF]
 


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