Many homeowners find themselves faced with a whole new set of responsibilities when moving into a home with a septic system. For the homeowner accustomed to the public sewer system, the idea of maintaining a septic system conjures many questions and concerns. However, with a proper understanding of how your septic system works, you can ensure that it will effectively treat your household wastewater for many years.
Septic System Basics
Septic systems typically are made up of a pipe that originates at the home, a septic tank, a drain field, and the soil. The pipe from the home carries all wastewater exiting the home to the septic tank. These septic tanks can be many different shapes or materials, are watertight, and are buried in the ground. The tank receives wastewater and allows its components to settle. Solids settle to the bottom, forming sludge, while oil and grease rise to the surface and become scum. Wastewater, which forms the interface between the scum and the sludge, passes through a screen, through a pipe, and out into the drain field. Modern tanks have a component called a “riser” which allows visual inspection and pumping of the tank. A manhole cover may also indicate that the tank is located below.
The drain field consists of the sand and soil surrounding the septic tank. As new wastewater enters the tank, older wastewater is pushed into the drain field, where it is treated by naturally occurring soil microbes. Too much liquid will saturate and overload the drain field, causing pooling on the soil surface. For this reason, a reserve drain field elsewhere on your property is often required by many states. The final component of the septic system, soil, is perhaps the most critical, as it is a living ecosystem that must be maintained in order for successful wastewater treatment.
Septic System Maintenance
If properly built and maintained, a septic system effectively treats your household’s wastewater, eliminating environmental or human health concerns. Just as with any component of your home, the septic system requires regular maintenance to keep it functioning. A regular inspection will help identify any problems before they wind up too large to fix. An inspector will check for signs of backup, measure scum and sludge layers, check for leaks, and inspect mechanical components, and pump if necessary.
Pumping is recommended every three to five years, depending on household size and water usage. A properly functioning septic system will contain a healthy microbial community, which will eliminate disease-causing pathogens and pollutants. If inadequately maintained or infrequently pumped, a septic system will no longer function to treat your wastewater. Instead, untreated sewage can contaminate groundwater, posing a significant threat to drinking water and nearby surface waters.
Water Usage Tips
The more water your family conserves, the less water enters the drain pipe to the septic tank. Many simple measures can be taken within the home to increase water usage efficiency. High-efficiency toilets, faucet aerators, and high-efficiency showerheads all increase water efficiency and decrease water output. Watching what goes down your drain is critical as well.
Only human waste should go down toilets. Floss, feminine products, kitty litter, condoms, and other non-biodegradable items can clog and potentially damage a septic system. Household chemicals also destroy the microbial ecosystem that is critical to the treatment of your wastewater.