If you have a septic system, keeping it well-maintained is essential for ensuring the health and safety of your family, as well as protecting the environment. In this comprehensive guide, we'll walk you through the basics of septic system maintenance and provide tips to keep yours in tip-top shape. We'll also share some warning signs to watch out for and explain the importance of regular inspections. So, let's dive right in and discover how simple septic system maintenance can be.
Understanding Your Home Septic System
Before diving into the details of septic system maintenance, it's essential to understand the basics of how a home septic system works.
What is a septic system?
Bob McDonald, Senior Inspector with McFarland Septic in Durham explains that a septic system is basically a "self-contained onsite wastewater treatment system that processes household waste. They're designed for homes that don't have access to sewer."
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), conventional septic systems consist of two main parts: the septic tank and the drainfield (also called the leach field or soil absorption field). When wastewater flows from your house, it enters the septic tank where solid waste settles at the bottom, forming a sludge layer. Meanwhile, grease and oils rise to the top, creating a scum layer. The liquid wastewater (or effluent) in the middle flows from the tank into the drainfield, where it's filtered and eventually absorbed by the soil1.
Why is septic system maintenance important?
Bob says that proper system maintenance is important because as the sludge layers in your septic tank start to build up, they will eventually overflow and go into the drainfield area. "What it will do is where the gravel or other material is in the drainfield, it will actually coat and seal it so the water can't get in there. The water has to keep traveling farther and farther out into the system looking for a way out until eventually it runs out of room and comes to the surface."
The EPA warns that having wastewater sitting on the surface and discharging directly into groundwater can cause the spread of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and other organisms and contaminants in the environment which, in turn, can affect the health and safety of your family and community2.
Another reason that septic system maintenance is important is that failing systems are expensive! The EPA makes the case that "having your septic system inspected regularly is a bargain when you consider the cost of replacing the entire system3.”
Who is responsible for septic system maintenance?
You, the homeowner, are responsible for your home's septic tank maintenance. While you don't need to pump the tank yourself, you are responsible for having a septic service professional do it for you. Maintenance records should be kept every time that's done so that others in your family and anyone who buys the home in the future will know about any issues that might have come up and how the system has been cared for.
How to know where septic tank is located
In order to maintain your septic system, you should know where your septic tank and drainfield are located. You can do that by requesting a copy of your septic system permit and soil evaluation sheet from the health department. In addition, Bob says that newer septic tanks have a riser access connected to the top of the tank that comes up above the ground for easy access and maintenance. That also lets you know where the tank is so that you don't run over it or build on top of it.
If you have an older system and can't get a copy of the permit and don't know where the septic tank and drainfield are located, a septic professional can "come out and probe it and flag it so you would know exactly where everything is."
Most Common Reasons for Septic System Issues
Here's a look at some of the most common reasons for septic system issues.
- Lack of maintenance.
- Tree roots growing into your septic system, primarily the drainfield.
- Driving or building on top of the septic tank or drainfield.
Septic System Maintenance Tips
In order to keep your septic system functioning properly, Bob and the EPA3 offer these maintenance tips.
Pump the septic tank regularly.
Inspecting and pumping your tank is the most critical aspect of septic system maintenance. Over time, the sludge and scum layers in the tank build up and need to be removed to prevent them from overflowing into the drainfield. Bob and the EPA recommend that you have the septic tank pumped every three to five years, depending on the size of your household, the amount of wastewater generated, and your tank size.
Bob says that the state of North Carolina recommends pumping when the amount of solid material gets to 25-30% of the total water depth in the tank. The tank should be almost full of water with about an eight-inch buffer of clear space above it. "A lot of people open the tank, look in and go, 'Oh no, my tank's full. I need to pump it.' But, it's supposed to be that full. As long as it's not up to the opening, it should be okay. That gives the bacteria in the septic tank the ability to function and break stuff down."
If you have an active, full household, you'll probably need to pump your tank every three years. Households that aren't as busy may be able to do it every five years. If you're unsure, have a licensed professional perform an inspection and recommend how often you need to pump your septic tank.
Conserve water (and save money).
Conserving water isn't just for the eco-conscious; it's also a crucial part of septic system maintenance. Reducing the amount of water that enters your septic system can help prevent system overloading and drainfield flooding. Try installing high-efficiency appliances and fixtures, fixing leaks promptly, and spreading out water usage throughout the day to give your septic system a break. Even selecting the proper load size for your washing machine can make a difference.
Be mindful of what goes down the drain.
Your septic system isn't a garbage disposal, so be cautious about what you flush or pour down the drain. Non-biodegradable items like diapers, wipes, coffee grounds, and cooking grease can clog your septic system and cause it to fail. Stick to septic-safe toilet paper and avoid using harsh chemicals like bleach. These can kill the helpful bacteria in your septic tank.
Bob offers this piece of advice. "If it won't sit in a glass of water and break down, you don't want to put it in the septic tank. It will clog your system."
This is especially true of wet wipes that say "flushable." According to Bob, that just means they fit. "If wipes don't break down in a glass of water within a few days, don't use them."
It's also important to remember that using a garbage disposal increases the amount of solids that go into the septic tank. This can cause it to clog up faster. According to the NC State Extension office, if you use a garbage disposal, you should pump your tank more frequently4.”
Protect your septic tank and drainfield.
One of the easiest ways to maintain your septic tank is to make sure that no one drives over it. Bob says, "What we usually see is people will have some construction done and somebody will bring equipment in or they drive over it. The cast concrete septic tank can't support traffic. It will break and could actually collapse."
As far as the drainfield goes, it's where the magic happens. It's responsible for filtering and purifying the wastewater from your septic tank. To keep it functioning optimally, avoid parking or driving on it and don't plant trees or large shrubs nearby. You'll also want to direct rainwater runoff away from the area. This will help prevent soil compaction and root intrusion, which can damage your drain field.
Be cautious about installing water purification systems.
Bob warns that water softeners or water purification systems can harm your septic system. "The back flush from that system is piped into the sewer system. The result is that you're basically dropping 60 to 80 gallons of salt water into the septic system which then kills the bacteria in the tank and inhibits it from doing what it's supposed to do. When that happens, the solids won't settle like they're supposed to and will get pushed out into the drainfield."
Schedule regular inspections.
The EPA recommends having a licensed professional inspect your system at least every three years. Regular inspections can help identify issues early on, saving you time, money, and headaches in the long run.
Most Common Signs of Septic System Issues
Even with regular maintenance, septic systems can still develop issues. Here are some warning signs to watch out for:
- Slow drains or gurgling sounds in your plumbing system. Bob says, "As you run water in your septic tank, air comes up through a pipe and out through a roof vent. When the water level gets too high, there's not enough room for the air to get out. Flushing the toilet or running the dishwasher quickly pushes the air back through the pipe and that starts the bubbling. So, when you hear gurgling, your water level's too high in the septic tank." He says that another sign is if all of the toilets in the house are slow to flush. If it's just one toilet, call a plumber. If it's the entire house, it's likely the septic system.
- Sewage backup in your home3.
- Foul odors near the septic tank or drainfield3.
- Bright green, spongy grass over the drainfield3.
- Standing water or wet spots around the septic tank or drainfield. Bob warns that if you run your washing machine and see water coming up out of the ground, that's a good sign of septic system failure.
If you notice any of these symptoms, call a septic professional right away to diagnose and fix the problem.
Cost of Septic System Inspection and Pumping
There's no doubt that homeowners that plan for regular maintenance as part of their household budget encounter the fewest surprises. So you can do that for your septic system, here's a general idea of what to expect. As of 2023, Bob says that pumping a tank will cost anywhere between $350-$450 dollars. The average cost of a septic system inspection is about $330.
Bottom Line on Septic System Maintenance
Taking care of your septic system doesn't have to be a daunting task. By following these simple tips, you can keep your septic system running smoothly.
In addition, a well-maintained septic system may not add value but reassures potential buyers. They'll know your home is cared for and issue-free. Conversely, a failing system can reduce your home's value and deter buyers. It's better to maintain it regularly than face issues when selling.
How to Ask Us About a Potential Home Improvement Project
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- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. How Septic Systems Work.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental/Public Health Impacts From Septic Systems.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Homeowners Guide to Septic Systems.
- NC State Extension. Septic Systems and Their Maintenance.