Septic Tank Maintenance is very important to maintaining your home. Did you know that it costs anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000 to replace the average septic tank? With this in mind, proper septic system maintenance is absolutely essential to keeping your septic system up and running. Routine septic system maintenance will not only save you from spending big bucks on expensive repairs, but it will also help make your living environment a healthy and safe space. Fortunately, septic system maintenance isn’t rocket science. From your toilet and shower to your garbage disposal and washer, whatever goes down your drain ends up in your septic tank. Therefore, it’s important to pay close attention to what items you are putting down the drain, as well as the efficiency of your appliances. For more information on how to maintain your septic system, read our guide below.
Septic System Basics
What is a septic tank?
Your septic system contains a septic tank and a drainfield. The septic tank container is located underground and is responsible for holding solids and scum accumulated from your wastewater. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), “more than one in five households in the United States depends on an individual onsite system or small community cluster system to treat their wastewater.” Households that use a septic tank system are typically located in rural areas without access to public city sewers. While potential home buyers may initially view having a septic tank as a negative, they should know that with proper maintenance, these septic tanks have the ability to last 30 years or more.
How does a septic system work?
When wastewater from your home enters the septic tank, it is separated into three layers:
-Solids (poo, toilet paper, etc.)
-Liquid fats, oils and greases (LFOG)
The solids settle at the bottom of the tank while the LFOG floats to the top. The clean water then flows out of the tank and into the drainfield where it is finally dispersed into the soil. If your septic tank isn’t properly maintained, however, these layers can become mixed together and cause serious problems for your system.
What is a drainfield?
Once wastewater exits the septic tank, it passes on to the drainfield. Part of the septic system, the drainfield is a “shallow, covered, excavation” in the soil, according to the EPA. It is sometimes referred to as a “leachfield.” If the drainfield becomes inundated with wastewater and/or outside liquid, it can flood. This can lead to a sewage backup.
Why is septic maintenance so important?
Given how expensive it is to replace a septic system, proper maintenance is an important step to keeping your septic system (and your finances) healthy. The more proactive you are in caring for and maintaining your septic system, the longer that septic system will last. When maintaining your septic tank, the goal is to prevent the accumulation of solids, as well as any groundwater contamination.
Septic maintenance generally includes the following tasks:
-Checking your septic tank for leaks or cracks
-Removing solids from the tank on a regular basis
-Inspecting your drainfield for damage or clogs
-Flushing your system on a regular basis
What not to put down the drain
While it may seem like common sense, there are certain items that should never be put down the drain if you want to keep your septic system running smoothly. These items include (but are not limited to):
-Fats, oils and grease (LFOG)
-Sanitary napkins and tampons
How often should I have my septic system pumped?
The size of your household, total wastewater generated, amount of solids present and tank size will all determine how often your septic system will need to be pumped. The EPA reports that while the average septic system is pumped every three years, those with “electrical float switches, pumps or mechanical components should be inspected more often.” In general, we recommend having your septic system inspected and pumped once a year to be safe. Below is an easy four-step maintenance program, which, if followed carefully, will prevent solid build-up and ensure that your system will operate at peak efficiency for many years to come.
4 Steps to Septic System Maintenance
- Step 1 – Responsible Pumping – Each household should be on a regular septic service schedule to prevent the accumulation of solids in their system. Servicing frequency varies per household, so be sure to ask your technician their opinion on how often your septic system needs to be pumped.
- Step 2 – High-Pressure Water Jetting – All septic systems, regardless of responsible pumping, will accumulate solids and other debris in their drain pipes. The presence of these solids clog the pipes that connect the septic tank to the drainfield. Therefore, we recommend high-pressure water jetting every five years to eliminate and clear any debris that could prevent your system from operating efficiently.
- Step 3 – Use a Bacteria Additive – Septic owners should use a live organic bacteria that breaks down the presence of unnatural substances and solids, like detergents and soaps, that sometimes enter your septic system. If these common household substances penetrate your septic system they kill off the naturally occurring bacteria that allow your system to function properly. Bacteria additives are an inexpensive insurance policy that keeps your pipes clean & clear, odor free, and your system functioning properly.
- Step 4 – Install an Effluent Filter – Your filter, which prevents solids from entering into your drainfield, needs to be cleaned or replaced whenever you service your system. Some older systems do not have a filter. If your septic system does not have a filter, inform your technician.
Septic System Dos
Do perform regular septic tank maintenance
To keep your septic system running efficiently, we recommend having a service professional inspect your septic system every year. According to the EPA, household septic systems are pumped every three to five years. Professionals should be able to tell you how often your septic system needs to pumped. Pumping a septic system when needed will prevent it from breaking down.
Do maintain your drainfield
To maintain your drainfield, avoid planting gardens and trees nearby. This will prevent roots from growing and bumping against your septic system. You should also avoid parking cars over your drainfield.
Do limit the amount of stuff you put down your garbage disposal
The more junk you dispose of down the garbage disposal, the more likely you are to damage your septic system. To avoid clogging your system up, try not to put cooking grease, coffee grounds and fats down the disposal. Instead, dispose of these items in the trash.
Do buy high-efficiency appliances
According to the EPA, efficient water use can improve the operation of your septic system. That means that the more water you waste (via leaky toilets, excessive use of your washing machine, etc), the more water will enter your septic system. This can cause damage and potential drainfield flooding. The easiest way to prevent wasting water is by using high-efficiency appliances. Look for Energy Star appliances, which use 50 percent less water than typical appliances.
Do save inspection reports & maintenance records
Homeowners should save any and all maintenance records and inspection reports when having their septic system serviced. Inspections should include detailed reports on potential or existing leaks, as well as scum levels and possible damage. If damage is reported, then you should hire an experienced repairman to fix it as soon as possible.
Septic System Don’ts
Don’t flush items down the toilet
To prevent breaking your system, avoid flushing anything down the toilet that isn’t toilet paper. While toilet paper is designed to break down and dissolve inside of septic tanks, other items are not. Even items described as “flushable” should not be flushed down your toilet. According to the EPA, items to avoid flushing down the toilet include cooking grease or oil, flushable wipes, feminine hygiene products, dental floss, diapers, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, paper towels and cat litter – among many other non-flushable items.
Don’t hire a septic system repairman who isn’t qualified
Need to hire a local repairman? To find an experienced and certified technician, search the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association’s database of service professionals.
Don’t pour chemicals down the drain
Whether you’re at the kitchen sink or the bathroom shower, avoid pouring chemical drain openers, oil, grease and toxic liquids down the drain. This will prevent damage to your septic system.
Don’t waste water
Conserving water is the easiest way to maintain an efficient septic system. Several easy ways to avoid wasting water include investing in Energy Star appliances, fixing leaking faucets and repairing running toilets.
Don’t put rainwater drainage systems near your drainfield
Keeping things off and away from your drainfield area should be a top priority. The EPA reports that excess rainwater from a drainage system, such as a roof drain, can cause excess water to accumulate near your drainfield. In turn, this will only slow down your septic system’s treatment process.
Household Features That Affect Your Septic System
Many homeowners aren’t aware that everyday appliances can have a negative effect on the state of their septic system. The frequent use of home features such as hot tubs, garbage disposals, washing machines, toilets and showerheads can all decrease the efficiency of your septic system.
- Hot tub – Hot tub owners must be aware that draining the water all at once can damage their septic system. According to Pipeline, “hot tub water should instead be cooled and then drained onto turf or landscaped areas of your property well away from the septic tank, drainfield, and house in accordance with local regulations.”
- Garbage disposal – If your home has a standalone septic system, we don’t recommend using a garbage disposal at all. Eliminating the use of a garbage disposal will drastically cut back on the number of solids and scum levels in your septic tank. If you do use a garbage disposal, you’ll most likely need to pump your septic system more often than those who do not use this home feature.
- Washing machine – The EPA reports that the average single-family home uses nearly 70 gallons per individual per day. That’s a lot of water. Unfortunately, the more water your family uses, the more overloaded your septic system will be. When a septic system is overloaded, it increases the risk of failure. To prevent this from happening, those who have a septic system should limit the amount of laundry they do in a single day. They should also opt for Energy Star washing machines, which use 45 percent less water than regular washers.
- Toilet – Hear your toilet running? According to the EPA, a running or leaky toilet can waste up to 200 gallons of water per day. Yikes. Not only will this increase your utility bill, but it will also increase the amount of water in your septic system. Replacing old toilets with high-efficiency toilets is an easy way to stop this from happening.
- Showerhead – It might be time to switch out your old showerhead for a newer, high-efficiency one. These showerheads help to restrict the flow of water and reduce the amount of water seeping into your septic system.
Other Septic Tank Maintenance Tips
How do I know if I need to pump my septic system?
Have a professional septic system technician come to the house to inspect your tank at least once every one to three years. When the technician arrives, they will record your scum levels in the tank. These levels should indicate when and how often you’ll need to pump your septic system. The EPA reports that “if the top of the scum layer is within 12 inches of the outlet, your tank needs to be pumped.”
How do I know if my septic system is failing?
Is your septic system emitting foul odors? Allstate Insurance Company claims that this could be a sign that something is wrong. When a septic system is clogged with solids, it is more likely to fail. Yearly maintenance can prevent this from happening. Another reason for septic system failure could be its specific design and location. If located near “inappropriate soils, excessive slopes, or high ground water tables,” the septic system could become inundated with outside water sources, reports the EPA. If you begin to notice muddy waters around your septic system, this could be a sign that the system has accumulated too much liquid and is backing up.
What do I do if my septic system backs up?
The last thing you want (and anyone wants!) is sewage backing up into the home. However, this can happen if you fail to properly maintain the septic system. If this does take place, make sure that you and your family avoid contact with the sewage. According to the EPA, the sewage backed into your home could contain harmful pathogens and bad bacteria. Instead of trying to clean it up yourself, call your local health department to inform them of your septic system failure. You’ll need to hire a professional cleanup crew to handle the mess. Afterwards, be sure to wipe down and disinfect any belongings that came in contact with the sewage.