The concept of septic systems has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, and the idea is so simple it's brilliant. Water and human waste flow into a holding tank that is about 5' by 10' in size. This tank is usually concrete but can be made of other non-degradable materials and is buried a couple of feet underground. The waste flushed into the tank contains microorganisms that will break it down inside the tank. This breakdown turns most of the waste into liquid. As the tank fills with other waste, the liquid effluent leaves the tank, flowing into a network of perforated pipes that carry the liquid away into a leaching field. Here the wastewater seeps out through the perforations, putting nutrients back into the soil.
The problem with modern septic systems is that not everything we put into a septic tank can be liquefied, or we put too much water into the tank at one time, so the natural processes don't have enough time to act. Over time the solids will build up in the tank, diminishing the system's capacity to handle waste. If left long enough, the solids will build up so much that they will actually begin to move right out into the leaching bed themselves. Once your system is plugged to this extent, you have a significant problem, and replacing your septic system at a cost of thousands of dollars may be your only solution. However, since a well-maintained septic system lasts for years, doing some preventative maintenance and controlling what goes into your system is well worth the effort.
Maintaining Your Septic System
The most essential step in septic system maintenance is having the tank pumped out every couple of years. This gets the insoluble waste out of the tank and gives the system the physical space needed to do its job. As part of the preventative maintenance, while the septic pumping contractor is getting the sludge out, ask him to do a visual inspection of the tank to make sure there is no obvious damage or cracks in the tank.
Protecting Your Septic System: A Series of "Don'ts"
Don't do all your laundry on a one time. The water from a couple of loads a day is easier for the system to handle than doing four or five loads on a single day. The best thing to do is to keep "gray water " totally out of the system, but if that's not possible, keeping water usage down will ensure the tank doesn't fill with water, reducing its ability to process sewage.
Don't use laundry powders in your wash. They contain inert fillers that will plug your system. Use liquid detergent instead. For the same reason, don't use powdered automatic dishwasher soap - use a liquid or a gel.
Don't connect a garbage disposal to the system - food waste will quickly fill the tank and it doesn't break down the same as human waste.
Don't pour grease down drains. If it ever gets into the leaching field, it will plug up the holes in the tubes.
Don't flush diapers, tampons or even cigarettes down the toilet. Even though they are "flushable," they will quickly fill the system.
Don't plant anything other than flowers or grass over your leaching field. Tree and shrub roots will get into the pipes and block them.
Don't park your car or drive over the leaching field. The weight of your car could damage the pipes.
Finally, don't use commercial products claiming to help clear your system. Most of these contain chemicals similar to lye that could severely damage the soil in your leaching bed. Some may also contain chemicals that reportedly are carcinogenic.
Maintaining your septic system essentially comes down to couple of things. Have the holding tank pumped out on a regular basis (once a year or so depending on your system capacity and your family use). Also, minimize the insoluble wastes and extra water being put into your system. If you just do these two things, your septic system will work trouble free for many years.