Things to Know If You’ve Never Lived with a Septic Tank Before

septic tanks in a dirt pit

Maintaining an on-site sewage system (OSS), commonly known as a septic system, isn't any more difficult than being hooked up to the municipal sewer.

But to keep one in proper working order, there are some rules you need to follow. Learning a little about the workings of your system will give you the knowledge you need to keep your septic in tip-top shape for years of worry-free maintenance.

The Basics of an On-Site Sewage System

Sewer vs Septic

You may have never given it a thought. Not until you're presented it when buying or renting a home. Here's the thing—septics are more prevalent than you think.

Older neighborhoods, rural areas, or other places located further away from urban centers are more likely to have septics in place.

In this case, if you haven't given it much thought, you might even be under the assumption that it's more work to maintain than simply being hooked up to to public sewers. It's just a matter of a monthly payment to the municipality, right?

Well, that's true, to an extent. Yes, it's one less thing a homeowner has to worry about since the government mostly flips the bill for public sewers.

And when you think about it, it's certainly convenient that those public systems are built to process large amounts of wastewater and withstand the brutal forces of nature. So you get the peace of mind that things will be taken care of if a disaster occurs.

There are limits, though, such as when large repairs have to be made that affect the whole system. As a result, homeowners could potentially face increased local fees in their utility bills to help the city pay for repairs.

The point is, just because you're on septic doesn't mean you've got a bad deal. They aren't difficult to maintain. Many homes aren't connected to sewers because, quite simply, the initial setup is expensive.

If you're in a neighborhood that has sewer, but the utility company has yet to bring that line to the houses on your side of the street, we suggest you leave well enough alone.

Connecting a home to the main sewage line is not cheap with all the equipment, groundwork, and disruption it entails.

Besides, being connected to a public sewer isn't all rainbows and unicorns. As with everything else in life, things happen. And in this case, it could be sewage backups or blockages, which could lead to overflowing toilets and potential contamination of your space. Eww.

So unless you're itching to shell out the dough to convert to a public sewer, you'll want to understand how best to maintain your septic.

How Does a Septic System Work?

septic tank

Septic systems manage household sewage via a two-part process:

First, it collects and separates the waste. This is done in a concrete, steel, or fiberglass tank buried near the house. Any time you run water down the sink or flush a toilet, the sewage and waste travels along the pipes until being deposited into the tank.

As the waste collects, the solid particles separate and sink to the bottom as sludge. What's left behind is a layer of effluent.

Second is the filtration process that happens in the soil. Once the sludge settles out, the effluent flows into a drainfield, also known as a leachfield or absorption field.

The drainfield is composed of a series of pipes set into gravel-filled trenches. As the effluent leaches into the trenches, it percolates down into the soil, where bacteria process the waste.

If the system is working as it should, the filtered result should be safe when it comes into contact with ground or surface water.

How Big a Septic System Do I Need?

hands holding septic pump

The minimum tank size often recommended is 1,000 gallons for a two to three bedroom house, adding an extra 250 gallons for each bedroom over three. The drainfield is calculated based on a variety of factors like the number of bedrooms and estimated water consumption.

Specifications can vary based on location, soil type, and local government, so if you're in the market for an installation, find a reputable installer who's familiar with your area.

Benefits of a Septic System

septic tank cover hole

Just because we're talking about sewage doesn't mean we can't find any silver linings. Consider these benefits:

Surprisingly, septic systems are better for the environment (when properly maintained, that is) because raw sewage is less likely to leak and contaminate groundwater.

Unlike public sewage that has to be transported to a location where it is processed, septic waste stays onsite, thereby providing less chance for contamination via spills or leaks.

Septics are also cheaper to maintain in the long run because there are no monthly sewer bills. Other than pumping it out every few years, and regular inspection costs, you don't have to worry about that monthly tab.

They're relatively low-maintenance. You'll do regular system checks to ensure things looks like they're doing what they're supposed to, you'll get it pumped out every few years, and there you go. Easy peasy.

Tanks can last up to 40 years, so unless you decide to upgrade to a larger tank, you probably won't need to make any changes to the system unless a catastrophic failure hits.

Types of Septic Systems

septic tank

Depending on your location, you've probably got one of these types of systems:

Gravity Drainfield

This type of septic is built so the effluent can flow into drainage trenches, either with or without the help of a pump.

The condition of the soil, the number of bedrooms, and the estimated daily water use are all taken into consideration when determining the size of the drainfield for a gravity system.

Pressure Distribution Drainfield

This type is used when soil depth isn't deep enough to ensure adequate filtration from a gravity drainfield. A pump is installed and distributes effluent when it accumulates to a certain level, dosing the entire drainfield all at once.

As the effluent percolates, downward, the next batch of effluent is being stored for the next dose, to prevent overwhelming the soil.

Aerobic Treatment Unit

This is a complex system involving a watertight tank, a disinfection unit, and an aeration chamber where blowers or air compressors inject air to allow sewage and microorganisms to mix with dissolved oxygen.

With so many moving parts to this system, it requires strict maintenance to ensure it's performing up to standards.

Sand Filter System

Used when very little soil is available for adequate filtration. Sand is used for filtration, and the resulting effluent is moved to a pressurized drainfield to continue the process.

Signs of Failure

Signs that your system is either failing or on the verge of failing doesn't have to be something catastrophic. Sometimes, the devil is in the details. Such as:

Bright Green, Spongy Lawn

septic tank cover with grass

It might look nice, but if it's located on your drainfield, and the weather has been especially dry, watch for additional signs of failure.

Slow Drains in Tubs, Showers, and Sinks

This could indicate a clogged or blocked pipe leading to the tank.

Water and Sewage Backups from Toilets, Sinks, and Tubs

We hope this never happens to you, but if it has, it could be from a clogged effluent filter (if you have one) or a clogged outlet baffle. Often it results from too much water draining into the tank at one time.

Gurgling Pipes

Could be an ominous sound.

Standing Water, Sponginess, or Wet Areas near the Septic Tank or Drainfield

More signs your effluent filter or outlet baffle could be clogged.

Bad Smells

Odors near and around the septic tank or drainfield could be a sign the drainfield is on its last legs.

If any of these symptoms present themselves, do some investigating before costly repairs, damage to the environment, and dangerous health hazards can occur.

Do's and Don'ts of Septic Maintenance

They generally don't involve more than some simple checks. A few minutes spent on maintenance is worth the hard-earned cash that you'd otherwise spend making repairs.

Septic Dos

Save Water

We should always strive to save water. It's a precious resource. And saving water is especially important when you have a septic to take care of.

If you allow too much water to enter the system, there isn't enough time for the sludge and scum to separate properly before draining into the field, potentially leading to septic failure.

Direct Water Away from Drainfield

You don't want water pooling around the foundation of your home, but you also don't want to direct that runoff into the drainfield. Keep your drainfield clear of accumulated water to allow the soil time to recover during the percolation process.

Proper Landscaping

Grass and other shallow-rooted plants are the best types of plants to use on drainfields. Anything with aggressive roots from trees, shrubs, or perennials can infiltrate pipes and trenches, causing damage to the pipes, disrupting the trenches, and wreaking havoc in the process.

Keep Septic Lids Secure and Accessible

An unsecured lid is a safety hazard. Ensure the lid is screwed shut and that it's not cracked or deteriorating. It's also a good idea to install risers to make pumping and monitoring easier and less time-consuming.

Regular Inspections

This should be done every three years for gravity systems, and annually for pressure distribution systems. But these are only recommended guidelines. Households with consistently high water use should schedule inspections much more frequently.

After inspection, the inspector will submit a report to public health and also let you know if there are any issues that need to be addressed, such as repairs or more frequent pumping.

Regular inspections will extend the life of your system by identifying issues that need to be addressed.

septic tank drain hose

Septic Don'ts

Don’t Use Your Drainfield as a Parking Area

Driving over the drainfield compacts the soil and could potentially lead to cracked or damaged pipes.

Don’t Put Chemicals Down the Drain

Adding harmful chemicals to your septic can kill beneficial bacteria that help break down solids. Rather than pour these chemicals down the drain, check with waste management to find locations where hazardous materials can be dropped off.

Don’t Use Septic “Additives”

They're marketed and sold to homeowners as a way to keep septic systems healthy. But really, as long as you follow the maintenance involved in keeping a septic, you don't need to add a chemical to keep things in balance.

Don’t Flush Prescription Medicines

Instead, find a medicine disposal service in your area to properly get rid of unused prescriptions.

Don’t Use Your Sink Disposal

We know, it's a convenient mechanism for the kitchen, but ideally, if your house is on septic, the recommended usage for a garbage disposal is not at all. Think about it—the garbage disposal adds grease and solids to the waste already in the septic tank.

Probably not a good idea to add those things to the sludge already at the bottom of your tank. Unfortunately, garbage disposals are common in many households, so it's up to you to remember that if you're on septic, make an extra effort not to use them.

Don’t Flush Anything Other than Toilet Paper

Baby wipes? No. Paper towels? No. Face tissues? No. Essentially, it's a big 'no' on everything that isn't toilet paper. So if even if it says flushable, if it doesn't come on a roll and wasn't made specifically for wiping your nether regions, it goes in the trash.

Don’t Drain Hot Tubs into Septic

Too much water can overwhelm your drainfield, and the chlorine from hot tubs can kill the beneficial bacteria. If you've got a hot tub and you need to drain it, direct the water away from the house and the drainfield, and don't put it directly in the septic tank!

And last, but not least:

Don’t Landscape on Top of the Drainfield

Don't add landscape cloth, structures, concrete patios, decks, or gravel pathways to this area. Stick with grass as the plant of choice, to prevent any aggressive roots from damaging pipes.

We know, it's a long list. And though it's not maintenance-free, maintaining a septic isn't as difficult as you may have once assumed. With a little know-how and some patient observations, you too can keep your septic in tip-top shape for many years to come.