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Septic Tank Maintenance

What is a septic system?

Definition: A private waste removal system for homes that are not connected to a community sewer. A conventional septic system consists of three main parts: a septic tank, a drainfield, and the soil beneath the drainfield. Waste is filtered to the soil, where components in the soil neutralize bacteria and chemicals before they reach groundwater or nearby rivers and lakes.

Septic Maintenance

Proper septic maintenance will ensure a long life for your septic system. More importantly, proper maintenance of your septic system helps reduce many risks that may be threatening to your family's health. These risks include, but are not limited to, contamination risk to your well water, and unsightly, foul-smelling odors. In addition, proper septic system maintenance extends the life of your system, and may prevent the need for costly septic repairs or replacement of your septic system.

What can I do to properly maintain my septic system?

There are many simple steps you can take both inside and outside of your home to ensure proper maintenance of your septic system. However, because your septic system requires a certain proper balance in order to operate properly, it is important that you ensure these tips are followed.

Inside your Home

Conserve water. Excess water into your septic system will not give the beneficial bacteria time to do their job. Check for and fix leaks and drips. Make sure your toilet is not leaking water. You can check if it is by simply adding some food coloring to the tank. If the food coloring begins to appear in the water in the toilet bowl, you have a leak and will need to address it. While you're at it, put a "water displacer" in your toilet tank to reduce the amount of water it uses. Installing aerators also reduces water consumption, so it is a good idea to install those if you haven't already. If you replace any old fixtures, use the new "low flow" style fixtures.

Don't use to much water at the same time. Overloading a septic system is a primary cause of septic system failures. Be especially aware in the early morning and at bedtime as these are peak water use times in a home. Run dishwashers and washing machines at other times during the day. Avoid doing all of your family's laundry in one day; instead try to do it over the course of the week to avoid pumping too much water into your septic system all at once.

Use a garbage disposal judiciously, if at all. Garbage disposals will increase the amount of solids in the septic tank, thereby requiring more frequent pumping of your septic system. If you are going to use a garbage disposal, use a "top level" disposal as they will grind the particles into smaller pieces, giving the bacteria time to break them down more.

Likewise, don't dump coffee grounds in the sink, or flush kitty litter, plastic, cloth, or unnecessary paper products into the sewage system. Don't put items such as paper towels, tissue, cigarette butts, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, tampons and other material in the toilet. Instead, place them in the trash can, where they belong. Also avoid disposing of any grease, fats, or oil in the disposal or drain. These can damage your system by clogging the septic tank pipes and drain field soil. As I said above, adding more solids into the septic tank decreases its capacity and shortens the timeframe between septic tank pumpings.

Most experts agree that it is not always necessary to add any commercial products or yeast to your system. The bacteria necessary for your septic system to operate occur naturally (courtesy of your digestive system), and are usually plentiful for the job at hand. These additives may damage your septic system by breaking up the sludge and scum layers. This will cause those layers to flush out of the septic tank and clog the infiltration bed and drain field.

Use normal amounts of detergents, bleaches, drain cleaners, household cleaners and other products. Avoid dumping heavy duty or toxic chemicals into your drains. Solvents like dry cleaning fluid, pesticides, photography chemicals, paint thinner, or auto products and motor oils can kill the bacteria necessary for your septic system operate effectively and possibly clog your drains. In addition, these hazardous materials could eventually reach your well water and contaminate it, creating a serious health issue fir you and your family.

On the Outside

Avoid saturating the area around your septic system with excess water by ensuring that the down spouts and runoff flow away from the septic field. Again the excess water may not give the bacteria the proper amount of time to do their job.

The soil above the drain field must remain loose and not compacted. Avoid compacting the soil over the infiltration area by not driving or parking vehicles over the area. Likewise, avoid building any structures or placing a driveway above the drain field. Besides just compacting the soil and not allowing the effluent to be absorbed, these actions can also crack the pipes or cause the distribution box to settle unevenly, causing the effluent to flow into only part of the drain field.

It is recommended and beneficial to have dense grass cover and other shallow rooted plants over a septic field. Having these will prevent soil erosion and provide a means to controlling the saturation of the area above the drain field. However, do not plant trees near the septic field as their large plant roots can clog or break the pipes. Be especially careful of plant or trees with aggressive root growth. You will want to plant those even farther away.

How often should I clean out my septic tank? Eventually, your septic tank will have too many solids in its tank and the septic tank will need to be cleaned out of those solids. Some people call this septic tank cleaning, while others refer to as septic tank pumping. Regardless of how you prefer to refer to it, it is still a very necessary and important step in proper septic system maintenance. If these solids are allowed to accumulate, they will eventually enter the drain pipes and clog the drain field.

Not all septic contractors clean septic systems or have the equipment necessary to properly pump the solids out of your septic tank. Some septic contractors only clean septic tanks, while others will only repair them or only install them. In addition, different jurisdictions have different requirements for a person to be a septic contractor. Check with your local government regarding their regulations for septic contractors and make sure your septic contractor adheres to those regulations.

There is a general consensus that septic tanks need to be pumped every two to five years, depending on your family's use. Some local jurisdiction have individual requirements as to how often a septic tank must be pumped clean, so you may want to check with your local government what their statutes are regarding septic tank cleaning. Most septic systems have inspection ports for you to check the level of solids in your tank, so you will know when it is time to clean out your tank. Be careful to use the inspection port to check the level of solids, and not the manhole.

Your septic system's manhole should be handled by your septic contractor to avoid any serious injury to you from the manhole cover itself, nor from any of the noxious gases that may be released once the manhole cover is removed. You should keep accurate maintenance records so you'll know when it should be near time to have your septic tank cleaned.

When the septic contractor goes to clean out your septic tank, it should be pumped out through the septic systems manhole, not its smaller inspection ports. Insist on your tank being cleaned through the manhole cover and not the inspection port, as this ensures removal of all of the solids from the septic tank. Be sure that the septic tank is cleaned out completely, with nothing being left in the tank. Any solids or sludge left in the septic tank can clog the drainpipes and cause the need for very expensive repairs in the future. Also ask your septic contractor to inspect baffles and check to make sure that the septic tank has no leaks. An ounce of preventative maintenance today on your septic system today minimizes the risk of expensive repairs or replacement in the future.

What are some signs that I may be having trouble with my septic system? Most of the signs indicating problems or an issue with your septic system are pretty straightforward while some others a more subtle. Regardless, if you recognize any of the symptoms, contact a septic contractor immediately, before a little problem becomes much worse and more expensive.

Is there a foul smell emanating from you drain? Is there a smell of raw sewage in the house? Does your toilet drain slowly, if at all? These are obvious indications that your septic system is malfunctioning.

Is the land above your drainfield unusually wet or saturated? This indicates problems with the water being absorbed properly in the infiltration area. Likewise, is there unusually faster growth rate or excessive vegetation above the area of the drainfield? Again, this indicates issues with your septic system that need to be addressed in a timely manner.

Septic system repairs can become a very expensive proposition if your septic system is not properly maintained. Many people avoid homes with septic systems because they are daunted with the perception of involved and difficult maintenance procedures. In reality, septic system maintenance is fairly simple and straightforward, requiring mostly common sense preventative measures to decrease the strain on the system. So it is not the septic system maintenance one needs to worry about, it is the septic system repairs that will occur from improper maintenance that is the real bugaboo when it comes to having a home with a septic system. However, as Ben Franklin once said, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" and "A little precaution before a crisis occurs is preferable to a lot of fixing up afterward."

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