If you live in a rural area, chances are you have a septic tank somewhere on your property near your home. Everything that is flushed or goes down any drain in your home ends up in the septic tank.

Actually, it is not just a tank, it is an entire septic system. There are many different types of septic systems but most consist of the same design: a septic tank, a distribution box and a drain field connector by conveyance lines.  

How it Works

This is probably more information that you want to know regarding a septic system definition but there are some basics you need to understand to know how the system worksand why you need to maintain it.

When you flush the toilet or drain any sink, the water goes through the drain lines in your How to Maintain Your Septic SystemCredit: NY Health Departmenthome, exits your home below ground and into the top of a septic tank.

Most tanks have baffles to keep solid wastes from flowing outside along with the liquid waste. The  waste water is temporarily held in the tank where heavy solids separate from the wastewater. This separation process is known as primary treatment.

Bacteria then breaks down the solids as much as possible, while the rest of the liquefied wastes exit with the rest of the waste liquids through the baffles. The solids that cannot be broken down by bacteria are eventually pumped out by a professional.

The liquid waste leaves the septic tank and enters a distribution box which separates the liquid into drain trenches in the soil, sometimes called a leach field. Each line contains drain holes at the bottom which allows the waste liquid to slowly leach into gravel trenches underground. Eventually the waste is absorbed into the surrounding soil where it is further purified as it is dispersed.

How to Maintain Your Septic System
Credit: NY Health Department

What Could Go Wrong?

When everything is working as designed, the system works fine. However, the septic tank eventually fills up with solids that cannot be broken down by bacteria. If it is not pumped out periodically, the solids will get washed through the baffles and into the leach field and begin clogging the distribution box and trench lines. At this point, the system will not accept a flush.

If the septic system gets to this point, the entire tank will need to be flushed and the entire leach field, including replacing the soil around it, will need to be replaced. Septic systems pumping is not cheap. This entire process could cost between $3000 and $10000 depending on your circumstances.

Aside from the potential costly replacement aspect, you should maintain a healthy septic system for your own health and the environment around your home. Contaminated wastewater will leech into the soil and eventually the water table affecting any nearby water source, including any home wells.

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How to Avoid Expensive Repairs

Routine Septic Inspection and Pumping Schedule

Since a septic system is underground, there is no way for a homeowner to do an inspection on it to see how it is working. The most important thing any homeowner can do is to keep a record of the pumping schedule. The frequency depends on several factors:

  • Septic tank capacity in gallons
  • Number of people in the household
  • Whether a garbage disposal is used

It is critical to keep an accurate record and adhere to the required pumping schedule because aHow to Maintain Your Septic SystemCredit: Pennsylvannia State University Cooperative septic system can appear to be working fine for a long time. However, without periodic maintenance, this system will eventually reach a point of no return and by the time you notice it, it will be too late.

Most experts recommend that you have your septic tank pumped once every 3 to 5 years, but this varies depending on your circumstances and factors described above. For general guidelines, see Figure 1.

As a general rule, if you have 4 or 5 people in your household, the waste water is significantly increased which will fill up the tank faster requiring more frequent pumping.

How much does it cost? Well, depending on what part of the USA you live, it can cost anywhere between $100 - $300. Tank size and location also plays a part in estimating the cost. However, routine septic pumping maintenance is a fraction of the cost of replacing an entire septic system.

Note: Some municipalities around the country have specific requirements for how frequently a septic system must be inspected by a professional.

Avoid Putting Contaminants in the System

Homeowners should avoid putting anything other than liquid and solid biodegradable wastes down the drain or the toilet. Do not put any paint or paint thinner or any type of commercial septic additives into your septic system because it could damage the system.

Do not flush anything that is not biodegradable such as cigarettes, tampons, dental floss and condoms.

Conserve Water

The less water you use in the dishwasher, the washing machine, sink drains and toilet flushes, the better. If water is not going down the drain, then the septic tank is not getting filled.

Avoid Construction Near Your Tank

You definitely need to know the location of your septic tank system so that you do not inadvertently dig in the area for any construction projects such as a patio or deck.

Also, you do not want to park anything heavy over the septic tank. The actual tank is only a few feet below the surface so heavy weight can damage it.

Finally, do not plant any shrubs or trees in the general area of your leaching field because the roots can become so large that they damage the entire system

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Final Thoughts

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The most important thing to remember if you own a septic system is that you must have it professionally inspected and pumped at least once ever 3 - 5 years, sometimes more often depending on your circumstances.

If you follow the pumping guidelines, your septic system should last for decades.