Tuesday, August 27, 2021

Septic Systems

What You Should Know If You Have One

By Howard Walsh | Windsor Home Inspections

It is estimated that as many as one in four homes are using a septic system. There are many different types of septic systems ranging from the conventional, in-ground, gravity fed systems, to the more elaborate, pump discharge systems. There are also seepage pits, cesspools, holding tanks and homemade systems.

Septic SystemIn the most basic terms, the septic system usually consists of a means of separating the liquid material from the solid material, and an area where the liquid material is dispersed. The solid-liquid separation usually takes place in what is called the treatment tank. This tank is a relatively large structure, often made of concrete, but can also be plastic or steel. A typical tank for a home will hold 1000 - 1500 gallons. Waste material enters the tank through the drainage pipe from the home. The solids are broken down and fall to the bottom of the tank and form a sludge layer. Lighter materials float to the top and form the scum layer. The remaining liquid material fills the space in between the sludge and scum layers. As the tank fills, this liquid layer is drained off to the drainage field (also known as an leech field, or absorption field).

On average, septic systems have an estimated life span of about 20 to 30 years. A properly constructed and maintained system may last longer, but a system that is not maintained can easily fail in less than 2 years. Regular maintenance protects your investment, the health of your family, and the environment. Replacing a failed septic system can cost thousands of dollars compared to the few hundred dollars that it costs to have the system regularly inspected and pumped out.

When should the septic tank be pumped out?

That depends on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household, and the volume of solids or sludge in the tank. Generally, the tank should be pumped out every two to five years. The following chart gives a rough estimate of how often your septic tank should be pumped:

How Often Should You Pump
Tank Size
Number Of People
1 2 3 4 5
Time Between Pumpings (years)
500 5.8 2.6 1.5 1.0 0.7
1000 12.4 5.9 3.7 2.6 2.0
1500 18.9 9.1 5.9 4.2 3.3
2000 25.4 12.4 8.1 5.9 4.5


Septic System Signs of Trouble

When a septic system is poorly maintained and not pumped out on a regular basis, sludge builds up inside the treatment tank and can flow out into the drainage field, clogging it beyond repair. If there is a problem with the home's septic system, the sinks and toilets may drain slower than usual, even after using a plunger. Or you may hear gurgling sounds. Or the drains may back up. One of the most common signs that the septic tank is having problems is a foul odor in the house and/or yard. A less obvious sign of trouble is a patch of lush green grass in the drainage field. This is due to the grass receiving a larger amount of nutrients and liquid than normal, indicating a leak or clogged drain line. If you observe any of these signs, it may be time to get a thorough septic inspection.


Septic System Maintenance Tips

Caring for your septic system saves you money and extends the life of the system itself. One of the most important steps you and your family can take is limiting your use of water. The more water you conserve, the less water enters the septic system. Efficient water use can improve the operation of the septic system and reduce the risk of failure.

Inspect your septic tank once every year and pump as necessary. Solids will eventually fill the tank and could pass into the drain field, mound or sand filter, which can lead to expensive repairs.

Avoid flushing harmful material into the septic tank. Keep grease, fat, and food wastes out of your septic system as much as possible. Never flush any kind of paper (other than toilet paper), cigarettes, coffee grounds, sanitary napkins into the tank. Do not put paint thinners, solvents, oils, and other caustic chemicals or pesticides in your septic system. They destroy naturally occurring microbes in your septic system which are necessary for it to function properly.

Use water wisely. Install water saving devices such as low flow shower heads and toilets. Front loading washing machines use considerably less water than top load models. Do laundry throughout the week, rather than all on a single day. Promptly repair all leaky faucets and toilets.

Limit garbage disposal use. A garbage disposal may not be used with a septic system unless the system has been specifically designed to accommodate it. The use of a garbage disposal can lead to a significant increase in solid build-up and waste strength problems in a septic system.

Don't construct patios, carports, decks or use landscaping plastic over the drain field or septic tank. The system should be kept accessible for proper maintenance and repair and the drain fields need oxygen in order to work properly. When soil is compacted, the drain field paved over or covered, oxygen cannot get into the soil.

Keep all vehicles away from the septic tank and drain field areas. Vehicles are a major cause of damage to septic systems. Septic tanks are generally not designed for vehicular traffic and may crack or collapse as a result. Vehicles should not be driven on the drainage field. Pipes can become crushed and the soil compacted, preventing proper drainage.

Direct water from roof drains, surface drainage, pools and hot tubs away from the septic tank and drainage field. Additional water from these sources may overload the septic tank or drain field, causing the system to fail. Residual chlorine from pools and hot tubs can be extremely harmful to your septic system.

Don't plant trees and shrubs over septic tanks or in the drain fields. The water-seeking roots of these plants can damage your home septic system. Don't plant anything over the disposal field except grass.

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