If you are living out in the country, you probably have a septic system, rather than being connected to a city sewage system. If so, good for you. I was thrilled to find that my home had a septic system, rather than city sewer service. Where I live, the city sewage systems tend to back up when there’s flooding.
There’s no question that septic tanks are much more sustainable than the city’s sewage system. The problem is that they require maintenance. While that maintenance is fairly simple, if the system is not properly maintained, your septic system will back up and cause all kinds of fun problems.
How a Septic System Works
Septic systems are fairly simple devices. They consist of a tank, distribution box and a drain field. Everything that goes down the various drains in the house ends up in the tank, where the solids settle before the liquids go off to the drain field.
The tank holds the solids, where bacteria break it up. This becomes a sludge, which eventually has to be pumped out, cleaning out the system. How often you clean it out depends mostly on how fast you fill it. A family of four will typically need to have their septic tank pumped out about every two years, assuming they have a 1,000 gallon tank.
My system has two five hundred gallon tanks, rather than one. This is to allow the solids to settle in the first tank, while the fluids (effluent) go on to the second tank. Either way, the fluids eventually make their way to the drain field, which consists of some pierced plastic piping buried in beds of gravel.
The effluent leaves the pipes in the drain field and spreads through the gravel or crushed stone. From there, the water gradually evaporates into the air, reentering the water cycle to come down as nice clean rain once again.
Watch what Goes Down the Drain
One of the most important considerations with any septic system is what’s being put down it. Too much water can overwhelm the capacity of the drain fields. This problem is easily solved by recycling some of the home’s grey water, saving on your overall water consumption. When I moved into my home, I rerouted the drains from my washing machine and the most used shower, so that they would water my fruit trees, rather than just going into the septic system.
Besides excessive water, it’s important to avoid dumping the wrong things down the drain. Normal household cleaners aren’t a problem, but excessive quantities of them can kill the bacteria in the tank, preventing it from being able to break down the solid waste that goes into the tank.
Many harsher chemicals can destroy these bacteria as well, such as bleach. Even latex paint from cleaning brushes and rollers can cause problem for the system.
I had to break my family of the habit of sending solids down the toilet. My girls were used to flushing their sanitary products, dental floss and food scraps from the kitchen. A septic system isn’t designed to dispose of these.
A garbage disposal isn’t a good thing to have with a septic system either. While garbage disposals do process biological waste, they don’t process it to the point that the human digestive system does. So, anything that the garbage disposal sends down the drain probably won’t decompose fully in the septic tank, and will cause it to fill up all that much faster.
The biggest habit that needed fixing was FOG – fats, oils and grease. Don’t do it! They will clog your system very quickly, resulting in significant cost to repair.
Maintaining the System
As I already stated, septic systems require very little maintenance, as long as nothing is dumped down them that shouldn’t be. If a system isn’t draining properly, it could indicate that the bacteria population has been diminished by the introduction of chemicals into the system. If that has happened, the best solution is to add packaged bacteria to the tank.
The EPA warns not to add these packaged bacteria, unless they are absolutely necessary. In most cases, there are enough naturally occurring bacteria flushed down the drain to keep the system operating in peak condition.
The other thing that slow draining can indicate is that the system is becoming filled up. Regular draining of the tank by a septic maintenance company is necessary to clean out the sludge formed in the bottom of the tank. It is also possible for the drain fields to become so filled with solids, if the tanks have not been properly drained, that they will not properly disperse the water from the system.
One last risk for any septic system is roots. Septic systems attract tree roots like a magnet attracts iron filings.
We have a large fig tree behind out house, which happens to be only a few feet away from the sewage pipe for the downstairs bathroom. I didn’t know it beforehand, but these drain pipes are not normally glued together, once they leave the home. So the roots can find a way to get into the septic system. My fig tree all but totally blocked off that drain pipe; a problem I had to solve by cutting the roots out of it with a powered snake.
The other part of the septic system which attracts tree roots is the drain fields. While there really is no problem with the roots entering the drain field, from there they will enter the drain field pipes and can eventually clog them. My home has a large willow tree right next to the drain field, so I’m sure that I have problems with roots there as well. Fortunately, the system is still draining; either that or that tree has become part of my septic system and is drinking up all the water for me. Since it’s still working, I’m not planning on digging up the drain fields to check.
But I’ve added some money to the emergency fund, just in case!