Septic tanks are a necessity if you aren’t connected to city sewer systems. A properly maintained septic system will last for years, with just a bit of common sense and a good pumping schedule. We’ll go into those in a minute, but first, let’s talk about how a septic system works.
How Does It Work?
A septic system has two main parts: the tank, and the drainfield. The tank is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a several hundred-gallon tank. This is where all the wastewater in the house goes, from sinks, showers, washing machines, and most importantly, the toilets. The wastewater collects in the tank and the solids sink to the bottom, while greases and some light solids rise to the top. That top layer is called the scum and the bottom layer is the sludge. We’ll talk more about those later.
Wastewater that collects in the septic tank usually stays there for a minimum of a day. This is important for the separation process and for the naturally occurring bacteria to begin to breakdown the solids. Since the bacteria can’t completely break everything down, the tank needs to be periodically pumped. How often depends on several factors, like tank size and usage.
Why Pumping Is Important
The water from the middle layer between the sludge and the scum gets pushed out through several perforated pipes, into the drainfield, which consists of a layer of gravel and soil. The gravel and soil act as further filters, and the naturally occurring bacteria in the soil help to break down any small solids that may have made it through the pipes. The soil acts as a filter for bacteria, viruses, and chemicals that may be in the wastewater. Because of this, it is important to properly maintain your septic system, otherwise these hazards can make their way into the groundwater and contaminate it. If you happen to use a well on the property, you know that is a dangerous proposition.
Septic Maintenance for Longevity
Besides having the septic tank pumped on a regular basis, the next most important part of caring for your septic system is water treatment and conservation. Remember, the water in the septic tank needs to stay there for a minimum of a day to have the sludge settle to the bottom and the scum to rise to the top. If you use too much water in too short a time frame, it can impair this process and grease and solids can end up in the pipes that lead to the drainfield. This can cause the pipes to clog, or the waste materials can end up in the drainfield itself, which can cause serious problems. If it gets bad enough, it can contaminate the groundwater, and cause a major backup in your yard, or even into the house.
So, to prevent these kinds of problems, it is extremely important to conserve water and not add anything to your wastewater that will interfere with the natural bacteria at work. This includes chemicals, antibacterial soaps, bleach, harsh cleansers, and excess grease or food particles. All of these things can have an effect on your septic system’s functionality.
So how do you know it’s time to get your septic tank pumped?
- Nitrate Concentration
Well water that has a high, unhealthy level of nitrates is often a sign that the septic system is failing. Overfilled septic systems can leach nitrates, bacteria, and viruses into the groundwater. Always test your water frequently to keep an eye on these levels.
- Drainfield Grass Condition
If your drainfield grass seems much more lush than the rest of your lawn, it may be a sign that it’s getting some extra “fertilizer” from the septic system. A healthy septic system won’t affect the grass growing above it.
- Slow Drains
If you’ve tried everything you can think of but your drains and toilets are slow, even with plunging and clog removers, it may mean your septic tank is too full.
- Pooling Water
If your lawn has a soggy spot where your drainfield is, then you’ve waited too long to get your septic tank pumped and you’ve got a major problem. Once it gets to this point, pumping alone may not do it. You may need repairs as well.
- Foul Odors and Sewage Backup
A full septic tank will stink up your yard, and may even back up into the house, causing sewage to flow back into your drains and toilets. This means foul odors inside and out. If it’s gotten to this point, it is past due to call a septic service. Pump the tank, yesterday, and have the system inspected, because repairs may be needed.
Pumping Frequency Chart
Below is a chart to help you keep track of approximately when you can expect to need to pump your septic tank. Remember, that water usage and the use of a garbage disposal can both have a profound impact on this schedule and you may need to do it more often to be safe from problems.