Septic System Basics

Septic System Basics

Published on March 03 , 2017


In households that are not served by public sewer systems, septic systems are typically used.  Septic systems are used to treat and dispose of wastewater.  While these systems may be a significant financial investment, they can provide years of reliable and low-cost service if they are maintained and cared for correctly.  Failing systems are concerns for public health and pollution, can cause damage to the property on which the system sits, and can pollute local water sources.  An important part of owning a home that uses a septic system is to understand how the system runs and what you need to do to keep it running correctly.

The Three Parts Of The Septic System

There are three main parts of a septic system that work together to control wastewater on the property.  A standard system that is gravity fed consists of the following three parts.

  • Tank – The purpose of the tank is to separate the solids from the wastewater.  The tank also stores and helps to decompose some solid material.  The liquid passes through the tank on the way to the drain field.
  • Drain field – Once solids have settled in the tank, liquid wastewater is then moved into the drain field.  Drain fields are also known as absorption fields.
  • Soil – Underneath the system is the soil that provides the final step of the septic system process.  Once the material has entered the soil, it is broken down by organisms and moves through the earth until it enters ground or surface water.

Maintaining Your System

There are few of us who truly understand how to deal with a problematic septic system.  If the system acts up, I have found that it’s usually a good idea to call a plumber to deal with the issue.  But there are things I have discovered over the years that can help to prevent a backed up septic system.

First, I try to inspect and pump the system frequently.  This is the most important step to keeping the septic system up and running correctly.  By pumping the system, regularly, sludge is removed before it washes into the drain field.  How often you need to pump the tank will depend on the size of your tank and how many people live in your home.  As a general rule, most tanks should be pumped every three to five years.

Second, cut back on water use.  The less water the system has to process the less likely it is to break down.  In our home, we minimize water usage by cutting back on laundry loads, only running the dishwasher when it’s full, and never leaving the faucet running.  There are many simple things that you can do to cut back on the water usage in your home, which in turn cuts back on the amount of water your septic system has to process.

Third, avoid flushing or draining hazardous chemicals through your septic system.  Things like motor oil, paint thinner and varnish should be disposed of in a specific way.  If these things are sent through your septic system, they can damage the pipes and equipment, and will eventually pollute the drinking water in the area.

What To Watch For

Even if you perform regular maintenance on your system and are conscious of the amount of water you are using, you may still have problems with your system that need to be checked out by a professional.  If you notice any of the following things, I would recommend that you immediately call a plumber.

  • Any type of odor, sewage, wet spots or vegetation growing in the area near the drain field.
  • Plumbing or tank backups, which usually manifest in a black liquid with a nasty odor.
  • Slow drains in your home, or gurgling sounds in your plumbing.
  • Grass over the drain field that is lush and green, even during hot and dry weather.

One of the most important things you can do for your septic system is to simply be aware of potential problems and watch for signs of them.  A backed up septic system can be an expensive and obnoxious problem for any home.  Dealing with wastewater and liquid in your yard and your home can make for a lengthy period of cleanup.  If you live in a home that relies on a septic system, it’s important to be aware of the system, how it’s running and how to avoid certain problems with your system.

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