A septic system is a great way to manage home wastewater. The EPA reports that one of the benefits of a septic system is that it can recharge groundwater replenish aquifers. But when a septic system fails, it can be expensive to replace. On average, a new septic system will cost a homeowner $3,000 to $7,000. So proper maintenance of your septic system is crucial. Regular maintenance will make your system last longer and save you money.
How Common Are Septic Systems?
Septic systems are more common than many people imagine. As expected, septic systems are most common in rural areas where municipal public sewage systems aren’t available. Overall, about 60 million homes in the United States use a septic system to treat their wastewater. However, the prevalence of septic systems varies widely from state to state and region to region.
New England has the highest instance of septic systems. Nearly half of the homes in New Hampshire and Maine are on septic systems. Vermont has the highest proportion of septic systems, with 55% of households using them. The Southeast isn’t far behind. In southeastern states, about one-third of homes use septic systems to treat their wastewater.
Many new developments are still being built with septic systems or other decentralized wastewater treatment systems. Currently, about one in three new homes is not hooked up to a public sewer system.
How Does a Septic System Work?
The water that will go into a septic system comes from many sources within your home. Toilets, showers, laundry, and sinks all drain into a septic system, carrying with them both liquid and solid waste.
The first step in the septic system is the septic tank. A septic tank is a large underground container where wastewater sits before it is drained into a drain field. (More on that later.) The septic tank is critical because it gives solid waste in the water a chance to settle and collect at the bottom of the tank. In addition to letting solid waste separate out, the tank hosts natural bacteria that help break down the solid waste. Some household substances can kill off the natural bacteria. When that happens, adding a bacteria additive can reintroduce good bacteria to replace what was killed.
Once the gray water has separated from the solid waste, it flows out through a pipe into the drain field. An effluent filter at the opening to the drainpipe can keep solid waste from reaching the drain field. Some older systems may lack an effluent filter, in which case you should inform a septic tank technician before they work on your system.
A drain field is the final step in the water treatment process. Pretreated wastewater enters the drain field through a series of buried pipes. The pipes are perforated to allow the wastewater to percolate out into the soil. The pipes are often surrounded by a porous material which is then surrounded by natural soil. As the water percolates through the soil, it is treated and dispersed. Ultimately, the treated and filtered wastewater returns to the groundwater system.
Maintaining Your Septic System
A septic system is an excellent way to treat wastewater, but to keep it functioning at its best, you need to follow a few guidelines.
- Regular Pumping - While most systems can go for up to three years between pumps, it is best to start with an annual pumping schedule. Once you’re on a yearly schedule, your technician can help you determine whether you can go for longer between service calls. Pumping helps remove the solid waste and sludge that accumulate in the bottom of the septic tank. If too much solid waste accumulates, it can get into the drainage system. Solid waste can clog the system and cause sewage backups, both in your home and in the drain field.
- High-Pressure Water Treatment - No matter how responsibly you pump, some solid waste will inevitably accumulate in your drainage pipes. A septic tank technician can clear the pipes with a jet of high-pressure water. It’s best to clear drainage pipes about every five years or as recommended by your technician.
- Bacteria Additives - Bacteria in your septic tank are a critical part of your septic system. Good bacteria break down waste. But common household products can kill off the bacteria. Regular application of bacteria additives is an inexpensive way to ensure that your septic tank is working to its full potential.
- Effluent Filter - The effluent filter keeps solid waste out of your drainpipe. Over time, the filter can become clogged. Whenever you have your septic tank pumped, make sure that your technician also cleans and inspects your effluent filter. After several cleanings, it may need to be replaced.
Reducing the Strain on Your Septic System
Proper maintenance will keep your septic system working to its full potential. However, responsible water use in your home can also relieve the strain on your septic system and help it function well.
Never flood your septic system with too much wastewater. To reduce wastewater, you should install water-efficient appliances in your home, such as Energy Star rated units. Laundry machines, toilets, and showerheads can all be replaced with low-water systems to make your septic system work better. You can also form good habits to save water, like turning off your shower while soaping up and not letting the water run while you brush your teeth. If you need to do a lot of laundry, try to spread it out over a few days to avoid flooding the septic system.
Your septic system is made to handle liquid wastewater and human waste. It is not built to handle other solid waste or humanmade chemicals. Being aware of what you are sending into your plumbing system can keep your septic system working its best.
Don’t pour chemical drain openers, food grease, oil, or any toxic chemicals down the drain. These can clog or damage your system. Similarly, don’t flush anything down your toilet besides human waste and toilet paper. Toilet paper is made to break down in water. Other items, such as tissues and even flushable wipes, do not break down as easily, so it is best to avoid them. Hygiene products, cigarette butts, and other items should also stay out of your toilets. Garbage disposals are one common source of drain-clogging materials that get into a septic system. Be careful what and how much you put into your disposal. Ideally, home with a septic system should not use a garbage disposal at all.
Form a Relationship with a Qualified Septic Tank Specialist
Your septic tank needs regular maintenance by a qualified professional. It needs to be pumped every one to three years and may require other service or repairs over time. The best way to keep your system working well is to form a relationship with a trusted professional. A service provider who knows your system will be able to make suggestions on how to maximize your septic system. They can also tell you how often you need to pump, which is vital information.
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