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Septic Systems - Operation, Maintenance and Repair

Like most homeowners, you probably don't think much about wastewater after it goes down the drain. However for owners of homes with septic systems, learning proper operation, maintenance, and repair of your system is important in order to avoid being exposed to that wastewater again.

What is a septic system?

Septic systems contain a household's wastewater on-site in self-contained, underground storage tanks. In areas where houses are spaced far apart, they offer a more economical solution than the costs associated with sewer systems. Septic systems offer a simple design that processes wastewater naturally on-site, without disrupting the environment with miles of sewer lines.

How do septic systems work?

Septic systems are made of two main parts, the septic tank and the drain field. The septic tank itself is typically concrete or fiberglass and watertight, with an inlet and outlet pipe. Waste flows into the tank through your home's sewer pipe, and as wastewater is held in the tank it begins to naturally separate:

  • Scum: The top layer is solids lighter than water, like grease and oil.
  • Effluent: The middle layer in septic tanks is effluent, partially clarified waste water.
  • Sludge: Solids heavier than water settle at the bottom.

Clarified wastewater flows through the drain field, a series of trenches or a gravel/sand-lined bed one to three feet below the ground's surface, where it is slowly distributed and filtered by the soil. Sludge and scum are broken down by naturally occurring bacteria in the wastewater. Those that cannot be broken down remain in septic systems until pumped out.

Cleaning and caring for septic systems

It is important to properly maintain and care for septic systems. Don't drive over your system with heavy equipment, plant trees or shrubs in the drain field area (they can damage or plug lines), or cover the field with hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt. Diverting additional runoff from this area is also recommended to protect the absorption capacity of the drain field.

The frequency of septic tank maintenance depends on the number of people in your household, the amount of wastewater you generate, and the volume of solids in the wastewater. It is typically recommended to have septic tanks pumped every two to five years, however certain practices effect this frequency. Using a garbage disposal more rapidly increases the amount of solids in wastewater. Adding an aeration device aids the biological process of solid breakdown, reducing the necessity of pumping.

Troubleshooting common septic system issues

Though septic tanks have a relatively simple design, improper use and neglect can lead to issues.


Anything that goes down the drain ends up in your septic tank. It is important to avoid putting items into the tank that are difficult to breakdown, such as hair, paper towels, sanitary products, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, kitty litter, fat, grease and oil, to avoid problems with your tank such as clogs and frequent pumping.

Drain field problems

Tank problems are typically the result of drain field issues. Sluggish plumbing, odors and wetness over the drain field, and flooded tanks indicate drain field problems, which can persist even after the tank has been recently pumped.

Effluent filters

Effluent filters are a cost effective tool to prevent system problems, as they filter out solids larger than 1/8 of an inch. Like any filter, they require periodic maintenance to function properly. Refer to manufacturer recommendations.

Rest assured, with proper maintenance and care you shouldn't be required to do anything unpalatable to care for your septic system. Simply educating yourself regarding its function and proper use will ensure your system works properly for years to come.

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