Not All Flushes Are Equal: How to Maintain Your Septic System

Roughly one-quarter of all Americans depend on individual septic systems for their household plumbing needs. That number might be surprising, but that’s mostly because we don’t really think about our toilets very often.

how septic tanks work infographic

We live in a flush-and-forget kind of society. When it comes time to relieve ourselves, we do so discreetly (which is good), and then we make it all disappear: We flush it down. Then, we forget about it (which can be bad).

We don’t really care where all that waste goes because it’s out of our lives forever. This is why municipal sewer systems struggle so mightily.

One common problem is people using wet wipes as toilet paper. The wipes don’t break down quite as well as toilet paper does, and this causes all kinds of backups and problems.

This flush-and-forget mentality will yield much more dastardly results if, like many Americans, your plumbing is not affixed to municipal sewer lines, and you have your own septic system. It becomes even dicier if you don’t take care of your septic system properly. Learn more about the steps you need to take to ensure you can continue flushing without worry.

A Mini Sewer in Your Backyard

A septic system is basically a mini-sewer, and it’s usually buried in your backyard somewhere. These systems must be adequate to handle all your typical household uses of water. 45% of your water goes to flushing toilets, 30% to bathing, 20% to laundry and dishes, and only 5% to actual drinking and cooking. In most cases, septic systems are designed to be self-sufficient, self-contained, and foolproof so that you can continue to flush and forget.

water usage pie chart

Your septic tank, the heart of any septic system, will be filled with bacteria. But that’s actually by design.

Anaerobic bacteria — bacteria that do not require oxygen to survive — help break down all the waste that makes its way into the tank, making the water safe to leach onto fields or into the yard. It also ensures the digested material distributes its volume more evenly, maximizing capacity.

But that doesn’t mean you can simply ignore your septic system forever. Indeed, if you don’t perform regular maintenance, you can run into some sticky problems, including back-ups and overflows. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, nature intervenes and finds a way to flood your backyard with a stinky mess, the kind of stink that can slap you in the face and leave a mark.

We’ll help you figure out how to avoid the formation of an unwanted swimming pool in your backyard and what to do if it happens.

Getting a Handle on Septic System Maintenance

Your vehicle needs a regular oil change. Every 5,000 miles or so, you bring your car in, get the oil changed, and you’re good to go for another 5,000 miles. If you fail to engage in this routine maintenance, your car will, quite simply, stop running.

The same is true of your septic system. But you might think, how do I learn how to maintain my septic tank? It does require some regular maintenance in order to function properly.

The good news is that there is a certain amount of this maintenance you can handle on your own. It might be a dirty job, but it’s vital not only for the health of your neighbors but also for the health of your wallet. Repairs to septic tanks can easily run into thousands of dollars.

How to Ensure Your Septic System Lasts

When it comes to ensuring the longevity of your septic tank, there are some things you can do on your own, but most of those tasks fall on the preventative side. By taking care of these easy tasks, you avoid causing problems in the first place:

toilet iconInstall high-efficiency toilets.

Older toilets can use between 3.5-7 gallons of water per flush, while high-efficiency toilets get that down to 1.28 gallons per flush. That could save you over 5 gallons per flush. It adds up quickly when your tank has only so much capacity.

shower head iconInstall high-efficiency showerheads.

The average showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute. Replacing a traditional showerhead with a high-efficiency showerhead can save the average household 2900 gallons of water per year.

dishwasher iconRun the dishwasher and other washing machines only when they are filled to capacity.

These two appliances are lifesavers, but make sure you’re using them wisely. For example, refrain from rinsing dishes before you put them in the dishwasher.

plumbing pipe iconInspect plumbing consistently to avoid leaks.

no dumping iconMake sure nothing solid goes down your drains.

chemicals iconRefrain from dumping large amounts of household cleaners down the drain.

Most of these steps are designed to limit the amount of water and solid waste that enters your septic tank. The less water you use, the longer you can go without having your system pumped, saving you money in the long run. While most of these suggested actions take place inside the house, there are some things you can do outdoors to keep your septic system functioning well.

What to Do to Keep Your Drainfield Flowing

While your septic tank is buried beneath your yard (out of sight), the water from that tank still drains into the ground, usually called a drain field. To maintain your drain field, you should do a few different things:

  • Only plant grass over your drain field (the small roots are the only ones that won’t muck up the works)
  • Avoid driving vehicles over any part of your drain field, as it may compact the soil and damage the system
  • Keep all other drains away from the drain field (especially sump pump drains), as flooding your drain field can prevent your septic system from functioning normally
  • Be aware of how your drain field feels and smells. Keep an eye out for deviations. If your drain field is suddenly quite soggy, it’s a good indication that you have a problem.
  • Watch for roots that might be growing into your drain field. If you can help it, you want to refrain from planting trees or other large plants nearby.

Maintenance You Should Have a Professional Perform

We’re not looking to make everyone an expert on how to maintain their septic tanks. When it comes to opening up your septic system, you should really just leave it up to the professionals.

A septic tank is designed to be self-sufficient to a point, filtering water and draining relatively cleaner water into your backyard — harmlessly. But that filtering takes a toll over time, which means you’ve got to replenish that bacteria. You also have to get rid of the solid wastes that the anaerobic bacteria haven’t been able to fully eliminate.

You should regularly have a professional perform maintenance on your septic tank. And you need a professional who knows how to care for your septic system.

How Often Do You Need to Pump a Septic Tank?

First and foremost, you should have your septic system inspected at least once every three years. Luckily, in most cases, the inspector will also be able to pump your tank. It’s incredibly important to do this once every three to five years (for most standard septic tanks), as this can help prevent more expensive problems in the long run. The inspector will generally look for evidence of leaks or backups and will make sure all the mechanical systems are working properly.

But not every septic system is the same. You’ll want to note the levels of scum and sludge in each and every inspection, especially if you don’t get the septic tank pumped during the inspection. Some other variables might include:

  • How many people live in the residence
  • Percentage of the year the residence is occupied
  • The amount of solid waste — for example, the waste that goes down a garbage disposal
  • The amount of water used
  • The size of the tank

It’s absolutely vital that septic maintenance be performed regularly. It can save you money and headaches in the long run. Mr. Rooter of Greater Syracuse knows how important this is, and that’s why we emphasize regular maintenance and inspections.

Keep Your Septic System Healthy and Flowing

We don’t like to think about it and we certainly don’t want to picture it, but septic systems can and do fail, especially if preventative maintenance is ignored. However, not all system failures are created equally, so it’s good to get a feel for the scope of different problems.

In fact, knowing what can cause a septic system issue can give you some insight into the nature of the problem and the extent of the expenses involved. The first thing you should know is that you don’t have to wait for your sinks to back up to detect a problem.

In some cases, you won’t be able to ignore the problem. Just use your nose: Many septic system problems will result in pungent odors emanating from your backyard — in most cases, from your drain field. And, yes, this odor will smell like, well, sewage. It will be hard to miss. If you detect such an odor, you should call a qualified plumber immediately.

Don’t Flood Your System With Cleaning Products

While the plumber will check to see if there are any obvious blockages in your septic system, in many cases septic tank issues have more to do with the anaerobic bacteria within. Your plumber will also check on the health of your anaerobic bacteria.

It’s all about the health of your bacteria. This is, in fact, one bacteria colony you want to remain healthy and happy. You give them feedings a few times a day, after all. However, most modern-day cleaning products are anti-microbial. They are designed to kill microbes such as bacteria.

Generally, the small amounts of cleaning products you use on a regular basis aren’t going to impact your bacteria population. But any sudden deluge of anti-microbial cleaning products — many of which are not necessarily marked as anti-microbial — can have a disastrous impact on your bacteria population.

This problem can also be caused by other household toxins, such as lead paint cleanup, that find their way down drains in large quantities. And if your bacteria colony collapses, your wastewater is no longer being filtered. This means raw sewage is seeping into your drain field, causing health and safety issues.

To alleviate the problem, your plumber may introduce new bacteria to the tank, but he or she may also need to pump the current waste material that is in the tank for proper disposal. Whatever the plumber may suggest, it’s important for homeowners to know that this is not a problem they can handle on their own. Professionals know how to inspect a septic system in a way that is safe and effective.

What to Do if you Suspect a Clog or Blockage

If your septic system has a healthy bacterial base, and you’re still having issues of some kind, there may be other factors at work. Even with excellent septic tank maintenance, sometimes things go awry.

If you suspect you have a backup, you should do the following:

  • Call a qualified plumber to inspect your system immediately, if you suspect your septic tank is backing up or leaking somewhere.
  • Refrain from using your plumbing as much as possible. If it will take a qualified plumber a couple of days to arrive, you may have to forgo showering and rely on bottled water for drinking or cooking.
  • Refrain from dumping anything down the drain that your system was not designed to handle. This includes cooking grease, plastic, and so on.
  • Avoid flushing anything that could clog your septic system. Remember that your septic system was designed to handle human waste and waste tissue — and nothing else. By flushing anything outside those very narrow boundaries, you risk a clog.
  • Don’t attempt to solve the issue yourself, either by dumping chemicals down the drain or performing your own excavation.

There are some tried and true ways to detect clogs and blockages. Keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  • Gurgling sinks
  • Slowly draining sinks
  • Drainage issues
  • Standing water in the yard
  • Any bad smells, inside or out

Dealing With Damages From Clogs and Blockages

A clog can result in some serious damage. If you don’t call someone to address the problem immediately, you can have sewage backing up into your home before you know it. This is especially true if the blockage comes between your tank and the drainage field.

The tank will fill, and everything else will back up—in which case, it’s not unheard of that you will flush the toilet on the second story, only to have that same waste erupt from the toilet in the basement. This is one case where having multiple bathrooms might actually be a bad thing (though having only one certainly won’t save you from this fate).

The key to any backup is locating the source of the trouble. In the case of a suspected backup, a specialist will generally snake the drainage tubes in strategic areas, as well as use cutting-edge camera equipment to get a look at the clog itself.

This gives the plumber an idea of what equipment might be necessary and how long the repair might take (as well as how expensive it will be for the homeowner). If the backup is something simple like paper towels, it might be possible to clear the clog using a snake.

However, it’s also possible that your clog isn’t just a clog — you could have root issues. Sometimes, especially when trees grow in close proximity to your drain field, the roots of that tree can interfere with drainage.

Root formations can destroy your pipes and cause both blockages and leaks. While it is sometimes possible to drill through the root, the extent of repair work depends on the root placement and whether you want to spend that money again when the root grows back.

It’s important to not let these issues linger, even if your toilet isn’t overflowing yet. As septic water seeps into your backyard due to a leak or backup, it can cause all kinds of health issues.

The bacterial colony is great when it’s confined to your septic tank, doing its good work. On the other hand, it’s definitely less great when your kids and pets are splashing around in it, not to mention everything else they’ll be splashing around in.

Check on the Local Laws and Regulations

Local laws and procedures regulate what you can and cannot do with your septic system. In most cases, your septic system must be permitted, and in some municipalities, it must be inspected on a regular basis.

In order to find out what the local regulations require, you can usually check the city or county website and, if nothing else, check in with city hall. Your local plumbing experts should also have some insight into local regulations.

The laws and regulations are there because your septic system could pose a potential risk to your community if it isn’t cared for properly. Laws will likely vary based on the property type — farm vs. cabin vs. suburban home, for example — but it’s your responsibility to know and follow those laws.

A Happy Septic System Means a Happy Family

a happy septic system means a happy family

Nothing can ruin that weekend getaway or a family barbecue quite like a septic system problem. Following the septic tank dos and don’ts will help you prevent problems before they occur.

Remember that your septic system functions on a delicate balance, and maintaining your septic tank is the best way to preserve that balance. This means you can’t treat your septic system like a garbage disposal or a trashcan. Likewise, you have to be careful about water usage, and you need to have the system inspected and pumped regularly.

While there are certainly some preventative steps you should take on your own, septic tank maintenance is also something that requires calling in the professionals. If you try to save on costs by ignoring or covering up problems, you’ll end up paying more when things go from bad to worse. Money spent on a septic system specialist is an investment in your future and your peace of mind — and is well worth every dollar.

At Mr. Rooter of Greater Syracuse, we know how to care for your septic system and make sure trouble isn’t brewing. If you want to talk to a qualified plumber today, contact Mr. Rooter of Greater Syracuse to get that conversation started.