The septic system is one of two main methods for draining waste water out of houses and buildings. The septic system consists of a septic tank, which is placed underground somewhere to the side or back of a given property. The tank receives outgoing drains from the sinks and tubs (gray water) and toilets (black water) of a corresponding house. Inside this tank, gunk and waste are separated from the water, and the water is then sent to an outgoing grid of drain field pipes, from which the water is released into the soil.
Septic systems stand in contrast to municipal sewer lines, which are run by town and city governments. The key difference is that each septic system serves a single property, while sewer lines connect whole sections of cities. Whether a given property has one or the other will often depend on location, as sewer lines are more common in urban areas, and septic tanks are found more often on rural properties.
There are many advantages of the septic tank system that makes it preferable to sewer lines for a lot of people. Whether you favor one or the other could depend on if you enjoy the independence and responsibility of having a septic system, or if you’d rather have the reliability and ease of sewer lines.
Pros of Septic Systems
There are several key pros and cons of septic tank systems. As such, some homeowners love septic systems, while others prefer to rely on municipal sewer lines. Your preference on the matter could all depend on whether you like to be free of regular sewage bills but don't mind being responsible for the occasional round of maintenance and other possible repair needs.
The advantages of a septic tank system over a municipal sewer line primarily come down to cost and ecology. Simply put, you don't have to worry about writing monthly checks or harming the environment with wastewater when your property has its own septic system:
No. 1: Variety — There Are Different Kinds of Septic Tanks
The primary advantages of septic tank system types range from durability and strength to low maintenance. Whether a tank type is known for one or the other quality will mostly depend on its material. That said, tanks also have weaknesses that correlate with material composition. As such, there are pros and cons of septic tanks of all types, which generally fall into the following categories:
- Concrete septic tanks. A septic tank made of concrete will usually last for several decades. However, the concrete can crack and possibly leak waste and let in groundwater. When backups occur in a concrete septic tank, the blockage could impact the outflow of water from your drains. Problems with concrete septic tanks often go undetected for many months — sometimes well after the point where the tank is salvageable — unless a manual inspection is performed in due time.
- Steel septic tanks. Septic tanks made of steel are prone to rust and generally last no longer than 25 years. As such, steel septic tanks are not favored by too many homeowners. When corrosion takes hold on the roof of a steel tank, the steel could be rendered weak and ill-suited to support above-ground weight. Consequently, a person could possibly fall into a steel tank that has lost its structural integrity due to rusting.
On the upside, a rusted cover can be replaced without an overall replacement of the tank itself. Tell-tale signs of a rusting steel tank can be spotted on the entry and exit baffles, which are the points where corrosion initially forms on such tanks.
- Fiberglass septic tanks. Septic tanks made of fiberglass are not prone to the main weaknesses of concrete and steel tanks. Unlike concrete, fiberglass tanks don't crack, and in contrast to steel tanks, fiberglass tanks are rust-proof.
Sometimes, however, fiberglass septic tanks have low effluent levels, which are generally due to dislodged plugs on the tank floor. A fiberglass tank is also lighter than other tank types, which makes it more vulnerable to above-ground weight and prone to possible movement when surrounding soil becomes dampened.
- Aerobic septic tank. Running on electricity, aerobic septic tanks are often installed when prior tanks have failed on a given property. Aerobic tanks cost up to three times what other septic tank types normally sell for, but they offer higher efficiency and necessitate smaller drain fields. Though they require frequent and often full maintenance, aerobic tanks generally last for many years.
No. 2: Saves Money
A septic tank can help you save money on several fronts, from the installation all the way through to the day when you sell your property.
- Costs less to install. A new septic system will often cost significantly less than the installation of sewage pipes on a residential property. A septic system can be an especially cost-effective option if your house sits on a property of more than one acre.
- No monthly cost. Due to the fact that septic systems run independently on each residential property, they don't carry any of the monthly costs associated with city-operated sewage systems.
- Long-lasting / rarely needs to be replaced. A properly installed and well-maintained septic tank can be counted on to last for the full duration of residential occupancy.
No. 3: Better for the Environment
It's been argued that septic systems are friendlier to the environment because they don't contaminate groundwater like leaky sewage lines do. Furthermore, when a septic system does leak, the damage is contained to a particular stretch of property and doesn't carry city-wide consequences. Some other ways septic tanks are better for the environment are:
- Cuts pollution. Septic tanks cut pollution by making use of drain fields and leach fields, which serve as natural filters. Before wastewater reaches the soil, the contents are strained through the septic tank. By the time the water enters the field, any bacteria have been removed.
- Helps local plants/wildlife. The method by which septic tanks recycle water is beneficial to nearby flora and fauna. Once it's been released into the soil, the water spurs plant growth, which in turn provides food for nearby tree squirrels, insects, and birds.
No. 4: Greater Water Efficiency
Septic tanks give homeowners every reason to reap the benefits of achieving greater water efficiency. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the daily water use in a one-family home averages 70 gallons per person. When you multiply this over the span of a year, it amounts to tons upon tons of water that passes through your septic system.
Given the sheer volume of daily water that drain pipes and septic tanks handle, there are habits that individuals should cultivate to lessen the burden on septic systems. This way, breakdowns, and maintenance emergencies become less frequent. Some of the leading causes of gradual strain on septic systems include:
- Inefficient laundry loads. A washing machine consumes many gallons of water over the course of a 30 to 40-minute cycle. While washing machines as well as septic systems are built to handle such loads, there are some people who run them at least once per day. Given that many of these spin cycles are done just to wash a couple of clothing articles each, the habit can be quite wasteful.
Not only are tons of gallons of water being used each week, but septic tanks and drain pipes are subject to maximum amounts of water and waste — all for what might ultimately amount to a basketful of clothing. To lessen the burden of the washing machine on your septic system, try to hold off on running loads until you have a full basket of dirty laundry.
- Small dish loads. As with washing machines, dishwashers consume gallons of water per cycle. The trouble is, people often run their dishwashers once or even twice per day without ever filling the cleaning trays. While it might seem convenient to simply run the dishwasher after every meal, consider all the water that goes to waste and the impact it has on your septic system over time.
If you live in a small household of one or two people, you should especially consider conservation strategies when it comes to the use of your dishwasher. Instead of running the dishwasher after every meal, wait until the machine fills up — perhaps every two to four days — then run it.
- Overly long showers. In today's fast-paced world, baths are a luxury that many people can't make time for in their daily lives. Consequently, showers have taken the place of baths as most people's primary way to soak in warm water.
Since even short showers consume far more water than baths, this increased use of showers can cause water use to soar astronomically. Not only does this cause water heating bills to spike, but it can also be quite a burden on your drain pipes and septic tank. When two or more people are taking long showers in the same house on a daily basis, the problem multiplies tenfold. To reverse the pattern, set a timer to limit your showers to 10 minutes per day, and re-embrace the bath on a biweekly basis.
- Idly running water. People often waste tap water without even realizing the habit. When people brush their teeth, for example, they'll often let the water run the whole time, despite not even rinsing the brush once during the three to five-minute duration.
Similar wasteful water usage can also occur when people leave the faucet running while doing dishes or washing their hands. Often times in these scenarios, 60 to 90 seconds might be spent scrubbing or lathering up before finally rinsing off. While such examples might seem minor compared to the excess amounts of water used by washing machines and in bathtubs, the wasteful use of sink water can ultimately take its toll on your drain pipes and septic tanks.
No. 5: Better Care of Toilets
Another habit that homeowners develop with septic systems is toilet care. This is due to the fact that limits exist on what can be flushed down a toilet. Items you don’t want to flush down the toilet include:
- Paint or thinner. Despite the fluidity of paint and thinner, both are bad for toilets and septic pipes. Paint can leave residue along piping that could ultimately make it more difficult for water to flow. Likewise, the chemicals in thinner can be hard on piping.
- Cotton balls. Disposable grooming and hygiene products, such as cotton balls, are not the kinds of things that toilets are built to flush. Though it might seem convenient and easy to toss such items into the toilet — since most hygiene products are typically used in the bathroom — doing so is only liable to clog your septic system.
- Condoms. Made of rubber, a condom is not the type of item that will break down and dissolve in water. As such, used condoms belong in the trash, not the toilet.
- Dental floss. Since brushing and flossing are usually done at the bathroom sink, it's understandable why so many people simply flush floss down the toilet. That floss, however, could accumulate in your septic system.
- Diapers. Parents are usually so eager to get rid of dirty diapers that toilets are often used for this purpose. Unfortunately, diapers cannot be disposed of so easily, as the material is liable to clog your septic system.
- Cigarette butts. Despite their softness, cigarette butts aren't meant to pass through toilet siphons. Though it's wise to dampen butts before you throw them away, they must go into the trash.
- Cat litter. Though it's convenient to flush used cat litter down the toilet, doing so could easily lead to a plumbing emergency.
- Paper towels. Unlike toilet paper, which is soft and delicate enough to pass through siphons and toilet pipes, paper towels are too thick for toilets and septic tanks.
- Automotive chemicals such as antifreeze, gasoline, and oil, or pesticides. As with paints and thinners, chemicals are unacceptable fluids for the toilet. The toxins and agents of automotive chemicals can damage pipes and degrade the quality of the septic piping system.
No. 6: More Responsible Use of Sinks
Sewage-line homeowners often mistreat their sinks, either due to negligence or a misunderstanding of what should and shouldn't be washed down a drain. When you have a septic system, you learn to be more responsible and avoid dumping any of the following down the kitchen sink:
- Cooking grease or oil. Not all cooking fluids wash down easily. Cooking oils and greasy remains should never be washed down your kitchen sink because the oily properties can gunk up septic pipes and lead to plumbing issues. Oil can also cause buildup within the mechanisms of garbage disposals.
- Coffee grounds. Following that morning round of java, it might seem natural to run those used coffee grounds through the garbage disposal. After all, grounds are a flaky mess that can sometimes be a nuisance to formally discard. However, the grounds are already ground, and they'll simply pass through the garbage disposal and clog your septic system if you don't properly dispose of them in the trash.
- Pharmaceuticals. As with food, the acids within your digestive system dissolve various medicines. There are no acids to dissolve them in sink pipes and septic systems, though. That means pipes can easily get clogged when you try to rinse pills, tablets, and caplets down the drain of your kitchen sink.
- Pasta. Due to its softness, leftover pasta might seem like an easy food for garbage disposal. However, pasta can be quite damaging to the plumbing of your kitchen sink. It’s a food that swells and swells. As long as pasta is exposed to water, the strands continue to grow, even when chopped into tiny bits, which can be quite problematic in septic pipes.
- Bones. While not an obvious item to rinse down sinks either with or without garbage disposals, bones do sometimes get rinsed down as plates are cleaned. If you try to grind bones in your garbage disposal, chances are the disposal will fare worse than the bones. Even when shredded, though, bone bits could be a nightmare for your septic system.
- Celery. Natural foods can also be troublesome for sinks and septic systems. With hard vegetables like celery, for example, the strings can wrap around the impeller arms of your garbage disposal and cause it to jam if the process is repeated too many times. As a rule of thumb, if the food forces you to floss your teeth each time, it's probably bad for your garbage disposal, as well as your septic system.
No. 7: Greater Responsibility With Bath and Shower Drains
Whereas residents on sewage systems are often irresponsible with their sink and bathtub drains, people with septic tanks learn how to be more careful. Basically, none of the following items should ever be washed down a sink or tub:
- Hairs strands. Without a doubt, the number one cause of plumbing issues in bathtub and shower drains is hair clogs. Each time you bathe and shower, your head is liable to lose a certain amount of hair strands. If your hair is long, the buildup at the drain is liable to be even thicker.
If you're a man over the age of 35, chances are you could be shedding hair more rapidly and thus causing clogs with greater frequency. In any case, no tub or shower stall should be without a drain filter to prevent hairs from going down.
- Whiskers. A lot of people shave while taking baths and showers, which only makes sense since water is abundant and soap is at hand. However, those tiny whiskers and stubs will not necessarily rinse down the drain without a hitch.
Whether you shave off a one-day or five-day beard in the shower, the whiskers are liable to accumulate as time goes on. If gunk deposits in the drain pipes, the whiskers could end up sticking to the gunk and making it thicker. The same thing applies when you shave your legs and armpits, too.
- Leftover soap. Hardly anyone uses up entire bars of soap. When the bar that you've used for the past eight to 10 days gets too small and thin to lather up sufficiently, chances are you'll put it aside to grab a fresh bar.
Oftentimes, those little soap slivers are never discarded. They simply sit in the soap stand indefinitely. Sometimes, the remnants of an old bar of soap fall into the tub and ultimately slide down the drain. It takes a lot of hot water over a long period of time to dissolve firm soap. Therefore, old soap bars should be formally discarded and not simply set aside to linger in your tub or in your shower.
Cons of Septic Systems
The disadvantages of septic tanks stem from the fact that maintenance and repairs are the responsibility of homeowners. Also, the capacity of septic systems is somewhat more limited than that of sewage lines:
- Need maintenance. One of the main cons of septic systems is their need for maintenance. Whereas the maintenance of sewage systems is managed and footed by the city, the costs of septic system maintenance must be paid for by you, the homeowner. Every three to five years, a septic tank must be pumped to prevent backups and overflow.
- Sometimes they must be replaced. Unlike sewer systems, septic systems lack the capacity to handle sewage amounts above a certain threshold. Consequently, a septic system can fail if it's overloaded with too much sewage. When this happens, the cleanup process can be difficult and costly.
Houses with three bedrooms or less generally require a 1,000-gallon septic tank, which costs roughly $265 to pump. Larger houses with four bedrooms or more typically need a 1,500-gallon tank, which costs around $320 to pump.
The frequency at which a given tank needs to be pumped will often depend on the size of the corresponding house. Some other issues can include:
No. 1: Issues With Household Water Fixtures
In many cases, wasteful water use has less to do with human habit and is more a consequence of household water fixtures with limited capabilities. It could be a matter of a machine that uses too much water and burdens your septic system and drain field. Alternatively, the problem might stem from the pressure of your incoming water, where you end up getting more than you need each time you wash your hands or take a shower. When excessive water consumption is no fault of your own, it's likely due to one of the following culprits:
- Inadequate toilets. Anywhere from a fourth to nearly a third of all residential water use — 25 to 30 percent — is from the toilet. However, a lot of homes use far more water than necessary for this one fixture simply because the toilets in question are of the older variety.
In homes built 30 years ago or more, the toilet reservoirs are typically in the 3.5 to 5-gallon range. In newer homes, toilets are generally restricted to a more efficient 1.6 gallons of water for every flush. If you have one of the older models, upgrading to a newer, more efficient toilet could reduce the amount of pressure on your septic system.
- Inadequate washing machines. The overuse of water during laundry cycles is not always down to bad habits such as small, daily laundry loads. In many homes, the trouble stems from a lack of ability to control the amount of water that gets used per cycle. On some machines, however, there's a load-size feature that allows you to set the amount of water used during a given load. Therefore, if you only have half a basket full of dirty laundry for a given week, the water level can be adjusted to those needs.
Another way to prevent laundry strain on your septic system is to nix the habit of doing all laundry in a single day and instead, spread larger loads over the week, such as one load on Saturday and one on Tuesday.
- Bad faucets. Tons of excess water can flow into your septic tank and drain field when your sink faucets and shower heads have poor flow restrictions. This can be remedied with the use of faucet aerators and slow-flow restrictors, which limit water volumes to reasonable levels and makes showers and hand-washing less wasteful.
No. 2: Poorly Maintained Drain Fields
One of the disadvantages of septic systems is that a typical homeowner will often be unaware of the layout of the drain field, which is a key component of how the system works. The layout works like this: The pipes that lead out from your sinks, toilets, washing machines, and tubs go to the septic tank, where water is separated from waste. From there, waste is sent to the drain field, which consists of a grid of pipes that filter waste into the deep soil.
On many properties that use this layout, a new occupant will be unaware of how the system is designed. Consequently, they could easily obstruct or damage the drain field without even knowing. Therefore, it's important to know the layout of the drain field and keep the following objects away from the said area:
- Vehicles. Never turn the lawn or soil above the drain field on your property into a parking lot for your cars, trucks, vans, or trailer. For the same reason, don't park rolling stock over the drain field — not even for a day. The soil can be unduly pressed down by the weight of such vehicles, which in turn could inhibit this crucial part of your septic system.
- Trees. No tree should ever be planted above or beside the area of soil that covers the drain field on your property. First of all, the weight of tree trunks and roots can negatively impact the functions of the drain field. Secondly, the roots of trees can impede and even puncture the drain pipes, and that could ultimately lead to the failure of your septic system. On a similar note, don't plant bushes or other plants above or beside the area that encompasses your drain field.
- Other drainage systems. Don't place any other type of drainage device over the drain field of your septic system. Drainage systems that could impede your drain field would include sump pumps and roof drains, which would only release excess water into an already active stretch of the soil on your property. The soil area in question is busy enough dealing with the wastewater from your septic system.
If you are unsure about the exact stretch of your property where the drain field lies underneath, consult your landlord or residential authority.
No. 3: Ruptured Water Pipes
One of the worst things that can happen to a septic or sewage system is a rupture of the drain pipes. When ruptures occur in the pipes that take gray water and black water out of your home, a host of problems are liable to happen. Under the lawns of your property, the soil could become saturated and stench-ridden. In a short period of time, the ground above the leakage could become moist and compromised.
Since the intended flow of outward water would now be led askew, the problem could easily affect the functions of the drains inside your home, too. In your toilet, tub, and sinks, the drains could slow and ultimately clog. In worst-case scenarios, your drainage system could fail completely. Therefore, the following activities should be avoided or prevented on the parts of your property that lie above your drainage pipes:
- Shoveling. When you dig deep holes with your shovel, you run the risk of puncturing drain pipes if you don't know the layout of your septic tank and drain field. Since the pipes are thin and somewhat obscured by dirt and soil and are difficult to see, you might hit upon the metal with a shovel and think you've hit a rock.
In other words, you might be digging in your yard, hit something hard, and stop digging, then wrap up your project without even knowing that you've punctured a drain pipe. Simply put, digging is dangerous on the ground above your septic system.
- Root growth. One of the cons of septic systems, as well as sewage systems, is the vulnerability of drain pipes to the roots of big trees. If you have a big tree on your property that's anywhere near your septic tank, drainage pipes, or drain field, the roots could cross into the lines of pipes and ultimately puncture the metal. This, in turn, could inflict all the problems associated with drain pipe ruptures, such as contaminated soil, drainage clogs, and backups inside your house.
- Bulb growth. As with tree roots, the growth of bulbs can be a huge impediment to the piping of your septic system. Therefore, gardening and plant growth should be curtailed from the portions of your outside property that lie above the drain pipes and septic tank.
- Earthquakes. Natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and twisters can wreak havoc on your property, but the type of menace that's most threatening to your septic system and drain pipes is an earthquake, which could shake and potentially rupture the soil in which the system is based. Therefore, if you live in an area that's earthquake-prone, be sure to set up an insurance policy that covers earthquake damage to your home as well as your septic system.
No. 4: Backed up Sewage
One of the biggest disadvantages of septic systems is the hassles that come with sewage backup, which is generally a sign of clogging in the tank or drain field pipes. When backups occur, the problem is more serious than a simple household drain clog because the obstruction won't be found just inches down the drain. In other words, the problem can't be rectified with a dose of drain cleaner — you'll actually need to have a plumber inspect your septic system. Signs of sewage backup include:
- Slow drains. When drains get slow and Drano fails to rectify the matter, the problem is likely serious and in need of immediate attention. If you haven't even done anything wrong with your drains — such as rinsing down hard foods or harmful chemicals — it's even more likely to be the result of a backup in the pipes.
A telltale sign is when all sinks behave similarly, with the worst problems occurring in the lower drains of the house, such as in the basement sink.
- Slow-flushing toilets. With toilets, septic system backups produce the worst results of all. If you're unable to flush or can barely get anything to go down, there's likely a major issue at hand. If your toilet is spitting back old waste and no snake or plunger will fix matters, call your plumber immediately.
- Slow-draining tubs. As with slow-draining sinks, if your tub drains sluggishly and spits up junk in the process, the issue likely stems from outside, especially if you have two or more baths or shower stalls that are acting the same way.
No. 5: Drain Field Overflow
Another problem just as big as septic backups is system leaks at the far end. The good news is that the consequences aren't suffered inside the home. The bad news is that rectifying the issue can be just as costly. Drain field overflow is caused by cracks in the field pipes that carry water out from the septic tank. The prime indicators of an overflowing drain field include:
- Pooling water. When a large puddle forms above or just beyond the yardage that comprises your drain field, it could be the product of leaked drain pipes, especially if there's been no rain in the area.
- Odors. If unbearably rank, foul odors engulf the area of your property that sits above the drain field, it could possibly mean that the soil has become saturated with black water.
- Overly green lawns. A strangely problematic occurrence is when one area of grass is far greener and healthier looking than the surrounding grass. If no sprinkler has been directly applied to that one area, the greenness could be due to another water source — that which leaks from broken drain field pipes.
No. 6: Corroded Septic Systems
Rust is the enemy of metal. Like weeds on a lawn, rust eats away at metals until surfaces crack and holes form. As such, rust is dangerous to sewage piping, which needs to be replaced — whether in part or in full — when corrosion takes hold. The following problems are indicators of septic system corrosion:
- Leaky pi