Septic Systems 101: What Homeowners Need to Know

Septic tanks are a mystery to most people since few of us think about where our wastewater goes once it leaves the house. If you have a septic system or are planning to have one installed, it's important to have a basic understanding of how they work and how to maintain them.

Routine septic system maintenance will not only keep you from spending money on expensive repairs, but it will also help you maintain a safe and healthy environment by avoiding sewer backups and contaminated groundwater.

What Is a Septic System?

septic system

A septic system is an on-site sewage treatment and disposal system that is usually buried underground. Septic systems consist of two main parts: a septic tank and a drain field. The septic tank is a watertight box, usually made of concrete or fiberglass, with an inlet and outlet pipe. All wastewater flows from the home to the septic tank through the sewer pipe.

Septic tanks take wastewater and separate solid matter from it, which settles at the bottom of the septic tank. Once in the septic tank, heavy solids sink to the bottom, and bacteria reduces them to sludge and gases.

Water is then returned to the soil in the drain field. The drain field is made up of a network of perforated pipes in gravel trenches buried beneath the soil. The drain field is designed to help the wastewater flowing through the septic tank dissipate into the surrounding environment. Most of the water drains down through the topsoil and is eventually filtered into the groundwater.

With regular maintenance, a septic system will last between 20-30 years. However if the system is not properly installed and maintained, a system can fail within a few years. Once a system fails, it can be difficult to repair and a complete replacement is often needed. With a tank replacement costing between $3,000 and $7,000, it’s important to keep your system in the best possible condition. Fortunately, it’s not hard to take care of a septic system, if you follow a few simple tips.

Maintaining Your Septic System

To keep your septic tank and drain field in working order, having the tank pumped on a regular basis is essential. How often you will need to have your system pumped depends on the size of your household, total wastewater generated, the number of solids, and the size of your tank. The official EPA recommendation is that you have the system pumped every 3-5 years, but it’s a good idea to have it inspected and serviced more often than that.

drain

In addition to regular tank pumping, the most important thing you can do for your septic system is to be careful about what goes into it. Water from your garbage disposal, dishwasher, sinks, toilets, showers and washing machine all enter the septic system. Therefore, it is crucial to watch what you flush or pour down your drains. Never put any of the following items into your plumbing system:

  • Cooking fats or other grease
  • Disposal wipes (even the ones labeled flushable)
  • Disposable diapers
  • Coffee grounds, eggshells, or nutshells
  • Sanitary napkins, tampons or condoms
  • Paper towels or rags
  • Paints or chemicals
water pipe

Another important factor in maintaining the life of your septic system is the amount of water entering the tank each day. Too much water entering the septic system on a daily basis will not allow enough time for solids to separate properly and for the soil in the drain field to absorb all of the water.

Excessive water use can cause a septic system to fail. To reduce the possibility of a failed septic system due to excessive water usage, following a few water saving guidelines will reduce the amount of water entering your septic system and reduce your water bills.

  • Flush toilets only when necessary and don’t use them as wastebaskets.
  • Install high-efficiency toilets
  • Check for leaky toilets and faucets — even a small leak can waste up to 200 gallons of water each day.
  • Install water efficient shower heads and take shorter showers.
  • If you have a dishwasher, only run it when it is full.
  • Use proper load settings when doing laundry.
  • Don’t leave the faucet running when brushing teeth or shaving.

Maintaining the Drain Field

Your drain field is likely several hundred feet away from your home but it’s directly impacted by everything you put into your septic system and maintaining it is important. A few things to avoid:

Don’t plant trees or other vegetation on top of or near the drain field. Trees and shrubs should not be within 100 feet of the field since roots are attracted to the moisture and can easily start growing inside the drains. Planting grass is desirable because it  will help reinforce the soil and prevent erosion.

Don’t drive cars or other vehicles on top of the drain field. Heavy machinery will compress the soil and lead to broken drain pipes.

Don’t build any structures on top of the drain field. Drain fields work because of evaporation. Any structures, including raised decking, will inhibit the rate of evaporation and slow or even stop the process.

Don’t allow excess water to enter the drain field. Runoff from roof drains, sump pumps, and other rainwater drainage systems should be directed away from the drain field. Excess water in the drain field can slow down and even stop the wastewater treatment process.

Know the Signs of a Septic System Problem

If your septic system is giving off an unpleasant odor or you see visible sewage in the drain field, you’ll know right away there is a septic problem. However, there are a few other signs that many people don’t immediately recognize as a problem.

Lush vegetation in the drain field area or wet spots in your lawn are often signs of an overloaded septic system. If there are gurgling sounds in the plumbing, slow draining fixtures or the plumbing backs up, call for service immediately. The quicker a problem is diagnosed and resolved, the more likely you are to avoid a complete system failure.

When to Call the Pros

Even with good maintenance, no septic system lasts forever. If your tank is 20 years old or older, you can anticipate needing repairs, if not a complete replacement. If you don’t know the age of your septic tank, schedule an inspection. This assessment can give you information about what to expect from the tank’s performance during the next few years.

At Simply Green Plumbing, Sewer & Rooter, we understand that a septic system emergency simply can’t wait. That’s why we never charge additional fees for emergency septic services.

Whether you need emergency service or regular septic system maintenance, call us at (408) 716-1686 to schedule an appointment. Our Los Gatos technicians have over 30 years of plumbing experience and we stand behind everything we do with our 100% customer satisfaction guarantee.

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