How does a septic system work?
Your septic tank is buried underground and has two pipes—one coming into it from your house (called the inlet pipe) and one going from the tank out to the drainfield (the outlet pipe). All water, paper, waste, etc. comes into your septic tank from your house, and the paper and waste float at the top. Your septic tank is plumbed so only the liquid can go out into the drainfield.
What are the symptoms of septic trouble?
Generally speaking, if you are having trouble inside the house that is affecting more than one area (more than one bathroom, a bathroom and the kitchen, the kitchen and the laundry, etc.), the problem you are having is within your septic system. Symptoms of this include gurgling toilets, slow-flushing toilets and/or sinks, or a backup in one area when another area is in use (for instance, a backup in the shower when laundry is going or when a toilet is flushed).
You can also have what we commonly call a “blow-out” in your drainfield. Customers who experience this usually do not have a backup inside the house but instead have standing water or a muddy area with a “smell” to it in their yard. This is still a problem within the septic system; it just surfaces in a different way.
Why do I need to pump my septic tank for maintenance?
Your septic tank has beneficial bacteria in it that break down the paper and waste, and what is left over settles to the bottom of the tank in the form of sludge. Over time, the level of the sludge builds up and can get high enough to be able to get into your drainfield (which would ruin the drainfield).
Another way to look at it is this: your septic tank is much like a fireplace. You put wood in the fireplace, you burn it, and you’re left with ashes. Your fireplace can’t get rid of the ashes on its own—it requires cleaning. In the same way your septic tank can’t get rid of the sludge on its own—it too requires cleaning.
What about additives?
Everyone hears about products that promise to solve your septic troubles by adding bacteria to the system or that kill roots. It is our experience that these products are not effective. You shed bacteria every time you “contribute” to your septic tank. People who are on long term antibiotics or chemotherapy can be the exception to this rule; the body also sheds those chemicals which can kill the beneficial bacteria that are so necessary for septic system function. Roots are, unfortunately, a problem anywhere there are trees in the area of a septic system and we have not found an additive that helps with them.
What can I flush down the sink or toilet?
The easier thing to do is to tell you what not to flush. The long and short of it is don’t flush things that cannot breakdown in your septic tank. Here’s a list of what causes the biggest problems for our customers:
Grease – your septic tank has no way to breakdown grease, and what makes it worse is that the grease clings to the pipes in your house and the inlet pipe going into your septic tank. We commonly find inlet pipes completely clogged up and unable to pass even a trickle of water due to grease.
Baby/cleaning wipes – “But the box said they were flushable!” Yes, you can flush baby wipes and cleaning wipes. The box wasn’t lying—you can flush them. But once inside your septic tank they do not breakdown. Instead, they form a huge clump which will cause you to have problems with your septic system.
What about my garbage disposal? – Here the trick is this: if you would eat it, it’s fine to put it down the garbage disposal and therefore into your septic tank. If not, don’t.
Sewer vs. Septic?
This is one of the grand debates. Some believe that sewer is far better than a septic system, whether that is for environmental reasons or financial. Septic systems that are installed correctly--utilizing structurally sound tanks and drainfields that are installed correctly with the right separation between the bottom of the drainfield and the water table—are wonderful little systems. When it comes to cost, a septic system is far less expensive to maintain than the typical monthly charge for sewer. Here’s a breakdown with a typical cost for a typical size and year code house:
$1800.00 Drainfield replacement (expected to last 20 years)
$825.00 Three septic pumpouts in 20 years
Average cost per year = $131.25
Average cost per month = $10.93
*The average household cost for sewer is $50-$100/month*
When it comes to the environment, there are many misconceptions about septic systems. Many believe that septic systems pollute our water supply; however, a septic system that is installed and is functioning properly does not. When a sewer system has a leak, millions of gallons can be spilled very quickly thereby having a much greater potential for harming the environment.