Septic Systems: The Inside Story – Two Main Causes of System Failures

How well do you understand septic systems? To see if you know enough about these systems, try to answer the following questions.

Septic Systems: Do you know… ?

Do you know what a septic system is and how it works?

Do you know what causes septic systems to fail?

Do you know what it costs to replace a faulty septic system?

Do you know that a faulty septic system creates a potential health hazard?

Most people know very little about their septic system. This is understandable. In urban and suburban areas there are sewers to carry household waste to municipal wastewater treatment plants. In most rural areas however, septic systems provide the function of both sewers and treatment plants. All household waste is disposed of through the septic system. The proper operation of the septic systems is essential to health, property value, and the ecology.


Hoisting a 1200 gallon septic tank from a truck.Following these hints, and observing the warning signs will help to ensure a long-lasting sewage system, avoid expensive repairs or replacements, and protect everyone’s water supply.

1. Have the septic tank pumped out every two to three years. This will remove the accumulated sludge and scum which would other wise reach the tile field and cause blockage resulting in a malfunctioning sewage system and costly repairs. This is the single most effective means of ensuring a long-lasting sewage system.

2. It is always wise to practice water conservation.

3. Use soaps and detergents which are low in phosphates. Most automatic dishwashing detergents contain high concentrations of phosphates.

4. Do not flush hazardous chemicals such as paints, varnish, thinners, waste oil, pesticides, photographic solutions, etc.

5. Do not flush coffee grinds, dental floss, disposable diapers, kitty litter, sanitary napkins, tampons, cigarette butts, condoms, fat, grease or oil, paper towels, etc.

6. Commercial septic tank additives are not necessary and not recommended.

7. Do not allow vehicles including snow machines and ATVs to park on or drive over your sewage system.

8. Divert roof drains, surface water, sump pumps and house footing drains away from the sewage system.

9. Sewage systems should have a good cover of grass, ventilation and sunlight. Trees and shrubs should not be planted over sewage systems. However, trees and shrubs planted between your system and a water course would be beneficial.

10. Be alert to these warning signs:

* Sewage surfacing over the tile field

* Sewage back-up in the house

* Mushy ground or greener grass

* Slow draining toilet or other drains

* Sewage odors


Lowering a tank into place

Waste is piped out of the house into the first chamber of a concrete box called a septic tank.

Organic solid material floats to the surface and forms a layer of what is commonly called “scum.” Bacteria in the septic tank biologically convert this material into liquid.

Inorganic or inert solid materials and the by-products of bacterial digestion sink to the bottom of the tank and form a layer commonly called “sludge.”

Only fairly clear water should exist between the scum and sludge layers. This water fills the second chamber of the tank where it becomes even more clear. It is this clear water – and only this clear water – that should be allowed to over flow from the tank into the drainage tiles in the absorption area, commonly called “the field” or “the bed” or sometimes “leaching field.”

Solid material overflowing into the soil absorption area should be avoided at all costs. It is this solids overflow which clogs soil pores and causes septic systems to fail.

“Two main factors cause solid materials to build up and overflow: Bacterial deficiency and lack of sludge removal.”

Septic tank in place, ready to be connected to the house and the tile bed. Bacteria must be present in the septic tank to digest the organic

solids. Normal household waste provides enough bacteria to digest the solids, unless any harm is done to the bacteria. Bacteria are very sensitive to environmental changes. Many home-care products used in most homes today will destroy bacteria. Check the labels of these products to see if they are “Septic Safe” or “Safe for use in septic systems.”

A Pretty Good Rule: “Shock the pool, not the septic system!”


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