How Does a Septic System Work? 11 Things (2021) You Need to Know

Are you looking at a piece of land with a septic system?

If so, you may be a bit overwhelmed.

If you’ve never had one before, it’s easy to wonder what it all it entails.

They’re quite a bit different than a traditional sewer system, and as a homeowner, you’re in charge of maintaining your septic system.

It introduces a whole new level of responsibility.

But don’t fret!

We can help you understand not only what a septic system is, but how it works and everything else you need to know about having one.

Keep reading to learn more.

1. What is a septic system?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a septic system is an “underground wastewater treatment structure, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems.”

These systems combine nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.

2. What are the different parts of a septic system?

A typical septic system will consist of two parts: a septic tank and a drain field (also called a soil absorption field).

bulletSeptic tank: The septic tank is a buried, watertight container that’s made of either concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene.

It should hold the wastewater long enough to allow all solids to settle out.

There will also be compartments and a t-shaped outlet in the septic tank to prevent sludge from leaving the tank and traveling into the drain field area.

bulletDrain field: The wastewater will exit the septic tank into the drain field for further treatment by the soil.

At this point, the wastewater has been partially treated.

Note: you don’t want your drain field to be too overloaded with liquid as this will create backups into the plumbing fixtures and prevent proper treatment.

3. How does a septic system work?

The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter such as oils, grease and solids from the wastewater.

Soil-based systems will discharge the liquid (called effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated outlet pipes.

These pipes are buried in a leach field, chambers, and other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

There are also some systems that use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter, constructed wetlands, etc. to remove/neutralize pollutants.

Some systems also evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged into the soil.

4. What’s the play-by-play of how a conventional septic system works?

If you’re looking for the nitty-gritty on how a septic system works, here’s what you need to know.

bulletWater will run out of your house from one main drainage pipe into a septic tank.

bulletThe septic tank will be a buried, water-tight container.

It’s usually made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene.

The job of the septic tank is to hold the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down the bottom.

These solids will then form a sludge while the oil and the grease float to the top as scum.

Meanwhile, anaerobic bacteria will begin decomposing the waste.

bulletThere are compartments and a T-shaped outlet that prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drain field area.

bulletThe liquid waste (effluent) will exit from the tank into the drain field.

bulletThe drain field is a shallow, covered, excavation made in unsaturated soil.

Pretreated wastewater is discharged through piping onto porous surfaces that allow wastewater to filter through the soil.

The soil accepts, treats, and disperses wastewater as it percolates through the soil, which ultimately discharges into groundwater

bulletIf the drain field is overloaded with too much liquid, then it can flood it and cause sewage to flow to the ground surface or create backups in toilets and sinks.

bulletThe wastewater percolates into the soil which naturally removes harmful coliform bacteria, viruses, and nutrients.

Coliform bacteria are a group of bacteria predominantly inhabiting the intestines of humans or other warm-blooded animals.

It’s an indicator of human fecal contamination.

5. How do you know if a property has a septic system?

If you’re looking at properties to invest in, there may be some with septic systems.

Here’s how you can tell if there are septic systems on-site.

bulletThe property uses well water

bulletThe waterline coming into the home doesn’t have a meter

bulletThe water bill or property tax bill shows a “$0.00 Sewer Amount Charged”

bulletThe neighbors near your property also have septic systems

Once you’ve determined if this is true, you can find the septic system by taking the following steps:

bulletLooking on your home’s “as-built” drawing

bulletChecking your yard for lids and manhole covers

bulletContacting a septic system service provider to help you locate it

6. How do you know if your septic system is malfunctioning?

There are a few key signs of a malfunctioning septic system.

Here’s what you may notice if the septic system on your property is not working.

bulletWastewater is backing up into household drains

bulletThere’s bright green, spongy grass on the drain field, especially during dry weather

bulletYou notice pooling water or muddy soil around your septic system or in your basement

bulletThere’s a strong odor around the septic tank and drain field

7. Do you need to pump your septic tank?

If your septic system was properly designed and installed, then it probably needs only occasional pumping to remove the sludge and scum from the tank.

Pumping is often recommended yearly; although, it is possible to go two to three years between pumping.

It will ultimately depend on the size of the tank and the amount of waste you run through the tank.

We recommend asking an inspector to make a rough recommendation for how often your tank should be pumped.

8. What can you do unknowingly that will destroy your septic system?

Here are all the actions that can destroy your septic tank.

Be careful and avoid these, so you will only have to perform routine maintenance on your septic tank!

bulletAvoid flushing cigarette butts, diapers, and coffee grounds down the drains.

bulletAvoid using garbage disposals heavily as they can send too much solid waste into the system.

bulletBe careful with lint from synthetic fiber flows from washing machines as bacteria in the tank and drain field can’t break it down.

bulletDo not put too much wastewater down the drain over a short period of time because it flushes out of the tank too rapidly.

bulletBe mindful of how much sludge there is in the tank.

When there is too much sludge, it reduces the bacteria’s ability to break down waste, and it can also overflow into the drain field or plug holes in the pipe.

To address this, pump your septic tank periodically, so it’s clear from the sludge.

bulletAvoid compacting soil and gravel as this will block the seepage of effluent and deprive bacteria of oxygen.

This can occur unknowingly if cars drive or park on the drain field.

9. Do you need a professional to help with septic system pumping?

Is it possible to pump your septic system yourself, or do you need assistance from a professional?

You’ll need a licensed professional to help with the actual pumping of your septic system.

That said, if you’re not squeamish, you’re able to check whether your septic system is ready to be pumped on your own.

Here’s how you can do it.

To do it yourself, you can get a device online called The Sludge Judge.

It’s about $100 to $125, and it will help you check the sludge level.

Once you’ve determined that your tank is one-third full of sludge, you’ll need to call a contractor to come to pump it out.

While this contractor is out there, you should ask that they install an effluent filter on the outflow pipe on your tank.

This typically costs between $50 and $100 (plus labor).

This device helps prevent solids from entering the drain field, and it will need to be cleaned out occasionally by a contractor.

Just know that regular inspections and pumping are critical, so whether you or a professional does this task, it needs to get done!

10. What are the do’s and don’ts of having a septic tank?

Here’s an easy checklist to ensure you’re properly caring for your septic tank.

bulletDO check with a local regulatory agency or inspector before installing a garbage disposal unit.

This will ensure that your septic system can handle the additional waste.

bulletDO check with your local health department before using additives.

Additives can be harmful to the system and do not eliminate the need for periodic pumping.

bulletDO be sure to repair any leaky faucet or toilets.

bulletDO use high-efficiency fixtures.

bulletDO avoid overloading the septic system.

bulletDO plant only grass over and near your septic system as roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the drain field.

bulletDO keep records of repairs, pumpings, inspections, permits issued, and other system maintenance activities, so there is a record to help troubleshooting problems and future home sales.

bulletDO use commercial bathroom cleaners and laundry detergents in moderation.

You may find that you prefer to clean your toilet, sinks, shower, tubs, etc. with a mild detergent or baking soda.

bulletDO learn the location of your septic system and keep a sketch of it for service visits and maintenance.

bulletDO have your septic system inspected at least every three years and pumped periodically by a licensed inspector/contractor.

bulletDON’T put any of the following into your septic system:

    1. Dental floss
    2. Feminine hygiene products
    3. Condoms
    4. Diapers
    5. Cotton swabs
    6. Cigarette butts
    7. Coffee grounds
    8. Cat litter
    9. Paper towel
    10. Latex paint
    11. Pesticides
    12. Other hazardous chemicals
    13. Note: toilet paper is ok

bulletDON’T use caustic drain openers for a clogged drain.

Try boiling water or a drain snake to open clogs.

bulletDON’T drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system.

This can cause the soil to become compacted or the pipes, tank, or other system components to become damaged.

11. Why should you maintain your septic system?

When septic systems are properly designed, constructed, and maintained, then they will effectively reduce and eliminate most human health or environmental threats posed by the pollutants in household water.

With that, however, regular maintenance must be done so that your septic system can continue to function properly.

Here are a couple of reasons why it’s critical that you invest in periodic maintenance.

bulletIt saves money

Maintaining your septic system will save you money in the long run.

Septic systems often fail because of poor maintenance, and they’re expensive to repair or replace.

Ask a septic system inspector in your area how often you’ll need to pump your system.

You’ll hear the number vary anywhere between each year to three to five years.

As a result, it’s often best to get an individualized opinion.

Additionally, it’s best to keep your septic tank in working order because an unusable system will lower your property values and could pose a legal liability.

If your septic system fails, then a reputable professional should be contracted to perform the repair.

Remember, it’s always more cost-effective to have your failing system repaired correctly than to continue to experience the problem because you fail to fix it.

bulletIt protects human health and the environment

Did you know that 25 percent of U.S. homes have septic systems?

This means more than 4 billion gallons of wastewater is dispersed below the ground’s surface each day.

When you don’t treat wastewater from septic systems, this causes issues for both human health and surrounding areas.

Therefore, it’s essential to treat sewage correctly.

It ultimately prevents the spread of infection and disease in the water resources in your home.

The typical pollutants in household wastewater are nitrogen, phosphorus, and disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

When your septic system works correctly, it will remove most of these pollutants.

Final thoughts

Because they’re a solution for waste treatment in remote areas, septic systems are often found in rural areas.

If you’re looking at homes that have septic systems, using the tips above can help you to maintain your tank and ensure that you have healthy water resources.

Some of the quick tips include inspecting and pumping your tank regularly, maintaining your effluent filter, and using water efficiently.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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