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Once you understand it, maintenance on your septic
system is pretty easy!
When you buy a car, you receive an owner's manual with instructions on
how to take care of your car. A septic tank can cost as much a car, but
unfortunately, you donít get a manual upon installation. Some people
have a septic tank and don't even know it! As a result, septic systems
often fail unnecessarily.
The price for the failure of a septic system is high. Failing septic
systems are a leading source of outbreaks of waterborne illnesses. Each
year more than 1,200 people die in the U.S. from contaminated water.
Regarding groundwater contamination, in a 2000 EPA report, 31 states
listed septic systems as the second greatest potential source. Replacing
septic systems is very expensive, too, with costs generally running from
$5,000 to $20,000 or even more. Fortunately, there are some highly
effective steps you can take to eliminate septic failure. Before
discussing solutions, however, let's consider why septic systems fail.
Actually, septic tank maintenance is easy to understand. When a system
fails, it isnít the tank itself that fails, rather itís the drain field
soil. Generally, the soil fails because it gets plugged up with solids
and won't allow liquid to pass through it. It can get plugged with
solids from the tank if the tank hasn't been pumped in a long time or
with lint from a washing machine.
- Use a washing machine filter, as lint from washing machines is a
leading cause of septic system failure. Lint generated by washing
machines clogs the soil in drain fields. A typical family washing machine
produces enough lint every year to carpet the entire living room floor!
The lint screens and nylon traps that you can buy in hardware stores
trap 5 percent or less of these lint particles. Lint particles are so
light and small that they donít settle in the septic tank; instead, they
stay suspended and are flushed out into the drain field. There, they plug
up the pores of the soil bed.
To make the problem worse, much of our clothing is manufactured with
synthetic materials such as polyester and nylon that are not
biodegradable. Instead of breaking down in the septic system, they
accumulate and plug up the soil. Once these materials have entered the
soil, they cannot be removed.
However, lint can be prevented from entering the septic system with the
use of a reusable, inline filter attached to your washing machine
discharge hose. The filter, called the Filtrol 160, sells for about
- Avoid excessive water use or you may damage your septic system. Donít
do a large number of laundry loads within a short period of time. In
standard septic systems, solid materials settle to the bottom of the
tank, while the liquid flows out into the ground. If you put more water
into the system at one time than it is designed to handle, the high
volume of water will flood your system, stirring up and flushing solids
out of the tank into the drain field. Septic system pumpers use water
from hoses to help break up solids in the tank before pumping them out.
A typical washing machine uses up to 60 gallons of water per load. In a
few hours, if you wash a number of loads, you can easily put 400, 500,
or 600 gallons of water through the system. To avoid this, the solution
is to spread out your use of water by doing one or two loads of laundry
a day. Donít wait and do them all on Saturday morning.
Water softeners can also put several hundred gallons of water down your
drain and into your septic system every week. This is water that is not
contaminated and doesnít need to go through the treatment process. This
excess water can also damage your system. You can try two different
solutions to solve this problem. First, you could upgrade your softener
to a more efficient model that uses less water and regenerates on demand
instead of on a timer system that regenerates regardless of how much
water you use. Second, you could also install a mini-septic system for
your water softener.
- Prevent solids from leaving the tank by having your tank pumped on a
regular basis. This will prevent the excessive accumulation of solids in
the tank. Normally, you should have the tank inspected and pumped every
one to three years. Itís very important for tanks to be pumped and
inspected through the manhole cover, not through the inspection pipe.
Your septic contractor should have installed an effluent filter in the
tankís exit baffle, as this filter stops larger solids from getting into
the drain field. When you have your tank pumped, they are also cleaned.
They cost about $80. Effluent filters, along with a washing machine
filter, are cheap insurance for protecting your system.
- Excessive use of household cleaning products contributes to septic
system failure. If you wash more than five loads a week containing
bleach, you could have problems. Donít use powdered detergents because
they contain plastic fillers that can plug up your lines and drain field.
Harsh automatic toilet bowl cleaners have also damaged quite a few
- Should you use a laundry interceptor? Some people are in favor of
using a separate system for the washing machine, but this is, in fact,
not desirable. The reason washing machines should discharge into the
regular system is because, in order for a septic system to work at all,
it needs bacteria, and to survive, bacteria need food. The bacteria
break down biodegradable matter, which is not found in detergent-laden
laundry water, but which is found in wastewater. A septic system will
fail if the bacteria colonies die out. People who have installed laundry
interceptor systems have found this out the hard way. One research
project conducted in several states on the East Coast involved the use
of some high-tech systems for washing machine discharge. The results
were that many began failing in as little as eight months.
Septic Tank Maintenance Tips
Divert runoff water from roofs, patios, driveways, and other structures
away from your drain field. While having your septic tank pumped
regularly, also have it inspected for leaks and cracks. Make sure the
exit baffle and effluent filter are in place. Install a lint filter.
Spread out your laundry loads over a few days.
Don't use a garbage disposal; compost your garbage or put it in the
trash. Garbage disposals normally double the amount of solids going in
the tank! Donít flush sanitary napkins, disposable diapers, or other
products down the toilet. Donít pour solvents, oils, paint thinners,
disinfectants, pesticides, or poisons down the drain. They kill
bacteria, disrupt the treatment process, and contaminate the
groundwater. Donít dig in your drain field or build anything over it.
Donít drive over your drain field or compact the soil. Donít plant trees
or shrubs close to the septic system, either, because the roots can get
into the lines and plug them up. Grass is the only thing that you can
plant on or near your drain field.
If Your System Fails
Most of the time, you can avoid the high cost of replacing your system
by having the tank properly pumped, cleaning (jetting) the drain field
lines, and installing washing machine and effluent filters. If these
measures donít work, you can try fracturing the soil. A hollow tube is
inserted into the soil, then a 300-pound blast of air is injected to
create thousands of tiny fissures. These fissures open up the soil and
allow the drain field to drain. The soil is oxygenated and the aerobic
bacterial colonies are able to repopulate. Aerobic bacteria live in the
top 26 inches of the drain field. They require oxygen and process waste
much faster than anaerobic bacteria which donít require oxygen. This
process can be done in a few hours with no digging or damage to the
If you have a clay type of soil that has become plugged due to sodium
from the wastewater binding with the clay, try Septic Seep. This product
releases sodium-bonded clays and reopens the soil, restoring passages
for air and water. It also disperses any greases and scum clogging the