How to Maintain Your Septic Tank

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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.


  1. 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 $139.95.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 septic systems.
  5. 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 yard.

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 soil.








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