Septic Tanks - What You've Always Wanted to Know

Septic Tanks and Maintenance

Septic systems are buried beneath the ground so many people don't get a chance to see or understand them. Today's modern septic systems are an efficient, safe and environmentally-friendly means of treating household sewage and wastewater.

Since septic systems fully-treat sewage on site, they have traditionally been key in rural areas and in remote locations such as cottages and other recreational properties.

Septic systems are not difficult to maintain. Potential problems with septic systems can result from incorrect installation, poor maintenance or household misuse. But those who choose quality components, have their systems professionally installed and practice some preventative maintenance find their septic systems to be effective, efficient and trouble-free for many years.

Using a natural process septic systems put bacteria to work to break down waste. Billions of naturally occurring microscopic organisms work efficiently when in a healthy septic system. Septic systems provides essential bacteria with the proper home, giving them the right environment in which to live.

There are several types of bacteria, some working in the septic tank, and others working outside the tank. The septic tank provides the key environment by holding everything for a length of time to allow bacterial action to work, generally a minimum of three days. As a result the tank must be sized accordingly. The bacteria that do the secondary treatment need oxygen to work efficiently. These bacteria are found in the field bed. Since these organisms are key to making any septic system work, systems are built to suit their needs.

Typical Parts of a Septic System

  • septic tank
  • effluent filter (optional), but recommended
  • secondary treatment system (field or leaching bed or other options)
  • pump system (only needed if your septic system is uphill), or syphon system

Each home's wastewater system is connected to its septic tank. The tank is installed in the ground outside the house. You should ensure that no other water (such as water from sump pumps, downspouts or groundwater) enters the septic tank.

Septic tanks do the main storage and filtration work of septic systems. The bacteria in the tank treat the majority of sewage solids and nearly all grease from household wastewater. Wastewater and solids enters the septic tank where a sediment layer, liquid layer and top layer (or "crust") forms in a healthy tank. Over time, the bacteria attempt to break down all of the solids. The solids that can't be broken down will build up in the sediment layer. The septic tank should be pumped every few years to remove the build up of sediment.

Remember, since you are trying to keep the bacteria working, you don't want to put anything down the drain that could harm them, such as paint or chlorine bleach.

The Effluent Filter

An Effluent filter is an option that can be installed on the outlet of your septic tank. It ensures that no solids enter your secondary treatment system. Otherwise, these solids could plug the secondary treatment system that would then need to be replaced.

How to Avoid System Hazards

If you disturb the natural balance of what goes into your septic tank, or misuse or overwork your septic system problems can arise.

The following are a few pointers to help you avoid any future difficulties.

  • If something doesn't break down naturally, it shouldn't go into a septic tank:
  • Avoid putting grease down the drain. Septic systems can be damaged by oils, grease and fat. Dispose of these with the garbage.
  • Chemicals such as paint, solvents, bleach or strong cleaning agents, should not be washed down the drain. They will hamper the growth of the natural bacteria a septic system needs to do a proper job.
  • Diapers or feminine hygiene products shouldn't be flushed into a septic system. Also be conservative about the amount of toilet paper used.
  • Garborators add an unnecessary strain on a septic system. Use the garbage, or a composter if possible, for kitchen waste.
  • Avoid pouring septic tank cleaners or starters into your septic system. Some may destroy useful bacteria while others may flush septic solids into the drainage field.

The less you pour, drain or flush into your septic system, the better your system will perform. The more time your system has to work on each liter of waste, the more effectively each liter of waste water will be treated.

Think ahead about the size of the septic system you will ultimately need. Allow some extra capacity to meet possible future needs. Will you be adding a dishwasher, additional toilets or a shower? The larger you plan your system, the more easily it will accommodate future needs without the need to upgrade.

If you have a septic system at a cottage or seasonal property, remember that the tank can be dormant if it isn't used for a long period. It's best to use it with just a few people a couple of weeks before the big gang shows up. Too much material flushed into a dormant system can cause untreated solid material to flow into the drainage field, possibly clogging it.

Don't allow your septic system to freeze since bacteria need to be warm to work. Insulating the top of your tank with polystyrene can help keep it warm and work more efficiently in cold weather.

Do not drive cars, snowmobiles or heavy machinery over your septic bed. The tank and surrounding pipes can be damaged by excessive weight and packing the snow over the field bed may allow frost to penetrate.

The drainage field around your system is also doing an important job. Don't plant near it because the deep root systems of many trees and shrubs can plug or damage the system's pipes.

Ground water and runoff from roofs, patios and driveways should be directed away from the septic tank and field bed.

The importance of maintaining your septic system can't be stressed enough. A failing system can be a health hazard to your family, especially if your water source becomes contaminated. Malfunctioning systems can pollute the environment and be costly to repair.

  • Install an effluent filter. It's a necessary safeguard since it will warn you if your system needs attention.
  • Have your septic tank inspected every three to five years. A licensed pumping contractor should inspect your septic system, pumping it out when required.
  • Have your system pumped out in summer or early fall if possible. This leaves time for your tank to refill and bacterial action to become reestablished before the winter.

If you ever see wet spots or gray or black liquids in your yard, unusually green or spongy grass over the septic system, slow drainage of toilets or drains or liquids in drains backing up or sewage odors, especially after a rainfall then you should have your tank checked as soon as possible to ensure that it is in clean and working order.

Keeping you septic system clean and well maintained is a simple task and as a result your system will last longer, and work better.

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