Tips for Maintaining a Septic System: A Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners

Posted on Aug 18 2023 - 11:00am by Bill Gassett
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By Bill Gassett 

Maintaining your septic system is crucial for its optimal performance and longevity. By following a few simple tips, you can avoid common issues like clogs and damage caused by tree roots.

Regular maintenance, such as scheduling septic tank pumping and inspections, helps prevent leaks and obstructions. The cost of septic tank pumping is minimal compared to the expense of replacing your system.

Additionally, using water efficiently, disposing of waste correctly, and using septic-safe cleaning products contribute to the system's efficiency. With proper care, your septic system can operate smoothly for many years, effectively treating your home's wastewater.

In my experience as a real estate agent in an area where septic systems are standard, owners need to know their responsibilities.

When you're used to having a public sewer, it's not unusual not to know what to do with a septic. See public sewer vs. septic system.

What Is a Septic System?
A septic system is an underground wastewater treatment system commonly used in residential properties not connected to a centralized sewer system. It consists of several components that work together to treat and dispose of household wastewater.

Homeowners should know the basics of septic systems, including the following:

Components of a Septic System
A typical septic system consists of three main components:

  • Septic Tank: A large, watertight container that collects and holds wastewater. It allows the separation of solid waste from the liquid.
  • Distribution Box: Connected to the septic tank, it evenly distributes the liquid effluent into the drain field.
  • Drain field: Also known as a leach field, it is a network of perforated pipes or chambers buried in the soil. The effluent passes through these pipes, which are further treated and filtered by the earth.

How Does a Septic System Work?
The septic system operates through a natural process that involves the decomposition of solid waste and the filtration of liquid waste. Here is a simplified overview of how it works:

  1. Wastewater from toilets, showers, sinks, and other household drains flows into the septic tank.
  2. In the septic tank, the solid waste settles to the bottom, forming sludge, while the lighter materials, like grease and oils, float to the top as scum.
  3. The liquid effluent flows from the septic tank into the distribution box in the middle layer.
  4. The distribution box evenly distributes the effluent into the drain field.
  5. In the drain field, the effluent percolates through the soil, where bacteria and other microorganisms naturally break down harmful pathogens and pollutants.
  6. The filtered wastewater eventually rejoins the groundwater or evaporates into the atmosphere.

Understanding the components and functioning of a septic system is crucial for implementing proper maintenance practices.

Tips for Maintaining Your Septic System
Proper maintenance is crucial for the long-term performance of your septic system. By following these tips, you can keep your system functioning efficiently:

Use Water Efficiently
Conserving water benefits the environment and helps prevent overloading your septic system. Fix any leaks promptly, use high-efficiency plumbing fixtures, and spread out water usage throughout the day to avoid a sudden influx of wastewater.

Properly Dispose of Household Waste
Avoid flushing non-biodegradable items or excessive amounts of toilet paper, as they can cause clogs in your system.

Dispose of cooking grease, oils, and fats in the trash instead of pouring them down the drain. Consider using a filter in your kitchen sink to catch food scraps and prevent them from entering the system.

Garbage Disposal Tips for Septic Systems

  • Minimize the use of your garbage disposal, as it increases the solid waste load on your system.
  • Avoid disposing of large quantities of fibrous or starchy foods, as they can clog the plumbing and strain the septic system.
  • Run cold water while using the garbage disposal to facilitate the flow of the ground-up waste.

Avoid Flushing Harmful Chemicals

  • Avoid flushing chemicals such as bleach, pesticides, and harsh cleaning agents, as they can disrupt the natural bacteria in your septic system.
  • Opt for septic-safe cleaning products labeled as 'biodegradable' or 'septic system friendly.'

Regular Pumping and Inspections
Arrange for regular pumping of your septic tank to remove accumulated solids. Typically, tanks should be pumped every 3-5 years, but the frequency may vary depending on the tank size and household usage.

Additionally, schedule regular inspections to detect and address potential issues before they escalate.

Try a Bacteria Additive for Septic Health
Consider using a bacteria additive specifically designed for septic systems. These additives help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your tank, aiding in the breakdown of solids and reducing odors.

Consult with a professional to determine the most suitable additive for your system.

Install an Effluent Filter for Improved Performance
An effluent filter installed in the outlet of your septic tank can prevent solids from entering the drain field, prolonging its lifespan. Regularly clean or replace the filter as the manufacturer recommends to ensure its proper functioning.

Drainfield Care and Maintenance
Avoid parking vehicles or placing heavy objects over the drain field, which can compact the soil and hinder proper drainage. Maintain vegetative cover over the drain field to prevent erosion and provide shade. Additionally, redirect surface water away from the drain field to avoid oversaturation.

By implementing these tips for maintaining your septic system, you can extend its lifespan and prevent potential problems that may result in costly repairs or replacements.

Common Mistakes to Avoid
When maintaining your septic system, you must be aware of common mistakes that can lead to costly repairs and system failure.

By avoiding these mistakes, you can ensure the longevity and efficiency of your septic system.

Flushing Non-Biodegradable Items
One of the most common mistakes homeowners make is flushing non-biodegradable items down the toilet or sink. Baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, paper towels, and grease can clog your pipes and cause severe damage to your septic system.

Always dispose of these items in a trash bin to prevent blockages and backups.

Excessive Water Usage
Using excessive amounts of water puts a strain on your septic system. Conserving water helps the environment and reduces the risk of overwhelming your system. Fix leaky faucets, install water-efficient fixtures, and practice water-saving habits like taking shorter showers and running full loads of laundry and dishes.

Improper Landscaping Near the Drainfield
The area around your septic drain field should be maintained appropriately to avoid potential problems. Avoid planting trees or shrubs with invasive root systems near the drain field, as they can penetrate pipes and disrupt the drainage process.

Also, avoid parking heavy vehicles or placing structures on the drain field, as they can compact the soil and hinder proper wastewater treatment.

Neglecting Regular Maintenance
Regular septic system maintenance is crucial for its optimal functioning. Neglecting routine inspections, pumping, and maintenance tasks can lead to system failures and costly repairs.

Follow the recommended pumping schedule for your specific system and have a professional technician inspect your septic system regularly to identify any potential issues early on.

By avoiding these common mistakes and taking proactive steps to maintain your septic system, you can ensure its longevity and prevent costly repairs. Remember to consult a professional with any concerns or questions regarding your septic system's maintenance.

FAQs About Septic System Maintenance

How Often Should I Pump My Septic Tank?
Regular pumping is crucial for maintaining a healthy septic system. On average, septic tanks should be pumped every three to five years.

However, the frequency may vary depending on household size, water usage, and tank capacity. It's best to consult a professional to determine the optimal pumping schedule for your specific system.

Can I Use High-Efficiency Toilets With a Septic System?
Yes, high-efficiency toilets are compatible with septic systems. These toilets use less water per flush, reducing the strain on your septic system. They are environmentally friendly and can help conserve water without compromising the system's efficiency.

Can I Flush Coffee Grounds Down the Drain?
No, it's not recommended to flush coffee grounds down the drain. Coffee grounds can accumulate in the pipes, leading to clogs and potential damage to your septic system. It's best to dispose of coffee grounds in the trash or use them as compost.

What Chemicals Should I Avoid Putting in My Septic System?
To maintain the health of your septic system, avoid flushing or draining harsh chemicals, such as bleach, strong detergents, solvents, and pesticides.

These substances can disrupt the natural balance of bacteria in the system and harm the overall performance of the septic system. Use environmentally friendly and septic-safe alternatives whenever possible.

How Can I Tell If My Septic System Is Failing?
Several signs may indicate septic system failure, including slow drainage, sewage backups, foul odors, unusually green or lush patches of grass near the drain field, and gurgling sounds in the plumbing.

If you notice any of these signs of septic issues, you must seek professional assistance to assess and address the problem promptly.

  • Slow drainage: If your sinks, toilets, or drains are emptying slowly, it could indicate a potential septic system issue. This may be due to clogs or problems with the drain field.
  • Sewage backups: Sewage backups or water pooling in your yard can clearly show septic system failure. These issues should be addressed immediately to prevent further damage.
  • Foul odors: Strong, unpleasant odors around your septic tank or drain field area could indicate a problem with your system. Odors may suggest leaks, blockages, or improper functioning.
  • Unusually green or lush patches: Excessive grass or vegetation growth in specific areas of your yard, particularly near the drain field, could signal an issue with your septic system. This may indicate a leak or improper wastewater distribution.
  • Gurgling sounds: If you hear gurgling when flushing toilets or using sinks, it could indicate a backup or blockage in your septic system. Prompt action is necessary to avoid further damage.

Final Thoughts
Regular maintenance and inspections are crucial to identify and address septic system problems before they escalate. If you experience any issues or have concerns about your septic system, it's always wise to consult a qualified septic professional to ensure proper maintenance and repairs.

Bill Gassett is a nationally recognized real estate leader who has been helping people buy and sell MetroWest Massachusetts real estate for the past 37 years. He has been one of the top RE/MAX REALTORS® in New England for the past decade. Gassett works for RE/MAX Executive Realty in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.