Why Should I Maintain My Septic System?

When septic systems are properly designed, constructed, and maintained,
they effectively reduce or eliminate most human health or environmental
threats posed by pollutants in household wastewater. However, they require
regular maintenance or they can fail. Septic systems need to be monitored to
ensure that they work properly throughout their service lives.

Saving money

A key reason to maintain your septic system is to save money! Failing septic
systems are expensive to repair or replace, and poor maintenance is often
the culprit. Having your septic system inspected regularly (at least every
3 years) is a bargain when you consider the cost of replacing the entire
system. Your system will need pumping (generally every 3 to 5 years),
depending on how many people live in the house and the size of the system.
An unusable septic system or one in disrepair will lower your property
value and could pose a legal liability.

Protecting health and the environment

Other good reasons for safe treatment of sewage include preventing the
spread of infection and disease and protecting water resources. Typical
pollutants in household wastewater are nitrogen, phosphorus, and disease-
causing bacteria and viruses. If a septic system is working properly, it will
effectively remove most of these pollutants.

With one-fourth of U.S. homes using septic systems, more than 4 billion
gallons of wastewater per day is dispersed below the ground’s surface.
Inadequately treated sewage from septic systems can be a cause of groundwater
contamination. It poses a signifi cant threat to drinking water and
human health because it can contaminate drinking water wells and cause
diseases and infections in people and animals. Improperly treated sewage
that contaminates nearby surface waters also increases the chance of
swimmers contracting a variety of infectious diseases. These range from eye
and ear infections to acute gastrointestinal illness and diseases like hepatitis.

How Do I Maintain My Septic System

Inspect and pump frequently

You should have your septic system inspected at least
every 3 years by a professional and your tank pumped
as recommended by the inspector (generally every 3 to
5 years). Systems with electrical fl oat switches, pumps,
or mechanical components need to be inspected more
often. Your service provider should inspect for leaks and
look at the scum and sludge layers in your septic tank.
If the bottom of the scum layer is within 6 inches of the
bottom of the outlet tee or the top of the sludge layer is
within 12 inches of the outlet tee, your tank needs to be
pumped. Remember to note the sludge and scum levels
determined by your service provider in your operation
and maintenance records. This information will help you
decide how often pumping is necessary. (See the checklist
included at the end of the booklet.)

Four major factors influence the frequency of pumping: the number of
people in your household, the amount of wastewater generated (based on
the number of people in the household and the amount of water used), the
volume of solids in the wastewater (for example, using a garbage disposal
increases the amount of solids), and septic tank size.
Some makers of septic tank additives claim that their products break down
the sludge in septic tanks so the tanks never need to be pumped. Not
everyone agrees on the effectiveness of additives. In fact, septic tanks
already contain the microbes they need for effective treatment. Periodic
pumping is a much better way to ensure that septic systems work properly
and provide many years of service. Regardless, every septic tank requires
periodic pumping.
In the service report, the pumper should note any repairs completed and
whether the tank is in good condition. If the pumper recommends additional
repairs he or she can’t perform, hire someone to make the repairs as
soon as possible.

Use water efficiently

Average indoor water use in the typical single-family home is almost
70 gallons per person per day. Leaky toilets can waste as much as 200
gallons each day. The more water a household conserves, the less water
enters the septic system. Effi cient water use can improve the operation of
the septic system and reduce the risk of failure.

High-efficiency toilets

Toilet use accounts for 25 to 30 percent of household water use. Do you
know how many gallons of water your toilet uses to empty the bowl? Most
older homes have toilets with 3.5- to 5-gallon reservoirs, while newer
high-effi ciency toilets use 1.6 gallons of water or less per fl ush. If you have
problems with your septic system being fl ooded with household water,
consider reducing the volume of water in the toilet tank if you don’t have
a high-efficiency model. Plastic containers (such as ½-gallon plastic milk
jugs) can be fi lled with small rocks and placed in a toilet tank to reduce the
amount of water used per flush. (Be sure that the plastic containers do not
interfere with the flushing mechanisms or the flow of water.) You’ll save about
½ gallon of water per flush! You might also consider replacing your existing
toilet with a high-efficiency model toachieve even more water savings.

Faucet aerators and high-efficiency showerheads

Faucet aerators help reduce water use and the volume of water entering your
septic system. High-efficiency showerheads or shower flow restrictors also
reduce water use.

Water fixtures

Check to make sure your toilet’s reservoir isn’t leaking into the bowl.
Add five drops of liquid food coloring to the reservoir before bed. If the dye
is in the bowl the next morning, the reservoir is leaking and repairs are needed.
A small drip from a faucet adds many gallons of unnecessary water to your system every day. To see
how much a leak adds to your water usage, place a cup under the drip for 10 minutes. Multiply the
amount of water in the cup by 144 (the number of minutes in 24 hours, divided by 10). This is the
total amount of clean water traveling to your septic system each day from that little leak.

Use Water Efficiently!

• Install high-efficiency showerheads
• Fill the bathtub with only as much
water as you need
• Turn off faucets while shaving or
brushing your teeth
• Run the dishwasher and clothes washer
only when they’re full
• Use toilets to flush sanitary waste only
(not kitty litter, diapers, or other trash)
• Make sure all faucets are completely
turned off when not in use
• Maintain your plumbing to eliminate
• Install aerators in the faucets in your
kitchen and bathroom
• Replace old dishwashers, toilets, and
clothes washers with new, high-efficiency
For more information on water
conservation, please visit
8 A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems

Watch your drains

What goes down the drain can have a major impact on how well your
septic system works.

Waste disposal

What shouldn’t you flush down your toilet? Dental fl oss, feminine hygiene
products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds,
cat litter, paper towels, and other kitchen and bathroom items that can clog
and potentially damage septic system components if they become trapped.
Flushing household chemicals, gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint
can stress or destroy the biological treatment taking place in the system
or might contaminate surface waters and groundwater. If your septic tank
pumper is concerned about quickly accumulating scum layers, reduce the
fl ow of fl oatable materials like fats, oils, and grease into your tank or be
prepared to pay for more frequent inspections and pumping.

Washing machine

By selecting the proper load size, you’ll
reduce water waste. Washing small loads
of laundry on the large-load cycle wastes
precious water and energy. If you can’t
select load size, run only full loads of
Doing all the household laundry in one day
might seem like a time-saver, but it could be harmful
to your septic system. Doing load after load does not allow
your septic tank time to adequately treat wastes. You could be fl ooding
your drainfi eld without allowing suffi cient recovery time. Try to spread
water usage throughout the week. A new Energy Star clothes washer uses
35 percent less energy and 50 percent less water than a standard model.
A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems 9

Care for your drainfield

Your drainfield is an important part of your septic system. Here are a few
things you should do to maintain it:
• Plant only grass over and near your septic system. Roots from nearby
trees or shrubs might clog and damage the drainfi eld.
• Don’t drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system. Doing
so can compact the soil in your drainfi eld or damage the pipes, tank, or
other septic system components.
• Keep roof drains, basement sump pump drains, and other rainwater or
surface water drainage systems away from the drainfi eld. Flooding the
drainfield with excessive water slows down or stops treatment processes
and can cause plumbing fixtures to back up.

 Read complete “A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems” (PDF)