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Proper septic system use and maintenance

April 8, 2009
By Richard Gast, Franklin County Cornell Cooperative Extension

The importance of properly using and maintaining your home septic system cannot be overstated. A failing or malfunctioning septic system can allow disease-causing organisms and other pollutants to threaten the health of plants, animals and people, especially as contaminants find their way into lakes, streams and drinking water wells. On the other hand, proper use and maintenance of your septic system will help to safeguard health and protect our environment.

A properly functioning septic system breaks down wastewater and removes potential contaminants in a two-step process:

The septic tank allows solids in the wastewater to separate from the liquid. The heavier solids settle to the bottom of the tank forming a

sludge layer, while the lighter solids, such as grease and hair, float to the surface forming a scum layer. While some of the solids are

broken down by bacteria living in the septic tank, most of the solids

remain stored in the tank until the tank is pumped out. Inlet and

outlet baffles prevent solids from leaving the septic tank, thereby

enhancing settling and treatment. The liquid waste, called effluent,

flows out of the septic tank into a distribution box and through a

soil absorption field, more commonly called a leach field.

A typical leach field consists of a series of perforated pipes buried

in gravel-filled trenches. As effluent seeps through the trenches, it

is filtered by soil particles and broken down by bacteria in the soil.

Maintenance is the key to septic system longevity. But, checking

sludge and scum build-up can be an unpleasant task. For most

homeowners, the best suggestion is to determine a maintenance schedule and then have the tank pumped at regular intervals, according to that schedule.

Just as a general rule, a properly installed septic tank should be

pumped, cleaned and inspected by a professional at 3- to 5-year

intervals, depending upon the size of the tank, the amount and quality

of solids entering the tank, and the number of people using the system. It is this periodic pumping that keeps solids from accumulating and clogging the leach field. Even properly designed and operated septic systems may prematurely fail unless the sludge and

floating scum are periodically pumped from the tank.

It is important that you know the location of your septic system.

Finding this out may require that you go into the basement or crawl

space to find where and in what direction the sewer pipe goes out

through the wall. You can then check that area of the yard for a spot where the grass either doesn't grow or grows quite well. This will most likely also be an area that is either slightly depressed or

slightly mounded over. When a likely site is found, probing it with a thin metal rod will help to determine if, indeed, the tank is there.

Once the tank is found, its location can be marked with a stake, a

stone, a statue, a sculpture or a birdbath. It's a good idea to draw a

map showing the house, the septic tank and the leach field, and to

keep the map in a safe place.

Never plant trees over a leech field. And prevent tree roots from

growing into them. Grass is always the best cover. Never pave, build

or drive heavy vehicles over a leach field, either. And always divert gutters, drains and other sources of runoff away from them.

Limit and reduce the volume of wastewater that you put into your

septic system. Repair or replace leaky fixtures and, if at all possible, install low flow toilets and inexpensive faucet and showerhead aerators.

Wash only full loads of dishes and laundry. And instead of washing several loads at once, spread your clothes washing out over the entire week. Not only will these practices prolong the life and improve the performance of your septic system, they will reduce your hot water consumption, conserving energy and saving you money.

Reducing and minimizing the volume of solids that you put into the system is equally important. I believe that it is best to avoid using or installing garbage disposal units. Almost all of the food waste put into garbage disposals can be composted.

Potentially damaging materials must be kept out of the system, as

well. It is sometimes surprising to see just what some people will put

into their septic systems; fats, grease, coffee grounds, cigarette

butts, sanitary napkins, disposable diapers and cloth rags, just to

name a few. All of these will most certainly clog a septic system,

most likely sooner than later.

Even heavy paper items, such as paper towels, should be avoided.

Believe it or not, accumulations of facial tissue can cause problems.

The safest and best approach is to use only easily decomposed, one-ply toilet tissue.

Sensible use of detergents, soaps, bleaches, disinfectants, etc., will not harm your septic system. Excessive use will. And it is extremely important to recognize that in areas where there is a high density of septic systems, there is an increased impact on groundwater from the disposal of household cleaners.

Then there are the yeasts, enzymes, bacteria and chemicals that are sold with claims that they help septic systems to work better. These additives are not an alternative to proper maintenance and do not eliminate the need for routine pumping of your septic tank. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to support claims that any of these

additives are effective. What's more, some of them can actually

suspend, clogging drainage lines and leach fields when they do. Claims that commercial biological additives are needed to begin decomposition after pumping are not supported by science, either. The sludge residue that is left behind contains more than enough active microorganisms to restart the decomposition process.



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