It’s important to maintain your septic system to prevent failures, avoid costly repairs, and prevent pollution.
A septic system is your very own on-site sewage treatment solution and is generally trouble-free if you understand how it works and follow a few simple rules to maintain it.
Poorly maintained septic systems may leak and release an overload of nutrients and pathogens (bacteria and viruses), which can harm the environment and create public health problems. Discharges can also migrate further to nearby waterways, causing even more damage.
How a Septic System Works
Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures that use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchens, drains, and laundry.
Sewage and greywater from the house flow through sewer pipes into the septic tank, where the septic tank separates oils, grease, and solids from liquids (wastewater). Solids settle to the bottom of the tank where they are “digested” by bacteria (this is the stuff that gets pumped out of the tank) while the liquid continues to flow into a leach field where it can soak into the ground.
The wastewater exits the tank into the leachfield, where it travels through perforated pipes and percolates through the soil. This process removes bacteria, viruses, and nutrients from the wastewater before it discharges to groundwater.
Even though bacteria in the tank help to break down the solids, they will still steadily accumulate and need to be periodically removed by a licensed septic hauler to prevent failure.
Protect Your Leachfield
Never place anything heavy on top of the leachfield, such as a patio, swimming pool, shed—or a parked car. Heavy items can compact the soil and crush the underground pipes.
Failure symptoms: Mind the signs!
A foul odor is not always the first sign of a malfunctioning septic system. Call a septic professional if you notice any of the following:
- Wastewater backing up into household drains.
- Bright green, spongy grass on the leachfield, especially during dry weather.
- Pooling water or muddy soil around your septic system or in your basement.
- A strong odor around the septic tank and leachfield.
Malfunctioning septic systems can discharge bacteria, viruses, and chemicals. When these pollutants are released, they eventually enter streams, rivers, lakes, and more—harming local ecosystems by killing native plants, fish, and shellfish.
How to Live with a Septic System
Pump it Out
- Pump your tank out regularly and have your system inspected every 2-3 years. Note that some towns mandate a 2-year schedule.
- Contact your Board of Health for a list of approved septic haulers.
- Your septic system does not require additives to function, but if you chose to use these products, be sure to choose one from the DEP’s list of approved septic system additives. Be aware that some localities may prohibit use of these products altogether. Consult your local Board of Health for further information.
Limit Your Chemical Use
Beneficial bacteria are important for a healthy septic system. Anything that goes down the drain that kills bacteria can harm your septic system.
- Limit your use of harsh chemicals and antibacterial products such as bleach, ammonia, and drain cleaners. Spot-clean with bleach instead of cleaning with full-strength bleach products.
- Clear clogged drains with a plunger, boiling water, or a drain snake instead of chemicals.
- Never put paint, motor oil, pesticides, or other household hazardous wastes down the drain. Bring them to the Town’s Hazardous Waste Collection Day.
Treasure Your Toilet
There are some things that just shouldn’t be flushed, whether you have a septic tank or sewer system.
Make sure that you never flush these items, which are often the cause of major clogs and costly repairs:
- Tampons and sanitary napkins
- Disposable diapers
- Wipes (there is no such thing as a flushable wipe)
- Paper towels
- Cat litter
- Cigarette butts
Avoid Garbage Disposals
Septic systems rely on bacteria to break down solids. Garbage disposal waste breaks down a lot slower than other matter that goes down the drain and can overload and harm a septic tank.
For that reason, using garbage disposals with septic systems is discouraged. The better solution? Compost your food scraps.
Finally, never pour fats, oil, or grease down a drain. These items create clogs which can be very disruptive and expensive to repair.
Water-efficient toilets, showerheads, faucets, clothes washers, and dishwashers limit the amount of water that enters a septic system and helps with overall performance.