Septic System Operation and Maintenance
By Ken Olson and Valerie Prax
A septic system, just like a car, appliance, or tractor must be properly operated and maintained to ensure long-term, cost effective service. Many septic systems are installed and forgotten. After all, they're buried in the yard, "out of sight -- out of mind." Licensed professionals design and install septic systems, but often uninformed homeowners are responsible for their operation and maintenance. Septic systems must treat all wastewater from our homes and prepare it for recycling back into nature while protecting human health and valuable water resources.
Septic systems are designed to properly treat wastewater while protecting human and environmental health in a cost effective manner. Onsite septic systems are a mini water recycling plant in the back yard. They clean our wastewater and return safe water to the groundwater system. If a septic system is not functioning properly, clean water is not returned to the groundwater. The tips below can help homeowners keep their systems operating properly.
Control Water Use
Repair all leaky faucets, fixtures and appliances immediately. Check toilet bowls for leaks: at night, put some food coloring in the toilet tank. In the morning, inspect the bowl. If colored, there is a leak between the tank and bowl.
- Install low water use fixtures and appliances (especially toilets and shower heads).
- Do not empty roof drains and sump pump water into the septic system; channel away.
- Wash only full loads of clothing and dishes.
- When replacing a washing machine, take a close look at the front loading, and water efficient top loading machines. These machines save a great deal of water over older washers.
- Reduce length of showers and number of toilet flushings.
- Reroute water softener and iron filter recharge water out of septic system.
- Spread water use as evenly as possible throughout the day and week, especially laundry.
Eliminate harmful products from system
Use liquid laundry detergents and gel dishwashing detergents. This minimizes the non-organic solids sent to the tank. Read labels carefully – many gel dishwashing detergents are high in phosphorus content; avoid these products.
- Reduce/eliminate use of harsh cleaners, disinfectants, detergents and bleach, including laundry detergents. Increase elbow grease, decrease cleaners.
- Avoid the use of anti-bacterial soaps. They are not necessary for cleanliness, and destroy good bacteria in the tank and soil treatment area.
- Dispose of solvents, paints, unwanted medications through other means such as hazardous waste disposals and exchanges. Return un-used medications to the pharmacy if possible.
- Keep grease, lint, food particles, cigarette butts, paper towels, disposable diapers, coffee grounds, plastic and other solid products out of the system.
- Install an effluent filter, preferably one with an alarm on the outlet pipe of your septic tank. This will catch washing machine lint, small particles that stay in suspension in the liquid and other matter. These must be maintained and cleaned regularly. One type is installed and maintained by your pumper. Another type is installed and maintained by the homeowner.
It is not necessary to use additives to enhance the performance of a properly operating septic system. If bacterial activity is low, it is because disinfectants and other products are killing the bacteria. Reducing or eliminating the use or disposal of these in the system will allow the bacteria to re- establish. Some additives cause solids to become suspended in the liquids. These solids will end up in the drain field, causing significant damage. Starters, feeders and particularly cleaners are unnecessary, and may be harmful to your system.
Cleaning/Pumping the Septic Tank
The septic tank must be cleaned or pumped regularly to remove all solids. The recommended time is at least every 3 years. Refer to the Septic Owner's Guide for a chart to determine a pumping schedule based on number of people in the home, size of the system and water use habits.
**Warning:Never go into the septic tank -- it lacks oxygen and may contain dangerous gases!**
- Always have the tank(s) cleaned through the manhole (20 to 24 inch opening). The inspection pipes are just that - for inspection. These are the white 3 - 4" pipes at the end of the tank and drain field.
- Flushing and back flushing is the most common method of agitating solids so they can all be removed.
- Inlet and outlet baffles should be inspected to be sure they are in place and functioning properly.
- If you have an effluent filter, inspect and clean regularly.
- The soil treatment area should be inspected at the time of pumping.
Pumps and Filters
All pumps and motors should be routinely checked for proper operation.
- Replace weak or faulty pumps and motors.
- Effluent filters should be cleaned or replaced regularly.
- Alarms on pumps and filters must be attended to immediately.
Mow but do not fertilize or water plantings over the drain field/mound.
- Maintain stands of appropriate plants on constructed wetland sites
- Any shallow rooted grasses or flowers may be planted over a drainfield or mound. Avoid deep rooted plants, shrubs and vegetables over your system. If native prairie grasses are used, manage by mowing - do not burn over this area.
- Be sure water -seeking trees such as willows are located far away from the system.
- Stop cutting the grass over the soil treatment area a couple weeks before the rest of the lawn. The extra growth will help insulate the area, and will help prevent freezing.
Protect the Soil Treatment Area
Keep all foot and vehicle traffic off the tank, pipes and soil treatment area (drainfield or mound). The only exception is the lawn mower. Mounds and drainfields are not 4-Wheeler jumps, walking paths, or for use by snowmobiles or cars.