How to Maintain Your Home's Septic System

Maintaining your home's septic system not only makes your plumbing work more smoothly, but can also save you from expensive repairs on down the road. In addition, by properly maintaining your home's septic system, you will avoid not-so-pleasant odors and possible health hazards. Appropriate maintenance can also eliminate the possibility of contamination of your well water, if you have a well.

What You Need to Know About Your Septic System
Many homeowners know very little about their septic systems, only that they have one. Before we go into the maintenance steps that you should take for your septic system, let's look first at the inner workings of a septic system. Waste water from your home is routed to your septic tank which is engineered to retain waste. Heavy solids settle to the bottom where they are somewhat decomposed by bacteria in order to form sludge. From the septic tank, a pipe leads to a distribution box where wasted is routed into perforated pipes that are installed in a gravel trench. The liquid from the waste slowly seeps into the surrounding soil in the septic system's drain field while dissolved wastes are absorbed into soil particles.

Possible Problems and Signs of Trouble in Your Septic System
Oftentimes, the first sign of trouble with your septic tank are standing water or a wet area in your yard. This can be caused when sludge clogs the drain field, when waste water is kept from dispersing throughout the drain field because of broken pipes or tree roots, or when household consumption of water overworks the system and has nowhere to go. Waste water that seeps through the ground can pose a risk to human health and cause serious odor problems as well. Another signal that your septic tank may not be in working order is when your toilet or other drain in the home runs more slowly than usual or becomes backed up. Many homeowners have also experienced the septic tank backing up into the basement, which can be due to a plugged outlet or inlet pipe, stopped up sewage lines, a septic tank that has reached its maximum capacity, or a simple failure of the drain field. However, one of the earliest warning signs of trouble with your septic tank may be odors, either in your home, above the tank's location, or anywhere in the septic system's drain field.

Locating Your Septic System
It is important to know where your septic system is located, not just in case of needed repairs, but because knowing its location will allow you to protect it from damage. Many homeowners do not know where their septic system is located, and thus have no idea where to look (or smell) for possible pending trouble. Wherever the drain pipe leaves your home is a good clue that can point you toward the septic tank, where you will likely find inspection ports or depressions that mark the trenches of the septic system. If you live in an area where you get snow in the winter, your septic tank and the area around it will be the first place that snow melts - which is a good clue to finding the septic tank and lines. Most septic systems are unmarked. If you cannot locate your septic system, check the paperwork that you received with your home - where you will often find a map of the system in relation to the home. You can also check with your local health department that is in charge of regulating septic systems in your area. When you find your septic system, it is a good idea to place a marker on its location for future reference.

Maintaining Your Home's Septic System
These tips will help you maintain your home's septic system to avoid problems in the future:

  • Conserve water as much as possible. The more water that goes down the drain, the harder your septic system must work. Install low flow faucets and water saving appliances and toilets. Fix drips and leaks quickly.
  • Balance the amount of water you use. Don't do the majority of the tasks that require water all in one short span of time. For instance, showering in the morning and running the washing machine at night.
  • Do not dispose of cooking oil, grease, or other fats in the drain as they can cause a build up in the lines that will make the septic system fail.
  • Never discard tissues, towels, disposable feminine products, tampons, or other material in the toilet. These products can stop up your septic system or cause it to reach capacity more quickly. Instead, opt to throw these items in the trash.
  • Avoid the use of commercial additives for your septic system, like Rid-X. These products claim to work by adding bacteria or yeast to the system - but your natural waste does that job. These additives can actually do more harm than good by breaking up the sludge and causing it to flush out into the drain field.
  • Make sure that your septic tank and the surrounding drain field are covered with dense grass. You can also plant plants that have shallow roots in the area.
  • Never plant trees near your septic system. A tree's roots are usually as long as the length of its canopy and these roots can grow into the pipes, breaking them or causing clogs elsewhere in the septic system.
  • Do not drive or allow vehicles to park in the area where the septic tank is located, and don't place sheds or outdoor buildings over the location. Doing so can crack the distribution box of the septic system and cause expensive repairs.
  • Have the septic tank pumped every three to five years or sooner if needed.