The purpose of regular scheduled maintenance on a septic system is to remove the sludge and solids from the tank so that the water that eventually travels to the leaching field is as clear and as clean as possible.
One of the most often asked question is “how often should the tank be pumped?” The answer to that really depends on what type of system is in use, how old is the system, how hard is the system being used, how many people are on the system, is the garbage disposal used regualarly, etc.
So when someone calls and asks if the system might be in need of pumping these are the first questions we ask.
The type of system will determine how often a service/inspection is needed. A system which has several components, like pumps, filters, dousers, jetters, etc., will need to be serviced and/or inspected on a very regular basis to ensure that all the components are functioning properly. These sytems are typically engineered systems and most often do have alarms which will alert the home owner when the level in the tank gets too high. The problem is that sometimes the alarms fail and/or the owner isn’t aware that the alarm is telling them something and then there is a huge mess to clean up. If the owner ensures that the system is on a regular schedule for service or inspection with their pumper all of the components, including the alarm can be inspected and hopefully any problems can be averted.
A typical gravity system will not require an annual inspection, but certainly need to be on a regularly scheduled service to remove the sludge and solids.
The age of the system will often determine how often a service is needed. The older the system the more often it will need to be serviced. The reason being is that over the years a bio-mat forms on the bottom and the sides of the leaching field. The bio-mat is from the bacteria and particles that are suspended in the effluent water and float out into the leaching field naturally. The bio-mat actually becomes another level of filtration for the effluent water as it flows back into the ground water. However, as the bio-mat grows and thickens it becomes harder and harder for the water to filter through, kind of a catch 22 when you think about it. The life expectancy of a “normal” gravity fed leaching field is approximately 20-30 years. Some last longer, some do not last as long. After that there is a need to either expand the field or create another one. The options available to you will depend on a lot of other factors.
The number of people in a home and the use of a garbage disposal will dictate how often a tank needs to be pumped. Reason being, more people, more waste water. As a rule of thumb when a garbage disposal is used it’s like adding 2 additional people to the system. A garbage disposal puts raw material down into the system that the bacteria needs to break down. Human waste has already gone through the first initial breakdown internally.
We tell people that as a rule of thumb if there are 4 people in the house and the tank is a 1250 gallon capacity tank you would want to schedule it to be pumped approximately every 2-3 years. Less people, the tank can probably go longer. More people, the tank probably needs to be serviced more often. If the tank is smaller, more often, larger, less often. An engineered system regardless of size needs to be inspected (maybe not pumped, but at least inspected) every year.
Give us a call; we’ll put you on the proper schedule for your usage.
Tanks, Filters & Usage
This is a basic drawing of what a two compartment septic tank looks like. One of the things that we hear a lot when people first look into the tank is that “IT’S FULL!” But as you can see it has to reach a certain level before the effluent water can leave the tank via the outlet tee. The proper operating level of a septic tank is about 10″ from the top of the tank. There should be a gap from the top of the Scum Layer to the top of the tank.
Sometimes people will call concerned about a smell when they go outside their house. Our first question is “Is it cool outside?” and then “have you recently done laundry or taken a shower?” What happens when you “use” your system and wastewater goes into the tank… this 10″ space of “deadair” gets displaced and has to go somewhere. It will travel back up the line and come out the vent on the roof. If it is a cooler morning or day and/or if the water going into the tank is hot, this “deadair” is heavier than the surrounding outside air and it will settle down around the house, causing a temporary odor.
Rest assured, this typically goes away with the next breeze or as the day warms up. If it does not, then you may want to call and have your system looked at.
Here is an example of an Effluent Filter that had not been cleaned in about 3 years… as you can see there is nothing but GOO on it! The holes in the effluent material that normally allow the effluent water to flow through are completely clogged! When this happens the effluent can not get out into the leaching field and the system will back up into the home creating a NASTY MESS! This problem was quickly alleviated by rinsing the filter off with water!
Effluent filters are GREAT devices that are meant to keep the solids in the tank and the water going into the leaching field as clean as possible. From this picture you can see how that works.
HOWEVER, if you have an effluent filter on your tank you need to make sure that it is properly cleaned and maintained. You can certainly do this yourself by opening the outlet lid, pulling the filter our of it’s tee and rinsing the buildup off the filter… but if you do not have the stomach for that, be sure to call your service provider and get on a regularly scheduled maintenance plan so that you don’t end up with a filter looking like this one!
This is just a picture depicting what the current “Typical Septic Usage is for an Average Home”
Realize that most of the wastewater that goes down the system is “water”. One of the things that we caution people about is hydraulic overload. Which simply means too much water!
The more water that is put down the system is that much water that the system has to process. We recommend utilizing water conservation practices. Such as only flushing the toilet when necessary (when it’s yellow, let it mellow, when it’s brown, flush it down), limit the amount of time anyone spends in the shower, limit the use of the bathtub, only wash full loads and use the appropriate water level setting for that load.
In addition to this, be conscientious about the amount of water through the system at any given time. Basically, allow the septic tank to settle out before pushing another load through. For this we recommend spreading the laundry out over the week and limiting the number of loads to 2 a day, preferably one in the morning and one in the evening.
All of these practices will lengthen the life of your leachfield.
Do’s & Don’ts
These are Things You DO Want to DO
- Educate yourself on your system, how it is designed and how it works, and any controls and alarm systems it may have
- Educate yourself on proper septic maintenance, understand what to expect from your service provider
- Educate yourself on the signs of problems and how to troubleshoot those problems, so you know when and who to call for the appropriate service
- Educate yourself on your counties requirements, keep records of service and repairs so that you have documentation regarding the operation and maintenance of your system
- Have your septic system pumped and inspected on a regular schedule – approximately 2-3 years depending on usage, number of people in the home, size of tank, age of system and type of system
- Only put septic friendly material down the drain and just because it says “Septic Safe” does not mean “Septic FRIENDLY” and that it should go into the system, some things are very hard to break down and digest and are better suited for compost or the garbage can
- Limit the number of wash loads to 2 or less per day and spread those out during the day, one in the morning and one in the evening
- Fix and repair any and all leaking faucets or running toilets immediately
- Limit the amounts of hazardous chemicals that are put into the system – chemicals like cleaning products, anti-bacterial products, paint, gasoline, pesticides, etc.
- Use liquid detergents – powder detergents have a base of clay, which clogs the pours of your leach field
- Use drier sheets as opposed to liquid softeners – liquid softeners add grease and soap residue to your system
- Keep the soil treatment area clear of vegetation – mow the grass and weeds over the field regularly and do not plant trees, shrubs, gardens, etc. over or on the field
These are Things You DO NOT Want to DO
- DO NOT waste your money on additives, enzymes or bugs that they try to sell you on TV, the Internet or some unscrupulous service providers – they are not necessary, they do not necessarily hurt your system, but they are not needed for your system to function correctly – if you are having issues all the “product” in the world is not going to fix it! We can not stress this enough! If you want to spend money to help your system, go out, have a nice dinner, drink some wine, everything your system needs will be provided for in the morning!
- DO NOT put table scraps down the kitchen sink – the use of the garbage disposal is like adding 1 or more persons to the household – raw garbage is very hard to digest!
- DO NOT use those very nice, plush, ever-so-soft, toilet tissues – the thicker the toilet tissue the harder it is to digest – they also tend to collect in the baffles and tee’s and cause backups in the main inlet line – This is an image of a plug at the inlet due to too much toilet paper!!! This can be easily resolved with a shovel. Push the plug down into the tank and the back pressure from the line will clear the line! VOILA!
The video above shows how to clear blockage and get your sewer working again.
DO NOT flush Kleenex, feminine products, BABY WIPES, cleaner cloths, toilet cleaner heads, paper towels, etc. down the toilet – these items DO NOT BREAK DOWN EASILY and can cause congestion in the baffle and tee – These are images of baby wipes from a tank – if you look closely you can still see the embossing on the wipes – they do NOT deteriorate!
What You Need to Know About Septic Systems
Some people are under the impression that septic systems do not need to be pumped or serviced. Some people believe that adding “things” to the system will keep them from having to pump their systems. Some people don’t even know they are on a septic system until it backs up into the home!
These are all real situations and comments that we have heard over the years.
What Happens to Our Water?
One of the first things that we need to change is our idea on what a septic system is actually doing. The new state regulations adopted on July 1, 2013, now refers to septic systems as On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS). This was because when the original statute was adopted back in the 1950’s the idea was just to get rid of or “dispose” of the sewage. We now know that we want to TREAT the water and return it back to the watershed and reuse it over and over again.
Research has found that the effluent that goes to the leach field (or now as it is call – Soil Treatment Area (STA)) eventually finds its way back into our ground water and is reused. Either in irrigating our crops or for our personal use, like drinking and bathing.
Now that you know this happens doesn’t it make sense that we shouldn’t just want to get rid of or “dispose” of the water, but that we would want to treat it so that when it reaches the ground water or other water source that it is as clean and free of pathogens and toxins as possible?
When you look at watersheds and where it goes and how many times water passes through the human body before it reaches the ocean it’s amazing! They say that Colorado, or the Rocky Mountains, has the most pristine water! It hasn’t passed through any “body” as of yet! We are the first time users of the water. Water in Florida and along any coast line has been “processed” or through the human body about 7 times before it reaches the ocean!
This is one of the reasons why the thoughts and ideas and approaches toward wastewater has changed. We need to protect out very precious resource, water, and make sure that it is usable all the way down the line to the ocean.
Additives are anything, and I mean ANYTHING, that someone intentionally adds to the system in an effort to “help” the system or to make it so they don’t have to pump or service the system as often.
Some of the fun ones over the years have been – whole chicken (feathers and all), horse manure, cakes of yeast, baking soda & sugar, etc. There are a multitude of products that are offered at your local market, online or phone solicitors.
Just so you know, NONE of these products live up to the expectations of what is in the individuals mind about how they work or what they are doing. And actually in some cases have gone on to damage the system irreparably.
First, understand that a lot of the first products listed, chickens, yeast, etc. are all old wives tales. The old farmers thought these ones up and they generally have easy access to their favorite. What was really going on was they were probably looking for a way to “dispose” of whatever and thought, hmmmm, maybe they’ll help the septic and VOILA in they go!
The retail products are a little different. They, the manufacturers, have packaged “bacteria” or “enzymes” or both and tell you that they will help your system function.
The reality is that YOUR everyday waste puts all the bacteria and enzymes in the system that it needs to function. And that if you are having a problem with your bacteria or enzyme balance, all the “product” in the world is not going to “cure” your problem. The only thing that will fix your problem is understanding your “use habits” and changing them accordingly.
The biggest problem with these items is that people think by adding “the stuff” they do NOT have to pump their systems on a regular basis. It’s a feel good product, “I’m taking care of my system by flushing XYZ down the toilet, thereforebywhich, I don’t need to pump my septic and look at all the money I have saved”.
But, if you read the instructions on most of these products it states clearly that your system needs to be pumped and serviced on a regular basis – they don’t say what regular basis is, only that it needs to be done.
Over the years we have seen just about every type of product out there and I can tell you with 100% certainty that there is no difference in the sludge and scum in a tank where people are using “products” to those that are NOT using “products”.
You can identify the differences in types of paper used, how much they are using their garbage disposal, whether they are on heavy medications, whether they like fried foods or not, and a lot of other things, but you can’t tell who has been using XYZ and who has not… I’m just sayin’!
How often should I pump my system? The most asked question from a homeowner. Our answer, as often as you need to. Again, from before, the tank is designed to hold the solids. Pumping the tank removes the solids so that the effluent water going out into the tank is a clean as possible.
There are many, many factors that go into determining a pump schedule, but based on “normal” usage of a family of 4 it typically takes about 2-3 years for the build up of sludge and scum to necessitate pumping the tank. There are other factors that we can consider, like waste strength (basically what you are putting down your system), wastewater flows, etc. But for the layman, it’s easiest to equate it to level of sludge and scum.
People who are very conscientious about what they are putting down their system will be able to extend the pumping interval. We have a family of 5 that we pump about every 6 years. And then of course we have the other extreme where we have a family of 2 that we do annually. The difference? The first family is very careful about what they put down the system, no garbage disposal, single ply toilet paper, etc. The second, well, let’s just say they like to entertain and all, and I mean ALL, of the leftovers go down the garbage disposal!
So the key or answer to “how often should I pump my tank?” is as often as it needs to be!