While many city-dwellers couldn’t imagine living without access to municipal plumbing, septic tanks are a reality for millions of Americans. According to the EPA, about 60 million homes in the United States flush their wastewater into a septic system. In Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire, at least half of all homes use septic systems to treat their waste. Septic systems are also quite common in the Southeast, where about one out of every three homes relies on a septic system.

So it should come as no surprise that septic system maintenance and repair is a big business. And experts agree that the best way to keep your septic tank running as long as possible is to follow a regular maintenance schedule. Some septic tanks can go up to three years between cleanings, but many could benefit from an annual pumping. We recommend going through your septic tank maintenance checklist twice a year, at the beginning of winter and the beginning of summer. Following a schedule will help you keep track of your maintenance needs and ensures that you don’t go too long between services.

How a Septic System Works

A septic system doesn’t just deal with human waste. Most septic systems collect water from all the drains in your house. That might include toilets, showers, sinks, and appliances like washing machines and dishwashers. All of these systems drain into a central septic tank, the first step in the septic system. As they drain, they carry dirty water and solid waste.

The Septic Tank

The septic tank is the first step in the water treatment process. The size of your septic tank is the number one factor that determines how often you need to have your system serviced since the most common service is emptying and cleaning the tank. The septic tank serves the critical function of separating solid waste from the wastewater. But there’s no magic here, just gravity. As wastewater sits in the tank, the heavier solid waste sinks to the bottom, where it collects into sludge. The sludge slowly accumulates, but it can also be broken down with the help of beneficial bacteria in the tank.

The Effluent Filter

As the solid waste settles, the remaining gray water passes out of the tank into the drain field. Most modern septic systems include an effluent filter to prevent any stray solid waste from exiting the tank toward the drain field. Older systems may lack a filter, which is important for a service technician to know. If you aren’t sure, have your septic tank service technician take a look. After passing the effluent filter, if you have one, the gray water passed into a series of pipes buried underground in a drain field.

The Drain Field and Final Filtering

The drain field is an open area of your property that serves as the final step in the water treatment process. Gray water flows out of the septic tank and into pipes buried beneath the field. The pipes are perforated to slowly drain the water into a porous material, often gravel, which surrounds the pipes. As the water filters through the porous material, it is cleaned even more. From there, the water enters the soil, which acts as the final filter. Once the water is cleaned by the soil, it returns to the natural reservoir of groundwater or filters out into local waterways.

Maintaining Your Septic System

Like regular oil changes for your car or routine checkups at your doctor’s office, scheduled maintenance for your septic system will keep it going as long as possible. A well-maintained septic system can work well for decades. But if you neglect to service your system when it needs it, you could be in for a stinky mess and a surprisingly large bill.

Pumping the Tank

The most frequent service a septic tank needs is pumping. Helpful bacteria can break down some of the solid waste that settles at the bottom of your tank. But over time, the sludge at the bottom of the tank builds up, and if it isn’t emptied, it can damage your system. In the best case, you’ll have some nasty sewage backups in your home. In the worst case, you could damage your system beyond repair. A new septic system can cost $3,000 to $7,000 or more, so it should be avoided as long as possible.

A septic tank can go anywhere from one to three years between pumpings. The frequency of pumping depends on the size of the tank and how much waste you dump into it. Pumping can be expensive, so it is always better to put less waste into the system whenever possible. While there’s not much you can do about human waste, you can definitely minimize the amount of food waste and chemicals that get drained into your septic system. If your home runs on a septic system, avoid putting food waste down the drain. Be especially careful about oily and fatty foods, which can congeal and clog your system. If possible, empty food scraps into a compost bin, which you can use to build your own compost heap.

Bacteria Replenishment

We’ve already mentioned how beneficial bacteria can help break down the solid waste in your septic system and extend the time between cleanings. But just like any living thing, the bacteria need certain conditions to thrive. The bacteria in your septic system love to feed on natural waste, making it an ideal environment. But avoid flushing any humanmade chemicals down the drain since they can kill the bacteria. If the bacteria population in your tank shrinks, your tank will fill up more quickly. Luckily, the bacteria population can be easily boosted with some additives. You can introduce some additives yourself. But a technician will also add them when they come for a regular service call.

Complete System Cleaning

Even a perfectly good septic system will eventually start to gum up. As wastewater travels through pipes, the tank, and various filters, sludge and untreated waste can build up. Without any cleaning, the buildup would eventually prevent your septic system from functioning properly. To avoid that, your septic system service technician will use a high-pressure water jet to clean the inside of your entire system. The pressurized water scrubs your system clean, knocking loose any buildup and clearing your system.

Full Inspection

In addition to pumping the solid waste and clearing your system, a septic system service technician should inspect the entire system. That includes checking on the pipes, tank, and effluent filter if you have one. They should also go to your drain field to check for excess drainage or, worst of all, raw sewage. 

It’s also a good idea to check the drain field yourself from time to time. If you notice a foul odor coming from your drain field at any time, be sure to contact a septic tank specialist immediately. And remember never to park a car or leave heavy machinery or materials on your drain field. To function properly, the soil and gravel around the drain pipes need to be loosely packed. Driving or leaving heavy items on the drain field can compact the soil or even crush the pipes, ruining your septic system.

Find the Right Septic Tank Service Provider

Septic tanks don’t require much attention. You can usually go anywhere from a year to three years between services. But neglecting service will shorten your septic system’s lifetime, costing you some serious cash. The best way to maintain your septic system is to form a relationship with a reliable septic service company. Having the same people care for your septic tank over many years means that you know you are getting consistent service every time, and the technicians can keep track of your system and its needs. The best way to get the service you need is to hire a TrustDALE certified septic tank professional in your area. Every TrustDALE company has passed Dale’s rigorous 7-point investigative review and is backed by his trademark $10,000 Make-It-Right™ Guarantee.


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