The Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Maintenance


A septic system is a wastewater management system often used when access to sewage lines or treatment plants is inaccessible for any reason. When it comes to understanding proper septic system maintenance, one must first understand just how a septic system works to do away with waste, while keeping groundwater and well systems clear from any potential contaminants.

 How Septic Systems Work

The standard septic system will be comprised of four main components: a septic pipe leading from the home, the septic tank, the drainfield, and the soil.

The septic pipe which leads from the home is where all of the wastewater of a household will travel as it drains from the structure and into the septic tank located outside. A septic tank is made from watertight and sturdy materials such as concrete, polyethylene, or fiberglass, and it will often be found buried underground within a homeowner’s property. This wastewater, after it travels to the tank, will then rest in the enclosure until solids are able to settle and create a bottom “sludge” layer, while oils and greases rise to the top.

Once separation occurs, the wastewater sandwiched between the sludge layer and the upper layer will then exit the septic tank and travel to the drainfield where it will undergo treatment from the soil. The force of new wastewater entering the tank will help to push the existing wastewater into the drainfield, allowing for an easy and self-sufficient process to occur. If too much wastewater or liquid enters the drainfield, the system can begin to go into overload, causing flooding of wastewater as well as plumbing backups, which can lead to very hazardous situations.

The next destination for wastewater after reaching the drainfield is down into the soil, and this is where the water undergoes its final treatment process to remove bacteria, viruses, and other harmful materials. Once the water has completely percolated through the soil, it will then be joined back with the groundwater down below in order to be used and go through the treatment and purification process once again.

Maintaining Your Septic System

With regular maintenance, a septic system can stay working efficiently for as long as three decades before talk of replacement becomes necessary. Septic system maintenance can be viewed similarly to vehicle maintenance; with low annually-priced regular care, the system will continue to work efficiently with little need for expensive repairs, but this situation can change abruptly if routine maintenance is neglected.

Everyday Upkeep, Maintenance, and Care

When wastewater travels through the home and out into a septic tank, everyday care must be taken to ensure that only substances which belong in the system are reaching it. One method of highly effective everyday maintenance is thinking twice before flushing certain solids, cleaners, or products, and to consider how these materials may affect the system.

An appropriate and easy rule of thumb to follow when it comes to disposing of certain solids properly is to place anything into a trash can which can be placed into a trash can, and limit what travels through the pipe and into the system as much as possible. Materials such as grease, food scraps, sanitary products, facial tissue, and napkins or paper towels will contribute to high sludge levels or tank damage, and these are products which should always be thrown away rather than flushed or allowed down a sink.

Cleaners and disinfectants often used in sinks or toilets should also be used with care, and homeowners should make sure to read instructions and use these products only as directed. These cleaners are commonly filled with toxic materials, and a tank which is overexposed to hazardous toxins is a tank that is more susceptible to damage.

Maintenance through Protection

One of the best things a homeowner can do to keep their septic system maintained is to protect it from any outside sources which may cause damage. When it comes to landscaping, no bushes, shrubs, trees, or other plants should be placed on the septic tank or drainfield area. Plant roots can cause damage to the watertight tank, while grass is best for maintaining and protecting the drainfield, so keeping these areas clear of any outside plant life, other than grass, can save a homeowner from the problems associated with various system damages.

In order to protect the area, homeowners should also keep any vehicles or pieces of heavy machinery far away from the septic tank or drainfield areas. Damage to the ground above these regions can lead to damage to the system itself, and something as simple as driving over the area can lead to serious consequences later on with the need for system repairs.

Septic System Inspection

The most important step in septic system maintenance is regular inspection, and having a system inspected by a professional is an invaluable resource when it comes to learning about the health and function of a particular system. A single annual inspection is often sufficient for most systems, but if the system includes moving parts, these inspections may need to be more frequent.

During the course of inspection, a professional will check all components to make sure that the process is running smoothly and no potential hazards are present. First, the system will be located under the ground by the professional, along with its manhole and inspection ports.

Once the system is located, the connections will then be inspected to ensure that all wastewater is making it into the system without incident. This process may include the flushing of toilets, the running of a sink or shower, or running the washing machine through a quick cycle to make sure that all plumbing is connected properly.

After connections have been checked, the professional will then inspect the lower sludge layer and upper scum layer that separate away from the wastewater located in the tank. Through an inspection port, a measuring tool will be placed into the tank to determine the size of these layers, and determine if a septic system pumping is necessary. Once the sludge layer reaches a depth of one-third or more, when compared to the liquid depth, pumping is recommended to keep the system working safely and efficiently.

The final step of the inspection process is the checking of the tank itself, as well as the drainfield responsible for wastewater treatment. The septic tank will be checked for cracks or any signs of weakness in order to ensure a tank failure is not imminent, as the drainfield is inspected for any risks that may lead to flooding or backups later on.

Keep Inspection Records

Keeping records of tank placement, repairs, and inspection findings are also recommended in order to keep track of the health of a septic system. Solid record keeping can also help a homeowner to determine how frequently their septic system needs pumping, so problems may be remedied before they even occur.

Benefits of Regular Maintenance

Regular maintenance can save any homeowner a great deal in upkeep costs, as yearly maintenance will amount to a couple hundred dollars on average, compared to the thousands of dollars required to completely replace a broken system. With regular protection, consideration, and inspection, a well-cared for septic system will remain efficient for a significant length of time, and the healthiest septic systems are those which will continue to work best.