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How to Maintain a Septic Tank

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David got a crash course on septic tanks with his second home and hopes to share what he has learned.

Plastic Septic Tanks

A typical plastic septic tank

A typical plastic septic tank

Septic Tank Systems

When we moved into our rural home years ago we knew that it was on a septic tank and that it had a ground well for its supply of water. What we didn’t know yet is how a septic tank worked or what we had to do to keep it operating as designed, without enduring major repair costs. Initially we weren’t even 100% sure where the tank was located. We knew it was in an area outside our kids bedrooms but that was about it.

Once we understood how the tank did its job we felt more confident in helping it stay operational. We even became a little bit more comfortable with this tank and its contents in our yard.

Without getting into too much detail a septic tank has all of your homes wastewater run through it before it goes out to a leach field, more to follow on leach fields in a moment. Your sink, laundry, shower and toilets will all discharge into the septic tank.

The majority of water waste from your home is pretty easy to handle as long as you spread out large water users. For example we don’t do loads of laundry back to back, we will do one in the morning and one later on in the day. We never do more than two in one day to avoid putting unnecessary stress on the system.

When non water waste is put into the tank it will loiter until the tank and its bacterial friends decompose the matter, as long as it is able to be broken down. We do our best to not put food waste, grease, paper towels, feminine hygiene products, etc. down the drains because these objects don’t breakdown very well.

Septic Tank Pumping

Leach Field

A leach field is a run of pipes underground that disperse the water from your septic tank to create a drain field. Once the tank reaches a certain level of fullness the water will reach the discharge pipe that leads to the leach field. Our system is one long pipe that runs down the middle of our property for about two hundred feet; it is very easy to locate it because that is where the only green weeds are during our hot California valley summers.

Obviously this water isn’t clean because it just came from a bacteria infested tank but that is where the cleaning properties of soil come into play. This water exits through the perforated pipe into a drain bed made of small rocks and sand before slowly working its way down deeper into the ground.

Water bottle companies brag that their product is better than the other guy because nature had a hand in the purification process of their product. This is similar to what the water is doing after leaving the leech field. I don’t know how long it takes but the water will eventually make its way down to the underground aquifer that our rural community draws our well water from. For the record we have had our water tested for contaminants and it received a passing grade; we don’t drink it though because it is very hard water but we do cook with it.

Wastewater Treatment

For a septic tank to operate properly the homeowner needs to be smart about what goes into it but they shouldn’t overlook adding some bacteria to help the, please forgive the term, digestion process in the tank.

The previous homeowner left us a large box of additives for the tank that we flush down the toilets once a month. There are also a few commercial products available on the market; they are all basically the same thing.

Inside the tank the bacteria breaks down the solid waste until it becomes nothing more than a liquid that mixes in with the water already present in the tank. It will eventually make its way to the discharge pipe and out to the leech field never to be heard of again.

For us the few dollars a month these supplements cost us is a fair investment to make sure we don’t have any kind of backup or failure of the whole system which is not a cheap repair bill.

Septic Tank Pumping Cost

If a tank back-ups it could be just full. A full tank is probably your best hope because you can call a company and they will send out a truck to pump out the tank. This adventure will set you back a couple of hundred dollars but is way cheaper than the disturbing alternative.

We have all seen the commercials of a tractor digging in a homeowners yard. Digging up part of a septic system can occur if the system hasn't been maintained with treatment or occasional pumping.

Septic Tank Problems

If the system fails the tank and/or leech field might need to be dug up. I don’t think I need to say how unpleasant this might be if you leave a nearby window open. This work is also very labor intensive so the repair costs can easily climb into the thousands of dollars; even more validation to spend five or ten dollars a month to get a septic treatment additive.

Pump Truck

If you have to call a septic tank pumping company this is the kind of truck they will use to pump out the tank

If you have to call a septic tank pumping company this is the kind of truck they will use to pump out the tank

Septic System Maintenance

We had our tank looked at after about five years of us living here. We knew the previous owner pumped it out a few months before we bought the house because we saw the receipt in our mountain of documents at closing time.

I was relieved to hear the plumber, who ironically pumped out the tank previously (we didn’t recall the company name), state how well the tank looked. Yes his complimenting the contents of our septic tank did catch me off guard.

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He shared with me that there were no bad items, like the ones I mentioned earlier, floating on the top and he could tell with his handy little pole that the solid level was small and we were being good little stewards to our tank; I felt like a proud dad, in a weird sort of way.

I was always under the impression that a tank needed to be pumped out on a routine basis but he told me if we kept doing what we were doing he didn’t think we would have to worry about getting our pumped. I was grateful for the information, plus it was one less thing I had to have on my maintenance checklist in my head.

To be fully transparent I have heard from other reputable and trustworthy sources in the septic industry that they recommend pumping every three to five years. I don't know if there is truly a standard service time frame or not but erring on the side of caution probably isn't a bad plan.

Septic Tank Services

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 David


David (author) from Idaho on September 27, 2012:

Marcy - We had to learn but now it is no big deal. We are just careful with what goes down the drain and the rest is easy.

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on September 26, 2012:

I grew up with septic tanks as part of our life - and I admit I would not have any idea how to maintain one now. This is very handy - sometimes I think I'd like to live in the country (again) - so I could build a 'green' house, but there's a lot to learn before taking that sort of step.

Voted up and up!

David (author) from Idaho on September 17, 2012:

kittyjj - Fortunately they don't take too much effort to understand and maintain properly. Thanks for voting and commenting.

Ann Leung from San Jose, California on September 16, 2012:

A very interesting hub! My husband has told me that his family used to have a septic and only explained it to me a bit. I have always wondered how it really works. Your hub is very informative and I learned a lot from it. Thank you for sharing it. Voted up and useful!

David (author) from Idaho on September 14, 2012:

Nettlemere - If the tank is being heavily used it would probably need to be pumped regularly because it wouldn't have the necessary time needed to leach out on it's own.

Nettlemere from Burnley, Lancashire, UK on September 14, 2012:

now I'm intrigued - where I used to work was on a septic tank which got pumped out regularly, which I assumed was the only way to get stuff out of it. Now I'm wondering if it had a leach field and just needed looking after better. I'd certainly be more confident if I came across one again having read this.

David (author) from Idaho on September 14, 2012:

Amy - We were rookies with ours but now it is just a normal part of our rural life.

Amy Gillie from Indiana on September 14, 2012:

I have never had a septic tank and they always scared me (and disgusted me a little too!). After reading this, I think it's not so bad after all.

David (author) from Idaho on September 14, 2012:

teaches12345 - When we first moved in we were a little bit intimidated by our septic tank because of all of the things you shouldn't do with it. Now we don't even think about it and we just do our thing. Thanks for commenting.

Dianna Mendez on September 13, 2012:

We had to have this septic tank service when we lived in Virginia. We didn't have too much problem with it otherwise. Great information on how to keep those headaches to a minimum.

David (author) from Idaho on September 12, 2012:

Craig - Yes sir it is.

Craig Hartranft from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 12, 2012:

Holy crap! It's a dirty job, but somebody must do it.

David (author) from Idaho on September 12, 2012:

FatFreddysCat - Yep, been there done that when the guy looked at ours. I knew what was in there but I didn't need a visual.

Keith Abt from The Garden State on September 12, 2012:

I learned the joys of septic tank ownership when I moved to a rural area in 1999. Thankfully we've never had a problem with it; as long as you practice routine maintenance, it pretty much takes care of itself.

Our town does have a local ordinance stating that all homes w/septic tanks have them pumped out and inspected once every three years. I tell ya, you haven't lived until you've popped the top on your septic tank on a warm spring day and looked down into untold gallons of your own you-know-what.

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