Keeping your rural septic system in top working order is a consideration that we didn’t have to worry about when we lived in town.
Not that it’s an ongoing chore, or requires any specialized knowledge, but your septic tank is something that you should be mindful of at all times.
Oddly enough, it’s just one of those things that most of us never notice – that is until something goes terribly wrong.
And you don’t want anything to ever go wrong. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the main reasons why, but I will tell you the most important aspects of not paying attention to your septic system.
First off, your family’s health relies on this system remaining in top working order.
- I’ve seen reports (I don’t remember where so I can’t cite them) that over a thousand people die every year from contaminated water in the USA.
It’s expensive to replace or install a septic tank.
A friend of mine just had a new one installed for his new house and paid the bill at $8,000. I’ve owned cars that ran for years for less than that!
Septic System Maintenance and Prevention Measures
The most common cause of septic system failure is due to the surrounding soil of the tank.
If the soil around the tank gets plugged and will not drain any more, the tank fills and eventually backs up.
To prevent plugging and filling you’ll have to start thinking twice about every item you flush or wash down the drain. Hence the reasoning for my big push on only bio-degradable solids! See the sidebar at right for the leading cause of a plugged septic bed.
How to Prevent Solids from Leaving the Septic Tank and Plugging the Septic Drain Bed
First and foremost, get your septic tank pumped every year when you’ve just moved into a new home. This is very inexpensive. After two years you can assess your family’s use and strain on this new house’s system and may be able to switch over to bi-yearly pump outs.
Talk to your septic pumping contractor about an effluent filter. These are installed by a septic contractor into the exit baffle of the tank. It’s job is to stop the larger solids from getting out to the drain field. The filters are cleaned every few years at pumping time. Although it seems like an added expense when you’re just settling in, remember what Gramma said "An ounce of prevention…"
Speaking of Grandma, Here’s An Old Septic Wives Tale
Some folks will tell you that using certain laundry detergents, bleaches and fabric softeners might kill the useful bacteria in your septic system, which in turn causes the system to fail.
Forget it. Moderate use of these products should not effect the operation of your septic system. Moderate. Although bleach and other cleaners do kill some of the bacteria that resides in your tank, given the huge amount of bacterial colonies thriving in there, the effect is negligible. Remember, moderate use – don’t be washing 5-10 loads of laundry with a heavy bleaching and expect your septic system to work normally.
Since we’ve determined that washing machines are particularly hard on your septic system, you’re probably wondering if there is an alternative. Yes, there is. You could use a separate system for your washing machine – apart and away from the regular household septic bed.
Every case, household, and septic system is different though. Some of the country folks around here have said that a washing machine should drain into the main system because everything keeps working better that way (especially in smaller households).
Laundry run off won’t generate the bacteria required to break down the matter in it’s own septic system.
What to Do If Your Septic System Fails
Call a specialist quick! You don’t want your family getting sick or have to replace the entire system on an emergency basis.
Often a simple pump out and filter tune-up can fix your system and you can avoid the high costs of replacing the system.
In some cases you may be advised to do something called "fracturing the soil". A hollow tube is inserted into the drain bed, then a 300 pound blast of air is injected into the soil surrounding the septic tank. This creates thousands of tiny air pockets in the soil and allows the drain field to continue doing it’s job.
Fracturing the surrounding soil is usually over with in a few hours and causes no damage to your yard or tank. It’s expensive, but no where near as expensive as replacing the entire septic system.
Now You Know All About Septic Systems
I do hope you’re reading this before you had to and not because you have a problem with your septic system at the moment.
If you don’t have a problem yet, make changes to your family’s laundry, flushing and washing down the drain rituals and be aware of your septic system’s health at all times.
If you are experiencing trouble with your system or your tank, check the local yellow pages for "Septic Tank Specialists".
More Septic System Tips
- Be careful what you flush or wash down the drain! Only biodegradable products and waste should ever go into your septic tank.
- Drain runoff water (from your roof, patio, or driveway, away from your septic drain field.
- As a precautionary measure you should keep your septic tank cover accessible at all times (or at least know where it is when you’re moving into a new farm or rural property! Trust me, it’s no fun digging around trying to find it when there’s a problem!
- Realistically, you should have your septic tank pumped on a regular basis. It should also be inspected for leaks, cracks, and to make sure the exit baffle is in place.
- Compost, don’t flush, your biodegradable garbage (you’ll get a longer life out of your septic tank and your gardens will be overjoyed – see How to Make Compost).
Leading Cause of Septic Systems Failure
Washing machines are one of the top leading causes of septic system failure. Lint clogs the soil around the tank in your drain field. And standard washer’s lint screens do little good to sift out and hold back the tiny fibers that eventually cause all the damage.
Plus, if you’re washing a lot of household items and clothing that are made of polyester you’ve got a bigger problem, faster, on your hands. Polyester is not bio-degradable! If they end up in your drain field your only recourse if to replace your entire drain bed and start again. See what I mean? Big Problem, Very Quickly.
Don’t do this to your septic system…
- Don’t use a garbage disposal.
- Don’t flush feminine products, disposable diapers, or other non biodegradable items into your septic system.
- Don’t flush solvents, oils, paints, disinfectants, pesticides or any other poisonous product down the drain.
- Don’t dig in your drain field or build anything over it (not even a rhubarb patch!).
- Don’t drive over your drain field or cause the soil to compact in any way.
- Don’t plant trees or bushes in the absorption field area. The roots can get into the lines and plug them. Grass is the only exception.