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Country Septic Systems

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.

About Laura Childs

Country Living enthusiast Laura Childs was a downtown city girl for many years before heading to the hills to live a sustainable lifestyle, raise her daughter, get back to the land, and learn the time tested traditions of a simpler era. Throughout her farm life adventures of raising animals, working from home, home schooling her daughter, and being more green, Laura Childs has been sharing on the GoodByeCityLife website through articles and personal musings since 1998.


  1. We have a runoff line (underground of course) from our septic tank. I guess it’s some sort of overflow line that runs several yards away from the tank. The tank was pumped out about a year ago. The grass is super green all the way down this runoff line. My question is this: Is it safe for horses to eat the grass that grows so green around the runoff line? Please respond if you know and thanks alot. Nancy Watts

  2. I came home today to find a hole about 3 ft wide by 15 feet deep it has a pipe coming out of the side I’m guessing it is from my septic, the pipe has a T on ot that is all no rock no tank no tank can this hole be filled or do I need to do something extreme and expensive

    • Hard to say, from here. The best thing to do is go into the house and run the water and see if anything is coming out of that pipe. If nothing is coming out (and if you’re lucky) then you’ve just run across an old gray water system or maybe even an old bomb shelter or root cellar that just finally gave in. Fill it in.

      Does the soil smell around it? Have you been away from the house for long? If water is coming out of that pipe when you flush the toilet or run the house water then yes…I’m sorry…you’re looking at an expensive fix. A new septic system, likely a permit, excavation, and so on.

      Wishing you the best, Laura

      p.s. If it is an old bomb shelter or hideaway of sorts, Eric’s asking you to dig a little around that area – there could be antique jewelry or old money boxes buried – and he wants a cut! (joking)

  3. My family and I have just moved to a house that we’ve been told has a septic tank or sewage treatment system… (are those two different things???) anyway… the house was on the market and vacant for over a year and had been winterized. I was told that to “un-winterize” just flush with clean water…I did. About a week after moving in, my kitchen started smelling really rank! My husband noticed a pipe loose under the house right under my sink area…sewage smell really bad…we flushed some Rid-X down the toilet and now…no smell. I would like to know is there a difference between “sewage treatment center” and “septic systems”??? anything else I should know???? Please let me know… thank you.

  4. Kim, your septic troubles are a really good example of why home inspections are crucial when buying a house. I can’t really tell whether you have purchased or are renting your home from your note but if you are renting the septic system is the responsibility of the landlord or home owner.

    Sewage treatment centers are usually run by the municipality of where you live – but this could just be verbiage which may differ from one region to another. If you have a septic system on your property there will be an access point in your lawn however this can be buried over the years in older properties. In modern times a septic plan and permit is required and registered with the municipality.

    I know when I bought my first farmhouse the owner told me approximately where the septic system was buried but I lived there for 3 years before I ever thought to have it emptied. Thankfully the local pumping service knew exactly where it was and where the access was located!

  5. i rent my home and my next door neighors septic tank systems has been running over for months now the the person i rent from will not take the time to fix it he acts like he does not care the smell is getting to me i stay sick it is running into my yard going under my home and that part is my bedroom we sleep with this smell night after night all day long can not get him to fix it what can i do about this i keep headaches just about every day and i feel bad can u please help me

    • Tammy, if your landlord won’t do anything and your neighbor won’t clean up their mess then you have no choice but to go to the officials. Municipalities vary in job titles that will take care of this for you, but the municipal office is always the best place to start. Your living situation is unsafe. If you don’t get any immediate action from the municipal office then phone one of your local politician’s office. Their assistants will find the right person in your township or municipality to resolve the neighbor’s septic issue for you.

  6. i rent my home and my next door neighors septic tank systems has been running over for months now the the person i rent from will not take the time to fix it he acts like he does not care the smell is getting to me i stay sick it is running into my yard going under my home and that part is my bedroom we sleep with this smell night after night all day long can not get him to fix it what can i do about this i keep headaches just about every day and i feel bad can u please help me

    • Call your local health department. If you don’t know how to find that information then call your local municipal office or even (for more personal attention) your local politician.