HOMEOWNERS GUIDE TO ONSITE WASTEWATER SYSTEM MAINTENANCE
The comments of this informational letter are being provided to you as a helpful guideline regarding the maintenance of your new ON-SITE WASTEWATER SYSTEM, commonly referred to as a septic system. This letter is not meant to be an all inclusive comprehensive information guide, but rather a guide for those many people who have never owned a septic system before. For more detailed information we can give you contacts that will help you better understand the workings of a wastewater system. Please feel free to contact us if you would like additional information.
Maintaining your new system will protect your investment, and you are the only one responsible for the maintenance.
An onsite wastewater system has five main components: A PIPE from the house, a SEPTIC TANK, a PIPE to the leachfield, a LEACHFIELD and the SOIL that absorbs the wastewater. The pipe leading from the house carries ALL wastewater to the tank. The tank allows the solids in wastewater to separate and fall to the bottom of the tank. The greases and oils separate as well and rise to the surface. The solids fall to what is called the sludge zone, and the greases & oils rise to what is called the scum zone. The wastewater is intended to be held in the tank for a minimum of 30 hours during this separation period where it naturally decomposes. The wastewater between the solids and the greases & oils is then transferred to the second compartment of the tank where it is taken to the leachfield by way of a pipe connected from the tank to the field manifold. Once the wastewater leaves the tank as effluent, it has been somewhat treated. When the effluent reaches the manifold in the leachfield it is equally dispersed throughout the leachfield. Upon entering the leachfield the effluent is absorbed into the soil where it is further treated and harmful bacteria, viruses and nutrients are removed by percolation into the soil. When the effluent passes through at least four (4) feet of soil below the bottom of the leachbed, it is considered safe to enter the aquifer.
When onsite wastewater systems are properly engineered, installed and maintained, the homeowner should be able to expect years of continued use from the system. This system needs to be monitored by YOU to ensure that the system works properly throughout the life of the system. Two obvious reasons to maintain your system properly are to save you money and to protect the health & environment around you and those surrounding you. If your system fails, it is usually due to improper or no maintenance. The usual remedy for repair of a failing system is to replace the system with a new system. This of course is costly. A failing system usually manifests itself by backing-up into the house and/or water surfacing on the ground directly adjacent to or directly above the leachbed. This surface water is a combination of pollutants which can cause severe illness to humans and animals. This would naturally be a community health concern, a liability on your part, and the need to repair this system in a timely fashion is of significant importance.
The maintenance of an onsite wastewater system is really very simple, requires very little effort on the part of the homeowner and, properly done, leaves the homeowner with a feeling of security.
For STANDARD onsite wastewater systems, the maintenance required would be to have the system inspected by a professional at an interval of between two (2) and three (3) years. The inspector generally recommends pumping of the tank at the same interval. The inspector should check for leaks of the system as well as determine the distance between the sludge layer and the scum layer in the tank. The distance between the sludge layer and the scum layer decreases as the tank fills. The net result is to have the tank pumped prior to either the scum or the sludge leaving the tank, and entering the leachfield. Should the pumping of the tank be unduly delayed, the chance for failure increases. At some point in time, ALL tanks will need to be pumped. Naturally, all systems and their maintenance schedule are dependent upon use, i.e., number of people in the household, the amount of wastewater generated, the volume of solids in the wastewater (garbage disposal) and the actual volumetric size of the septic tank.
For ENGINEER DESIGNED wastewater systems, i.e., Mound Systems, Filtered Systems, Pumped Systems, Systems with mechanical components, etc., the maintenance schedule should be more frequent, and the inspection more detailed. The professional inspector will know what to look for and inspect. We recommend you consult with the designing engineer for any special maintenance and servicing requirements specific to your system.
Additive manufacturers claiming that their product will break down solids to the point the tank never needs pumped can be misleading. As stated previously, ALL tanks eventually need to be pumped. Never take for granted that your system is working properly without having the system inspected.
We recommend that you record inspections and maintenance on a maintenance log. This practice will help you determine the time frame that is required to properly have your system inspected and your tank pumped.
Efficient water usage is the most effective method you as a homeowner can use to manage the amount of wastewater your system must treat.
- All plumbing leaks should be repaired as soon as they are noticed.
- High efficiency appliances such as toilets, washing machines and showerheads can be employed to reduce water usage. If the toilet you own is an older style toilet, water in the reservoir of the toilet can be displaced by using a water filled plastic container or similar item in the reservoir tank. 1.6 gallons of water is all that is needed to effectively flush a toilet.
- When washing clothes, be certain to set the water volume for the load being washed, use small volumes for small loads. Try to do your laundry at different periods throughout the week rather than one day set aside to do all laundry. Flooding your system with large volumes of water, does not allow the tank to naturally treat the water, and floods your leachfield.
- Showering uses less water than taking a bath, and the volume of the shower water is easily controlled through the faucet. Practice common sense in what you flush down your drains in your home. Do not flush chemicals other than those used for the cleaning of toilets and sinks, down your drains. If an item can be disposed of through household trash, that is the proper place for disposal. Chemicals in a septic tank can change the natural decomposition process, and items not meant to be flushed, do not break down, and can cause blockages. The normal use of household chemicals as recommended by the manufacturer should not have a negative effect on your system.
Most of the items discussed above deal with the septic tank and it's care and maintenance. The leachfield, however, is the largest item of your system, and failure of the leachfield is very costly and site sensitive. When your system was designed, it was placed in an area because the soils in that area depicted suitable qualities for the leachfield placement. Three major factors that cause leachfield failures and that the homeowner can control are:
- Extraneous water on the leachfield.
- Compacting the ground surface above the leachfield.
- Tree roots or other large root systems entering the field.
To avoid these potential problems, homeowners should make sure that roof drains, rain water, irrigation practices and so forth do not create a situation where outside water penetrates the leachfield. Leachfields should never become parking areas, nor should any type of practice which might compact the soil above the leachfield occur. Livestock such as cattle, horses, etc. should not have access to the area above the leachfield. Trees and other shrubs are always looking for water for their root systems. We recommend trees and other large root systems be removed for at least twenty (20) feet from the outside edge of your leachfield. It is not impractical for root systems to go greater distances than twenty (20) feet in search of water. Suffice it to say, the further a root system is from your field, the less chance a tree root will clog your system. Planting grasses over the field is a good practice, and there will probably be sufficient natural water to keep the grasses alive. The draining of swimming pools, hot tubs and water purification systems into your septic system is not a good practice, and should be avoided.
We certainly hope this has been a beneficial guide, and if we can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us. Other sources of information are as follows:
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Septic (Onsite) Systems
National Environmental Services Center
Rural Community Assistance Partnership
National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association