In-ground septic systems have been in use for over a hundred years. A properly designed, correctly installed and regularly maintained system can last for decades. An unusable septic system can create unsanitary conditions in the home should wastewater back up into the plumbing fixtures, and it can also cause more widespread environmental damage and health issues that could lead to legal liability problems.
A system that does not operate correctly can cost you thousands of dollars for repairs or replacement and can decrease the value of your home and property as well. Assuming that your system was properly designed and correctly installed, preventive maintenance is the key to having a problem-free septic system.
How the Septic System Works
A septic system can be divided into four main sections: the main drainpipe from your home, the septic tank, the drain field and the soil surrounding the drain field. After the wastewater leaves your home through the drain, it enters the septic tank where a natural process begins to breakdown the solids. Anaerobic bacteria separate the waste into sludge, which settles onto the bottom of the septic tank.
Partially treated wastewater or effluent settles at the mid-section of the tank and a layer of scum settles at the top. The partially treated effluent moves into the drain field through plumbing lines, including perforated leach lines, where the bacteria continue the decomposition process. From the drain field, the water is released into the surrounding soil where aerobic bacteria and the filtering action of the soil and underlying gravel complete the purification of the effluent before it reaches groundwater.
Common Septic System Problems and Prevention
- Sludge: Sludge entering your drain field and clogging drain holes can cause backups inside your home. Most of these problems can be eliminated by having your septic tank pumped out periodically.
- Water-saturated drain field: Too much water in too short a period can flush untreated wastewater into your drain field and cause it to flood, which will be visible on the ground around your drain field. Any excessive water allowed to collect around your drain field can cause plumbing fixtures to back up.
- Septic tank not processing solids: Be careful what you put into your drains. Avoid adding plastic, vinyl or paper feminine products to toilets. Do not pour chemicals into the system unless they are marked as safe for septic systems. Opt for septic-safe, biodegradable soaps; avoid bleaches and other harsh chemicals that disrupt the bacteria in the system.
- Soil compaction: Keep vehicles and heavy equipment off the soil above your septic system. Do not build over a septic system or allow animals to graze there. These can compact the soil and damage system components and prevent the drain field from easily dispersing effluent.
- Invasive roots: Do not plant trees or shrubs near your septic system. Roots can damage pipes, your septic tank or drain field.
Before installing a septic system, it is important to ensure that your soil is suitable for the type of system you are considering. A soil analysis and percolation test should tell you if your soil will provide adequate wastewater treatment. If your soil is not suitable for a typical septic system or is too close to surface water or groundwater, you may want to consider an alternative system. Alternative systems often use electrical mechanical devices and require additional preventive maintenance.