Septic Systems
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By Clyde Walton,  Licensed Site Evaluator

Septic systems operate through a series of natural processes to treat wastewater.  They involve microbes, soil properties, water and air.  System design is very site specific and takes all this into consideration, including household chemicals, water usage and carrying capacity of the site.  Timely care and maintenance are critical factors in keeping a properly installed septic system from failing.  The effort starts on the first day of use!

For example, is it large enough to accommodate current use demand?  Is it a 2, 3 or 4 bedroom design size?  Is the land grading sending too much surface water drainage into the disposal bed and septic tank area?  Are vehicles driving and parking over the disposal field?  How often is the septic tank pumped out?  Are maintenance records set up to include age of the system, system design and revisions, tank pump-out dates, system repairs and backup expansion or alternate locations?

In general it is recommended that a septic tank be pumped out a least every 3 to 5 years, depending on whether it is used seasonally or year round.  Avoid letting an excessively thick, floating scum layer build up in the tank.  Eventually pieces of it will trickle in the disposal field and permanently clog it up. 

When grading lawns and drives, divert storm water runoff away from the system area.  Septic systems are designed to accommodate a given amount of household wastewater.  Flooding it will reduce the soil oxygen capacity to treat the sewage and eventually “kill” the system.

Consider increasing the system size when adding more bedrooms or increasing other occupancy demands.  If the existing system is too old or unknown,  it usually has to be replaced.  Plan the project well.  There may be space for a building expansion but none for a system expansion or replacement.  This is a good time to get a site evaluator involved.

Sometimes an early detection of system failure can head off some expensive actions later on.  Some warnings to watch out for are:  odors during Spring runoff or prolonged rainy periods, presence of black, slimy breakout spots surfacing up through the disposal area,  occasional “backups” or slow flows in the household plumbing fixtures (also could be caused by clogged drains and traps) and presence of large, dark green grass/vegetated patches.  If these symptoms persist, then some preventative measures may be helpful such as: pumping the septic tank more often or installing flow reducer plumbing.  Low flush toilets, air/water mix shower heads and spacing peak-use periods to avoid “shock loading” the system are ways to ease up on system demand.  Simple tank filters are useful too.

Like with so many buried functioning structures, it is assumed they are always working well.  Out of sight, out of mind!  With respect to septic systems, good care and maintenance are necessary to their longevity and performance.  Malfunctioning systems are annoying and they pollute groundwater, streams and lakes.