There are currently 21 million households in America that rely on septic tanks. Septic systems are the most practical alternative for homes that are too remote to use a public sewer system, especially those in rural areas.
For homes that are equipped with a septic system, the extra effort that is required to maintain and clean the systems can, at times, be a burden. Septic systems don’t have to be an inconvenience, though, so long as you are aware of how best to maintain your system and what harmful items you should never dump into your tank.
Here is a brief overview of the Do’s and Don’ts of owning a septic tank.
The Do’s: Keeping your septic system happy
The Environmental Protection Agency provides a helpful guide for maintaining your septic system. They have broken up their suggestions into four areas which are good Do’s to follow.
DO be water-efficient
All households should be doing their best to limit water use. It benefits the environment and it saves you money. Septic tank owners, in particular, should pay attention to their water use as all of that water has to be filtered through the septic tank. The more water your tank must process, the faster it will wear out and need repair.
Doing laundry uses a very large amount of water, some washing machines use up to 50 gallons of water per load. Doing multiple loads one after another can be an overload on your tank. If you were to do several loads in a row, the sudden flow of so much greywater could be a stress on your tank. It’s better to stagger doing laundry throughout the week, rather than do it all on the weekend. Click here to see our top picks for good septic-safe laundry detergent.
DO dispose of waste separately
Septic tanks are not trash compactors. That might sound obvious, but it really needs to be stressed. Your septic tank can process human waste, water, and kitchen byproducts up to a point, but if you use your garbage disposal or a toilet like a trash can, you will cause damage to your septic system.
Paper items, large food scraps, hygiene products, plastic, and cigarettes are just some of the items that you should throw in a trash can, not your septic tank. As long as you are conscientious about what you put down your drains, your septic system will have no major issues.
DO keep your the area above your tank and drain field in good condition
The drain field might be the most important part of your entire septic system. It is where the wastewater from your septic tank is deposited after it has been fully processed and the solid and oily byproducts have been separated. The drain field is fed by pipes that are generally covered by a layer of sand or gravel underneath a layer of soil.
To make sure the drain field isn’t disturbed or damaged, you should never park any vehicles on it. Also, do not plant trees on or near the field as their roots will break up the soil and possibly cause damage to your pipes. Also, make sure that there aren’t other pipes or drainage systems draining into the same field.
These are the essential Do’s of owning a septic system. If you follow them, you should have no major issues with your system. That is, assuming you also avoid any of the following Don’ts.
DO inspect and pump your tank
Septic systems are designed to work for many years but to ensure that you get the most out of your system, you will need to inspect it regularly as well as pump it every few years. Inspections are suggested every 1-3 years while pumping should occur at least once every 3-5 years (depending on the size of the household and daily usage and habits).
To inspect the tank, you will need to physically locate it and dig out the surrounding dirt if it is buried underground. This inspection involves checking the exterior for cracks or holes in the tank or the pipes. Running water from the house can help you more easily see if there are leaks anywhere. If you’re handy you could do this inspection yourself, although many homeowners prefer to have a certified septic installer do this for you, local septic system maintenance companies offer this service and it’s often done at the same time as pumping the tank.
A septic service provider can pump your tank for you. They will also do an inspection when they come and determine the scum and sludge levels in your tank. The EPA recommends that you take note of these levels for future reference.
The Don’ts: Avoiding septic system sadness
Like most complex systems, there are quite a few missteps you can take to harm your septic system. Here are a few key actions to avoid.
DON’T dump unnecessary chemicals into your system
You can read about the various types of chemicals that are safe for your septic tank here, but the key point is that no matter what chemicals you put into your system, you should do so in moderation. Paints, solvents and toxic cleaners should be brought to a local recycling center or drop off location for household waste. Never pour these down the drain.
DON’T dump dirt, sand, or kitty litter into your system
Dirt and sand won’t be broken down in your tank, and once those materials get wet, they turn into heavy, septic tank-breaking clods. If you are washing dirty clothes, try to brush off the worst of the clumps before throwing them into the washing machine. Also, kitty litter should never be thrown down your drain. It will wreak havoc on your pipes and damage your tank.
DON’T overuse garbage disposals
As we said above, your septic tank isn’t a garbage can. This is true even if you have a garbage disposal in your sink. Yes, disposals break down food waste into smaller parts, but those chunks of food can still put an incredible strain on your system. There are some garbage disposals on the market that are designed specifically for use with septic systems, but even with those, it’s best to use in moderation.
DON’T dump kitchen grease/oil down your drain
Grease and oil are two of the hardest materials to break down. It is inevitable that some oils will go down the drain and your septic tank is designed to separate that oil and float it on the top of the wastewater where it will turn into scum. However, excessive amounts of oil can end up draining into your drain field and causing considerable damage. For that reason, never dump your extra oil or grease down the kitchen sink.
DON’T use unnecessary additives
There are some products on the market that claim to help your septic system work more effectively. If your septic system has been maintained properly and is in working order, there is absolutely no reason to use such additives. There has only been a little research on the effectiveness of these additives but, at best, the findings have been indecisive. You can also save money and make your own homemade septic tank treatment in a few easy steps.
Our advice: leave it to researchers and experts to determine which additives can actually benefit your septic system. Until there is a consensus, don’t waste your money.
These are the essential Do’s and Don’ts of septic system ownership. Follow them and you should have no complaints. If you are looking for a few more specific suggestions for what to do and not do with your septic system, check out this helpful video.