Click here to download the EPA’s Guide to a Septic System
Frequently Asked Septic System Questions:
- What are septic systems?
- How does a septic system work?
- Why do septic systems fail?
- How can I find my system and its components?
- How often should the system be cleaned?
- What are common causes of septic tank failure?
- What preventative measures can help my system work properly?
- What should I do if my system backs up?
What are septic systems?
Septic systems are used to treat and dispose of relatively small volumes of wastewater, usually from houses and businesses that are located relatively close together. Septic systems are also called onsite wastewater treatment systems, decentralized wastewater treatment systems, on-lot systems, individual sewage disposal systems, cluster systems, package plants, and private sewage systems.
How does a septic system work?
The typical septic treatment system includes a septic tank, which digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and settleable solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, leaching chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil or surface water.
Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat, sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil or surface waters.
Why do septic systems fail?
Most septic system failures are related to inappropriate design and poor maintenance. Some soil-based systems (with a leach or drain field) have been installed at sites with inadequate or inappropriate soils, excessive slopes or high ground water tables. These conditions can cause hydraulic failures and water resource contamination. Failure to perform routine maintenance, such as pumping the septic tank at least every 2 to 3 years, can cause solids in the tank to migrate into the drain field and clog the system.
How can I find my system and its components?
Sometimes you want to have your septic system pumped out or you are required to locate your system before you can extend your deck or add on to your house, and you may not know exactly where your septic system is.
Checking with the local health department for an asbuilt drawing of your system is the first step. If no records can be obtained A-1 Pumping & Excavating can locate your tank with a steel probe. In some cases an electronic locator is the most effective way to find the tank. Each pumper technician carries a locator on his truck.
A-1 Pumping & Excavating uses an electronic locator and a locator snake to find the tank, distribution boxes and trenches. We mark components with stakes or marking paint and can fax a system sketch directly to the town hail if needed. A-1 Pumping & Excavating also keeps records on file for future use.
How often should the system be cleaned?
The answer is “it depends.” A tank should be pumped and inspected every 2 years (more often if you have a garbage disposal), but frequency of cleaning depends on the size of the tank and the use it is given.
At an average use rate of 70 gallons per person, a family of five uses 127,750 gallons of water a year! If the number of people in the house exceeds the average for that size dwelling (five people for a three bedroom house, for example) - or if the septic tank is smaller than state regulations now require - the system should be pumped every year until experience indicates a longer period can be allowed.
If the solids which settle to the bottom of the tank are not broken down by bacterial action and build up to a high level, they can be carried from the box into the leaching system, clogging the pipes and the field. Eventually the remaining undigested material accumulates and must be cleaned out. This material is called “sludge” or “septage”.
Sludge accumulation is approximately 80 gallons per capita per year or 320 gallons per year, per family of four.
What are common causes of septic tank failure?
Common causes of failure include, but are not limited to:
- neglecting to regularly inspect and clean the septic tank
- lack of understanding on proper use of the system
- poor soil conditions and/or faulty design or installation
- over use - volume of water discharged exceeds system capabilities.
The signs of failure include high surface water in the leaching area, lush growth of grass, odor and waste water draining slowly from the lowest fixtures...or even backing up.
Many problems can be prevented by simple maintenance.. .but not all. If a problem does occur, it is best to contact A-1 Pumping & Excavating for further investigation - as pumping alone may not remedy the problem
What preventative measures can help my system work properly?
A little attention to the care of your system can help avoid the nightmare of a failing system. Assuming that your septic system was properly located, designed, and installed according to stage codes, you are in the driver’s seat for the care of your system. By following the recommendations below, you can help your system work properly for years to come.
What should I do if my system backs up?
If sewage from your plumbing fixtures or onsite system backs up into your home or business, avoid contact with the sewage and the possibly harmful pathogens it might contain. Contact A-1 Pumping & Excavating by calling 605-334-4440 or your local health department or regulatory agency immediately.
Cleanup personnel should wear protective clothing (e.g., long rubber gloves, face splash shields). After cleanup is complete, all equipment, tools, and clothing used in the cleanup and the flooded basement area should be washed thoroughly and disinfected with a mixture of 90 percent water and 10 percent household bleach. The area should be dried out with fans, heat lamps, or other devices and not be used until it has been completely dry for at least 24 hours.
Remember: Whenever the water table is high or your sewage system is threatened by flooding there is a risk that sewage will back up into your home. The only way to prevent this backup is to relieve pressure on the system by using it less. You should also check your maintenance record and consider scheduling your next pumping service.