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The care and feeding of the family septic tank

Posted 03-29-2009 at 03:42 PM by faucetman886

I have written several well received blogs, of late, on plumbing smells as well as clogs and sewage backups so I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about the proper care and maintenance of your septic system. If you are on a septic tank, as opposed to a public sewer system you are at the mercy of a complicated process that if not maintained can ruin your day in one flush.
To properly maintain your septic tank you need a basic understanding of how it works. When your home was built a large concrete tank was buried in the yard in an area of good percolation. Now don’t get confused, this has nothing to do with your morning coffee. Percolation in this case defines how fast water poured into a hole in the yard seeps or percolates down into the ground. This is very important because if the ground is not porous enough or contains too much bedrock too close to the surface then your system will not drain properly and will back up into your house. Most county health departments require a “perc” test before a building permit is issued and this test defines the best placement for your septic system. The system itself is the aforementioned tank and a drain field of lines which radiate out from near the top of the tank and out across the “drain field”. Basically waste water from sinks, bathtubs, toilets and washing machines enter the system from the drain lines installed in your home. As the water sits in the septic tank it separates, the solids going to the bottom and grease, soap and dissolved waste effluent floats to the top. Micro-organisms in the sewage continuously work to break down the solids in the bottom and when they are dissolved enough they float to the top and join the waste water on its trip out into the drain field and then percolate into the ground. Although there are enzyme treatments such as “Ridex” available to assist the breakdown of these solids the key to your system working normally is just in using it on a regular basis. If you are not a full time resident in your home, such as a vacation home then you may need to boost the tanks operation with these enzymes or by adding some dissolved live yeast to the system to kick start it. To increase the time between having to clean out your septic system avoid pouring grease down your drains as it will clump together and float to the top of the tank eventually clogging the drain lines and causing a back-up into your house. Avoid flushing non-degradable items such as feminine sanitary products, q-tips, disposable diapers, plastic items, cigarette butts (very non PC these days) paper towels and if like my home, toys, the family cat or litter from the cat box..LOL
You should avoid planting trees and shrubs close to the drain field lines on your septic system. The roots from these plants will find their way into your field lines and eventually clog the drain field causing the tank to over fill and back up into the yard or worse into your house. A failed septic system can be a major expense and put the groundwater that supplies your drinking water at risk. No matter what the cause, septic system failure is a nuisance and a health hazard that should be fixed promptly. A failure can result in pollution of wells, lakes, and streams. Using more water than the soil can absorb is also a cause for septic system failure. Over saturated soil causes the sewage to be forced to the surface or backs up into the house. This problem is often the result of one of two problems. Either the system is improperly designed if your home is new, or as the result of a change in water use habits such as an increase in the size of the family or the addition of a water-using appliance. Also surface water draining from roofs, driveways, and roads onto the soil absorption field area can put an extra load on the system. If the soil is saturated with clean water, even seasonally, it cannot accept any more wastewater. The untreated wastewater will either rise to the surface or back up. Driving, paving, or building on top of a drain field can damage it. Pipes can shift or be crushed and the soil compacted. Damage of this sort can make it difficult to locate the septic tank and prevents access for regular pumping.
If you ever experience a septic system failure you will subscribe to the principle that the septic tank should be pumped about every 1 to 3 years to remove the sludge and scum retained in the tank and prevent clogging of the soil absorption field. More frequent pumping is needed if a garbage disposal is used in the home. It doesn’t take but that one bout of sewage backed up in your basement, bathtub or dishwasher to make you a believer. In theory it will back up into the lowest point of the plumbing system and further depending on how much resistance it encounters along the way. Not a pretty picture. So treat you septic tank well and feed it regularly.
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