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The septic tank is a large, underground, watertight container. All of the wastewater from your toilet, bath, kitchen and laundry flows into the tank. Heavy solids settle to the bottom of the where bacteria reduce them to sludge and gasses. Lighter solids such as grease rise to the top and form a scum layer. Solids that do not decompose remain in the tank. If the solids are not removed by periodic pumping (every 3-5 years), they will accumulate and eventually overflow into the drain field, which can cause extensive damage.
The wastewater that leaves the septic tank is a liquid called effluent. The soil in the drain field provides the final treatment and disposal of the septic tank effluent. The drain field has a network of perforated pipes laid in gravel filled trenches in the soil. The effluent trickles out of the pipes, through the gravel and into the soil.
Alternative systems such as grinder pump systems, step systems, and many other septic systems have different tank configurations than shown here.
Operations and Maintenance recommends pumping a tank when solids reach 25% to 33% in the first compartment or main Tank.
Once a year, inspect the tank yourself or have a septic tank technician check the levels. Also, periodically inspect the drain field areas for odors, wet spots or surfacing sewage. State and County regulations may require inspections more frequently on some systems.
To measure scum accumulation, nail a 3" square block to a 6' pole and poke the block through the scum layer. Carefully move the pole up and down to feel the resistance as you move the block up against the bottom of the scum layer. Mark that place on the pole that is level with ground. Then feel around for the bottom of the outlet pipe and mark that level on the pole, if the two marks are 3" or less apart, your tank needs to be pumped.
To check the sludge level, wrap a rag around the bottom 3 feet of the 6' pole and fasten it with tape. Push the towel down to the bottom of the tank and twirl it. Mark the pole at the ground level. Pull it out after a few minutes and measure the difference between the top of the sludge layer (the top of the black material on the towel) and the bottom of the outlet pipe (marked when you checked the sludge level). If this distance is 12" or less, have your tank pumped.
To extend the life of your on-site sewage system, save on maintenance costs, and protect water quality:
Generally, septic tanks should be pumped every three to five years. Inspection, by you or a professional, may show that you need to pump more less often. Regular pumping ensures that solids will not flow from the septic tank into the drain field.
Don't wait until you have a problem. Routine pumping can prevent system failures. If you can't remember when your tank was last pumped, your septic system may be living on borrowed time.
Keep a diagram of your system's location and keep a record of system maintenance for future owners. Keep this information in the house. (We've included space in this brochure to make this simple.)
The less wastewater you produce, the less strain on your system. By reducing your water use, you can extend the life of your drain field and decrease the possibility of system failure.
If you notice any of these warning signs contact a professional septic company immediately for assistance.
Once solids have flowed into the drain field and caused damage, pumping the septic tank will not bring a failed drain field back to life.
No vehicles, heavy equipment or livestock because the pressure can compact the soil or damage the system pipes. Do not plant a garden; construct a building or a pool near the septic system without checking with the health department first.
Do not place impermeable materials over your drain field. Concrete, asphalt and plastic prevent oxygen from getting into the soil. Oxygen is needed by bacteria to break down the sewage.
Drain cleaners, floor cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, paints solvents, waxes, polishes, coating or strippers may destroy important bacteria in the septic tank and contaminate ground and surface water.
It adds solids and grease to the system. If a garbage disposal is used, more frequent cleaning of the septic tank will be required.
The large volume of water will overload the system and the disinfectant in the spa water can destroy important bacteria in the system.
Water from roofs, driveways and patios could overwhelm the drain field, causing irreversible damage.
Poisonous gases or lack of oxygen can be fatal. Any work to the tank should be done from the outside.
Additives may provide a short-term benefit but create long-term problems. If used continually these products do not reduce the need for routine pumping.