How Your Home's Septic System Works

by John Warbuck
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If your home uses a septic tank, not knowing how to care for it properly can be costly.

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Here’s what homeowners need to know about their septic systems.

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What Is a Home Septic System?

A home septic system is one sewage solution that manages wastewater by containing it within a controlled system so that organic matter can be broken down and separated from pure water. It consists of a primary water line, septic tank and drainfield. People living in rural areas are more likely to have a septic tank than those living in cities connected to complex sewer lines.

Septic systems require a large enough tank and drainfield to allow waste to decompose naturally. While the waste is eliminated regularly when it enters groundwater through the drainfield, septic systems do require routine maintenance and repairs. You should also take care not to dispose of materials that could clog your septic tank and cause sewage to back up into your home.

How Does a Septic System Work?

The primary purpose of a septic system is to remove viruses and anaerobic bacteria from waste before allowing it to be absorbed into the ground. After your wastewater percolates through your drainfield, it returns to nature as pure water, where it can be consumed by plants and animals. Understanding how this process works is important if you own a septic system because it helps you know how to care for it and why routine septic pumping is required.

Septic Tank

Your septic tank is most likely made of concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene. It’s connected to your main drainage line, and all the water exiting your home empties into this tank. Waste, which is referred to as sludge and scum, settles to the bottom of the septic tank while liquids are able to pass through the tank more freely.

Once the waste settles to the bottom of the septic tank, it begins to degrade when it’s consumed by bacteria and other microorganisms. As time passes, solid waste turns into liquid that can exit the tank into the drainfield.

Drainfield

A drainfield acts as a filtration system for your wastewater, separating harmful waste from water so that it can reincorporate with nature over time. The most important function of your drainfield is to ensure that you’re not exposed to viruses and bacteria through the ground that could make you or your family ill.

When the drainfield is working as intended, waste and water are filtered through unsaturated soil. Your drainfield may overflow if you place too heavy a demand on your septic system. If you see or smell sewage outside your home, it could be due to an overloaded drainfield.

Groundwater

By the time your waste reaches your groundwater, it’s been separated into organic matter and harmless water. One concern people have about their septic systems is whether they’re contaminating nearby wells, but this isn’t a problem as long as you’re maintaining your tank and drainfield.

There are some alternative septic systems that use pumps, sawdust and other media to filter waste instead of a traditional drainfield. It’s a good idea to inquire about what form of system you have so that you can care for it properly.

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How Often Does a Septic System Require Maintenance?

Your septic system maintenance needs may vary based on the following:

  • How many people live in your home
  • Your family’s combined water usage
  • The size of your septic tank
  • How proactive you are with measures to keep your septic system clean

A good rule of thumb is to start having your septic system inspected annually, beginning three years after you’ve last pumped it. In addition to checking whether your tank needs to be pumped, a professional can let you know if you have any leaks or if your drainfield is still intact.

Making sure that your drainfield is undisturbed can reduce your need for septic system maintenance. Try not to plant any trees near your drainfield because the roots can wreak havoc on your entire system. Keeping vehicles off of it is also a good idea.

Septic System Care Tips

When caring for your septic system, consider doing the following:

  • Only flushing toilet paper and human waste down your toilets
  • Taking care regarding what you pour down the sink, such as chemical cleaners, grease, paint or oils
  • Limiting the use of a sink garbage disposal
  • Installing high-efficiency toilets in your home
  • Using less water for showers or baths
  • Washing your clothing in smaller loads and throughout the week instead of on a single day

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Elocal Editorial Content is for educational and entertainment purposes only. Editorial Content should not be used as a substitute for advice from a licensed professional in your state reviewing your issue. The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the eLocal Editorial Team and other third-party content providers do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of eLocal or its affiliate companies. Use of eLocal Editorial Content is subject to the

Website Terms and Conditions.

The eLocal Editorial Team operates independently of eLocal USA's marketing and sales decisions.

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