What's the Difference Between a Septic System and a Sewer System?

by Michael Franco
illustration of a house with a sewer system and septic system underneath

When purchasing a new home, one thing you may have never thought about is how your new house disposes of wastewater. In the vast majority of cases, your home is either connected to a public sewer system, or it uses a septic tank.

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The difference between a septic system and a sewer system is that a septic system treats your wastewater directly on your property, whereas a sewer system sends water from your home to a water treatment plant. Sewer systems are typically operated and provided by your local municipality, but they aren’t always available to all homeowners.

How Does a Sewer System Work?

Your home's plumbing system is designed to take the waste you produce on a daily basis out of and away from your home. All of the drains in your home are connected to a larger drainpipe that funnels the water underground. If you rely on a public sewer system, this wastewater drains into a large network of sewer pipes that ultimately route to a water treatment facility. There the water is filtered, cleaned and treated so that it can be used again.

Although being connected to a sewer system requires virtually zero maintenance on the homeowner's end, you’ll be charged a monthly fee for the service. Similarly, you don’t have to work about regular upkeep and service costs; it’s all handled by your local municipality. What’s more, you’ll be free to dig and plant anywhere in your backyard without having to worry about damaging your septic tank and pipes.

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How Does a Septic System Work?

Like we said earlier, septic systems treat your wastewater on-site instead of routing it to a water treatment plant. In a septic system, household wastewater drains from your home into an underground septic tank somewhere on your property. In the tank, the wastewater sits for about a day. During this time, the solid waste settles to the bottom of the tank, where natural bacteria and enzymes work to break down the solid waste into a more environmentally manageable form. The water is then filtered out of the tank and released back into the ground through the so-called drain field.

Septic systems, like any other wastewater management system, have their share of both pros and cons. One advantage to having a septic system is that they are significantly more environmentally friendly than large-scale sewer systems. This is because water treatment plants use large amounts of energy to function. Additionally, sewer systems routinely fail and need repairs, all of which can negatively impact the environment.

Another advantage is that septic systems tend to cost less in the long run. While the installation of your septic tank can be costly, you don’t have to pay monthly to keep it running. That said, routine maintenance and repairs are an inevitable aspect of owning a septic tank. Leaks, pipe ruptures and clogged pipes can all lead to a big mess. You’ll also need to keep your tank pumped every three to five years as well. Having a septic tank pumped can cost up to $400. While not exactly cheap, when compared to having a monthly sewer bill, a properly maintained septic system tends to cost less over time.

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Do I Have a Septic System or a Sewer System?

If you’ve recently purchased a home, you may not know whether your new house uses a septic tank or is connected to a public sewer system. To figure this out, start by considering the location of your home. Are you in a largely urban or suburban area? If you live in a subdivision in a populous area, then, chances are, you’re connected to a sewer. However, if your home is located in a more rural area away from a central urban area, you’re more likely to have a septic tank.

Another way to check is to take a close look at your monthly bills. If your home is connected to a public sewer system, you’ll be paying for it each month, and the cost is typically wrapped into your water utility bill. Because septic systems are maintained and managed by each homeowner, on the other hand, you won’t be charged a monthly fee.

Finally, if you still aren’t sure, you can call your local government or municipality. Typically, if you can supply them with your name and address, you can receive information regarding the specifics of your property.

Septic Vs. Sewer

Knowing the ins and outs of your home’s wastewater management system is essential information for any homeowner. By knowing what kind of system you have, you can determine what your responsibilities are as a homeowner and how to best care for your property.

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