How to Care for a Septic Tank and Septic System

Interior of bathroom

Robert Daly / Getty Images

Septic tank maintenance is not just an issue for people who live on a farm or out in the country. You might be surprised to discover how many city dwellers need septic tank maintenance as well. Most folks who live in rural areas probably have a septic system instead of a sewer connection, but septic systems are in place all over the nation.

Taking care of your septic system isn't difficult because even upgraded systems function efficiently when you follow a few basic guidelines. 

Proper Installation

Have your septic system installed properly to avoid problems down the road. When you apply for a building permit, health officials in your jurisdiction will perform a soil test or a percolation test to confirm that the ground will support a septic system.

Inspectors will also visit your building site to verify that the property has the conditions required for a nonproblematic septic system.

Don't Overload It

You can do a few things regularly to keep your septic tank and system running smoothly. Check faucets and toilets for leaks and make repairs if necessary. Crawl under your house periodically or look in the basement, if you have one, to check for additional leaks.

Use aerators on faucets and flow reducer nozzles on showers to help lower water consumption, and reduce water levels for small loads of laundry. You might also consider buying energy-efficient appliances. Wait until your dishwasher is full to run your dishwasher or try a shorter dishwashing cycle that uses less water.

Use a displacer—even a brick will work—to reduce the amount of water needed to flush the toilet. Better yet, replace the toilet with a modern low-flow that saves on water.

Dispose of Garbage Properly

Never flush cat litter, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, tampons, paper towels, facial tissues, coffee grounds, or cigarette butts and filters down the toilet. These types of items clog septic tanks in almost less time than it took you to brew the coffee in the first place. 

Grease can clog the septic drainfield, making it impossible for the soil to absorb liquids—not good. If you pour too much grease down the drain, you'll need a new drainfield, which can be costly.

A garbage disposal can double the volume of solids added to a septic tank. Are you sure you even really need a garbage disposal? It's really not much more difficult or time-consuming to scrape plates into a plastic bag, tie it up, and drop it outside in the trash. 

If you replace your disposal, choose a top-line unit that grinds food into tiny particles that are easier for your septic system to digest.

Minimize Heavy-Duty Cleaners

Overuse of heavy-duty cleaners kills the beneficial bacteria in a septic tank so solids won't break down as well. Best to avoid them or use them as little as possible.

Varnish, paint thinners, motor oils, gasoline, and other similar chemicals can ruin your system as well, and they're also a hazard to groundwater. Store used hazardous chemicals in appropriate containers and dispose of them in accordance with your jurisdiction's hazardous waste laws.

Protect the System

Don't drive over the drainfield, build a structure on top of it, cover it with concrete or asphalt, or allow livestock to roam over it. Do plant grass on it. This will minimize soil erosion.

Discourage root damage by keeping trees at least 100 feet away from the septic system. Trees with very aggressive roots, such as willows, should be even farther away from the system.

A soggy drainfield won't absorb and neutralize liquid waste either. Plan your landscaping, roof gutters, and foundation drains so that excess water is diverted away from the septic drainfield.

Perform Regular Maintenance

The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is particularly on target when it comes to septic systems. Remember to pump.

Solids must always be pumped from the tank eventually. Many experts advise that a family of four with a 1,000-gallon septic tank should have the tank pumped after three to five years of full-time use. Other experts say that you can go much longer between pumping operations, so don't rely on the calendar alone.

When the bottom of the scum begins collecting within three inches or so of the outlet, or when the top of the sludge is within 12 inches, it's time. Check the status of the situation at least once a year.

When Problems Arise

If your system goes toes up despite all your diligent care and efforts, you'll know it. The signs are pretty much inescapable. Keep an eye—and your nose—on the drainfield. You might notice sewage bubbling up, and you should definitely smell it. But not all signs of system failure are immediately repulsive. If your grass there and unwanted weeds are suddenly growing like crazy, this could also be a sign that something is wrong.

Of course, you'll know there's a problem if you experience plumbing backup. It doesn't necessarily have to be a complete logjam, either. A slowdown in draining and gurgling sounds can be clues, too. Keep accurate records of each time you have your system serviced and when there's a problem. It will come in very handy the next time you have to call a professional for help.

Never attempt to open a septic tank yourself if this isn't your area of expertise. It contains dangerous gases and bacteria.