How to Care for a Septic Tank and Septic System

Septic system maintenance tips

Interior of bathroom
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Septic tank maintenance is not just for people who live on a farm or out in the country. You might be surprised to discover that some city dwellers need septic tank maintenance. Most folks who live in a rural area probably have a septic system instead of a sewer connection, but septic systems are in place all over the country.

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

 Put these tips to use for a clean and trouble-free septic system.

Proper Installation Is Key

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 soil test or 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 non-problematic septic system.

Don't Overload the Septic Tank and Drainfield

  • Check faucets and toilets for leaks; make repairs if necessary.
  • Crawl under your house or look in the basement, if you have one, to look for more leaks.
  • Use aerators on faucets and flow reducer nozzles on showers to help lower water consumption.
  • Reduce water levels for small loads of laundry or consider buying energy-efficient appliances.
  • Wait until the dishwasher is full to run it or try a shorter dishwashing cycle, which 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.

Don't Use the Toilet as a Garbage Disposal

  • 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 less time than you might imagine.

    Don't Pour Grease Down the Drain

    • Grease can clog the septic drainfield, making it impossible for soil to absorb liquids. If you pour too much grease down the drain, you'll need a new drainfield, which can be costly.

    Divert Rainwater From the Septic Drainfield

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

    Keep Trees Away from the Septic System

    • 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.

    Use Garbage Disposals Wisely

    • A garbage disposal can double the amount of solids added to a septic tank. Are you sure you even need a garbage disposal? I removed mine from under the sink and have a lot more space as a result, plus I don't miss it.
    • If you replace your disposal, then choose a top-line disposal unit that grinds food into tiny particles that are easier for a system to "digest."

    Minimize Heavy-Duty Cleaners

    • Overuse of heavy-duty cleaners kills beneficial bacteria in the septic tank, so solids won't break down as well.

    Avoid Hazardous Chemicals

    • Varnish, paint thinners, motor oils, gasoline and other similar chemicals can ruin your system and are 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 from Damage

      • Do not drive over the drainfield, build a structure on top of it, or cover it with concrete or asphalt.
      • Do plant grass on the drainfield to minimize soil erosion.

      Perform Regular Maintenance

      • Solids must eventually be pumped from the tank. Many experts advise a family of four with a 1,000-gallon septic tank to have the tank pumped after three to five years of full-time use. Other experts say you can go much longer between pumping operations.
      • Never attempt to open a septic tank yourself. It contains dangerous gasses and bacteria.

      Edited by Elizabeth Weintraub, Home Buying Expert.

      At the time of writing, Elizabeth Weintraub, Cal BRE # 00697006, is a Broker-Associate at Lyon Real Estate in Sacramento, California.