How to Treat and Care for Private Septic Systems

house with septic tank
••• © Big Stock Photo

Taking care of a house with a private septic tank is foreign for many new homeowners. We sometimes work with home buyers who are reluctant to consider a house that is not connected to a community sewer. Some have heard horror stories about problems with old-fashioned septic tanks. Others are totally unfamiliar with the concept of private waste removal.

Although you should inspect them prior to purchase, most modern septic systems function in a clean and efficient manner now that regulatory agencies closely monitor their design and installation.

When I think back to one of my first homes, located in the foothills of Tustin in an incorporated area of Santa Ana, California, I had no idea how to care for a septic tank and, in fact, was a little stunned that the home would not be connected to the city sewer system. It wasn't until I held a dinner party for a few hundred people that I discovered what happens if you don't maintain your septic tank.

The fill-up: when the septic tank is full and water and waste continued to flush into it, it will overflow. All over the sidewalk, too, where guests had to walk upon arriving at my home. If the filthy and contaminated water running across my front walk wasn't enough, it also reeked. There was no mistaking the odor. Very embarrassing situation.

So take our advice and get your septic system pumped out on a regular basis. Ask your liquid waste hauler for its frequency recommendations.

What is a Septic System?

A septic system processes and neutralizes liquid and solid waste that exits your home from toilets, sinks, and other plumbing fixtures.

A conventional septic system consists of three main parts:

  • Septic tank
  • Drainfield
  • Soil beneath the drainfield

The Septic Tank

  • A temporary, watertight holding tank for waste, often buried near the house. Tanks usually have a capacity of 1,000 or more gallons.
  • Solids settle to the bottom of the tank and form a layer of sludge.
  • Liquid waste exits near the top of the tank and flows through distribution pipes in the drainfield.

Septic Drainfield

  • Multiple, gravel-lined trenches, usually 2-3 feet deep, where liquid that exits the tank flows. The drainfield is positioned so that gravity allows liquid waste to flow and become distributed into the area.
  • Perforated distribution pipes are placed in drainfield trenches, ensuring that liquid waste can drain over a large area. The bottoms of the trenches are at least 12 inches above the groundwater table, sometimes more depending on the type of soil, so that waste is neutralized before entering.
  • The drainfield is covered with soil before the system is used.


  • Natural components of soil neutralize bacteria and chemicals before they reach groundwater or nearby rivers and lakes. The ideal soil is aerobic, meaning it contains a good amount of cleansing oxygen, and is not saturated with water.

Septic System Variations

Some septic systems are more expensive than the one described above, but they allow you to build on a piece of land that might not be suitable for a conventional septic system. For instance, waste might need to be pumped to the drainfield, rather than entering it from a gravitational drain.

If You're Buying Land

If you are buying land, always make your purchase of an undeveloped piece of land without sewer connections contingent on obtaining a permit to install a septic system. There are some soils that are not suitable for any type of system.

Ask your real estate agent which government agency regulates systems in the area where you plan to build. If you are purchasing a house already on a septic system, ask for a copy of the original septic permit, since it should show you the location of the tank and drain field.

Ask your home inspector about specific septic system tests that can be performed during your home inspection.

Edited by Elizabeth Weintraub, Home Buying Expert

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