Inspect Your System
If your system is only a septic tank and drainfield, commonly called a gravity system, you need to inspect it at least once every three years. All other types of systems are required to be inspected at least once every year. Your local health agency may have a more stringent inspection requirement. You can hire a septic professional to do the inspection or, if your local health department allows it, you can do the inspection yourself.
Septic tanks are settling chambers that allow time for solids and scum to separate out from wastewater, so clear liquid can safely filter into the drainfield. It is important to keep the solids, called sludge, from building up and coming near the outlet baffles of the system – if this happens, solids could plug the pipe to the drainfield, or even worse, clog the drainfield.
Options for inspecting your system include:
Pump Your Tank
Pump out your septic tank when needed. Don't wait until you have a problem. For a typical household, septic tanks are usually pumped every three to five years. Routine pumping can prevent expensive failures such as a clogged drainfield or sewage backing up into the home. Using a garbage disposal will increase the amount of solids entering the septic tank, requiring more frequent pumping. Four major factors influence how often you need to pump your septic:
- Household size. Generally, the more people in the home, the more often you need to pump.
- Total wastewater generated. If you put a lot of water down the drain (from inefficient or leaky toilets, washers, showerheads, and sink faucets), the tank can't settle completely and you may need to pump more often.
- Volume of solids in wastewater. Garbage disposal and food waste going down the drain, and RV and boat waste dumped into your system, will fill the tank up quicker with solids.
- Septic tank size. The bigger the tank, the more capacity it has to handle solids and water, which could allow for more time between pumpings. Older septic tanks might not be sized appropriately for your home, especially if your home has been remodeled and is now larger.
Get tips on hiring a septic pumper.
Use Water Efficiently
Practice water conservation. The more wastewater you produce, the more wastewater the soil must treat and dispose. By reducing and balancing your use, you can extend the life of your drainfield, decrease the possibility of system failure, and avoid costly repairs.
To reduce your water use:
- Use water-saving devices such as faucet aerators and high-efficiency toilets, showerheads, dishwashers, and washing machines.
- Repair leaky faucets and plumbing fixtures. A leaky toilet can waste hundreds of gallons of water a day.
- Take shorter showers.
- Take baths with a partially-filled tub.
- Wash only full loads of dishes and laundry. If your washing machine has load settings, make sure you select the proper load size. Don't select the large-load cycle if you're washing a small amount of laundry.
Learn more about water conservation and water recycling.
Toilets Aren't Trash Cans
Your septic system is not a trash can. Besides human poop and pee, toilet paper, and soap used for washing, not much else should be going down your drain.
- Baby wipes, cleaning wipes, or any moist towelettes.
- Feminine hygiene products such as tampons or pads.
- Paper towels, rags, or newspaper.
- Dental floss.
- Cotton balls and swabs.
- Cigarette butts.
- Coffee grounds.
- Cat litter.
- Grease and cooking oils.
- Household chemicals like gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint. See Ecology's 1-800-RECYCLE for local hazardous waste drop-off locations.
- Prescription medication. Look for a medication take-back program in your area.
Take Care at the Drain
Your septic system contains a collection of living organisms that digest and treat household waste. Pouring toxins down your drain can kill these organisms and harm your septic system. Whether you're at the kitchen sink, bathtub, or utility sink:
- Avoid chemical drain openers for a clogged drain. Instead, use boiling water or a drain snake.
- Never pour cooking oil or grease down the drain. Let it cool, harden, and then throw it away in the trash.
- Never pour oil-based paints, solvents, or large volumes of toxic cleaners down the drain. Even latex paint waste should be minimized.
- Eliminate or limit the use of a garbage disposal. Food waste from garbage disposals fill the septic tank and can clog the drainfield.
Septic tank additives sold in stores aren't necessary to keep your septic tank working properly and they don't reduce or eliminate the need for routine pumping.
Maintain the Area Around Your System
- Keep water runoff away from your system. Water from roofs drains, driveways, patios, or sump pumps should be diverted away from the septic tank and drainfield area. Soil over your system should be slightly mounded to help surface water runoff. If heavy rains cause water to sit around your septic system, avoid putting water down your drains.
- Protect your system from damage. Keep vehicles, heavy equipment, and livestock off your septic tank, drainfield, and drainfield replacement area. The pressure can compact the soil and damage pipes. Before you plant a garden, landscape your yard, construct a building, or install a pool, check on the location of your septic system and replacement area.
- Landscape your system properly. Grass is the best cover. Don't put concrete or plastic over your septic system. Plant trees and shrubs away from your septic tank and drainfield to keep roots from growing into your septic system. A septic service professional can provide you landscaping options around your septic system.
Keep accurate records of your septic system. Know where the system is and keep a diagram of its location. Records of its size and location may be available at your local health department. It is also wise to keep a record of maintenance on the system. These records will be helpful if problems occur, and will be valuable to the next owner of your home.
Don't Ignore Problems
Minor septic system issues can turn into big costly problems. Fixing minor problems and paying maintenance fees of a few hundred dollars every few years is a bargain compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a malfunctioning system, which can cost thousands of dollars. Don't avoid the signs of septic system failure.