Who is responsible for maintaining your septic systems?

The septic system owner (i.e., the homeowner, property owner, or homeowner’s association) is responsible for the overall operation, maintenance, and upkeep of the septic system, including repairs or replacement. The septic system users (i.e., occupants, tenants) are responsible for the proper use of the system, such as what materials go down the drain, how much water is used, etc.

How often should my tank be pumped?

In general, a tank should be inspected every 1 to 3 years and pumped every 3 to 5 years. The frequency of the necessary septic pumping depends on the tank size, number of people in the household, habits of water use as well as the amount of solids accumulated in the septic tank. Some more complex alternative systems may require more frequent inspection or pumping. If you are unsure, ask a septic system professional. A septic tank filter may also require frequent maintenance and should be included in any inspection and maintenance activities. It is important to save your septic system’s yearly schedule or maintenance records. Spring is a great time to service your septic system.

I’ve never pumped my septic tank, is that a problem?

Most likely! If you haven’t pumped your septic tank in years, but do not seem to be having any problems, it may mean one of several things: There is minimal water use in the home, and/or the size of the septic tank and the biological activity maintains the solids at sustainable levels. This is rare but may occur when there are only one or two people in the home.The tank has a leak and is discharging materials into the ground instead of into the drainfield.The tank is full of solids, which are slowly migrating and may eventually clog the drainfield. This could increase the cost of pumping the tank and may require replacing the entire drainfield if it becomes clogged.

Are additives acceptable for use in my septic system?

Microbiological and enzyme additives are sometimes promoted to reduce sludge and scum accumulation in septic tanks. However, these additives are not necessary. Use caution when using additives in your system as they may decrease the performance of drainfields, which treat the waste water from the septic tank. In general, do not use additives made of organic solvents or strong alkali chemicals - they pose a potential threat to soil structure and groundwater.Some states and localities have state-specific rules and regulations regarding septic system additives. Contact your local permitting authority (i.e., local health or environmental department) for more guidance.

How long can a septic system last?

The lifespan of a septic system depends on the material used, the design, installation, service and exposure conditions, and maintenance of the septic system. Typically, a concrete septic tank may last 50 years or more, but older tanks may not be as well constructed as newer tanks. Tanks constructed from other materials, such as plastic may last a similar timeframe. See the manufacturer for projected lifespan estimates as well as strength, design, installation, and warranty information.If your septic system includes a pump, that pump and related controls will need to be replaced every 10 to 20 years. If your drainfield is older than 25 to 30 years, the natural biomat that forms in the bottom of the trenches or beds can thicken and reduce the ability of the drainfield to properly discharge the waste water into the ground. This can cause drainfield ponding, surfacing of untreated wastewater, or backing up into the tank and into the plumbing in the house.If your system is more than 25 to 30 years old, start planning for an upgrade before you are in an emergency situation. Your system is likely close to its useful lifespan.

Frequent Questions on Resolving Septic System Malfunctions

How can I prevent a septic system failure?

Regular maintenance is the best method. Septic maintenance includes inspecting the entire system every 1 to 3 years, and pumping the tank every 3 to 5 years. The pumping frequency depends on the tank size, number of people in the household, the water habits and use, if a garbage disposal is used, and the amount of solids accumulated in the tank. Generally, you need to pump the tank when the solids are two-thirds of the volume in the tank. Routine maintenance is the responsibility of the home or property owner. If you rent a home, you have responsibility for the proper use and operation of the septic system. You can usually avoid a septic system failure by:

  • Inspecting your system every 1 to 3 years

  • Pumping the tank every 3 to 5 years or as needed

  • Avoiding excess water use (e.g. spreading out laundry use over the week)

  • Flushing only human waste and toilet paper down the toilet.

What are common symptoms of a failing septic system?

  • Water and sewage from toilets, drains, and sinks backing up into the home’s plumbing

  • Bathtubs, showers, and sinks draining very slowly

  • Gurgling sounds in the plumbing system

  • Standing water or damp spots near or over the septic tank or drainfield

  • Sewage odors around the septic tank or drainfield

  • Bright green, spongy lush grass over the septic tank or drainfield, even during dry weather

  • Straight pipe discharging untreated wastewater to the ground surface

  • Algae blooms in nearby lakes or water bodies

  • High levels of nitrates or coliform bacteria in surface waters or drinking water wells

I smell a foul odor coming from my septic system - does that mean my system is failing?

There may be several reasons for the smell, either inside or outside your home. It may be coming from a roof vent or other vent pipe that allows the system pressure to equalize. This is normal. Sometimes vents can become obstructed and clogged (from leaves, debris, etc.) or the vent pipe can freeze. This could cause an odor inside or outside of your home. Another possibility is a downdraft (changes to wind pattern) or other location-specific conditions that create an odor inside or outside your home. The vent may just need to be cleaned or raised. There are also charcoal filters available for roof vents that may alleviate the odors.If your drainfield is not working properly, that could be another reason you smell an odor inside your home or around the septic system. Soft, wet, or spongy soil (especially when there have been no significant rainfall events) around your drainfield is a good indication of a system failure.

What should I expect in a typical septic system inspection?

Septic system inspections are a vital step in making sure your septic system is operating properly. Regular inspections ensure you and your family do not get sick due to a leak or other problems with your system. Since these wastewater systems are located underground, homeowners may overlook having a septic inspection. Routine inspections help prevent expensive repairs or avoid a sewage backup in your home. In many states, a septic system must be inspected with the property transfer. However, septic system inspections should be done every 1 to 3 years for as long as you own your home. In general, an inspection will involve the following:

  • Review of the system permit, design, and installation records (including system age

  • Review of the septic tank pumping and system maintenance records

  • Opening and inspecting all tanks (septic tank, pump tank, distribution box)Evaluating the septic tank sludge and scum levels and determining the need to pump

  • Assessing the condition of the septic tank effluent filter (if installed)Looking for signs of leakage, such as low water levels in the tank

  • Looking for signs of backup, such as staining in the tank above the outlet pipe

  • Evaluating the integrity of the tank, inlet and outlet pipes and looking for signs of corrosion

  • Verifying all electrical connections, pumps, controls, and wiring are intact

  • Possibly using a camera to look at solid pipes and leach lines for blockages or collapsed piping

  • Evaluating the drainfield for signs of system failure, such as standing water (surfacing) or unequal drainage

  • Possibly excavating parts of the drainfield to look for signs of ponding in the system or groundwater impacting the drainfield

  • Examining the distribution box for structural integrity and to make sure drain lines are receiving equal flow

  • Reviewing other available records on water use and required inspections, monitoring, and reporting to ensure system compliance with local regulations regarding function and permit conditions.

Frequent Questions on Septic System Impacts on Water Quality

Do septic systems impact water quality?

A properly installed, sited and maintained septic system should not adversely affect water quality. The design may require advanced treatment to reduce the wastewater strength, impacts of nitrogen contamination, or include disinfection when there are properties in close proximity to surface waters. If the system is failing and is discharging directly into the groundwater, the wastewater is not treated to reduce pathogens or nutrient levels. If this discharge is in close proximity to a water body, it may negatively impact water quality. Examples of these impacts may include: Groundwater contamination with pathogens, chemicals or nutrients that affect drinking water wells. Surface waters can be contaminated with pathogens, such as E. coli, chemicals, and nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus. Pathogens can cause illnesses for recreational swimming areas, even requiring beach closures and hazards to humans and pets. Excess nitrogen and/or phosphorus can cause an overgrowth of blue-green algae or cyanobacteria in a short period of time, triggering algae blooms. The overgrowth of algae consumes oxygen and blocks sunlight from underwater plants. When the algae eventually die, the oxygen in the water is consumed. This can cause fish and other aquatic organisms to die and create regional “dead zones.” Coastal waters are more sensitive to nitrogen contamination from failing septic systems. Freshwater rivers, lakes, and ponds are more sensitive to phosphorus contamination from failing septic systems. The cumulative impact of failing septic systems that are in close proximity to each other and to a water body in environmentally sensitive areas may need to be addressed at the regional or watershed level.

Can failing septic systems affect human health?

Failing septic systems likely discharge untreated wastewater, which contains pathogens (e.g., E. coli), nutrients and other harmful substances directly into the groundwater or onto the ground and into surface waters. Surfacing untreated wastewater from a failed drainfield is a direct public health hazard to anyone exposed to it. Children and pets can unknowingly be exposed to this health hazard which can cause illness. If you or others have been exposed to untreated wastewater, contact your health professional. Straight pipes can discharge untreated wastewater directly into ditches, streams and other water bodies causing a direct public health hazard and are also a regional public health hazard to anyone who comes into contact with the untreated wastewater. Drinking water from groundwater wells and from surface water sources can be contaminated by untreated wastewater and require filtration and disinfection to remain potable. Check with your local health department about having your water tested. Excess nitrogen contamination in surface or groundwater supplies can impact drinking water systems requiring special treatment. Chemicals that may be discharged into septic systems can negatively impact water quality and public health in both groundwater and surface water sources, even in very small amounts.

Frequent Questions on Caring for Septic Systems

Should I be careful of what I pour down the drain?

Yes. Many materials that might be poured down the drain are not easily decomposed. This can be harmful to the healthy bacteria growing in your septic tank and drainfield that help break down organic matter. Do not pour grease (such as fats, butter, wax, cheese, heavy cream), liquid wastes (such as pesticides, drain cleaners, household chemicals, paints, paint thinners), oils or coffee grounds down the drain. If you have a garbage disposal, limit its use because food waste can add an unnecessary amount of solid material to your septic tank. Harmful chemicals put down your drain can also be discharged into the groundwater and can impact drinking water supplies and the environment.

Does using a garbage disposal unit impact my septic system?

Yes! Using an in-sink garbage disposal unit impacts how often you need to pump your septic tank. Food waste usually is slowly digested by the healthy bacteria in your septic tank and will accumulate as scum and sludge. If a large amount of water enters the septic tank or the tank fills up with solids, it can push the solids into the drainfield, causing the lines to clog and increasing the thickness of the biomat (a bacteria layer that forms on the bottom and sides of the drainfield trenches). If you use a garbage disposal unit, your tank will need to be pumped more frequently.

What can I flush down the toilet?

Only flush human waste and toilet paper. Never flush these items down the toilet, because they could clog your septic system and cause a failure:

  • Cooking grease or oil

  • Non-flushable wipes, such as baby wipes or other wet wipes

  • Photographic solutions

  • Feminine hygiene products

  • Condoms

  • Dental floss

  • Diapers

  • Cigarette butts

  • Coffee grounds

  • Cat litter

  • Paper towels

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Household chemicals like gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint or paint thinners

Should I avoid driving or building on my drainfield?

Yes! Most drainfields (such as rock and pipe, chamber system, etc.) are constructed in open lawn areas and are not designed to handle vehicles or heavy equipment driving on them. The weight of vehicles and heavy equipment compacts the soil, which can damage pipes. Impermeable materials, such as concrete and asphalt, should not be laid on top of a drainfield because they reduce evaporation and the supply of oxygen to the soil. Oxygen is critical to the healthy bacteria in your septic system and the proper breakdown of sewage by soil microorganisms.. Do not build any structures in or on your drainfield area without checking with a local designer or permitting authority. It is not recommended to plant trees, shrubs, or vegetable gardens on the drainfield. Tree and shrub roots can ensnarl and damage drainfield pipes. Vegetables can potentially be exposed to sewage effluent and unsafe to consume. Native grasses and groundcovers are the most appropriate planting over your drainfield.

Frequently Asked Questions - Septic Systems