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How does a Septic System work?

In a traditional septic system, all water and wastes carried by that water flows down the home's drain system and through one main sewer pipe to the septic tank. The flow of waste water may be a matter of simple gravity, or it may be enhanced with an electric pump. The septic tank holds the waste material long enough for the solids to settle to the bottom as oil, grease, and liquids — the scum later — float to the top. When the tank reaches capacity, the liquids lying on top of the scum layer flow onward into a series of porous pipes to a drain field prepared with gravel and other aggregate that helps disperse the liquid waste. The liquids slowly filter down through the soil as bacterial action breaks down the pathogens. By the time the liquid waste filters down to groundwater supplies, it is virtually sterile.

Meanwhile, the solids in the tank break down under the affect of anaerobic bacteria, creating a sludgy material that collects in the bottom of the tank. If the bacterial action is effective, these solid wastes are greatly reduced in volume as they break down.

When to Have Your Septic Tank Pumped

The EPA recommends that a septic tank should be inspected every two to three years, with mechanical pumping typically required every three to five years to empty the tank. Systems that are undersized or that see very heavy use may require pumping annually. Some systems have electrical float switches, pumps, or mechanical components, and these need to be inspected more often — typically once each year.

Pumping is the process of removing sludge from the bottom of the septic tank, and this needs to be done before the sludge builds up to a level where it blocks the outlet pipe through which liquids flow into the drain field. The frequency with which this needs to be done depends on several factors:

  • Size of household - Larger households, predictably, generate more waste, and thus fill up the septic tank faster.

  • How much wastewater is generated - The sheer volume of wastewater flowing into the septic tank can affect how fast the septic tank fills up.

  • The volume of solids in the wastewater - Households with many toilets, or who make frequent use of garbage disposals, tend to fill up the septic tank quicker.

  • Septic tank size - Larger tanks can hold more solid sludge, and thus will need less frequent pumping.

There are ways to help estimate about when you should have your tank pumped. As an example: an average four-bedroom house may have a 1,200 to 1,500 gallon tank and with a family of four, you should expect to have the tank pumped every 3 to 5 years with typical use.

Tips for Maintaining Septic System

There are several proactive measures you can take to ensure that your septic system operates efficiently and to reduce the frequency with which pumping is necessary:

  • Reduce water usage - Using high efficiency, water-saving plumbing toilets and faucets can greatly decrease the amount of water that goes into the septic system. Repairing leaks and drips is another way to reduce the overuse of water that can cause the septic tank to fill faster.

  • Reduce solid wastes - Monitoring the solid waste that enters the septic system is another way to keep it working properly. Trash that is either washed or flushed down the drain can overburden the septic system. Don't flush anything other than toilet paper down the toilet, and avoid using a garbage disposer that puts organic food wastes into the septic system. Throwing things in the trash takes only a little effort, but it will make a big difference in the management of the septic system.

  • Direct rainwater away from the drain field - Downspouts and landscape grading that funnel water onto the septic system's drain field can interfere with its ability to disperse water from the septic system.

  • Don't drain hot tubs into the drain system - This can put undue stress on the septic system; instead, drain water from hot tubs or swimming pools into the yard, away from the drain field.

  • Avoid putting chemicals down the drain - Chemicals can interfere with the bacterial action that breaks down solid wastes, so avoid flushing them down the drain. This also includes various commercial septic tank additives, which generally do more harm than good. Unless a trusted professional has prescribed such an additive, don't use any septic tank chemicals.

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Serving Flagstaff & Northern Arizona