How Do Septic Systems Work?

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Over 20% of U.S. households rely on septic systems. Most people’s knowledge of septic tanks begin and end with horror stories. That being said, many people have no clue how they work or why they may actually be the best form of waste management for them.
Scary stories aside, well-maintained septic tanks can last for up to 40 years (depending on the material) and are typically less expensive than their public sewer system counterparts, both upfront and over time.
Although many homebuyers are not thrilled at the prospect of relying on septic tank systems, it is often due to common misconceptions. Read on to learn everything you need to know about septic sewer systems, including what they are, how they work, and whether or not you need one.

What is a septic sewage system?

Before you decide whether to purchase a home with a septic system or install your own, it is crucial that you understand how they function.
Commonly buried underground, a septic system’s main purpose is to transport household wastewater from your home to a septic tank in your backyard, where the water will undergo the process of biological decomposition in a leach field before being filtered and drained back into the lawn. Almost all septic tanks consist of four distinct parts:
The septic tank: which holds waste
Baffles: help wastewater flow smoothly into the tank
Drainfield: the network of pipes that release water into the soil
Distribution box: distributes the wastewater evenly between the drain field

How does a septic sewage system work?

While septic systems can seem complex and even daunting to some homebuyers, the mechanics are actually quite simple. After wastewater leaves one of your household plumbing devices (such as sinks, showers, toilets, etc.), it exits the home and is sent to the septic tank where solid waste and other debris are broken down by anaerobic bacteria. At this time, wastewater will separate within the tank and become three separate substances:
Scum: is the light waste material that floats at the top
Sludge: is the heavy material that sinks to the bottom
Clearwater: looks like water but often contains chemicals such as phosphorus and nitrogen
As these substances continue to compile and breakdown over time, the remaining wastewater (or effluent) is filtered before being pumped through outlet pipes and into the drain field, where it is slowly and safely filtered by the soil.

Symptoms of septic system failure

Septic system failure is very expensive and time-consuming to fix, so it is certainly in your best interest to keep your septic tank well-maintained over the years. Your septic system may be experiencing failure if you notice any of the following conditions:
  • Bad smell or odor emanating from pipes
  • Ground surface over the drain field is wet and mushy
  • Pooling water around your septic system
  • Wastewater back-up in household drains
If your septic tank or system is experiencing any of these issues or has been damaged in any other way, contact a professional ASAP (you don’t want to live out the plot of one of those horror stories we mentioned earlier).

Tips for proper septic system maintenance

In order to avoid septic system damage or failure, you must be fully committed to maintaining it. Luckily, septic tanks do not require that much regular upkeep. In fact, if you treat them right, they’ll treat you better! Here are a few simple tips for keeping your septic system at its best:
Get your septic system checked regularly. Most homeowners get their septic systems tested every 1-2 years, depending on the age of their septic system and whether any issues have arisen. Make sure that you get your septic tank inspected by a professional regularly to keep your system firing on all cylinders.
Watch what you flush. Much like a public toilet, septic systems are often clogged by specific household materials (including paint, cat litter, diapers, and feminine products). Be sure that you read through your owner’s manual to determine what you can and cannot flush. But, generally, the rule of thumb is to never flush anything except toilet paper.
Be mindful of where you park and plant. Septic systems cannot handle any extra weight, making it imperative that you never park on or drive over your drain field. Similarly, the roots of large trees have the potential to damage components of your septic system. Watch where you park and plant to make sure these seemingly innocuous choices do not negatively influence your septic system’s health.
Rely on professionals. Problems with septic systems can be difficult to diagnose properly, so whenever your system begins acting awry, contact a hired professional to identify and repair the damage.

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