Septic Tank Pumping vs. Cleaning: What's the Difference?

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Septic tank pumper (Photo: @AZ.BLT via Twenty20)
Septic system maintenance isn’t fun or glamorous, but it’s absolutely vital unless you want a major mess on your hands down the road. One way to take care of your septic system is to have the septic tank pumped every few years. Another way to take care of it is to have the septic tank cleaned. But wait, aren’t those the same thing?
Many people think so, but there’s actually a difference between a septic tank pumping and a septic tank cleaning.

What is the difference between septic tank pumping and septic tank cleaning?

Septic tank pumping and septic tank cleaning are very closely related septic system services. However, there is a slight difference between the two.
When you have your septic tank pumped, a plumber will pump all of the liquid out of the tank, so that it is essentially empty. When you have your septic tank cleaned, the plumber will not only pump out all the liquid, but vacuum out the solids and sludge as well. Depending on the state of the septic tank, a cleaning might not actually include any cleaning, just removal.
However, if there’s a lot of solid and sludge buildup, a plumber might use a pressure washer or another tool to break down some of the solids and sludge so that they can be more thoroughly removed.

Should you have your septic tank pumped or cleaned?

Getting your septic tank cleaned is a more thorough task than getting it pumped. However, because it’s more thorough, it also costs a bit more money. In general, it’s advisable to get your septic tank pumped every three to five years, and cleaned every second or third pumping.
When in doubt, it’s a smart idea to consult with your plumber, and devise a plan for how often to have your septic tank pumped, and how often to have it cleaned.

Why is septic tank pumping and cleaning necessary?

Having your septic tank regularly pumped and cleaned is a vital part of having a healthy septic system. If you don’t have these services performed, then your septic tank will start to build up a lot of sludge and solids, which can’t be passed through the water filtration system.
As the solids build, the capacity for the tank will decrease. As they build even further, they’ll begin to clog the spout that feeds the drain field. When that happens, the tank won’t be able to expel its liquids, and it will start to overflow.
At this point you’ll likely notice a sewage stench emanating from the septic system, and you might even notice a swampy, wet area around the tank. You also might experience sewage getting backed up through your sink and shower drains, as well as your toilet. And none of that is fun.