Thursday, September 25, 2014

When to Pump Your Septic Tank

The single most important thing you can do to protect your health, your water well and your septic system is to pump out you septic tank. If solids from feces, toilet paper, garbage disposals or the grinder in the dishwasher build up to beyond about a third of the tank, they can be carried out to the drain field, drip field, sand mound or peat tanks and clog the system beyond recovery. Pumping your tank frequently would prevent this. Frequent pumping can extend the life of your septic system. I do not care how many boxes of granules or bottles of blue liquid you pour into your system; you still need to pump out your septic tank regularly.

Generally speaking the more frequently you pump your tank the longer your septic system will continue to function properly and the better it is for the environment and your health. The most likely cause of E. coli bacteria in your well is you own septic system. The nutrient pollution that feeds algae blooms, creates dead zones, or toxic algae threats to drinking water supplies is from fertilizers applied to crops and lawns, animal waste both domestic and agricultural and human waste from inadequately treated sewage from waste water treatment plant overflows and improperly maintained and operated septic systems. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, estimates that 25% of households in the United States depend on a septic system- and that adds up.

Back in the day and still in many parts of the country there were no requirements to pump your septic tank. Where I live in the here and now I am required by a local environmental regulation to pump my septic tank every 5 year. That might be just fine for my two person household with a big tank, but is woefully inadequate for my neighbor with 10 people in their household in addition to operating a home based business with employees. The estimated needed frequency for pump outs based on the size of septic tank and number of people appears below and is based on work done at Penn State University Extension. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would like to see all septic tanks pumped out every three years.


In reality how often a tank needs to be pumped depends on the size of the tank, the number of people living in the house and the habits of the people in the house and the types of soil in the drainfield. People who are home all day put more load on a house than those who work away from the home or go to school. Flushable wipes and other things flushed down the toilet add build up to the tank; they do not dissolve and disappear, despite packaging that says septic safe.

Having a garbage disposal that is used is the equivalent of having another person or two living in the house. The garbage disposal works by grinding up food scraps. Though some of these materials can be broken down by bacterial action, because the food is not predigested like human waste it is mostly inert and either sinks to the bottom of the tank and will have to be pumped out, or remains in suspension and is carried over to the drainfield or other final treatment and ultimately clogs the system. The same is true for the grinders in dishwashers. If you do not have to clean out the filter, then it’s in your septic tank.

Water softeners are another potential problem. Water softening systems work by using a salt solution to start the ion exchange with the calcium carbonate and magnesium. The softener has to be back washed to regenerate the ion exchange medium and the system flushes pounds of the used salt in the 15-30 gallons of the backwash solution into the septic system. Septic service companies that belong to the Small Flows Clearinghouse have reported observed negative impact from water softening regeneration brines including pipes clogged by a “noxious fibrous mass” only reported in homes with softening systems and deterioration on the permeability of the drainfield or other septic dispersion system.

It is SepticSmart Week. 

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