The functioning of a septic system is based on natural ecological cycles. It needs to be treated kindly and kept in balance. When a system is not pumped out on a regular basis has an excessive demand put on it like a toilet running, multiple loads of laundry done in a day, or a household of guests, it can stirrup the sludge (solid material you know what it is) at the bottom of the tank and it will flow out into the leach (absorption) field. Do this often enough and you can potentially clog the leach field beyond repair. Excessive load from toilets and garbage disposal, putting grease, coffee grinds, kitty litter or any kind of trash down the drain will effectively decrease the size of the tank and the time that the solids have to settle out. This will decrease the life of and potentially overload the system. Even with proper use and maintenance a septic system is designed to last 20 to 30 years, but only if you treat it properly. Replacing a septic system is reported to cost $20,000-$40,000.
A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. Microbes in the soil digest or remove most of the remaining contaminants from wastewater before it eventually reaches groundwater. Many systems also have pumps to move the liquids from the home to the septic tank or from the septic tank to the drain field. There are also Alternative systems that have additional components such as; additional treatment tanks, float switches, pumps, and other electrical or mechanical components. If you have an Alternative Onsite Sewage System (AOSS) Virginia requires that your AOSS operated and maintained by a licensed operator. As a homeowner if you are not licensed by the DPOR you are not allowed to maintain nor operate you own AOSS. Essentially, you need to hire a firm that is licensed by the DPOR to inspect and maintain your system every year. The septic company will make sure everything is in working order, clean the filters and tell you if you need to pump your tank that year. It is a good way to make sure everything stays in working order.
A septic system
or alternative system (AOSS) has no ability to treat solvents, oils, grease, household chemicals and pesticides. These substances may damage your septic system, cause the system to back-up into your basement, untreated sewage to surface in your yard, and/or contaminate the groundwater. A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a septic tank, a leach field (alternative systems might have drip fields, sand mounds or peat tanks where a leach field is not possible or has failed), and the soil. The system is designed to remove most of the biological contamination by settling and bacterial digestion so that the soil is not overwhelmed and can “polish” the water before it is returned through the soil to the groundwater. Never dispose of anything but human biological waste (and a reasonable amount of toilet paper) in your septic system. Limit the use of household chemical cleaners, solvents, and bleach.
The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle out (forming sludge) and oil and grease to float to the surface (as scum). It also allows partial decomposition of the solid fecal materials. Anaerobic (without oxygen) digestion takes place with the aid of bacteria that came from human digestive tracks and most of the fecal solids are converted to carbon dioxide, water and other byproducts.
The process is not completely efficient and fecal solids and other materials that find their way into the septic tank will accumulate over time. To keep a septic system operating optimally, a septic tank must be pumped every few years to remove the scum and solid layers. Steady use of water throughout the day and water conservation should be practiced because too large a flow of waste water and the solids in the tank will be stirred up and be carried out to the drain field.
Also, the drain field does not have an unlimited capacity. The more water your family uses, the greater the likelihood of problems with the septic system, so it is important to fix all leaks, and stop toilets from running and practice water conservation. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed many homes are within areas designated resource protected areas that requires a septic tank pump
out at least every five years, but that may not be frequent enough depending primarily on the size of your tank, the number of people in the household contributing to the volume of your wastewater, the volume of solids in your wastewater and whether you use a garbage disposal or have a water treatment system. Excess water flow through the septic system can cause the solid sludge buildup and floating scum (grease, oil, dead skin cells, etc.) to flow out of the tank and travel into the leach field area. Some newer systems have screens and filters to keep solids from entering the leach field. These filters and screens become clogged and need to be cleaned out regularly or the system will back up into the house. All this can be taken care of at the annual inspection of the alternative system (AOSS).
Finally, you need to limit what goes down the drain to prevent bacterial die-off in the tank so that it will continue to function as designed. Die-off of the bacteria necessary for a septic system to perform properly has been seen in experiments where excessive amount of harsh household chemicals were added to the septic tank. As little as of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach, 5.0 gallons of liquid Lysol cleaner, or 11.3 grams of Drano drain cleaner added to a 1,000-gallon septic tank have caused die-off of the bacteria in experiments. Other factors that can cause die-off include the excessive use of anti-bacterial agents, and, in certain cases, antibiotic medications taken by members of a household. However, in normal use, you do not need to add a chemical or biological stimulator or an enhancer to a septic tank that is designed, operated, and maintained properly. The naturally occurring bacteria are already present within human fecal matter are adequate for the system to function properly.
Septic drainfields and alternative secondary treatments like peat tanks and sand mounds also have a limited life. Peat tanks last about 15 years (but it depends on use and how often you pump the septic tank). This is also true for the life of a septic drainfield. The life is dependent on how the system is managed, the frequency of septic tank pump outs, and the number of people living in a house, but 20-30 years may be the life of those systems- even when well managed.
- Only toilet paper and human waste should go down the toilet. Do not flush wipes, facial tissues, paper towels, floss, cotton swabs or other items such as coffee grinds, kitty litter.
- Do not use the garbage disposal to dispose of food scraps. A garbage disposal adds solids, grease and increases the biological load on a septic system. (Don’t ask me why they installed it, I use mine to break up soap bubbles.)
- Do not put hazardous household wastes down the drain or in the toilet EVER. Do not wash paint brushes or containers in the sink.
- Minimize the use of bleach, chemical disinfectants and antibacterial agents. As little as of 1.85 gallons of liquid bleach added to a 1,000-gallon septic tank can cause a die-off of the bacteria in a septic tank.
- Never do more than two laundry loads a day. Laundry uses a lot of water and too much water in a single day will stir up to solids and scum and push them through the system.
- Service your septic system regularly. At a minimum pump your septic tank every 3-5 years it will extend the life of your system.