Sunday, June 16, 2024

Maintaining Your Septic System

Properly designed, sized and maintained septic systems can last for decades; however, it is usually stated that a septic system, either conventional or alternative, will last between 15-40 years and U.S. EPA says 15-30 years. That is quite a range. My own AOSS system is 20 yeast old and based on this month’s inspection is working just fine. I tend to baby my system and maintain it. If the septic system isn't maintained, not matter what type you have (alternative or traditional) it will have a shorter life. And septic systems do have an operational lifetime and will eventually need to be replaced. Even with proper use and maintenance a septic system will eventually fail or need major repairs. Replacing a septic system is reported to cost $25,000-$55,000.

In Virginia, AOSS owners are required to have a DPOR licensed septic professional inspect the AOSS system annually and pump the system as needed. In my case it seems to be every other year one tank or another needs to be pumped. Like taking my car in for inspection, my AOSS system is examined to make sure it functioning properly, the pump and zoner working, the timed dosing control panel functioning, the blower running and  the filter cleaned out.  My system has lots of parts that can fail and have to be replaced. That is why annual inspection and alarm systems are so important.

Both the U.S. EPA and the Commonwealth of Virginia recommend that a traditional septic system is inspected every three years and the tank pumped out every 3-5 years. A failed or malfunctioning septic system is a risk to human and animal health and can pollute the environment.

A traditional  or alternative septic system  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.

When you make changes to your home, verify that your septic system is still adequate. A system that was adequate for a home when it was built may be entirely undersized for the home after it has been enlarged, a garbage disposal added, sump pumps or water treatment systems discharging to the septic system, or adding a whirlpool.

 Also, the drain field or peat or coir modules do 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. The frequency of that a septic tank needs to be pumped depends on the size of the 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  or other final treatment 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.
To get the longest possible life from your septic system:

  • Flush only toilet paper and human waste down the toilet.
  • Do not flush wipes, facial tissues, paper towels, floss, cotton swabs or other items such as coffee grinds, kitty litter. Your toilet is not a trash can.
  • 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 and what I miss scraping plates.)
  • 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.


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