Maintenance
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Maintaining Your Septic System

We take the mystery out of a little-understood process

Published: June 1, 2006
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Photo by Dawn Hudson, dreamstime.com
Septic systems don’t need much maintenance if they are built properly to begin with. Proper installation starts with careful soil sampling of the installation area. There also are concerns about how close a septic system can be located to other objects, primarily your well and any water feature, such as a lake or stream. State health departments list explicit guidelines for such issues.

Do’s and don’ts

Have your tank inspected and emptied regularly.

   
A neglected tank will cause your system to fail, resulting in sewage backup and posing a serious risk to your family’s health. Experts recommend pumping a septic tank every one to two years, depending on size and usage.

Avoid using chemicals.
   
Harsh chemicals and antibacterial agents kill the bacteria your system depends on. Keep these chemicals out of your toilets and house drains: drain cleaner, paint and paint thinner, chemical cleaners, chlorine (including toilet bowl flush-cleaners) and antibacterial soft-soaps.

Limit kitchen wastes.
   
Grease and fat from food hinder the septic process by coating drain pipes, interfering with bacterial breakdown in the tank and clogging the loose-fill material in the drain field. Garbage disposals overload the system with solid food particles, sometimes doubling the rate of sludge accumulation in the tank. Throw cooking grease and food scraps in the garbage or compost heap. Never put coffee grounds down the drain.
   
Minimize the amount of toilet paper that goes into the system, and use paper that dissolves readily.
   
Use low-phosphate, liquid laundry detergent. Use as little bleach as possible.

Limit water inflow.    
   
Excess water speeds up the flow through the septic system. The natural bacteria can’t do its job, allowing too many solids to pass into the drain field. One simple rule for keeping the septic system in good health is to limit water usage:

• Limit showers to 10 minutes.

• Consider switching old toilets to modern models that use little water to flush.

• Conserve dishwasher and washing machine use by only running them when needed and only with a full load.

• Repair leaky plumbing fixtures as soon as possible.

• Route roof drains out of the house drain system.

Never use additives.
   
Biological additives designed to stimulate bacterial growth often harm more than they help. These additives agitate the anaerobic bacteria in the septic tank, and the increased activity forces undissolved solids into the drain field.

You have a problem if ...
   
Once problems arise within a septic system, there isn’t much a homeowner can do on his or her own. But being able to identify signs of trouble may prolong the life of your system and will probably save you money.

■  If your drains are working slowly, or not draining at all, there may be a clog in the main house drain, or the septic system may be backed up. Check for clogs first. Use a motorized auger to clear the main drain. Never use chemical drain cleaners.

■  If the house drain isn’t clogged, the problem may be a clogged drain field, an absence of bacteria in the system, or a full septic tank. You’ll need to call an expert for this.
 
■   In addition to slow drainage, common signs of trouble include the presence of dark-colored water on the surface of the drain field and a sewage odor in or around the home.
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