Facts about septic systems may not be glamorous. However, learning about basic maintenance and common issues can save homeowners thousands of dollars, and help keep our beautiful lakes and rivers clean.
“While well-maintained septic systems remove pollutants, malfunctioning septic systems can create public health issues and exposure to disease-creating organisms,” explained Larry Stephens. “Also, if wastewater is improperly discharged, it depletes oxygen in the lakes and promotes aquatic weed growth.”
Stephens Consulting Services (SCS). Larry and Mike Stephens educated TLA members at the annual meeting of Three Lakes Association in northern Michigan. Additional seminars were also offered to the public.
Basics: definition of a septic system
A septic system is an underground wastewater treatment structure. It uses a combination of nature and time-tested technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.
Septic systems are composed of a tank and a drainfield. The septic tank is designed to intercept, hold, and partially treat solids contained in wastewater coming from the home. The drainfield facilitates treatment and dispersal of clarified wastewater after it leaves the septic tank.
Common in areas without centralized sewer systems, septic systems are in one-quarter of all U.S homes, and 1.5 million Michigan homeowners use them. In addition, community septic systems have become very popular in schools, subdivisions, and similar communities.
In 1997, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated that properly running septic systems are as good as centralized treatment systems, according to the Stephens. The reputation of septic systems has also improved as government policy has shifted wastewater treatment from recycling rather than disposal.
“While Michigan may seem ‘water rich,’ it is important that we recycle water, and not dispose of it,” explained Mike Stephens. After all, the average indoor water use is nearly 70 gallons per individual, per day.
How a septic tank works
The typical septic tank is a large, buried, rectangular or cylindrical container made of concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene.
The septic tank is usually located about 10 to 15 feet from the point where the sanitary drain leaves the house. It can be found by checking your home’s “as built” drawings, checking your yard for lids and manhole covers, or contacting a septic inspector to help you locate it. The tank can also be found by gently inserting a steel rod into the ground where the tank is most likely to be. One can also wait for a light snowfall and observe where the snow first melts.
Wastewater from the bathroom, kitchen, and laundry flows into the septic tank. There, heavy solids settle to the bottom where bacteria partially decompose the solids into sludge and gases. The lighter solids, such as fats and greases, rise to the top and form a scum layer. The partially treated effluent then leaves the septic tank and flows to the drainfield.
Proper design and installation of a septic system is essential for it to correctly function. A home’s groundwater table, soil composition, and a properly leveled drainfield are just a few factors to consider when designing a well-functioning septic system.
It is very important to keep the surface of the drainfield properly drained by mounding the soil over the field, redirecting downspouts and sump pump outflow, and not stockpiling snow over the area.
Maintaining your septic system
Properly maintained septic systems have less than a one percent failure rate, according to a study by the Ingham County Health Department. Yet 25 percent of septic systems around area lakes fail when checked at point-of-sale.
“It is recommended that septic systems be pumped every 3-5 years, depending on the use,” stated Mike Stephens.
“Simple pumping costs $250 to $300,” according to the EPA. “This is a bargain compare to the cost of repairing or replacing a malfunctioning system, which can cost between $3,000 and $7,000.”
Maintenance of septic tanks also involves regular cleaning of the outlet filter.
Seasonal use impacts the frequency of maintenance, as does size of the tank, household size, total wastewater generated, and volume of solids in the wastewater.
Minimizing the amount of water entering the septic system helps prolong its life. For example, toilets account for 25 to 30 percent of household water use. High-efficiency toilets can quickly reduce the amount of household water entering your septic system,. Faucet aerators and high-efficiency showerheads also help reduce water use.
Spreading the use of water via washing machine throughout the week is best for the septic system. Doing all household laundry in one day might seem like a time-saver, but it can be harmful to your septic system, as it does not allow your septic tank the time to adequately treat waste, and could potentially flood your drainfield. Washing only full loads of laundry is also helpful to minimizing water use.
What NOT to do with your septic system
Mike Stephens warns that pumping septic tanks too frequently can be harmful, as this affects anaerobic digestion. This is the processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material and change the chemistry of the septic tank. Using antibacterial soaps, or cleaning septic systems too frequently, destroys anaerobic digestion.
In addition, homeowners with septic systems should never pour or flush oil, grease, drugs, flushable wipes, feminine hygiene products, condoms, dental floss, cigarette butts, coffee grounds or cat litter down the drain or toilet.
Household chemicals need to be disposed of properly and can damage septic fields if dumped down the drains. Solvents, disinfectants, oils, paints and pesticides are bad for septic systems, and commercial bathroom cleaners should be used in moderation.
Other causes of septic failure
Hot tubs are another cause of septic failure. Emptying a hot tub into the septic system stirs solids in the tank, pushing then into the drainfield, causing it to clog and possibly fail.
Frequent use of garbage disposals can cause septic failure, too, as this significantly increases the accumulation of sludge and scum in septic tanks, resulting in the need for more frequent pumping. It is recommended to compost coffee grounds, eggshells and other kitchen wastes rather than putting them into a garbage disposal.
Many freshwater purification systems such as water softeners can also cause septic failure by unnecessarily pumping water into the septic system. This causes agitation of solids and excess flow to drainfields. When researching the purchase of water purification and softening systems, check with a licensed plumber about alternative routing.
Signs that your septic tank may have issues include backups, gurgling, or odors in your sinks or showers. Pooling water or muddy soil around your septic system, or in your basement, is also a sign of trouble. If there is a strong odor around the septic tank and drainfield, there can also be a problem.
In addition, sogginess or lush vegetation in the outside area near the tanks is a sign to call the septic company for inspection and maintenance.
The right kinds of plantings help septic fields
Planting certain annuals and non-aggressive flowers on your septic drainfield helps the system by removing moisture and nutrients from the soil, and reducing soil erosion.
“At a minimum, the leach field should be covered with a dense cover of grass to provide these important benefits,” states Susan Day from the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Planting trees and shrubs is risky, as they are likely to clog and damage drain lines. Good choices for planting near leach fields include cherries, crab apples, dogwoods, hemlocks, oaks and pines. NOT recommended for planting are beeches, birches, elms, poplars, maples or willow trees.
Is it okay to plant a vegetable garden over the septic field? While a properly operating system will not contaminate the soil with disease-causing organisms, it is difficult to determine if a field is operating just as it should. Therefore, vegetables should be planted elsewhere to avoid any possible risk.
Automatic sprinklers should not be used over the tank or drainfield. In addition, the drainfield should not be fertilized. Finally, concrete, asphalt, plastic or compacted soil should not be put on the tank or drainfield.
In some situations, it may be possible or necessary to treat and disperse effluent from the septic tank using something other than a drainfield. Many innovative alternative engineered systems have been developed in recent years. Alternative systems in use today include sand filters, mounds, wetlands, gravelless drainfields, pressure dosing and aerobic units.
Treating and recycling our wastewater properly through the many types of septic systems available is an important part of protecting the waters in our Great Lakes State. It is important for homeowners to understand the design, inspection, and maintenance process for their own unique situation.
Educating homeowners in the area about their septic systems helps Three Lakes Association remain committed to their mission: to provide leadership to preserve, protect, and improve the environmental quality of the Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed for all generations.