Maintain Your Septic Tank and Drainfield System

Maintaining your septic tank and drainfield system properly can be done by educating yourself on septic system designs, how they operate, and how to correctly care for them. Your septic system is your wastewater treatment system for your home or business. It has to operate correctly so that you are not polluting your own backyard. If you do not take care of it, you are in for future headaches and costly septic system repairs or even a septic system replacement.

Why we need Septic Systems:
Back in ancient times, people had no idea what pollution was or how it affected their
environment. In those ancient times city residents were permitted to pile their human waste on the outskirts of the city. The Romans are credited with the development of the first sewer system, but this was primarily for the conveyance of storm water. Even in Roman times it was common for people to dump their chamber pots right out the windows and onto the streets. There were practically no sewage systems in any cities during the Middle Ages. In fact, Medieval Paris was noted for its bad smell. In those days human waste was untreated, and as a result epidemics were common. It was not surprising to have an entire city fall prey to hepatitis and typhoid. Not much was done to treat waste until about the mid 1800’s when London installed a sewage treatment plant. Around 1900 the concept of the septic tank system was introduced by a man named Donald Cameron.

Today we are much more aware of our actions and how they affect the world in which we live. Acid rain, greenhouse effect, massive oil spills, toxic waste, air and water pollution are now common topics of conversation. You hear about these things daily on TV, radio, newspapers, and the internet. They affect all of us in some way and no one is immune to their effects. Therefore, people are much more aware of the dangers human waste can present and the benefits provided by wastewater treatment.

It’s common for cities to have multi-million dollar waste treatment plants. If there are no large scale sewage system and treatment plants present, then small underground sewage treatment (septic tank system) is required. In essence then, septic tank systems are needed to effectively treat human and household wastes where there are no municipal treatment plants. When properly installed, maintained, and operated a septic tank system is very efficient, economical, and environmentally safe method of treating your wastewater.

What Is A Septic System:
What is a septic tank? The term septic tank is an abbreviation for septic sanitation system. As previously stated, the purpose of the septic system is to cleanse and purify human and household wastewater and return the purified water back to our usable groundwater. This is done by utilizing an underground system which is usually made up of a temporary holding compartment (tank) and a drainfield filtering system (absorption area). Because the tank will contain a great deal of disease causing organisms (pathogens) it must be watertight. These pathogens mainly come from human feces.

It is important that these pathogens do not escape into the surrounding soil. Therefore, most tanks are made from concrete or fiberglass material. The tank is where most of the solid waste is treated by enzymes and bacteria. The effluent leaving the tank is mostly liquid and is further treated by the action of the absorption area. The effluent seeps into the soil beneath the drainfield where the enzymes, bacteria, and many other microorganisms within the soil purify the liquid. This liquid eventually reaches an aquifer as clean water fit for human consumption.

As you can see, the septic sanitation system is an excellent way of treating wastewater in rural areas. Large multi-million dollar treatment plants are very expensive to build and operate. They also consume a tremendous amount of our natural resources for energy. These plants use many different types of modern technology in treating the solid wastes. Consider yourself lucky if you are the owner of a septic system. City residents pay monthly for their wastewater treatment and you are getting the benefit of waste treatment for a fraction of the cost.

How a Septic System Works:
The average person uses between 100 and 300 gallons of water per day for drinking, cooking, washing, and toilet flushing. Waste water enters the septic system from toilets, sinks, tubs, and other house drains in the approximate percentage listed in the diagram. This wastewater flows by gravity from the house to the septic tank. The effluent entering the tank is about 99% water and 1% solids. Of these solids, 80% are organic and the remaining 20% are inorganic. The heavily polluted wastewater from the toilet produces most of the organic solids (feces, toilet paper, and urine). Other organic solids come form detergents, pieces of food , and any other non-chemical source. Water softeners, bleaches, paint residue, household cleaners, and other chemical sources make up the inorganic solids.

The purpose of the tank is to slow down the flow of water through the system long enough for the solids to settle. As the wastewater enters the tank, its movement is brought to a standstill. This allows the solid materials to settle to the bottom of the tank where enzymes and bacteria immediately start to digest them. The process begins with the enzymes, which liquefy the organic solids. Once liquefied, bacteria can do their job by absorbing the liquid. In this process of digestion, methane and other gasses are produced as a by-product.

These gases rise to the top of the tank carrying along fine particles. The gases are released through the vent pipe attached to the tank. The fine particles, along with oils and grease form a scum layer at the top of the tank. This is another excellent breeding ground for enzymes and bacteria which also actively digests these organic materials. Enzymes, bacteria, and other microorganisms can only digest organic solids. The inorganic solids together with the other by-products of the digestion process fall to the bottom of the tank to form a sludge layer. This process will continue day after day as long as there is organic food for the enzymes and bacteria to feed on and the conditions within the tank are suitable for their continued life. During this time billions upon billions of microorganisms will multiply (bacteria double approximately every 20 minutes). As this process continues over the life of the tank the sludge layer will keep building up. As this layer builds the tank capacity is decreased by the volume of the sludge layer.

This sludge layer must be removed on a periodic basis so that the tank can operate correctly. If the sludge is not removed, it can build to the point where it will block the outlet pipe and the system will eventually fail. The other important element of the process is the enzyme/bacteria action within the septic tank. As mentioned earlier, proper tank conditions must be maintained for them to keep multiplying. Everyday household cleaners, drain openers, chlorine bleaches, mouthwashes, etc. kill off enzymes and bacteria. If the enzyme/bacteria action is reduced below a proper level the solids and sludge will build up and cause system failure.

Now that the enzymes and bacteria in the tank have done their work of converting the solids to liquid the next process can start. The liquefied effluent now looks like dirty water. This discharge water flows out of the tank and into the filtration system (drainfield). The liquid flows through the drain pipe system, then percolates into the gravel base. From there it is absorbed into the surrounding soil.

As the effluent passes through the soil it is further purified by the many microorganisms within the soil. The enzymes, bacteria, fungi, and the rest of the microscopic creatures of the soil purify the effluent and make it harmless to man and beast. Some of these soil organisms can actually produce antibiotics like penicillin which will destroy pathogens and viruses. They also convert the effluent into nutrients that plants can use for food. The water within the effluent is purified through this process and eventually reaches the groundwater reserves for future use.

The distance the discharge water must percolate through the soil to purify it is based on the type of soil. Course sand is bad because it allows the water to pass too freely. Clay is bad because the water can not percolate quickly enough. Therefore, the location of the drainfield is very important for a properly operating septic system. Almost all septic systems are pre-approved by using percolation tests to determine if the soil will handle the amount of discharge water anticipated for the household.

Although the septic system process appears to be very complex, it really is very simple. It is based on the very nature of how dead organic material is broken down in the environment every day. Dead plant material, dead animal waste, and human produced garbage in landfills are all decomposed by these microscopic creatures. Many of these are the same enzymes and bacteria that are present in your very own septic system. In nature, there are even some specialized microorganisms that actually feed on toxic material. They have been found in oil spill areas, toxic waste dumps, etc. Septic systems can work on this simple and natural process forever if they are properly installed, maintained, and cared for. It is when these systems are abused or highly concentrated that they can cause problems to the environment.

Helpful Advice To Keep Your Septic System Working Efficiently:
1.) The water absorption of the drainfield area is the backbone of the septic system. The better the drainfield absorption, the better the overall system will work. Therefore, the following suggestions have to do with the reduction of water in this area:

Water conservation is one of the easiest things you can do to reduce the amount of water going in the absorption area.
Wash full loads of laundry and dishes instead of several small loads.

Water saving shower heads, faucet aerators, new toilet float valves, toilet tank space-occupiers, or low-flow toilets should be installed.

Repair all leaking faucets quickly.

Put a pitcher of drinking water in the refrigerator. This will reduce the amount of water running when getting a glass of drinking water.

Make sure that non-polluted water such as the roof downspouts, house footing drain tiles, sump pumps and any other non-polluted water does not go into the septic tank. These water sources should also be directed away from the drainfield area.

Be sure the ground surface above the drainfield is graded so that natural rain water runs off the drainfield area as much as possible. The drainfield should be located in a sunny place so that maximum evaporation can take place. Be aware of building shadows and shade from nearby trees.

No heavy equipment should be used above the drainfield, and no buildings should be built above this area because soil compression may occur and drainpipes could break.

Trees and shrubs should not be grown above the drainfield area because their roots could cause blockage and other damage to the drainpipes. Lawn grasses are the only thing that should be grown above this area.

Solids from the septic tank should not be allowed into the drainfield area because they will clog the drainpipes or reduce the ability of the soil to absorb water. If your system does not have an outlet filter you should look into getting one installed. Also your septic tank outlet filter should be cleaned at least once a year.

2.) The septic tank is the support for the whole system. Without the septic tank the whole drainfield area would fail in a very short period of time. The action within the tank is what allows the drainfield to work. The cleaner the effluent entering the drainfield, the better the drainfield will work. Following are a number of suggestions to keep this process working without any interruptions:

The tank must be the proper size for the waste treatment at hand. A small tank used for a two bedroom house occupied by three people will not support the waste generated by six people. Therefore, the tank capacity must match the intended use. Oversized tanks are an advantage because they will allow the solids to settle and liquefy over a longer period of time.

The tank is where solids are liquefied. Therefore, the enzyme/bacteria action must be maintained in the tank so that the solids are liquefied in the normal time period. The more action within the tank the faster the solids will liquefy. The more solids liquefied the cleaner the effluent will be entering the drainfield. Care should be taken to maintain a proper living environment for these microorganisms. This would include having the tank buried deep enough in the ground to maintain a temperature above freezing. The enzymes and bacteria prefer warmer temperatures. Therefore, in colder climates the action will be slower, so the tank capacity should be larger.

The use of a garbage disposal will add extra solids to your septic tank. If you use one make sure the tank capacity can handle this extra waste. You are probably better off not using the garbage disposal and should throw the waste into your garbage instead.

Remember, sludge build up decreases the tank capacity. The sludge layer should never be allowed to reach the level of the outlet pipe. A regular pumping of the tank will allow you to renew the life of your tank. This will also give your pumping professional the opportunity to inspect the tank for any structural problem. The idea is to prevent any harm to the drainfield which is caused by sludge entering it and clogging the absorption capabilities.

Remember, sludge build up decreases the tank capacity. The sludge layer should never be allowed to reach the level of the outlet pipe. A regular pumping of the tank will allow you to renew the life of your tank. This will also gives your pumping professional the opportunity to inspect the tank for any structural problem. The idea is to prevent any harm to the drainfield which is caused by sludge entering it and clogging the absorption capabilities.

3.) Your septic system is a big investment. The payback on this investment comes from operating a very effective wastewater treatment system over a long period of time at a small annual operating cost. Treat your system with care and you will see the benefits of your efforts. But if you don’t treat it with care, you will eventually have problems. If the problems continue and the system fails, it could mean another big investment to replace the system.

Major Problems And Concerns About Your Septic System:
1.) The most well known problem with septic systems is the problem of nitrate contamination in the groundwater. Nitrate is oxidized nitrogen, which can interfere with the human blood’s ability to carry oxygen through the body. It is especially dangerous to infants, and has been reported to cause “blue baby syndrome.” The health effects of nitrate contaminated water is still not fully understood, but they are serious enough to take the following precautions:

If you are using well water be sure your septic tank is located down stream from your well. The tank should be located away from your well.

You should have your well water tested regularly for nitrate-nitrogen to make sure it meets with local health department requirements.

Nitrate contamination usually is caused by poorly maintained septic systems. It may also be caused by a very large concentration of septic systems within a poor quality soil area where the soil is unable to purify the effluent correctly.

2.) Standing effluent above the drainfield can be a very serious health hazard and an odorous problem. The obvious problem is that the leach field (drainfield absorption area) can not absorb all the liquid effluent coming into the drainpipes so the effluent rises to the surface. The reasons for this condition can be many, most of which have been explained earlier. Sludge or solids entered the drainfield and have clogged the drainfield area. Therefore, the drainfield area is overloaded compared to the soil percolation.

3.) When the drains or toilets in the house are blacking up or running slow, a messy cleanup could result. This problem can be the result of the drainfield problems mentioned above in number 2, or it can result from plugged sewer lines to the tank, plugged inlet or outlet pipes, or tank capacity problems.

4.) Septic odors occur in the house, above the tank and drainfield, or escape from the vent pipe. If the system is operating properly there should be very few odors coming from the system. If there are extreme odors, it sometimes can be an early warning sign of septic system problems.

5.) Another source of system malfunction can be in the design of the system or in the construction of the system. Examples of this are soil compaction due to excavation, improperly installed sewer lines, incorrect joints, not enough grade in lines, and broken or crushed system components.

6.) Tree roots have gotten into the septic tank, piping, or are blocking the drainfield area. This can be a very serious problem and should be treated with care. Any septic professional can tell you a story or two of how they have discovered and removed very large roots from a septic system. If chemical removal is the solution make sure your septic professional is using an environmentally safe product which will not kill the tree. Most of the time tree roots are removed by cutting them out on a regular basis and applying a root killing treatment.

None of these problems are good ones, but they can all be corrected with time, money, or both. Do not let these problems persist or they could lead to serious health or environmental problems. Human waste is smelly, vile, and a persistent source of infectious diseases. It is like a poison, and like all poisons it doesn’t take much of it to cause you harm. Before your system can get to such a point where problems occur, you should practice good and proper maintenance and alleviate yourself of those headaches.

Myths And False Facts About Septic Systems:
Over the years septic tanks have been one of the most misunderstood and misconstrued pieces of equipment. Everyone seems to have an opinion about how to care for your septic system. Worse yet, some septic tank owners don’t know or care about their own systems. Now that you know about your system and how it works, we will try to clarify some of the myths that have followed septic tanks. We will also warn you about some of the false facts about septic tank additives.

Some people believe that putting yeast into their septic tanks adds bacteria to the tank and therefore, would prevent problems. Actually, yeast does not produce bacteria, but it does help by breaking down starches within the tank. However, starches make up only a small percentage of the waste in your tank. Therefore, it takes more than yeast to break down the five types of waste (Proteins, Fibers, Greases, Pectins, and Starches) found in the normal septic tank. Enzymes are specific. For example, Cellulase, an enzyme that liquefies fibers (toilet paper), will only liquefy fibers. It has no effect on proteins. Therefore, a protein liquefying enzyme called Protease, must be present to attack the protein based wastes. Bacteria are different than enzymes.

The fact is, there are many different types of bacteria. Some need oxygen to survive and are called aerobic bacteria. Others are actually killed by the presence of oxygen. These bacteria are called anaerobic bacteria. There are good bacteria and there are bad bacteria. Throwing yeast into the tank will add some forms of bacteria, but certainly not enough of the good bacteria to materially help your tank. In conclusion, yeast is helpful to some extent but it is better used for making bread and beer.

People have also believed that putting lime or baking soda in their tanks is helpful. This is true in certain situations because most enzymes and bacteria grow best in a non-acidic environment. By adding lime or baking soda, in the proper amounts, the pH level is brought to a neutral condition. On the other hand, too much lime and baking soda can also be harmful. Acids should never be added to a septic tank.

Some people say that their septic tank has lasted for over 20 years without pumping. When all conditions are right this can happen, but it is a very rare occurrence. Some people win lotteries too! Don’t take someone else’s good fortune as your own. Care for your septic system properly.

The worst septic tank injustice that we see today are phony products making wild claims about “never having to pump your septic tank again.” If you are currently using a retail grade product, or were sold a product over the phone, you likely have a very low quality septic additive. Watch the Cat Food Test video to see the difference in quality of septic system additives. In every industry you will get bad apples. Bad apples in the septic tank additive business are very common because it is so easy to play on the cost of a pump out. Don’t be fooled by these false claims. You now know that proper care, including high levels of enzymes and bacteria along with regular pumping, is the way to go. Some products actually do more damage than good. Other low quality products are of limited benefits. It is a shame when a septic system fails, adding to the groundwater and environmental problems.

What will hurt more, is the cost of repairing you septic system after spending money on useless products, not to mention the many headaches a failed system will bring you in septic smells and mess. However, there are some top quality products that add positive benefits to your septic system. Look for products that add to the natural process of your system. In the long run, maintaining your septic system will cost much less.

Helpful Hints In Caring For Your Septic System:
A failing septic system is not like your car when it is low on oil. No read light will come on to warn you. There are a few signs such as (septic oders, effluent and standing water above the drainfield, and sluggish toilet flushing) that will warn you of future problems. However, the best way to avoid problems is to properly care for your system from day one. The U.S. Department of Health, Public Health Division states; “A septic tank system will serve a home satisfactorily only if it is properly designed, installed, and adequately maintained. Even a good system which does not have proper care and attention may become a nuisance and a burdensome expense. Remember, a septic tank and soil absorption system which does not function properly frequently becomes a neighborhood health hazard. To obtain satisfactory service, the homeowner must know something about the design, operation and maintenance of his own septic tank system.” Proper care means a regular pumping schedule and high levels of enzyme/bacteria action within the septic tank system. Following are some suggestions for proper care of your system:

1.) You should have your septic tank pumped out by a reputable waste hauler on a regular basis. The tank should be pumped out every one to three years depending on the capacity and use of the tank. When the septic tank is pumped out it should be checked for any structural damage which may cause the tank to fail.

2.) Toxic and hazardous chemicals should never be poured down the drains or flushed down the toilet. Chemicals such as paint, varnishes, pesticides, solvents, and caustic drain openers can kill off the enzymes and bacteria within the system and also could contaminate the ground water.

3.) Non-biodegradable material such as cat box litter, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, cigarette butts, and coffee grounds are not attacked by enzymes and bacteria. Therefore, these inorganic materials will decrease the capacity of the tank and must be removed.

4.) Every effort must be made to avoid letting large amounts of grease or oils into the tank. Grease is one of the hardest organic materials to be broken down by naturally occurring septic tank bacteria. Grease and oils also will combine with soap and laundry detergents to form a scum that is very hard to break down and liquefy.

5.) If possible, don’t use garbage disposals because they add extra solids to the tank. These large solids along with other solid wastes such as cigarette butts, paper towels, etc. should be disposed of in the garbage.

6.) Limit, as much as possible, any personal care products that kill enzymes or bacteria. Mouthwash is a good example of this. You have probably heard the commercial stating mouthwash kills germs that cause bad breath. Well, if it kills bad germs (bacteria) that causes bad breath, then it will also kill the good enzymes and bacteria that make your septic tank work. Baking soda mixed with water works fine as a mouthwash. Baking soda does not kill enzymes or bacteria.

7.) The same is true of household products such as chlorine bleaches. Chlorine is one of the best killers of enzymes and bacteria. These types of products should be avoided and alternative products should be use.

All of us at Lenzyme including our professional distributors, hope this information has given you a better understanding of your septic system and how to care for it properly. When you really sit down and think about it, the cost of proper care is much cheaper than the cost of fixing avoidable problems. We wish you the very best with your system and we sincerely appreciate the time and effort you have taken to become better educated about your system. Remember, you are in control of your septic system and how efficiently it treats the wastewater you generate daily. We hope you care enough about your system and the environment to maintain it in a positive way. Please check out our products:

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