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How Your Septic System Actually Works

Your septic is your home’s personal underground wastewater treatment system. You see them mostly in rural areas that use well water and don’t have access to a centralized sewer system. Septic systems sound complicated but are actually quite simple; they use a combination of natural process and technology to treat the wastewater coming from your home, including bathrooms, kitchen and laundry drains.

Parts of a Septic System

There are two primary elements to your septic system – the tank and the drainfield.

Septic Tank – This is exactly what it sounds like. A water-tight container (or tank) buried in your yard. Often made of concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene, your septic tank holds the wastewater long enough for the different types of matter within it to separate. Floatable matter, such as oils and grease, rises to the top, while solids sink to the bottom. The liquid in the middle is known as effluent.

Drainfield/Soil absorption field – Your drainfield is a shallow, covered excavation made in unsaturated soil located alongside your tank. This is where the effluent, the liquid wastewater, is dispersed into the soil.

Septic System Repair and Maintenance

Your septic system may also include alternative systems such as pumps depending on your location and soil. These systems help the effluent trickle through sand, constructed wetlands and organic matter such as peat and sawdust, to remove or neutralize disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus and other contaminants. Some are even designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged into the soil.

How it all works

1. The wastewater leaves your home through a main drainage pipe and travels to the septic tank buried in your yard.

2. Wastewater is separated into 3 parts: solids sink to the bottom to form sludge, oil and grease floats to the top as scum, and the rest of the liquid (effluent) is in the middle.

3. The liquid wastewater (effluent) is leached out of the tank through perforated pipes into the drainfield. Compartments in the tank, as well as a T-shaped outlet, allow the liquid to leave, but hold in the sludge and scum at the bottom and top.

4. The drainfield allows the liquid wastewater to filter through the soil. There is where nature comes in. The soil naturally removes harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and nutrients, treating and dispersing the wastewater as it percolates through the soil.

5. Sludge and scum may be harmful if released into the soil and need to be pumped out of your tank by a professional company, like us!

Show your septic system some love

Much like the other systems that keep your home running smoothly, your septic system will typically need to be serviced by a professional company (like us) every one to three years, with regular tank pumping every three to five years. In the meantime, the steps you should take to protect your system so that it lasts you a long time are all shown on this infographic produced by the EPA for Septic Smart Week. We love it!

Septic System Repair and Maintenance

1. Shield your Field: Avoid parking your cars, trucks, boats, RVs or heavy machinery over your drainfield. Also, unless you want to call us to get the roots out of your drains, please don’t plant trees here. And your drainfield is DEFINITELY NOT a good place to install an above ground swimming pool.

2. Don’t Overload the Commode: Please don’t flush diapers, wipes of any kind or other items that belong in a trash can, down your toilet. For more information on this, see our list of 10 Things You Should Never Flush if You Have a Septic System.

3. Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease and harsh chemicals down the drain. If you have a garbage disposal, try to limit what you are putting in it so you don’t fill your tank with solids.

4. Don’t Strain Your Drain: Your septic system works hard…but not too hard. Use your water efficiently and stagger the use of your washing machine, dishwasher and shower. This is especially important if you also have a well, so you don’t accidentally empty your well.


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