If your home has a septic system, you know it comes with its own set of responsibilities. Unlike homes connected to a municipal sewer system, it requires attention at regular intervals to prevent unsanitary (and expensive to mitigate) backups. Our blog post – “Septic Tank Maintenance: What You Need to Know” – covered general maintenance duties. This month, we focus on determining when the tank needs to be pumped out.
How often should a septic tank be cleaned?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average household septic system should be pumped every three to five years. While most people only think about the contents of the toilet winding up in the septic tank, every time you run water anywhere in your house – be it a sink, shower, tub or washing machine – the water goes into the tank.
Sludge and other sediments slowly accumulate in the tank while the water enters the drainfield and leaches into the ground. Over the course of three to five years, these layers accumulate on the bottom and the sides of the tank, eventually diminishing its capacity to store wastewater for gradual release into the drainfield. If not pumped out, the contents of the tank will back up into your plumbing fixtures and on some occasions into the drainfield. To say this situation is best avoided is a tremendous understatement.
The three-to-five-year timeframe is general. The actual frequency depends upon the following factors:
- Household size
- Total wastewater generated
- Volume of solids in wastewater
- Septic tank size
Your septic tank includes a T-shaped outlet which prevents sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling to the drainfield area. If the bottom of the scum layer is within six inches of the bottom of the outlet, or if the top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the outlet, your tank needs to be pumped.
How can you tell? We don’t recommend taking a look yourself. Our Adams and Son Plumbing team does recommend you call a professional to perform an inspection on an annual basis, or at the three-year mark. The EPA recommends the following:
- To keep track of when to pump out your tank, write down the sludge and scum levels found by the septic professional.
- The service provider should note repairs completed and the tank condition in your system’s service report. If other repairs are recommended, hire a repair person soon.
- Keep maintenance records on work performed on your septic system.
If you haven’t been keeping track of septic tank pump-outs and inspections, there are trouble signs that indicate it’s on the verge of backing up. If you notice any of the following, call a septic system professional immediately:
- Sewage odor in the house.
- Slow-draining toilets and drains.
- Wet area on or near the drainfield.
- Greener grass over the septic tank than throughout the rest of the yard.
For additional information, Puget Sound Starts Here provides an excellent FAQ sheet on septic systems. Although Puget Sound is far from Central Florida, the information still applies. You can also print out the PDF to keep handy for reference.
What happens if you neglect your septic tank?
In addition to the issues previously listed, the worst-case scenarios include having to replace the septic tank itself and/or the drainfield. Leaks can occur in old tanks – especially those that haven’t been properly maintained. Replacing a drainfield is expensive, typically running into several thousand dollars. The cost depends upon many factors, such as size of your septic system, soil type, removal of trees or fencing, etc. Be prepared for most of your yard to be dug up.
Obviously, prevention is far preferable to the cure. Keep your tank well-maintained, and you’ll be more likely to get the full period of useful service from it – which could be up to 40 years.
Where does the waste go?
Most people don’t think about where the tanker truck goes after pumping out their septic tank. As long as it’s out of your life, you probably immediately put it out of your mind and enjoy flushing again without worrying about a backup.
But some people do think about it. And if this question has ever crossed your mind, writer Josh Clark of HowStuffWorks has the answer! Because his article is for a national audience, some disposal destinations may not apply to your municipality. But you’ll get the general idea.
“Prior to federal laws that restrict septic sludge dumping, waste companies could simply bury it in dump sites. As it became clear that sites like these were a health hazard, they were outlawed. These sites remain, though many are in the process of remediation (clean-up).
“These days, federal and state laws govern the final destination of the contents of your septic tank. In some cases, the septic contents are taken to waste treatment plants and added to the stew piped in from a municipal sewer system or delivered to independent, for-profit companies specializing in the treatment of septage. Septage may be treated in cesspools, which hold the waste while chemical or biological materials break it down into effluent [source: National Small Flows Clearinghouse]. Septage may also be dumped in approved landfills. The guidelines concerning septage dumping are strict and sites can be few and far between, however.”
The take-home message
As you’ve hopefully learned, septic tank maintenance is one of those necessary responsibilities that has dire consequences if neglected.
If your septic tank is due for inspection and/or cleaning, our team at Adams and Son Plumbing has been providing experienced, expert septic system service to Central Florida residences for over 60 years. Contact us to schedule an appointment.