Florida homeowners who have a septic system know it’s a mixed blessing. On one hand, you’re spared the monthly high bill for being connected to a municipal sewer system. On the other, you need to pay extra attention to what you dispose of through your plumbing system, and be diligent in maintaining it. Because taking your septic system for granted can cause messy backups in toilets and drains – not to mention the dreaded drain field failure – we at Adams and Son Plumbing offer this guide to the care and feeding of your septic system.
Just a note: septic systems are here to stay
With 30 percent of Florida’s population on a septic system, this method of sewage treatment and removal is gaining popularity among environmentally conscious home buyers. According to the Florida Department of Health, properly designed, constructed and maintained systems protect Florida’s groundwater, which provides 90 percent of the state’s drinking water. Instead of septic systems becoming less prevalent as Florida grows, the trend may be reversing.
Step one: Keep septic tank organisms alive and well
While most people associate septic systems with toilets, keep in mind that all of the water you run through all of your plumbing fixtures winds up in your septic tank. As pointed out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), your septic system contains a collection of living organisms that digest and treat household waste. Pouring toxins (paint, solvents, gasoline, etc.) down your drain can kill these organisms and harm your septic system. Avoid chemical drain openers, and never pour oil or grease down the drain. Household bleach is another hazard.
For this reason, also be careful with the use of common grooming products, such as shave gel, antibacterial soaps, soaps with a high fat/oil content and hair conditioners.
There is some debate about whether a garbage disposal can be used with a septic system, but we advise against it, as septic tank organisms can’t adequately break down food waste.
As for the toilet, use common-sense practices. Our May 2018 blog post, “Seven Common Plumbing Mistakes You Should Avoid,” states that only three things should be flushed down the toilet – one of them being toilet paper.
Step two: Conserve water
A septic system can process only so much water at a time. Practice basic water conservation measures (which you should be doing anyway), such as turning off faucets while brushing teeth. When doing laundry, use only the necessary amount of water per load and spread out your laundry days so the tank has time to recover. Look for a washing machine with an ENERGY STAR® label, as it uses up to 50 percent less water than standard models. Also, install high-efficiency toilets in new construction or retrofit.
The EPA’s WaterSense program is both a label for water-efficient products and a resource that provides numerous ways for helping you save water. Of course, have plumbing leaks repaired as soon as possible. Our June 2018 blog post, “How to Detect Plumbing Leaks” provides valuable tips on locating leaks before they cause extensive damage.
Step three: Maintain your drain field
The drain field is a crucial part of a septic system. It removes the contaminants and waste products from the liquid released from the septic tank after the process of anaerobic digestion. Don’t drive over or park on the drain field. Avoid planting landscaping or trees over or near the drain field in order to prevent roots from infiltrating the drain field.
Do not build permanent structures over the drain field. These structures can crush the drain field, compacting the soils around the trenches and preventing oxygen from getting to the soil.
And this advice specific to Florida: Avoid doing laundry or using more water than necessary after a hurricane or other major storm. Heavy, sustained rains can saturate the drain field, causing it to fail.
Step four: When to have the tank pumped out
The septic tank holds wastewater until solid debris settles at the bottom of the tank (the sludge layer). The lighter waste settles to the top and becomes scum. Wastewater is drawn from the middle of these two layers. Over time these layers thicken to the point where they come together. Once this occurs, sludge and scum leave the tank and enter the soil absorption field, which causes your soil and drain field to clog.
Depending upon the capacity of your tank, it should be pumped out every two to four years – possibly more frequently if the tank is older, as sludge solidifies along the walls of the tank over time.
Pumping out the tank on a regular schedule can help prevent a messy emergency. Unlike a plumbing backup caused by a clogged pipe, a septic tank emergency requires that the tank be pumped out. Should this happen during a holiday or after-hours, help may not be able to arrive in a timely manner.
Do you need to use a septic tank additive solution?
Although certain products sold at retail are marketed as preventive maintenance, most septic tank service technicians advise homeowners that they aren’t necessary.
Van Delden Wastewater Systems of Boerne, Tx, has this to say:
“One way many companies promote the sale of septic system additives is by saying that they help keep a good balance of bacteria in the tank. The truth is, bacteria is added to the tank every time the toilet is flushed; there is no need for additives unless the system is being overloaded or residents are putting items down toilets and drains that they should not.”
How to spot signs of trouble – and what to do
A fecal odor in bathrooms or outdoors indicate a septic tank in immediate need of being pumped out. Also notice toilets flushing sluggishly and making bubbling sounds, slow drains and water backup. And while the grass may be greener on the other side, it’s a bad sign if it’s greener over your tank.
Before this situation escalates into something inconvenient, unsanitary and very expensive, our team at Adams and Son Plumbing has been providing experienced, expert septic system service to Central Florida residences for 40 years. Contact us to schedule an appointment.