When a septic system is running smoothly, it's easy to forget about. After all, who wants to think about... that? But living with a septic system requires dedication and a good memory (or service plan). Fortunately, the homeowner's primary role in maintaining a septic system is remembering to call the professionals in every so often. But dirty work aside, there are a number of habits and tips that can help extend a system's life, and improve its operation.
The (Very) Basics
We have to begin by repeating something you've (hopefully) heard a hundred times before: the toilet is not the trash. Water, bodily waste, and toilet paper - these are the only things that should be flushed. Anything else, and you run the risk of clogged drains, tank damage, and/or drain field damage. One of the simplest and most beneficial things you can do is to put a trash bin near the toilet for all those other things that need to be disposed of. If you have frequent guests or a forgetful housemate, you might even put a note up to remind them.
Also, keep in mind that toilet paper that's too thick can take up unnecessary space in the septic tank, and without frequent pumping, can even lead to backups. If you aren't sure if yours is septic-safe, put a handful in a jar of water and give it a shake - if it dissolves readily, you should be good to go.
Because septic systems treat wastewater on-site (rather than transporting it to large, specialized facilities), water conservation becomes all the more important - the tank can only hold so much, and the drain field can only be so big. Using too much water will overfill the tank, cutting down the time allowed for the separation of solids. This can result in more solid waste entering the drain field, leading to clogs and failure.
To cut down on water, install as many water-efficient fixtures as you can, and don't run heavy users like dishwashers and washing machines at the same time. Try to do no more than two loads of laundry per day, and make sure they're always full loads. Most importantly, find and stop those leaks!
What about everything else that gets sent down the drain? Septic systems are hardy and resilient, but only to a point. A constant influx of hair, food scraps, FOG (fats, oils, and grease) and harsh chemicals can lead to damage and failure quicker than you'd think. Thankfully, it's not very difficult to keep the bulk of this waste out of your septic system and in the trash, where it belongs.
You can call them strainers, screens, or filters - whatever they are, they belong over your drains! These inexpensive things are beyond simple and do a world of good, from keeping coffee grounds, food scraps and hair out of the tank to occasionally saving a wedding ring. And we all know about lint traps for the dryer, but did you know that washing machines spit out lint, too? This can present problems for septic systems when the lint - especially from synthetic materials - makes its way into the drain field, leading to clogs and potential system failure. Consider installing a washing machine lint filter to avoid any issues.
While we're talking about drain cleaning, laundry, and such - there are definitely times when strong cleaners, bleach, or antibacterial products are needed. But in the typical home, it's not every day (we hope). Harsh chemicals like these can kill the bacteria in your system. Use biodegradable soaps and cleaners, and try not to reach for the "hard stuff" too often.
What about additives and treatments for your system? As we note in "How a Septic System Works", "there are tons of additives out there, but in a properly functioning system, all the bacteria that's needed to process waste is already there. Bacteria that aid our own digestion travel with waste into the tank, where they feed and reproduce. With each flush of solid waste, new colonies are added!" That being said, additives using bacteria and/or enzymes (like Roebic K-37) won't harm the system. Those using strong chemicals have very limited use, and should be avoided unless recommended by a professional.
A quick note about FOG...
"Bacon mania" will never end. The obvious upside of this is bacon. The downside is grease. You can't save all of it for later use (your heart hopes so, anyway), and you probably don't have a grease trap in your house. So what do you do with drippings, bacon or otherwise? Whatever you do, don't send it down the drain - wipe it out or pour it into something and trash it. FOG is always bad for pipes, will increase scum and sludge in the tank, and could lead to drain field problems.
Septic Tank Pumping
Beyond these habits and "best practices", there's an even more important maintenance task that should not and cannot be avoided: pumping the accumulated scum and sludge out of the tank. Yes, the sludge really adds up in a septic tank, and will result in system failure without regular pumpings. How regular? It depends on the household and the system (mound systems usually require more frequent pumping). The average is around 3-5 years, but some tanks need pumping every year, and others have gone 15+. The only way to know is to have your system regularly inspected by a professional.
Unless you have previous experience working on septic tanks, you shouldn't mess with them yourself. Just opening the lid and standing over it could be dangerous: gases from the tank have been known to knock people out! It's best to leave it to the pros. Be sure that the tank's manholes are accessible, and sealed with a sturdy, child-proof cover.
Always keep records of inspections, maintenance and repairs - you never know when you'll need the info!
Drain Field Maintenance
Good habits and regular tank pumping should be enough to prevent one of the most catastrophic septic scenarios: a clogged - and failed - drain field. Though most solid waste is processed in-tank, some does make it to the field. Bacteria and other organisms in the ground can usually make quick of work of any that comes through. But when a tank needs to be pumped and isn't, sludge builds up. Incoming wastewater moves through faster, and carries solids with it into the field. Distribution pipes and even the soil can become clogged, preventing water from percolating. Bad smells, puddles, wet spots, and particularly lush plant growth over the field could indicate such a problem. In the house, slow or gurgling drains that can't be remedied with a plunger or snake might also suggest a drain field issue.
Besides making sure the tank gets pumped, there's not much else that the drain field requires. There are a few things to avoid, however. Like trees. The great bane of plumbing, tree roots always find their way into pipes, and savor the wealth of nutrients and water found in a drain field. Trees need to be at least 30 feet away, and with some varieties, much further. Do your research before planting: understand the tree's root system and growth pattern. The only things that should be planted over a drain field are grass and herbaceous plants. How about some wildflowers?
Additionally, be sure that discharges from pumps and rain gutter downspouts are directed away from the field to prevent over-saturation. And it may seem obvious, but you shouldn't drive over a drain field, park on it, or set up heavy equipment on it. The weight compacts the soil, reducing oxygen for the organisms in the ground and making it harder for water to flow. Likewise, heavy foot traffic (human or otherwise) should be avoided.
Yes, there's a lot you can/should/must do with a septic system. Provided you at least stick to the "must" of regular tank pumpings, your system should perform adequately. The shoulds - curbing bad habits and forming good ones - do a lot towards increasing system longevity, and are your best bet at reducing the number and severity of problems you encounter over that lifespan. These are easy steps to take, and given the costs of septic system repair, they're well worth it.