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Safeguard Your Septic System | Summer 2013 Out Here Magazine

A septic tank access in a yard with the dirt piled to the side and a pipe coming out of the tank - Tractor Supply Co.

A little care will help your septic tank do its job

Courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Photography by iStock

If you live in the country, you're most likely going to have a septic tank, and any rural resident will tell you that a functioning septic tank is a beautiful thing.

But you have to take care of it to keep it running well.

If you don't, replacing it can cost thousands of dollars. A malfunctioning system can contaminate groundwater that might be a source of drinking water. And if you sell your home, your septic system must be in good working order.

Keep your septic system in good working order with a few simple steps:


You should have a typical septic system inspected at least every three years by a professional and your tank pumped as recommended by the inspector — generally every three to five years.

Alternative systems with electrical float switches, pumps, or mechanical components need to be inspected more often, generally once a year.

Your service provider should inspect for leaks and look at the scum and sludge layers in your septic tank. If the bottom of the scum layer is within 6 inches of the bottom of the outlet tee or the top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the outlet tee, your tank needs to be pumped.

Remember to note the sludge and scum levels determined by your service provider in your operation and maintenance records. This information will help you decide how often pumping is necessary.

Four major factors influence the frequency of pumping:

  1. Number of people in your household
  2. Amount of wastewater generated
  3. Volume of solids in the wastewater
  4. Septic tank size

Some makers of septic tank additives claim that their products break down the sludge in septic tanks so the tanks never need to be pumped.

Not everyone agrees on the effectiveness of additives. In fact, septic tanks already contain the microbes they need for effective treatment.


If your septic system is flooded with household water, consider reducing the volume of water in the toilet tank if you don't have a high-efficiency model or replacing your existing toilets with high-efficiency models.

The more water a household conserves, the less water enters the septic system. Efficient water use can improve the operation of the septic system.

If your septic system is flooded with household water, consider reducing the volume of water in the toilet tank if you don't have a high-efficiency model or replacing your existing toilets with high-efficiency models.

Consider installing faucet aerators or high-efficiency showerheads, which help reduce water use.

Check to make sure your toilet's reservoir isn't leaking into the bowl. Add five drops of liquid food coloring to the reservoir before bed. If the dye is in the bowl the next morning, the reservoir is leaking.


What goes down the drain can affect how well your septic system works.

What shouldn't you flush down your toilet?

  • dental floss
  • diapers
  • cotton swabs,
  • cigarette butts
  • feminine products
  • coffee grounds
  • cat litter
  • paper towels
  • any other items that can clog

Flushing household chemicals, gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint can stress or destroy the biological treatment taking place in the system or might contaminate surface waters and groundwater.

If your septic tank pumper notices quickly accumulating scum layers, reduce materials such as fats, oils, and grease into your tank.

Make a few simple laundry adjustments to avoid sending too much washing machine water down the drain. Select the proper load size, because washing small loads of laundry on the large-load cycle wastes precious water. If you can't select load size, run only full loads of laundry.