Funny, the things we homeowners take for granted. Take, for example, how human waste is removed from your home. Most people simply avoid the subject altogether because it is simply an embarrassing topic in general. Others simply ignore it because, well if it works then why mess with it? The truth is that this is one home improvement topic that needs to be discussed, no matter how embarrassing. Why? Well, avoid the issue and you could end up with a backyard full of human excrement or, worse yet, a bathtub full of it. Either way the resulting cleanup will not only gross you out but will also cost you thousands of dollars to fix. So read on to find out how to keep your septic tank healthy.
However, let’s first take a good look at your septic tank, how it works and what having a healthy septic means to you. A septic tank is designed in such a fashion as to allow large waste materials, such as human feces, to float to the bottom of the tank and grey water to rise to the top. The grey water is then released into a pipe which carries it into what is called a leach field. The leach field is a series of pipes, with holes in them, that allows the grey water to seep gradually out into a bed of drainage stone and sand. Once the grey water processes through the sand and stone only pure water is left to drain into the water table below. Meanwhile, back at the tank, the large materials begin to break down into a sludge. How? Naturally occurring bacteria, which break down food in your intestines, eat away at the waste materials. So, if your tank works as it should, everything you flush will eventually be reduced down to a small amount of sludge and a whole lot of grey water. But what happens when the tank or leach field fails and how does it fail?
Failure can be caused by many things, such as old age, overfilling the tank, death of the bacteria in the tank, crushing of the leach field pipes, plugging of pipes, etc. The reasons may be many but the cures to avoid system failure are just as many. So let’s take a look, in no particular order, the failures and how to prevent them.
1. Overfilling The Tank
This one actually has several very simple fixes. The first is the most obvious and that would be to simply not use as much water. This has its other benefits, especially if you are on town water, like Doc. And that is of course to decrease your water bill. So how exactly can you reduce your water consumption and still remain sanitary enough to be seen in public? Simple, don’t flush your toilet as often as you normally would.
You know the old saying, “If it is brown flush it down. If it’s yellow then let it mellow.” Gross I know but oh so true. Here’s how we do it. In the morning the last person in the toilet has the honors of flushing all of the family mess. This has two benefits. The first is less water filling our tank and the second is that the kids are more likely to move fast to get out of bed so they wont be the last one in the bathroom! After the morning rush is over no urine is flushed until mid afternoon and nighttime in the summer and nighttime in the winter. The only exception to our rules are if we have guests and if it is particularly hot out and the toilet is beginning to take on an odor that could cause a mass evacuation of the house. To avoid staining simply brush the toilet out a few times a day after flushings and then clean thoroughly once a week.
The next fix would be to avoid using your garbage disposal. Instead throw your food to your chickens, if you have them, or start a compost bin. Why? Garbage disposals add undigested waste products to your tank that must be broken down by the bacteria already in the tank. This taxes your bacteria population and therefore causes unnecessary build up of waste within the tank.
A final fix is to put as little toilet paper into the tank as possible. Toilet paper takes far longer to break down in the tank then natural fecal matter and can therefore fill the tank fast. What we do is to throw any slightly soiled toilet paper into the trashcan. Only the toilet paper that is heavily soiled goes down the toilet. If the idea of this makes you nervous for sanitary or odor reasons, don’t be. Simply toss a dryer sheet into the bottom of your trash can and then place a plastic grocery bag into the can. When the bag is full simply pull it up and out by the handles. There you have it. No germs to touch and no smell. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and have yet to have odors accumulate in my trash can.
2. Plugging The Pipes
This is one of the simplest things to avoid. How? Simply don’t put anything down the toilet that could possibly clog the pipes either inside the house or outside of the house. Our family never puts cat litter, tampons, baby wipes or paper towels into our toilet.
3. Crushing The Leach Field Pipes
This is another simple one to avoid. When moving into a home with a septic simply ask the old owner for directions to the leach field. If he or she has no clue check at the town office for permits as these will give you a general layout of the original septic plan. If this too fails then find the septic tank itself, dig around it and see which direction the two pipes are going. Remember, one will be headed into the house to collect waste and the other will be headed to the leach field to release it. Once you figure out which pipe is headed to the leach field begin walking in that direction, which is usually straight down, if you live on an incline, as inclines provide natural gravity flow for the waste into the leach field. A short walk away should be your leach field. Another way to find your leach field is to look for a white PVC pipe sticking up out of the ground. This pipe should have an angled neck to it. Not all leach fields have this special pipe so this isn’t a fool proof method of finding the leach field.
Now that you have found your leach field it is time to protect it. Plant a garden over it or put a play area for the kids over it. Why? This will prevent heavy trucks and equipment from running over it and crushing the pipes when and if you do any home repairs or major construction on your home. If the thought of this makes you a bit ill then let me remind you that only grey water comes into the leach field and it is filtered down through the gravel and sand so there are no harmful contaminants, located at the leach field, that your kids could get into.
4. Death Of The Bacteria
I would bet anything that you have probably had to use antibiotics at least once in your life and I would also bet that you probably experienced the worst side effect possible, diarrhea. Why am I mentioning this very personal matter to you exactly? Well, diarrhea, caused by antibiotics is the same thing that happens in your septic tank when the bacteria in there dies off, believe it or not. Here’s how it works. Antibiotics kill the natural bacteria in your intestines that break up food. Therefore your body reacts by going completely out of whack and malfunctioning. To resolve this you eat yogurt to replace the bacteria. In a septic system, using harsh chemicals for cleaning can act, to the septic tank, like antibiotics act to our bodies. These cleaners can kill off the natural bacteria that you need to break down the waste within your tank. They die and your tank begins to clog, malfunction and eventually overflow into your backyard and possibly back up into your house. Not a pretty picture at all. Now you cannot feed yogurt to your septic but there are some things that you can do to prevent this.
First you need to make sure you read the labels on your cleaning compounds before purchasing them. Most will have a “safe for septics” mark somewhere on the bottle. If you don’t see this mark then put the product back and look for another one. Another great way to avoid killing your bacteria is to use homemade cleaning chemicals. Vinegar and lemon juice, for example, are natural antibacterial cleaning agents but don’t kill the bacteria in your tank. And for a bonus, lemon juice acts as a natural whitening agent perfect for getting your socks whiter and brighter. Baking soda is a great whitening agent and scrubbing agent but also doesn’t affect your tank. To unclog drains dump a cup of salt and a cup of baking soda down the drain. Follow this with a cup of vinegar. Let the drain “explode” for a while and then flush everything down with boiling water. This should keep your drains clean and free flowing without harming your septic. Should you feel it necessary to use harsh chemicals within your home try using Ridex once a month. This is the equivalent of you eating yogurt when you take antibiotics. Simply buy it at any home improvement store and then flush the required amount down your toilet.
5. Old Age
Sure, this cannot be prevented but it sure can be prolonged. Just as humans take vitamins and eat healthy to live longer, a septic tank can pretty much do the same. How? If your septic is designed for 3 bedrooms, for example, and you have a 2 bedroom house to which you want to make improvements, don’t add more then one more bedroom. Why? Overtaxing the septic by adding more bedrooms then what it was designed to handle can reduce the septic’s lifespan. Essentially, adding too many bedrooms to a septic not designed for them would be like asking an 80 year old man to run non stop for 100 miles. His heart would surely give out. If you need to add more bedrooms then what your septic is rated for then you need to get a new septic.
Another thing that causes premature septic tank death are trees and shrubs planted too close to the tank or leach field pipes. Weeping willows are especially notorious for killing septic tanks, wells and leach fields. Why? As the roots expand they “feel” for water and nutrients. Once they find the septic tank and/or leach field they now have a perfect source of water and nutrition. As a result they begin to send out more roots to surround the tank and/or pipes. As time goes by the roots literally begin to squeeze the life out of the tank and/or pipes. This will eventually lead to cracking and eventually in total system failure. Therefore, don’t plant anything, with a massive root system, near the leach field or septic tank. Only plant smaller rooted items, such as seasonal veggies or flowers, near or over the tank and/or pipes.
One final thing that will kill your tank early is parking heavy vehicles over the top of it. Just like the leach field, the septic is not designed to handle large loads. Park a few times over your septic and you may get luck and not have any problems. Park more then that and you could very well find yourself calling a tow truck to pull your vehicle out of the tank. A mistake that will cause the early demise of your tank and cost you thousands to fix. Not to mention that you may not want to drive your vehicle again after this episode.
Should you follow these simple instructions and have your tank inspected regularly, your tank will serve you well for many years to come. My own tank is currently 39 years old and still going strong. One final note, keep your septic system healthy and you will literally save thousands of dollars over its lifetime. Why? Town septic, on average, costs about $100 a month. Private septic, if properly maintained, needs a clean out every few years or so at a cost of around $200 per clean out. So, if you clean your tank every 2 years that is an average of $100 per year or around $10 a month, a $90 a month savings over the town septic. Don’t follow my simple advice and you might need to replace your septic. This can cost into the thousands since you have to pull permits, have plans drawn up, have the old septic dug up and have to have the new one put into place. However, that isn’t all. After everything is in place you still have to put your yard back together. That means replace trees, shrubs, grass and other plants lost to the digging process. Don’t have regular tank clean outs or inspections and your price could be even higher. I have heard, in the local news, of people dying when their septic tanks collapsed out from under them, causing them to drown. Not a pretty way to exit this world and definitely very avoidable. For some great illustrations on septics check out http://www.thenaturalhome.com/septic.html .