Septic Systems

Septic Tank

Septic Tank

Septic Tank and Pump Chamber

Septic Tank and Pump Chamber

Distribution Box

Distribution Box

Leach Bed Under Construction

Leach Bed Under Constuction

Leach Bed Finished

Finished Leach Bed

Alternative System

Alternative System

Disguising a mounded System

Disguising a mounded System

Standard Stone System

Standard Stone System

What is a Septic System?

The septic system is an efficient and convenient method for treating and disposing of household wastewater.

The individual parts of the system are the septic tank, a distribution box, and soil absorption system or leach field.

Settlement and bacterial action takes place in the septic tank to separate and break down the solids. Wastes that cannot be completely treated by bacterial action will either sink to the bottom of the tank as sludge or float to the top of the tank as scum. The septic tank contains baffles that prevent any scum and sludge from passing out of the tank. Gases generated in the tank are vented to the atmosphere through the house plumbing vent system. The sludge and scum that accumulates in the tank must be periodically removed by pumping the tank. The relatively clarified liquid from the middle of the septic tank flows out to the soil absorption system. The soil absorption system allows the liquid to be dispersed into the soil over a large area. Natural bacteria in the soil also act as a final treatment prior to reaching groundwater.

Why do Septic Systems fail?

If the liquid effluent cannot soak into the soil surrounding the soil absorption system, sewage may back up into the system and overflow into the house or puddle on the surface of the ground. There are several possible causes for this problem.

Poor Soil Conditions, Faulty Design or Installation

A leaching system placed in unsuitable soil, a system that is too small for type of soil or use, or an improperly constructed system could lead to early failure. If you are having a system installed make sure the designer and contractor obtain all the proper reviews, approvals and inspections from the local Board of Health.

Lack of Maintenance

If sludge or scum is allowed to accumulate to a point where it escapes from the septic tank into the soil absorption system, the soil will quickly become clogged. If this happens, the liquid will no longer soak, or percolate, into the soil. Broken baffles in the septic tank that allow sludge or scum to escape and failure to have the tank regularly pumped of accumulated sludge and scum can cause this condition.

Homeowner Abuse

Disposal of household wastes, food wastes, large amounts of grease or chemicals tend to quickly overload a septic tank and decrease natural biological breakdown of the wastes. Excess water use can flood the soil absorption system and prevent proper filtration and leaching of effluent from the soil absorption into the ground. Spread large water usage, such as clothes washing, out over the week rather than many large loads all in one day. In addition ignoring leaky plumbing fixtures can easily overload a soil absorption system to the point where it cannot properly function.

High Water Table

During wet seasons of the year, the groundwater may rise into the soil absorption system. This prevents infiltration and forces sewage upward to the ground surface. In addition groundwater contamination is major concern. This condition is common in older systems and may mean the system has to be re-installed at a higher elevation.


The roots of trees and bushes planted too close to the system can sometimes enter and block the pipes of the system. Removal of the plants and clearing the pipes of the roots is usually required.

Physical Damage

Cars, trucks or heavy equipment passing over the system can damage pipes and compact the soil to the point of rendering the system inoperable. You should be aware of the location of the system and direct traffic to avoid such damage.

Why is maintenance important?

Septic systems will adequately treat and discharge wastewater only if they are properly maintained.

A major reason to maintain your septic system is to save money. Failing systems are expensive to repair or replace, and poor maintenance is often the culprit. Preventive maintenance is much less expensive than system repairs or replacement. Maintaining an on-site system is like maintaining a car. A small effort on a regular basis can save money by avoiding large repairs and significantly prolong the life of the system.

Failing septic systems can contaminate the ground water that you or your neighbors drink.

A septic system professional can assist you in developing a maintenance plan for your system.


During new construction or remodeling projects, many chemicals can be inadvertently discharged to the septic system. This can reduce the level of bacterial activity, cause damage to the soil treatment system or contaminate the groundwater and nearby wells. The tank should be cleaned after such projects as a precautionary measure. It is best to avoid cleaning tools or disposing of paint, varnish, stain, plaster and other construction products where they can enter the septic system.

Simple Steps to Keep Your Septic System Working Properly

  1. Know where your septic tank and drain field are located. Keep a drawing of these locations in your records.
  2. Pump your septic tank as recommended by your maintenance provider (generally every one to three years but can vary depending on use).
  3. Don't dispose of household chemicals, kitchen wastes or grease into your septic system.
  4. Keep other household items, such as dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, and cat litter out of your system.
  5. The drain field does not have an unlimited capacity so use water efficiently. Excess water use or leaky plumbing fixtures can quickly overload a leach field. The more water your family uses, the greater the likelihood of problems with the septic system.
  6. Plant only grass over and near your septic system. Roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the system.
  7. Keep vehicles off your septic system. The weight can damage the pipes and tank, and compact the soil to a point that it may not drain properly.
  8. Keep water from gutters and basement sump pumps from draining into or near your septic system.
  9. Additives are not needed for properly functioning systems. Septic tank additives do not eliminate the need for periodic pumping.