How Do Septic Tanks Work? All You Need to Know: from Installation to Maintenance.

It’s important to understand how septic systems work, and what you need to do to maintain them. Septic systems require a bit more care than other types of plumbing, but it’s necessary to keep all your wastewater flowing properly out of your house.

If you buy a home in a large town or city, you’re typically hooked to the local sewer system and never have to worry about what happens to your wastewater. However, that’s not always the case in smaller towns, or if you’re building a home in a developing area. In these situations, rather than using a local sewer, you’ll be looking at a septic system installation, or inheriting the existing septic tank from the previous owner.

At Roto-Rooter, we have decades of experience helping people with their septic system installation, care, repair, and maintenance. We want everyone to have a great experience! So, let’s talk about everything a new owner needs to know about their septic system.

I. How Do Septic Tanks Work?

A typical septic system is made up of two basic components, linked together.

One is the septic tank itself, which is buried on your property. These tanks are huge – typically capable of holding anywhere from 750-1,250 gallons. The tank could be made of a few different materials, including concrete, fiberglass, or special plastics. The job of the tank is to receive all the wastewater coming out of your home and allow the solid materials to settle to the bottom while the lighter liquids (called effluent) stay on top.

Natural biotic agents in the tank will help break up many of the materials over time. Your septic tank will have a full ecosystem inside it, quietly working on your behalf.

As the tank fills up, the effluent needs to drain out, so excess material flows into the drain field. This is a shallow excavation near the septic tank, typically filled with rocks and gravel. Effluent goes into this excavation and is allowed to sink back into the ground, where it’s naturally filtered and eventually rejoins the larger water cycle.  The flow of effluent out of the tank is balanced so that it shouldn’t ever flood the drain field.

When properly installed and cared for, a good septic system should be able to last for decades – although there will be periodic maintenance from time to time, as we’ll discuss below.

II. Septic System Installation

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The most important thing to know about septic system installation is that you absolutely cannot do it yourself. We know some people enjoy DIY projects, but installing a septic tank requires a huge excavation, and probably also a crane to lower the tank into place once the hole is dug.

You will need highly trained professionals who specialize in septic system installation, for the best results. The placement of the tank, as well as the drain field, must be carefully calculated, taking local geography and slopes into account, to ensure all wastewater flows properly out of your home, into the tank, and then into the drain field.

There will also be extensive permits needed to cover the installation. Again, this is a major job, and it requires significant oversight.

Also, this isn’t a project where you should go with the lowest bidder or buy the cheapest tank available. Considering that human waste is genuinely toxic, potentially contaminating an entire property if things go wrong, you want to pay to see the job done right. That will ensure you get decades of use from your tank, with minimal problems.

All in all, you want the best people you can find to install your septic system.

III. Septic Tank Pumping

So, the big downside to septic systems is that the tank will need to be pumped out from time to time. While the lighter, safer effluent will drain out on its own, the solid materials – the really dangerous stuff – will continue to build up at the bottom. Eventually, this will leave too little room for the tank to handle the wastewater coming out of your home.

This generally takes anywhere from two to five years, depending on how much wastewater your home produces. Best practices are to pump out a septic tank every 3-4 years, and we don’t recommend waiting until the last minute. Otherwise, you could see significant plumbing problems in your home if the tank is full.

Septic tank pumping can only be handled by trained professionals. It requires a dedicated tanker truck to hold all the waste, along with extremely high-powered vacuum systems to pull all the waste materials out. As with septic system installation, this is a job that absolutely cannot be done as a DIY project.

When it comes time for your next septic tank cleaning, here are a few tips:

  • Know where the access port for your septic tank is, as well as have a general idea of where the drain field is. (Hint: it’s probably the greenest part of your lawn.) This will save time and money if the crew doesn’t have to search for them.
  • Clear out your lawn of any obstacles ahead of time. Unless the access port is very close to the road or driveway, they’ll probably need to drive the truck onto your lawn.
  • Keep kids, pets, and anyone else far away from the work. These are hazardous materials, and people have died from falling into their septic tanks.

The pumping itself usually only takes a couple of hours and will typically run a few hundred dollars. It’s not cheap, but at least you only have to do it every few years.

IV. Care of Your Septic System

As a homeowner, there are things you can do that will help maintain your septic system and prevent damage. This will maximize how long you can go between septic tank repairs or calls for tank pumping.

  • Try to conserve water. The less water that goes into your tank, the longer it will take to fill up. Plus, water conservation is just good practice all around, helping prevent water waste as well as keeping your utility bills low.
  • Forget the garbage disposal. Sink garbage disposals and septic systems do not mix. Septic tanks are not designed to handle food waste. In particular, oil and grease can easily clog up the pipes and cause big problems, as well as mess with the ecosystem in the tank.
  • Don’t flush any unusual objects. If you have a septic tank, nothing should be flushed except human waste and toilet paper. Anything else could potentially clog up the system, even items that you might flush into a city sewer system without a problem.
  • Don’t use store-bought septic tank cleaners or biological agents. You may occasionally see products in stores that claim to help enhance the working of your tank. They rarely actually work and may even cause problems. Only trained septic system professionals should add any chemicals to your tank if they are needed.

V. Warning Signs of Septic System Problems

Finally, let’s talk about what could go wrong. There are several ways a septic tank might fail, or just indicate it’s nearly full and needs to be pumped. These are the most important things to watch out for.

1. House-wide draining problems

A single sink or toilet that has trouble draining is probably just a regular clogged drain. However, if every drain in the house is running slowly – or not draining at all – that’s guaranteed to be a problem with the septic system. Most likely it needs to be pumped, although a clog in the main pipe running to the tank is also a possibility.

2. Backups when running appliances

Another sign of a filled tank is if running an appliance causes backups in another place. For example, if you run your dishwasher, and a bathtub drain starts backing up with water. Again, this needs immediate attention.

3. Gurgling sounds

If you hear gurgling sounds from your drains as water flows through, that suggests a clog is in the process of forming. You want to take care of this sooner, rather than later, to prevent further damage.

4. “Swampy” areas on your lawn

If the tank has overflowed or flooded your drain field, it may result in wet patches on your lawn that don’t have any other clear cause. Most of the time, these will also smell swampy, or like sewage. Take care of this quickly, and keep people away from the wet spots, since they’re potentially toxic.

Roto-Rooter California Is Here to Maintain Your Septic System

We’re California’s experts on septic system installation, care, and maintenance. We have the crews and the equipment to handle installations and pumping all on our own, without outside contractors – and that saves you money! We’re also always available to help if you think you’re having other problems with your septic system, such as checking for clogs in the pipes.

Proper care and maintenance are crucial when you have a septic tank. If you ever have problems, please contact Roto-Rooter.