The number of home purchases exceeded 5.6 million in 2020. Granted, that number includes some condos and plenty of homes in urban or suburban settings. Those homes typically benefit from the existence of municipal services.
Right at the top of that list are sanitary sewer systems that link up to wastewater treatment plants. Of course, millions of homes exist beyond the reach of these sewer systems in rural areas. Homes in these areas use a different system called a septic tank for wastewater management.
Like any system, septic tanks need maintenance. Before we jump into septic tank treatment options, though, it can help to understand the basic mechanics of a septic tank system.
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How Septic Tank Systems Work
With a septic system, all of the greywater from your sinks and showers and the blackwater from your toilets go out to a tank buried under your lawn. Inside the tank, anaerobic bacteria that don’t need oxygen help break down the waste.
The bacteria does a fairly good job breaking down organic waste. The remaining solid waste, such as grease or oil, settles on the bottom of the tank and leaves liquid on the top.
The liquid leftovers move out of the tank through a perforated pipe into a drain field. The liquid slowly enters the surrounding soil, where natural processes help finish the process of filtering the water. By the time the water re-enters the water cycle, it’s typically safe for any normal purposes.
Of course, the downside of a septic tank is that the bacteria cannot fully break down the solid waste. Over time, it builds upon the bottom of the tank. Eventually, it will build up enough that it interferes with the normal operation of the system.
This is where regular septic tank maintenance and septic tank treatments enter the picture.
Septic Tank Pumping and Inspections
Two key elements of long-term septic system health are septic tank pumping and septic system inspections.
The pumping process involves a vacuum truck coming in and literally sucking everything out of the tank. That includes any leftover solids on the bottom of your tank.
Every septic tank must get pumped out periodically. The typical recommendation is every three or every five years. Of course, your situation will help determine the ideal amount of time between pumpings.
For a two-person household with standard water usage, you can probably leave it for four or five years. For a family of four, your best option is probably a septic tank pumping every three years.
What if your family is larger? The extra water usage and waste will place more demands on your system. At a minimum, don’t wait much beyond the three-year mark.
What if you recently bought a home with a septic system? This is where septic tank inspections come in handy.
The home inspection you get before buying does a cursory test of the septic system. While it will expose any dramatic problems, it can’t give you a clear picture of how much waste has accumulated on the bottom of the tank.
A full inspection includes opening up the tank, pumping it, and getting an evaluation of the system’s condition. A lot of factors can affect the longevity of a tank, but many will last 30 years or more if they don’t experience damage. The inspection can help you get an idea of how long your tank has left.
You can find a wide variety of additives for septic tanks on the market. Almost all of them will promise results and most will even deliver some results. Unfortunately, not all of them prove good for the long term health of your septic system.
For example, you might find some that work as organic solvents. These solvents essentially treat oil and grease in your system and break them down.
Unfortunately, these solvents also mess with the bacteria in the tank that break down the natural waste that flows through. Even worse, organic solvents don’t break down through natural processes in the drain field. Instead, they pollute the groundwater.
Some people use hydrogen peroxide as an additive. This puts some extra oxygen in the tank, which can theoretically help break down waste. Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly bad for your drain field.
It can actually make your drain fieldwork less efficient or even leave it next to useless if exposed repeatedly to hydrogen peroxide.
The one variety of additive that doesn’t cause obvious problems are biological additives. Some of the additives work specifically to increase the overall population of the bacteria in the system. This, in turn, makes the system work more efficiently.
The other type of biological additive is enzyme additives. These enzymes don’t interfere with the existing bacteria. Instead, they focus on breaking down solids that the bacteria typically find problematic to break down.
Additive Treatment Frequency
Every additive treatment manufacturer will list specific directions for their products. As a general rule, however, you can expect that you’ll add a treatment to your system about once every month.
Manage Water Usage
While your septic system will usually hold up pretty well to normal water usage, more water usage means more strain on the system overall. Any steps that you can take that minimizes the amount of water going down the drain will extend the life and health of your septic system.
This doesn’t mean you must take five-minute showers, but you can take a number of steps to reduce overall water usage without depriving yourself of basic comforts.
More Efficient Toilets
For decades, toilets came with tanks that used as much as three to five gallons of water per flush. That amount of water can become a huge portion of your total water consumption in a family of four or five people. Plus, you can still find these toilets in many older homes.
These days, you can find a good high-efficiency toilet that uses about a gallon and half of water per flush. While you might not want to replace every toilet in your home, replacing the toilets in the high traffic bathrooms can spare your utility budget and your septic system.
More Efficient Showerheads
Much like toilets, older showerheads did nothing for water conservation. These days, you can find showerheads that minimize water usage. As an added bonus, these showerheads often increase the overall pressure of the water coming out of the showerhead.
You can add aerators to your kitchen sink and bathroom faucets. These devices limit the total amount of water coming out of the faucet by increasing the amount of air in the water flow.
Many people toss a handful of clothes in the washing machine and turn it on without checking the load size setting. This can mean you end up washing a handful of shirts and a pair of pants in way more water than you need. Always adjust your load size setting for a small load if that’s an option.
You can also give your septic system a break by divvying up your laundry duties across the week. Do a load two or three times during the week instead of all on Saturday or Sunday. This lets your septic system deal with the water from each load over time, rather than trying to do it all at once.
Many people think of the toilet as a place to dispose of all sorts of things. They’ll drop feminine hygiene products, tissues, and even diapers down the toilet.
This approach can cause all kinds of problems. For one, larger items like diapers can clog the pipes inside your house. Even worse for you in the long term is that septic systems cannot do anything with these items.
All of that trash just sits in your septic system and takes up room. If it keeps happening, the tank will fill up way faster than normal and start causing other problems, such as:
- Poor flushing
- Slow drains
- Bad odors from toilets and drains
- Septic backup
The septic backup is the worst-case scenario because exposure to sewage can cause all kinds of health problems.
A good rule of thumb is that you should never flush anything that isn’t human waste or toilet paper. Why is toilet paper okay and tissues aren’t?
Manufacturers actually design toilet paper to break down very fast in the water. Tissues don’t break down that way.
Septic Tank Treatments and Your Home
When it comes to septic tank treatments, regular septic tank pumping is your first line of defense. It’s the most effective way you can keep your tank operating at peak efficiency.
Beyond that, you can use biological additives that increase the bacteria or add enzymes to the septic tank. Water management strategies that reduce overall water usage take some pressure off the tank. Don’t flush anything that would normally go into the trash.
Looking for more tips on getting the most out of your home? Check out some of the other great blog posts on this site.