How to Maintain Your Septic System
LESLIE: Jane in South Carolina, welcome to The Money Pit. What’s going on with your septic system?
JANE: Well, that’s what I’d like to know. (chuckling)
JANE: I just bought this house and it never dawned me, being a city girl, that this would not be just the regular, you know, sewer line to the street to the – you know. And come to find out that it has a septic system.
LESLIE: Mm-hmm. Which is very delicate.
JANE: I know absolutely nothing about what it is or how to maintain it.
TOM: All you want to know is flush it and wherever it goes after there is just fine, right? (chuckling) As long as it doesn’t come back.
JANE: So far so good, yes.
TOM: Alright. Well, listen. There are millions of homes in the country that are – that have septic systems; private waste disposal systems. Generally – I mean the type of system can change but generally what happens is when you flush that waste goes into a tank. And in the tank you have a bacterial field that is formed that allows the waste to deteriorate. And as the water level comes up it overflows and it goes out into a septic field which is a series of pipes that are perforated and that waste then drains off into the soil …
TOM: … and that’s kind of the way it’s dissipated. The thing that you want to remember about living with a septic system that you may not have had to deal with before is you have be very careful not to put a lot of bleach and things like that into your plumbing system because that can sort of wreck that natural degeneration that’s going on inside the tank …
TOM: … and cause the bacteria to kind of not be able to do their job.
LESLIE: And also, in addition to bleaches down the drain, you want to make sure that you don’t put grease or oils as well because they do the same kind of thing. You also want to know that when they do need to be pumped – which is every couple of years; it depends on the size of the tank and the amount of people who you’ve got using the system within your house and also if you have a garbage disposal that can tend to lead to pumping more frequently as well.
TOM: Well, unless you use a disposer that’s specifically designed for septic systems where it really, really grinds up the waste and those are available.
JANE: Oh, OK. Well, that …
LESLIE: And you want to – sorry, we’ve got a lot of info. You want to make sure that you have a map that tells you exactly where the location of the tank and the drain fields are on the property. Just in case you ever go to plant a tree or dig a post or something or put a pool in, you want to know where things are.
JANE: Now is that something I have to have a plumber come and do?
TOM: No. Have you – have you ever had – when you bought this house, Jane, did you have a septic system inspection done?
JANE: No, no one said anything about it being a septic system.
TOM: That’s something that you might want to have done and you may want to call your local municipal authority and ask about whether or not they perform septic system inspections. Or you could have a private contractor do that. A septic system inspection’s a good thing to do. You know, I spent 20 years as a home inspector and any time we had a house that had a private septic system we always did inspections on it. There’s different ways to do it. Typically what happens is you run a lot of water through the system and you put dye in the water so you can tell if there’s any breakdown or voids in the system anywhere. So that’s one thing that you might want to do and that will give you a good orientation, too, as to what you have to deal with there.
JANE: OK. And would they do the mapping as well?
TOM: They certainly should be able to tell you where the pipes are as part of the inspection, yes.
Alright, thanks so much for calling us at 888-MONEY-PIT.