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How Does a Septic Tank Work?

Does My House Have a Septic Tank?

If you live in a town that has its own sewer system, then your home most likely does not have a septic tank. But if you are residing in a home that has its own well water, does not have a water meter on the property, and does not get a bill for sewer services each month, then you likely have a septic tank. It's important to know what a septic tank system does and how to maintain it if you want to avoid costly repairs in the future.

What is a Septic Tank?

A septic tank is a large tank made of steel or concrete that is buried in the yard near the home. They can be quite large, 2,000-gallon capacity or more for residential usage.

What is a Septic System?

All the drainage pipes from your home are connected to the septic tank which forms the septic system. This means that wastewater from your sinks, toilets, showers, or tubs are all connected to the septic tank.

How Do Septic Tanks and Septic Systems Work?

How a septic tank works is fairly simple. When the wastewater enters the tank, it will settle to the bottom in three layers:

  • Scum Layer
  • Effluent
  • Sludge Layer

All the grease and oil that is sent through the drainpipe will wind up in the scum layer which sits on top. At the bottom is the sludge layer which consists of substances that are heavier than water. In between is the effluent which is made up of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other chemicals which work to decompose the heavier sludge layer in the tank.

This part of the wastewater will leave your tank and enter a large drain field. The rest of the septic system is where most of the work is performed to remove the bacteria, viruses, and other elements in the wastewater. Microbes that exist in the soil consume these bacteria and viruses, resulting over time in clean water. This water will seep deeper into the ground being further treated by the soil until it reaches an underground water source. Drain fields can be quite large, upwards of 900 square feet which is the size of a small apartment.

It is true that gases form in the septic tank, but they are released through a pipe that usually runs through the house and exists out the roof, so you do not have to smell the noxious fumes. In addition, there should be a cap near the tank on the surface which allows for access.

How Do You Maintain a Septic Tank?

If you want to keep your septic system in tip-top shape, then it will need periodic maintenance. This starts with servicing the system every five or so years depending on the use of the system itself. This is something that you want a professional company to do since they have the equipment and expertise to do the job properly. But more importantly, the septic tank itself may have dangerous viruses, germs, and bacteria that could threaten you or members of your family if you decide to do the servicing yourself.

Proper maintenance is important because if you do not periodically clean out the septic system, it may lead to a failure which results in the system backing up or leaking into the ground before the transformation process has been completed. This may mean spending thousands of dollars in cleaning up a huge mess and replacing the tank. If you are using well water, it also may result in a contaminated water supply.

What Actions Can You Take?

There are some things you can do to help keep your septic system running smoothly. Doing the basics may cost you a few hundred dollars every five years, but the alternative is spending up to $10,000 or more to clean up and replace the system itself. You can start by not putting the following into your septic tank:

  • Disinfecting wipes, baby wipes, and feminine hygiene products
  • Grease, hair, and cigarette butts
  • Harder items such as cardboard or plastics

In addition, keep the trees away from your septic system. Tree roots are such that they will seek out nutrients and penetrate the drainage pipes and tank. That will result in an expensive removal process that will cost you plenty.

Treatments: There are over the counter products you can use to treat your septic system. These are usually microbes that come in a powder form which is flushed down your toilet to help the transformation process of the wastewater. Such treatments are fairly inexpensive and when used regularly can help keep your septic system clean.

Scheduled Maintenance: Every five years is recommended for most homes. If you have a large number of people living in your home, then every two, three, or four years may be recommended. You should establish a connection with a reputable septic system company to find out what works best for your needs.

Be Alert: A good septic system does not need constant vigilance, but there are signs you should be aware of which may help you spot issues early before they become big problems:

  • The odor of noxious fumes
  • Pooling of water above the septic tank
  • Unusual grass growth around the tank area
  • Issues with drainage pipes

Take any of these signs seriously and act upon them quickly. However, if you employ regular maintenance to your tank and pipes, then you can minimize such issues from the start. This is not to say that all issues with septic systems can be avoided, but with a little care and thoughtfulness, you can reduce the chances that something will go wrong. Read about other actions you can take at the Septic.com article Septic Tank Maintenance.

A properly operating septic system means that unless you are digging in the area, you should not smell anything unusual when standing over the tank. Of course, you’ll want to keep any heavy equipment away from the area, so you do not smash or otherwise damage the tank or drain field. If you do smell the unmistakable fumes when standing near the tank and the cap is sealed, then you will want to call a professional septic system company to check it out.


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