If you or someone you know recently purchased a home with a septic system, or are considering purchasing a home that uses a septic system, there are a number of things you need to know and consider in advance.
Here’s a quick and dirty guide to understanding septic systems and how to maintain them:
Around 25% of homes in the US depend on a septic system, whether it is shared with multiple households or individual systems. Many people assume they are a feature of more rural homes, yet many urban and suburban homes operate a septic system.
HOW IT WORKS
Here’s the short version: A pipe drains all of the wastewater from your home and deposits it in a watertight underground tank. This is where solids (called sludge) settle to the bottom, and floatable materials (called scum) rise to the top. Both sludge and scum remain in the tank and are periodically pumped out by a professional septic service technician.
There is also a middle layer made up of liquid wastewater (called effluent), that drains from the tank into a buried drainfield in your yard, which helps the wastewater disperse into the soil. The soil in your yard filters out any contaminants, and the beneficial bacteria in the soil break down organics in the wastewater to use as plant food.
SEPTIC SYSTEMS AND DRINKING WATER
Both the potable water source for your home (a well, city line, etc.) and your septic system are completely separate from each other. The septic system is intended to disperse contaminated water back into the ground as a means of filtering it, but that effluent water does not come in contact at any point in time with your drinking water.
TYPES OF SEPTIC SYSTEMS
The only difference between types of septic systems is the size of the drain field and the soil in a home’s yard. For example, liquid waste sometimes encounters difficulty in dispersal when it is drained into clay-rich soil as opposed to sandy soil. When that occurs, the drain field will need to be large enough to handle the volume of effluent the average family generates. To prevent the possible clogging of a septic system, it is essential not to use toilets or sinks as a disposal for dental floss, coffee grounds, cat litter, paint, chemicals, or other non-biodegradable materials.
MAINTAINING A SEPTIC SYSTEM
The periodic pumping of a septic tank must be handled by professionals to remove the accumulated sludge and scum. How often the tank needs to be pumped depends largely on how large the tank is and how much wastewater the household generates. A three-bedroom house will most likely have a 1500-gallon septic tank that needs to be drained every three to five years, though depending on the waste generation and soil conditions, it may need to be done annually.
In addition to pumping, the tank should be regularly inspected for any leaks or clogs. The telltale signs that the system may be clogged include bad smells and slowly draining or gurgling fixtures. Also, it is very important to avoid the use of septic tank additives, which claim to break down sludge and scum within a septic tank to reduce for pumping. Studies have shown these additives can actually damage your septic system, resulting in a costly repair.
There are several factors that go into determining the cost of draining your septic system, including tank size, drainfield size, and distance for hauling away waste. Draining a 1500-gallon tank might cost somewhere in the $300 range depending on the specific circumstances of the job based on your home’s tank and location.
BEFORE BUYING A HOUSE WITH A SEPTIC SYSTEM
Do some research on your state’s rules. Many require an inspection before a title transfer can take place. Even if the inspection is not required in your state, it is possible your lender may require you to have an inspection performed as well (most appraisal and safety inspections do not include a septic system check).
Inspections can give you important details about the condition of the home’s septic system: Is it set up a proper distance from your well, preventing contamination? Are there any invasive tree roots in the drain field that could damage the system?
Also, it is essential to know the exact age of your septic system. Even a well-designed and installed system can need replacement after 25 to 30 years, and replacement costs can vary widely. Most experts state a basic gravity-feed septic system can cost as little as $4,000 to replace, but if your system requires electrical or mechanical parts of function correctly, the replacement cost can range anywhere from $15,000 to $35,000.