Prevent Your Septic System From Failing

Posted: April 18, 2011

The most common contaminants of private water supplies in Pennsylvania and the United States are bacteria. Faulty septic systems are major contributors to this type of contamination.
On lot septic diagram. From EPA Wastewater Education Materials

On lot septic diagram. From EPA Wastewater Education Materials

The most important factor in keeping a septic system operating properly is homeowner maintenance. One of the best ways to protect your watershed is also a properly maintained septic system.

It's important to know the basic components of the system and how to keep them functioning properly. A few common sense precautions may help keep your septic system working well for a long period of time. By doing this, you are also protecting your own drinking water and the water resources in your community.

Septic systems are designed to clean or recycle wastewater. It's usually composed of a septic tank and a drainfield. The septic tank is a large container into which the wastewater flows. When you flush a toilet, wash a load of clothes or take a shower, the dirty water flows into the septic tank. Bacteria in the septic tank help break down solids in the wastewater into liquids and gases. Not all solids break down, however. Those that don't will accumulate at the bottom of the septic tank and form sludge. The sludge must be pumped out periodically to keep the system functioning properly.

The drainfield usually consists of a distribution box, perforated distribution lines made of plastic or tile and a soil area that has the capacity to accept wastewater. This system receives wastewater from the septic tank and removes harmful, disease causing microorganisms, organics and nutrients. Learn the location of your septic tank and drainfield. Have the septic tank inspected regularly by a professional and pumped out when needed. Keep a record of inspection, pumping and other maintenance.

Water conservation is probably the most effective way to prevent septic system failures. Reducing water use in the home reduces the flow through the system, allowing more time for solids to settle and digest in the septic. It also decreases the chances of overloading the soil absorption field. In addition, divert roof drains and surface water from driveways and hillsides away from the drainfield.

Be careful of what you dispose of in the toilet or in your drains. Never put plastics or any other nondegradable items into your septic tank. Household chemicals can destroy the bacteria in your septic tank. Garbage disposals can add unnecessary solids and grease to your system.

Do not plant trees or shrubbery in the drainfield because roots may wrap around the distribution lines and even puncture pipes. Do not cover this area with a hard surface, such as concrete, that would prevent soil contact with air. Do not allow heavy equipment to run over the drainfield and compact soil or damage distribution lines.

To download factsheets on preventing septic system failures and maintaining septic systems, go to the Penn State Extension web page and then “click” on septic systems.

For additional information visit the Environmental Protection Agency On-site septic page.