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About Your Septic System

If you live in a town or area with no municipal sewer system, there's a septic system in your backyard. Under the right conditions, septic systems effectively clean up wastewater. In fact, about 24 percent of all homes in the United States are served by septic systems, and in the Long Island Sound area about 50 percent of homes have them.

State and local regulations specify how a septic system must be designed and installed. As a homeowner, however, you have direct control and responsibility for how well your septic system is functioning. A failed septic system introduces pathogens and undecomposed organic matter into its surroundings. Furthermore, it is very expensive to replace it.

If you are buying a new home, have an inspection before you close the deal or you might have some unpleasant surprises. Be sure the system is in good condition, correctly located, and installed according to code. If you already have a septic system, never forget that it should be inspected and pumped out regularly.

What is a septic system?

A typical septic system has three components: a septic tank, a distribution box, and a leachfield. The septic tank and distribution box are installed underground, between your home and the leachfield.

The septic tank is a watertight concrete or reinforced fiberglass box that should be large enough to hold about 3 day's worth of wastewater from your home. The actual amount is specified by state and local codes and varies with the number of bedrooms in the house.

The septic tank receives wastewater from all the drainage points in your home - bathrooms, kitchen, and laundry. In the tank, the wastewater separates into three layers. Heavier solids sink to the bottom and form sludge. Oil, grease, organic matter, and anything else that floats collect at the top as scum. In between is a water layer with dissolved substances and suspended solids. There is little air inside the tank, conditions under which denitrifying bacteria from the wastewater slowly break down and dissolve the organic matter.

Water from the middle layer gradually flows into a distribution box that is connected to perforated pipes leading out into the leachfield. The purpose here is to send the wastewater slowly into the soil. The size and design of a leachfield vary with the permeability of the soil, the daily flow of wastewater, and state and local codes. Most leachfields consist of perforated pipe laid over a bed of gravel. The wastewater exits the pipes, percolates through the stones, and is absorbed in the soil. The field must be designed so that the water percolates slowly enough for purification, but fast enough to avoid overflows.

Purification beyond the leachfield relies on natural processes. Solids can be filtered out by soil particles. Nutrients, metals, and pathogens can be attracted to soil-particle surfaces and retained. And aerobic bacteria in the soil can further break down organic matter.

A properly functioning septic system will effectively prevent most organic waste matter and pathogens from entering natural waters. The average life of a leachfield is 20 years, but varies depending on soil types and maintenance efforts.

Protecting your septic system

If your septic system is improperly installed, sited, or maintained, it can cause serious environmental problems, including contamination of community water supplies or shellfishing grounds in coastal waters. To keep your septic system healthy requires maintenance and attention to what flows into it. These actions will not only save you from costly repairs, but will also diminish the danger of pollutants working their way through the groundwater and into Long Island Sound.

Pump it out.
Much household waste is not biodegradable, and this kind of waste builds up in a septic tank as sludge. Without regular pumping, sludge will eventually spill over into the leachfield, clog the soil, and prevent the aerobic microorganisms from doing their job. Pumping should be done by a licensed service, usually every two years. The solids removed are taken to a sewage treatment plant or to an appropriate landfill. It is also recommended that septic systems have a yearly inspection. Don't try to inspect or clean the tank yourself - this can be dangerous because of the buildup of poisonous gases.

Conserve water.
Water conservation in your home will also prolong the life of the system. Too much water can decrease the effectiveness of the septic tank, flood the system, and flush solids into the leachfield.

Manage what you drain.
Never, ever, dump the following items down your drain or flush them:

  • Cooking fats and greases - they clog the pipes.
  • Household hazardous wastes - they may harm bacteria that break down scum and they may be carried to natural waters.
  • Products labeled as follows: Harmful or fatal if swallowed. Avoid contact with skin. Do not get in open cuts or sores. If comes in contact with eyes, call a physician immediately.
  • Disposable diapers, paper towels, sanitary napkins, medical waste, kitty litter, or other bulky items - these clog the pipes, too.
  • Coffee grounds, vegetable trimmings, and other organic wastes. Compost these items instead.
  • Septic tank cleaners or enzyme additives. Most do little to improve septic tank operation and some can harm it.

Most of the precautions listed above apply equally well to households served by municipal sewage treatment plants.

Soundkeeper, Inc.