Care and feeding of a healthy septic system

By Kathleen Lamont

One doesn’t usually give their septic system a second thought — until the day that you walk into the bathroom and see the bathtub filling up with sewage. It’s Saturday and you’ve never had a problem with your septic tank before. As Carl Malden used to say, what would you do?

My first encounter with a septic tank was in 1987 when I moved from the big city to a farmhouse in rural Washington State. I had no idea that all septic tanks were not above ground cisterns as mine was. Generally cisterns are used for harvesting rainwater but this one was converted into a concrete septic tank that measured 8’x6’ and was about three feet high. As a manmade monolith it was quite useful. In the summertime it is where I laid out my onions, garlic, and potatoes to dry, and it’s where I prepared my dehydrator trays with calendula and comfrey.

According to the EPA, 25 percent of homes in the United States use septic systems for waste disposal. Approximately 70 percent of the homes in Haywood County are on septic.

The term “septic” refers to the anaerobic bacterial environment that develops in the tank and which decomposes or mineralizes the waste discharged into the tank. But the septic tank is only one component of a septic system, which ostensibly, is a small-scale sewage treatment plant. Generally a line runs from the house to the septic tank and a line runs from the septic tank to the drain field.

Septic drain fields are used to remove contaminants and impurities from the liquid that emerges from the septic tank. This is typically done by burying perforated pipes in trenches and allowing the liquid to leach out and the surrounding soil absorbs the unwanted waste. Another term for this is a leach field or French drain. Microbes in the soil digest or remove most contaminants from the wastewater before it eventually reaches groundwater. And because of the unwanted waste absorbed into the soil, you cannot grow anything but grass on a drain field.

When it comes to system maintenance, it’s kind of an out of sight out of mind situation and there seems to be a wide range of opinion by the homeowner as to how often it should be done. “We advise people to have their tanks pumped every three to five years,” says Alan Arrington, Environmental Health Program Specialist with the Environmental Health Department in Haywood County. Mr. Arrington notes that if you choose not to maintain your system and wait until it backs up, you most likely will have to have a new drain field installed to the tune of $3,000 to $30,000.

Locating your septic tank can be a challenge since the tank could be buried from 6 inches to 9 feet, though new regulations require there be no more than 6 inches of dirt over the tank. If the EDH does not have a record of your septic system, you could use a pumping service to find it for you. Some services will locate your tank using an electronic transmitter which they flush down the toilet whereupon it ends up in your septic tank. They then use a receiver to locate the tank and will uncover it for you, all for a reasonable fee. Early next year the EDH will have their installers put a locater or inspection port on all tanks for easy access.

As it turns out, I actually did walk into my downstairs bathroom one Saturday morning and saw sewage backing up into the bathtub. My first thought was that the septic tank needed pumping. The only person I could raise on the weekend was a RotoRooter Man and as luck would have it, that was the right call. It seems that the drain from the washing machine was very close to the main line which was clogged shut with powdered laundry soap. This episode certainly brought my septic system front and center and I began right then taking better care of it. So don’t wait too long to get around to it — it is part of your home investment.

(Kathleen Lamont is the owner of Back to Basics. Her Web site is and her email is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Tips on keeping your septic system healthy

• Garbage disposals cannot be used with septic systems. Compost!

• If it is time to replace appliances, consider ones that conserve water resources. Currently, front loading washers use the least water of any on the market. They use 40 to 65 percent less water than top loading washers. Distribute wash loads evenly throughout the week to avoid overloading the septic system with large amounts of water.

• Minimize the introduction of the following chemicals: antibacterial soap, drain cleaners, and flush-type toilet bowl cleaners.

• Use low phosphate (0 to 5 percent) dishwasher soap.

• Use the least amount of soap possible.

• Use laundry detergents that do not contain phosphates or bleach.

• Use recycling channels to dispose of solvent, antifreeze, paints and chemicals. If any of these items enter the septic system, they will kill useful bacteria.

• Hair and lint are top causes for leach/drain fields to fail. They are not biodegradable, therefore causing the field to plug. Consider installing a washer filter.

• Flush only toilet paper.

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