When you buy a
car, you are given an owner's manual with instructions on how to care
for your car. Septic systems can cost as much or more than a car,
unfortunately nobody gives you a manual when they are installed. Some
people don't even know they have a septic system! As a result, many
septic systems fail unnecessarily.
The Price for
Failure is Steep
The price for failure is steep in two way. More than 1200 people in the
US die each year from contaminated water, and failing septic systems
are a leading source of waterborne disease outbreaks in the country
today. In a 2000 EPA report, 31 states listed septic systems as their
second greatest potential source of groundwater contamination. Septic
system replacement is also very expensive, with costs often running
from $5,000 to $20,000 or more. Fortunately, there are some highly
ineffective steps you can take to eliminate this problem. Before
discussing solutions, let's look at why septic systems fail.
failure is actually pretty easy to understand. When a system fails, the
tank itself doesn't fail- the drainfield soil fails. In most cases the
soil fails when it gets plugged up with solids and won't allow liquid
to pass through it. For example, it can get plugged with solids from
the tank if the tank hasn't been pumped, or with lint from a washing
machine. Now for your solutions:
1. Use a washing machine filter.
Did you know that washing machines are a leading cause of septic system
failure? The primary culprit is lint generated by washing machines,
which clogs the soil in drain fields. Did you know that a typical
family washing machine produces enough lint each year to carpet and
entire living room floor! Lint screens and nylon traps found in
hardware stores trap 5% or less of these particles. Because they are so
light and small, the lint particles do not settle out in the septic
tank. Instead, they stay in suspension and are flushed out to the drain
field, where they plug up the pores of the soil bed.
To compound the
problem, much of our clothing is now manufactured with synthetic
materials such as polyester and nylon. These substances are not
biodegradable, and will not break down in a septic system. Instead,
they accumulate and plug the soil. Once these materials enter the soil,
there is no way to remove them.
The good news
is that lint can be prevented from entering the septic system through
the use of a reusable, inline filter which attaches to your washing
machine discharge hose. The filter, called the Filtrol 160,
retails for $139.95.
2. Avoid Excessive Water Use
You can also damage your septic system by doing a large number of
laundry loads in a short period of time. In standard septic systems,
solid materials settle in the tank, while effluent flows out into the
ground. If you put more water into the system than it is built to
handle, the high volume of water will flood your system, and can also
stir up and flush solids out of the tank into the drain field (in fact,
septic pumpers use water from their hoses to help break up solids in
your tank before pumping them out). A typical washing machine can use
up to 60 gallons of water per wash load. On a heavy day you can easily
put 400, 500 or 600 gallons of water through the system in a few hours.
The solution is to spread out your water use. Do one or two loads of
laundry per day, rather than 10-12 loads on Saturday morning. Water
softeners can also damage your system by putting too much water through
the septic system. These devices can put several hundred gallons of
water down the drain every week, water that is not contaminated and
does not need to go through the treatment process.
There are a
couple solutions to this problem. You can upgrade your softener with a
newer efficient model that uses less water and regenerates on demand,
instead of a timer system that regenerates whether you use water or
not. You can also install a mini septic system for your water softener.
3. Prevent Solids from Leaving the Tank
First of all,
you should get your tank pumped on a regular basis to prevent excessive
accumulation of solids in the tank. Under normal conditions, you should
have the tank inspected and pumped every 1-3 years. Very important:
tanks should be pumped and inspected through the manhole cover, not the
inspection pipe. Your septic contractor should also install an effluent
filter in the exit baffle of the tank. Effluent filters stop the larger
solids from getting out to the drainfield. They are cleaned out every
few years when you have your tank pumped. They are usually only about
$80. Effluent filters are cheap insurance and along with a washing
machine filter, one of the best things you can do to protect your
4. Use of Household Cleaning Products
Excessive use of these products can contribute to septic system
failure. If you do over 5 loads a week containing bleach, problems
could arise. Avoid powdered detergents as they contain plastic fillers
that can plug up your lines and drain field. Also, be careful with
harsh automatic toilet bowl cleaners, which have put quite a few
systems out of commission.
5. Should I Use a Separate System for My Washing Machine?
Some people say you should use a separate system for your washing
machine, called a laundry interceptor. However, this is not necessary
and in fact undesirable. Washing machines should discharge into the
regular system because it actually works better than discharging into
its own system. In order to work, septic systems require bacteria
colonies which break down biodegradable matter. These bacteria require
"food" which is found in our wastewater, but not in detergent. Without
"food" these bacteria colonies die out and the system fails. Many
people who have installed these systems have found this out the hard
way. A research project conducted in several east coast states utilized
some rather high tech systems for washing machine discharge and many
began failing in as little as eight months.
surface runoff water from roofs, patios, driveways and other areas
away from your drainfield.
Have your septic tank pumped regularly. It should also be inspected
for leaks, cracks and to make sure the exit baffle is in place.
Install lint and effluent filters.
Spread out your laundry loads.
Compost your garbage or put it in the trash
Use a garbage disposal.
These appliances normally double the amount of solids added to the tank!
Flush sanitary napkins, disposable diapers or other
non-biodegradable products into your system.
Dump solvents, oils, paint thinners, disinfectants,
pesticides or poisons down the drain as they can disrupt the treatment
process and contaminate the groundwater.
Dig in your drainfield or build anything over it.
Drive over your drainfield or compact the soil in any
Plant trees or shrubbery close to the septic system,
because the roots can get in the lines and plug them. Grass is the only
thing that should be planted on or near a drainfield.
Your System Fails
In quite a few cases, a tune-up can fix your system and you can avoid
the high costs of replacing the system. This tuneup includes properly
pumping the tank, cleaning (jetting) the drainfield lines, and
installing washing machine and effluent filters. If these measures are
not sufficient, some failed systems can be rejuvenated by fracturing
the soil. This process utilizes a hollow tube inserted into the soil,
then a 300 pound blast or air is injected into the soil creating
thousands of tiny fissures. These fissures allow the drainfield to
drain, creating an oxygen atmosphere and the aerobic bacterial colonies
to repopulate. Aerobic bacteria, which require oxygen, typically live
in the top 26 inches of the drainfield and process waste much more
quickly than anaerobic bacteria. This process can be performed in a
matter of hours with no digging or damage to the yard. One company
which performs this service is Terralift International
If you have a
clay soil which has become plugged due to sodium from wastewater
binding with the clay, Septic Seep can help. These product releases
sodium bonded clays and reopens soil, restoring passages air and water.
It also has the benefit of dispersing greases and scums that clog the