Know the signs of septic tank failure

Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains and laundry.

A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.

The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants such as disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.

Specifically, this is how a typical conventional septic system works:

• All water runs out of your house from one main drainage pipe into a septic tank.

• The septic tank is a buried, watertight container usually made of concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene. Its job is to hold the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down to the bottom, forming sludge, while the oil and grease floats to the top as scum.

• Compartments and a T-shaped outlet prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drainfield area.

• The liquid wastewater (effluent) then exits the tank into the drainfield. The drainfield is a shallow, covered, excavation made in unsaturated soil. Pretreated wastewater is discharged through piping onto porous surfaces that allow wastewater to filter though the soil. The soil accepts, treats and disperses wastewater as it percolates through the soil, ultimately discharging to groundwater.
If the drainfield is overloaded with too much liquid, it can flood, causing sewage to flow to the ground surface or create backups in toilets and sinks.

• Finally, the wastewater percolates into the soil, naturally removing harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and nutrients. Coliform bacteria is a group of bacteria predominantly inhabiting the intestines of humans or other warm-blooded animals. It is an indicator of human fecal contamination.
Failure symptoms: Mind the signs!

A foul odor is not always the first sign of a malfunctioning septic system. Call a septic professional if you notice any of the following:

• Wastewater backing up into household drains.

• Bright green, spongy grass on the drainfield, especially during dry weather.

• Pooling water or muddy soil around your septic system or in your basement.

• A strong odor around the septic tank and drainfield.

If your septic system is not properly maintained, you may be risking your family’s health, hurting the environment and flushing thousands of dollars down the drain, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the long run, properly maintaining a septic system is much less expensive than replacing a failed system.

The EPA advises: “Some makers of septic tank additives claim that their products break down the sludge in septic tanks so the tanks never need to be pumped. Not everyone agrees on the effectiveness of additives. In fact, septic tanks already contain the microbes they need for effective treatment. Periodic pumping is a much better way to ensure that septic systems work properly and provide many years of service. Regardless, every septic tank requires periodic pumping.”

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