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Septic System Basics: Operation & Maintenance

If you live in the Kirk Lake watershed, you have a septic system.  Didn't realize that? You're not alone.  Many of us grew up using a municipal sewage system, blissfully ignorant of such matters.  Brace yourself. Because owning a septic system, is a lot like owning a private sewage treatment plant. When you bought your house, you  became a septic system owner, and you are solely responsible for its maintenance. You need to know how it operates, what users should and shouldn't do, and how to maintain it. 
Consider that virtually everything that is flushed down a toilet, flows down your sink, shower, and bath drains, your dishwasher, and clothes washer goes into your septic system. So think twice about what you send down that drain! A good system, properly maintained, should operate well for 20-30 years. A poorly-designed system, or one that isn't maintained, can fail very quickly. And repairs can cost from $10,000 up.  More likely, however, a system that breaks down will need replacement. Think $30,000 and up.
So take good care of your system, and avoid a lot of embarassment and expense.
How a Septic System Works
Essentially, your household wastewater -- and everything in it -- flows out of your house and into a large concrete, plastic, or steel tank. Once in the tank, solids settle out where they are partially decomposed by natural bacteria in the waste and water. These solids must be pumped out every few years by a septic tank service.
The liquid or effluent flows out of the tank and through a series of perforated pipes into the soil under your yard -- the leach field. Most of that water should evaporate upward through the soil and into the air. Some of it will flow down through the soil and into the ground water supply. By that time, it has been filtered by soil, and purified by microorganisms, and should be clean. Notice the word "should"? 
If your system isn't functioning effectively, that effluent could contaminate your well, your neighbor's well, or nearby lakes and streams.
So what can go wrong? Let's say you dispose of paper towels, kitchen grease, or food scraps down your drain. Septic systems aren't made to handle those wastes. They'll clog up those perforated pipes and stop the flow of effluent through your system. Time for a new septic system! Ouch.
Septic System "Dos and Don'ts"


  1. Direct downspouts away from the leach field. Again, give your system a break.
  2. Plant grass or gardens over the leach field (not woody shrubs or trees).
  3. Use natural and nontoxic household cleaning products. Chemically-based products add pollutants that may kill the natural bacteria that makes your system work. Go easy on laundry bleach or use oxygen-based bleaches that break down quickly -- unlike chlorine bleach that just keeps "killing"!
  4. Use a trash can. Plastic diapers, cigarettes, food scraps and grease, and other waste belong in the trash, NOT down the drain.
  5. Have your septic tank pumped out ever 2-3 years. See "Septic Tanks & Systems - Cleaning" in the yellow pages for local companies. (Ask if they offer a discount for Kirk Lake Watershed Association members! We have verbal agreements with two local contractors.)
  1. Don't pour chemicals -- gasoline, paint thinners, pesticides -- down your drain.
  2. Don't drive vehicles or otherwise cover or trample your leach field. These will compact the soil and prevent evaporation
  3. Don't use septic bacterial products; nature provides the necessary microorganisms for decomposition.
  4. Don't plant trees or woody shrubs on the leach field. Again, this will shade and cover soil, preventing evaporation.
  5. Don't waste household water. The more water you use, the more your system needs to handle.
Maintaining Your Septic System

Now that you know how to use your septic system properly, there are just two additional things you need to do to maintain your septic system. 
First, have your septic tank pumped every two or three years. This is critical. Remember those "solids" that settle out into the bottom of the tank? They don't go away. They pile up. Get the picture? Eventually, they'll fill the tank and clog the pipes that carry water out of your tank.  If that happens, the solids can clog your perforated pipes and require major repairs. We're talking big money. Remember what your grandma used to say? "Penny wise, pound foolish." Save some real money by having your tank pumped regularly. If you don't remember the last time you had it pumped, call your septic company. They keep records and can tell you if your system is due.
Second, inspect your septic system.  This can be done by a qualified septic tank service at the same time that they pump your system. In the meantime, walk around your property occasionally and look for these signs: Ever notice a foul smell in your yard? Especially after heavy rains or extended use of your laundry and bath?  Does your yard always seem damp, even when it hasn't rained for some time? These could be signs of a septic problem.   
Remember, it's a health hazard to you, your neighbors, and our lakes and streams. Don't delay. Call an expert today. Point out problems you suspect in your yard.  When having the system cleaned, ask if it was overdue. File a note to yourself with the date of the cleaning, so you know when to have it done again. Or call the septic service and ask them to check their records.
If you can't have repairs or replacement done immediately, there are steps you can take to prevent a larger problem.  First, go easy on your system. Second, see Taking the Next Step below for tips.
Taking the Next Step...

If you're already maintaining your system, there is more you can do to protect your investment and the lake.  Conserving water is not only good for your electric bill and your well, but it also helps to conserve your septic system. Why? Because the more water that flows into your septic tank, the more your system needs to handle.

  1. Consider replacing your clothes washer with a high-efficiency machine that uses a fraction of the water (and detergent!). You'll save money in the cost of heating water for your laundry too. If your system needs repair, consider using the laundromat, rather than your own laundry machines.
  2. Install low-flow shower heads.  Again, this will not only save your septic, but hot water heating costs.
  3. Replace your toilets with 1.6 gallon/flush toilets. They work well, and save 3 or more gallons per flush! That adds up quickly! 
  4. Turn off the faucet while doing dishes and brushing teeth. Develop the habit and you'll soon do these things automatically.
  5. Whenever you're using water in your house or yard, ask yourself, "Is there a more efficient way to do this?"