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The Real Truth About Septic Systems

Updated: Apr 8, 2019

Many homes in Morris County, NJ are serviced by septic systems, but are they as scary as some people think? My friend Danny, owner of Superior Septics, taught me everything I needed to know about septic systems, and here's what I learned.

Here's Danny and I at a recent septic inspection.

This is one of those blogs that’s not very glamorous, but definitely necessary if you’re thinking about buying a home in Morris County. Many homes in the county are serviced by septic systems and the word alone scares off so many people. In fact when I started working in the Real Estate industry I had no idea how a septic system worked, since I’ve always lived in homes with public sewers. That’s when a friend introduced me to Danny, the owner of Superior Septics in Morris County. I figured if I was going to do my job properly, I needed to learn everything I can about how the system works so I literally stood outside with Danny while he inspected a septic tank and asked him to teach me everything I needed to know about a septic system. That was a fun day-LOL

So here’s what I learned….maintaining a septic system is not as hard as you think. By following a few straightforward guidelines, septic system owners can ensure years of trouble-free operation with little maintenance. Now, if your septic system isn’t properly maintained, you may need to replace it, which isn’t cheap.

Danny introduced me to a comprehensive Septic guide from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection that explains how to properly maintain your system. If you have a home with a septic system or are thinking of purchasing a home with one, the below info is super helpful! It's a long read, but soooo informative!

Top Four Things You Can Do To Protect Your Septic System

1. Inspect and pump your system every three years.

2. Use water efficiently.

3. Don’t dispose of non-biodegradable items or household hazardous wastes in sinks or toilets.

4. Care for your drainfield.

Septic System Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do: Check with the local regulatory agency or inspector/pumper before installing a garbage disposal unit to make sure your septic system can handle additional waste.

Do: Check with your local health department before using additives. Additives do not eliminate the need for periodic pumping and can be harmful to the system.

Do: Use water efficiently to avoid overloading the septic system. Be sure to repair leaky faucets or toilets. Use high-efficiency fixtures.

Do: Plant only grass over and near your septic system. Roots from nearby trees or shrubs might clog and damage the drainfield.

Do: Use commercial bathroom cleaner and laundry detergents in moderation. Many people prefer to clean their toilets, sinks, showers and tubs with a mild detergent or baking soda.

Do: Keep records of repairs, pumpings, inspections, permits issued and other system maintenance activities, so there is a record to help troubleshooting problems as well as for having a record for a future home sale.

DO: Learn the location of your septic system. Keep a sketch of it with your maintenance record for service visits.

DO: Have your septic system inspected at least every three years and pumped periodically (generally every three to five years) by a licensed inspector/contractor.

DON’T: Put dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms, diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels, latex paint, pesticides or other hazardous chemicals into your system.

DON’T: Use caustic drain openers for a clogged drain. Instead, use boiling water or a drain snake to open clogs.

DON’T: Drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system. Doing so can compact the soil in your drainfield or damage the pipes, tank or other septic system components.

How Does it Work:


A typical septic system has four main components: a pipe from the home, a

septic tank, a drainfield and the soil.

Pipe From The Home

All of your household wastewater exits your home through a pipe, called a

building sewer, which leads to the septic tank.

Septic Tank

The septic tank is a buried, watertight container typically made of concrete,

fiberglass or polyethylene. It holds the wastewater long enough to allow solids to

settle out, forming sludge, and oil and grease to float to the surface as scum. It

also allows partial decomposition of the solid materials. Compartments and a

T-shaped outlet in the septic tank prevent sludge and scum from leaving the tank

and traveling into the drainfield area. Effluent filters are also recommended to

keep solids from entering the drainfield.

Newer septic tanks have access ports connecting into the tank, called risers, that

are covered by lids at the ground surface. These risers allow easy location,

inspection and pumping of the tank. To facilitate the maintenance and inspection of

a septic tank, the DEP recommends retrofitting existing septic tanks with risers.


The wastewater exits the septic tank and is discharged into the drainfield for further

treatment by the soil. The partially treated wastewater is pushed into the drainfield

for further treatment every time new wastewater enters the tank. If the drainfield is overloaded with too much liquid it will flood, causing sewage to flow to the ground surface creating backups in plumbing fixtures and preventing treatment of all wastewater. A reserve drainfield is an area on your property suitable for a new drainfield system if your current drainfield fails. Treat this area

with the same care as your septic system.


Septic tank wastewater flows to the drainfield, where it percolates into the soil.

Microbes in the soil provide final treatment by digesting or removing harmful

bacteria, viruses and nutrients before they reach the groundwater. Suitable soil is

necessary for successful wastewater treatment.

Finding Your System

Your septic tank, drainfield and reserve drainfield should be clearly

designated on the “as-built” drawing for your home. (An “as-built”

drawing is a line drawing that accurately portrays the buildings on

your property and usually is filed at your local health department.)

You might also see lids or manhole covers for your septic tank. Older tanks are often hard to find because there are no visible parts. An inspector/pumper can help you locate your septic system

if your septic tank has no risers.

The Homeowner

When septic systems are properly designed, constructed and maintained, they

effectively reduce or eliminate most human health or environmental threats

posed by pollutants in household wastewater. However, they require regular

maintenance or they can fail. Septic systems need to be monitored to ensure

they work properly throughout their service lives.

Saving Money

A key reason to maintain your septic system is to save money. Failing septic

systems are expensive to repair or replace, and poor maintenance is often the

culprit. Your septic system will need pumping every three to five years, depending

on how many people live in the house and the size of the system. An unusable

septic system of one in disrepair will lower your property value and could pose a

legal liability. If your septic system does fail, a reputable professional should be

contracted to perform the repair. After all, it is more cost-effective to have your

failing septic system repaired correctly than to have it become a recurring problem.

Protecting Human Health and the Environment

Safe treatment of sewage is important because it prevents the spread of

infection and disease, protecting water resources. Typical pollutants in

household wastewater are nitrogen, phosphorus and disease-causing bacteria

and viruses. If a septic system is working properly, it will effectively remove

most of these pollutants.

Since one-fourth of U.S. homes have septic systems, more than 4 billion gallons of

wastewater per day is dispersed below the ground’s surface. Inadequately treated

wastewater from septic systems can be a cause of groundwater contamination,

which poses a significant threat to drinking water and human health. It can contaminate drinking water wells and cause diseases and infections in people and animals. Improperly treated wastewater that contaminates nearby surface waters also increases the chance of swimmers contracting a variety of infectious diseases. These range from eye and ear infections to acute gastrointestinal illness and diseases such as hepatitis.

How do I maintain my Septic System:

Inspect and Pump Frequently

The DEP recommends the average septic system be inspected and pumped

every three to five years by an industry professional. The exact frequency of

pumping and inspection is influenced by four factors: the number of people in

your household, the amount of wastewater generated (based on the number of

people in the household and the amount of water used), the volume of solids in

the wastewater (whether there are water-saving fixtures or a garbage disposal

in the home), and the septic tank size.

Inspections can be conducted for a variety of reasons. They may be required as

part of a real estate transaction, septic management programs or the standard

operating procedures of your local health department. Systems with switches,

pumps or mechanical components need to be inspected more often. The typical

tank will be pumped during the inspection to look for leaks and check the tank

bottom. Your service provider should measure the scum and sludge layers in

your septic tank prior to pumping. If the bottom of the scum layer is within 6

inches of the bottom of the outlet tee or the top of the sludge layer is within 12

inches of the outlet tee, your tank is at its maximum safety capacity. Remember

to note the sludge and scum levels determined by your service provider in your

operation and maintenance records.

This information will help you decide how often pumping is necessary. In the service report, the pumper should note any repairs completed and whether the tank is in good condition. If the pumper recommends additional repairs he or she can’t perform, hire someone to make the repairs as soon as possible. You should contact your local health department before hiring a professional because they have specific permitting processes for the work to be conducted and might have a program that requires you to use a septic professional that has been licensed by them.

Maintain Effluent Filter Regularly

The use of an effluent filter is one of the cheapest, easiest ways to prevent your

drainfield from clogging. The DEP strongly recommends the use of an effluent

filter to prevent sludge and scum from leaving your septic tank and flowing into

your drainfield. As your effluent filter begins to clog, slower draining and flushing

of home fixtures may alert you to the need for maintenance before a complete

blockage occurs. The DEP recommends that your effluent filter be rinsed or

replaced annually by you or a septic system professional.

Use Water Efficiently

Average indoor water use in the typical single-family home is almost 70 gallons

per person per day. Leaky toilets can waste as much as 200 gallons each day. The

more water a household conserves, the less water enters the septic system.

Efficient water use can improve the operation of the septic system and reduce

the risk of failure.

High-Efficiency Toilets

Toilet use accounts for 25 to 30 percent of household water use. Do you know

how many gallons of water your toilet uses to empty the bowl? Most older homes

have toilets with 3.5- to 5-gallon reservoirs, while newer, high-efficiency toilets use

1.6 gallons of water or less per flush. If you have problems with your septic system

being flooded with household water, consider reducing the volume of water in the

toilet tank if you don’t have a high-efficiency model. Plastic containers such as half

gallon plastic milk jugs can be filled with small rocks and placed in the toilet tank to

reduce the amount of water used per flush. (Be sure the plastic containers do not

interfere with the flushing mechanisms or the flow of water.) You’ll save about

half a gallon of water per flush! You might also consider replacing your existing toilet

with a high-efficiency model to achieve even more water savings.

Faucet Aerators and High-Efficiency Shower-heads

Faucet aerators help reduce water use and the volume of water entering your

septic system. High-efficiency showerheads or shower flow restrictors also

reduce water use.

Water Fixtures

To make sure your toilet’s reservoir isn’t leaking into the bowl, add five drops of

liquid food coloring to the reservoir before bed. If the dye is in the bowl the

next morning, the reservoir is leaking and repairs are needed. A small drip from

a faucet adds many gallons of water to your system every day. To see how much

a leak adds to your water usage, place a cup under the drip for 10 minutes.

Multiply the amount of water in the cup by 144 (the number of minutes in 24

hours, divided by 10). This is the total amount of clean water traveling to your

septic system each day from that little leak.

Washing Machines

By selecting the proper load size, you’ll reduce water waste. Washing small loads

of laundry on the large-load cycle wastes precious water and energy. If you can’t

select load size, run only full loads of laundry. Doing all the household laundry in

one day might seem like a time-saver, but it could be harmful to your septic system.

Doing load after load does not allow your septic tank time to adequately treat

wastes. Also, you could be flooding your drainfield without allowing sufficient

recovery time. Avoid showering and bathing at times when dishwashers and

laundry are in use. Try to spread water usage throughout the week. Consider

purchasing new Energy Star clothes washers, which use 35 percent less energy and

50 percent less water than standard models.

Watch Your Drains

What goes down the drain can have a major impact on how well your septic

system works. Don’t flush dental floss, feminine hygiene products, condoms,

diapers, cotton swabs, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, cat litter, paper towels or other kitchen and bathroom items that can clog and damage septic system components. Flushing household chemicals, gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze and paint can stress or destroy the biological treatment taking place in the system and might contaminate surface water and groundwater.

Care For Your Drainfield

Your drainfield is an important part of your septic system. Here are a few things

you should do to maintain it:

Plant only grass over and near your septic system. Roots from

nearby trees or shrubs might clog or damage the drainfield.

Don’t drive or park vehicles on any part of your septic system.

Doing so can compact the soil in your drainfield or damage the pipes,

tank or other septic system components.

Keep roof drains, basement sump pump drains, and other rainwater

or surface water drainage systems away from the drainfield.

Flooding the drainfield with excessive water slows down or stops

treatment processes and can cause plumbing fixtures to back up.

What can make my system fail?

If the amount of wastewater entering the system is more than the system can

handle, called hydraulic overload, the wastewater backs up into the house or

yard and creates a health hazard. Many things can cause system failure, such as

clogging, physical stress or chemical stress.

You can suspect a system failure not only when a foul odor is emitted, but also

when partially treated wastewater flows up to the ground surface. By the time

you can smell or see a problem, however, the damage might already be done.

By limiting your water use, you can reduce the amount of wastewater your

system must treat. When you have your system inspected and pumped as

needed, you reduce the chance of system failure.

Failure Symptoms

The most obvious septic system failure symptoms such as pooling water or

muddy soil around your system or in your basement are easy to spot. Take care

to notice if your toilet or sink backs up when you flush or do laundry of if there

are strips of bright green grass over the drainfield. Septic systems also fail when

partially treated wastewater comes into contact with groundwater.

Household Toxics

Does someone in your home use the sink to clean paint rollers or flush toxic

cleaners? Oil-based paints, solvents and large volumes of toxic cleaners should

not enter your septic system. Even latex paint cleanup should be minimized.

Squeeze all excess paint and stain from brushes and rollers on several layers of

newspaper before rinsing.

Leftover paints and wood stains should be taken to your local household

hazardous waste collection center. Remember that your septic system contains a

living collection of organisms that digest and treat waste. Household toxics can kill

these organisms.

Your septic system’s bacteria should recover quickly after small amounts of

household cleaning products have entered the system. However, some cleaning

products are less toxic to your system than others. Labels can help you identify

the potential toxicity of various products. Use products only in the amounts

shown on the label instructions and minimize the amount of discharge to your

septic system.

Garbage Disposals

Using a garbage disposal frequently can significantly increase the accumulation of

sludge and scum in your septic tank, resulting in the need for more frequent

pumping. Eliminating the use of a garbage disposal can reduce the amount of

grease and solids entering the septic tank and possible clogging the drainfield.

Improper Design or Installation

The design of the drainfield of a septic system is based on the results of soil

analysis, because some soils provide better wastewater treatment than others.

Many failures can be attributed to having poor soil, in addition to an undersized drainfield or

high seasonal groundwater table. Undersized septic tanks allow solids to clog the drainfield.

If a septic tank isn’t watertight, water can leak into the system causing hydraulic

overloading, which taxes the system leading to inadequate treatment and sewage

to sometimes flow up to the ground surface.

Even when systems are properly designed, failures due to poor installation

practices can occur. If the drainfield is not properly leveled, wastewater can

overload the system. Heavy equipment can damage the drainfield during

installation, which can compact the soil and reduce the wastewater infiltration rate.

Hot Tubs and Jacuzzis

Septic systems are not designed to handle large quantities of water or bath oils

from hot tubs or jacuzzis. Emptying hot tub or jacuzzi water into your septic

system stirs the solids in the tank and pushes them and bath oils into the

drainfield, causing it to clog and fail. Draining your hot tub or jacuzzi into a

septic system or over the drainfield can overload the system. Instead, drain

cooled hot tub water onto turf or landscaped areas well away from the septic

tank and drainfield, and in accordance with local regulations. Use the same

caution when draining your swimming pool.

Water Purification System

Some freshwater purification systems, including water softeners, unnecessarily

pump water into the septic system. This can contribute hundreds of gallons of

water to the septic tank, causing agitation of solids and excess flow to the

drainfield. Check with your licensed plumbing professional and local health

department about alternative routing for such freshwater treatment systems.


There are many commercial products marketed that claim to increase the capacity

and performance of septic tanks and disposal fields. These products are usually

either unnecessary or potentially detrimental to the performance of your system.

Avoid adding commercial septic tank additives. Human wastes or wastes of

household origin which flow into a septic tank contain an adequate variety and

quantity of microorganisms, such as bacteria, to maintain proper operating

conditions within a septic tank.

Do not add products containing sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or hydrogen

peroxide into the septic tank or directly into the disposal field. These chemicals will

not enhance the long-term performance.

Now, if this wasn't detailed enough for you, check out some of the sites below for more info. or call Danny at Superior Septics to help inspect your system. He really is the best guy for the job!

Local Health Department

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

Onsite Wastewater Management Program

EPA Onsite/Decentralized Management Homepage

National Small Flows Clearinghouse

Rural Community Assistance Program

National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association, Inc.

Septic Yellow Pages

National Association of Wastewater Transporters

Clean Water New Jersey

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