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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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