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What Is a Septic System and How Does It Work?

A septic system is a series of components that help to manage the wastewater produced by a household. Unlike a traditional system that uses city or municipal-based sewer systems, septic systems are completely self-contained on the property and maintained by the homeowner. Septic tanks are inspected by specialized professionals, and are not typically reviewed during a traditional home inspection.

The system uses a process involving microorganisms to break down waste, and proper management of a septic system is vital to keep it operating properly. The septic system collects wastewater from the home and retains solid materials in an underground tank. It then returns any treated water to the soil around the tank, known as the drain field. Wastewater is separated into three layers: sludge, liquid (also called effluent), and scum, comprised of oils and grease. Regular pumping of the tank is recommended to keep it clean. If you’re wondering what else you need to know about doing a septic check and how the system works, read on to learn more. 

What is a septic system, and how does it work?

Septic systems take wastewater from the toilet, shower, sink, bathtub, and appliances like the dishwasher and washing machine and run it through a drainpipe to the septic tank. All solid materials sink to the bottom of the tank and form a sludge. While grease, fats, and oils float to the top to form scum. Bacteria in the tank feed on organic matter, while liquids pass through a filter near the tank outlet. These liquids then go into the drain field, and perforated pipes allow the wastewater to seep into a layer of gravel. More bacteria break down these contaminants through the gravel and the soil below. If your home has a sewer system, underground pipes transport all of the wastewater to a local waste treatment facility.

It’s important to note that the city or municipality you live in is responsible for maintaining the sewer system, while homeowners are responsible for maintaining their own septic systems. On average, a complete septic system can cost between $2,000 to $8,000 total. It’s vital to ensure that your system remains in good working order to avoid expensive repairs and replacement of any components. Start by getting your tank pumped per the manufacturer’s recommendations. If you have a large home or a lot of bathrooms, you will likely need to have the tank pumped more frequently. You may need to occasionally replace lids on the tank, as they crack or get damaged over time. Other crucial maintenance steps include ensuring that the drain field drains properly at all times so it doesn’t create a backflow that could cause the system to clog and break. Make sure you’re using a septic tank treatment monthly to promote the growth of good bacteria that help to break waste and sludge down. 

How does a septic system inspection work?

You’ll want to do a septic check and inspection every so often, especially before selling your home. The inspector will check for a variety of things to confirm that your system is in good working condition.

Septic system inspection checklist

Ideally, you should have a complete septic system inspection every three to five years, particularly before selling your home. Here’s a septic tank inspection checklist to know exactly what the inspector is looking for.

  • The inspector will remove the cover to the tank and look at the water level. This level shows whether or not the water is draining as it should. The inspector will turn on the water in your home to ensure everything is flowing correctly from your house to the septic tank. They will also ensure that the tank’s water level remains steady when adding more water.
  • A dye test may also be used to see how much of the drained water goes into the septic tank. The inspector will also look for any standing water near the drain field.
  • If the tank is full or reaching capacity, you will likely need to pay for a septic tank pumping in order to pass inspection.
  • During the inspection, your inspector will also check the backflow. This tells the inspector if there are any possible issues with the drain field. It’s also crucial to ensure that nothing is blocking the flow of wastewater from your home to the tank and from the tank to the drain field. 

Tips for your septic system

Here are some tips to keep your septic system running smoothly so you can avoid septic failure and costly repairs.

  • Never flush anything down the toilet other than human waste and toilet paper. Diapers and sanitary napkins should never, ever be flushed whether you have a septic system or not.
  • Make sure you know what size your septic tank is and where the drain field is located. Look for any paperwork showing when the system was inspected last in case it’s time for an updated inspection.
  • Pay attention to how much water you use, particularly during periods of heavy rain, as this can potentially overwhelm the drain field. Try to reduce the amount of water you use at home by installing low-flow showerheads.
  • Avoid using too much water on the same day, such as showering and running the dishwasher and washing machine all on the same day. Instead, spread the use of major appliances out throughout the week.
  • Always fix plumbing leaks as soon as you notice them.
  • Do a septic check by a professional inspector at least every three to five years. If the tank looks full, get it pumped as soon as possible to keep things running optimally.
  • Use a septic tank treatment to keep bacteria thriving. This bacteria will “eat” the sludge and waste away to keep your tank cleaner and clearer for longer. 

Schedule a septic check every few years to keep your system running smoothly. With these tips and some diligence, you can keep your septic system in optimum condition. If you’re a home inspector, be sure to visit our website to learn more about our software features today.