How Your Septic System Works
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 drain field, or soil absorption field.
The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floating 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, leaching chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil or surface water.
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 like 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 or surface waters.
Maintaining Your Septic System...
Saves you money
Performing regular maintenance every three to four years is a bargain compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a malfunctioning system, which can cost between $5,000 and $15,000 for a conventional system. Alternative systems can cost even more. The frequency of pumping required for each system depends on how many people live in the home and the size of the system.
Protects your property value
An unusable septic system or one in disrepair will lower your property value, and potentially can pose a costly legal liability.
Keeps you and your neighbors healthy
Household wastewater contains disease causing bacteria and viruses and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. If a septic system is well-maintained and working properly, it will remove most of these pollutants. Insufficiently treated sewage from septic systems can cause groundwater contamination, which can spread disease in humans and animals. Improperly treated sewage poses the risk of contaminating nearby surface waters threatening swimmers with various infectious diseases, from eye and ear infections to acute gastrointestinal illness and hepatitis.
Protects the environment
More than four billion gallons of wastewater are dispersed below the ground’s surface every day. Ground water contaminated by poorly or untreated household wastewater poses dangers to drinking water and to the environment. Malfunctioning septic systems release bacteria, viruses, and chemicals toxic to local waterways. When these pollutants are released into the ground, they eventually enter streams, rivers, lakes, and more, harming local ecosystems by killing native plants, fish, and shellfish.
A foul odor is not the only sign of a malfunctioning septic system. Here are a few others.
- Wastewater backing up into household drains.
- Bright green, spongy grass on the drain field, even during dry weather.
- Pooling water or muddy soil around your septic system or in your basement.
- A strong odor around the septic tank and drain field.