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Pumping out a home septic tank

Many Alabama residents use on-site wastewater treatment (septic systems) instead of the local sewer systems. This is common when access to municipal sewers is impractical or expensive. Because sewage has the potential to carry disease, it is important for homeowners to understand how to best take care of their septic systems. Taking care of your septic system can not only help protect your health, but it can also help protect your wallet, community, and the environment.

How Septic Systems Operate

Diagram of a septic system underground. A pipe leads into a tank with the layers of sludge, liquid, and scum. Another pipe leads of the drainfield where liquid waste drains into the soil.

In an underground septic system, a pipe leads into a septic tank that has layers of sludge, liquid, and scum. Another pipe leads from the tank to the drain field, where liquid waste drains into the soil.

Conventional septic systems have three components: a watertight tank, the drain field, and the soil. Tanks may be made of concrete, polyethylene, or fiberglass. Waste generated in the household will ultimately end up in the septic tank, where it will be temporarily held and separated out. Within the tank, there are three layers:

  • A sludge layer on the bottom that contains solid materials that settle to the bottom of the tank
  • A liquid (effluent) layer that contains primarily liquid wastes
  • A thin scum layer on top that may contain light particles and oils

Bacteria work to convert solids into liquids, which will ultimately flow through a filter into a series of perforated pipes known as the drain field. As the effluent leaves these pipes, it flows through a layer of gravel and eventually, the soil. Soil acts as a filter for the discharged wastewater, breaking down remaining waste and replenishing water to the groundwater supply.

Taking Care of Your Septic System

Without proper care, your septic system may become prone to failure. To prevent costly repairs, follow the easy management guidelines below.

Have your tank inspected every three to five years. Inspecting and pumping out the system on a regular basis clears out the system and prevents it from getting clogged up. With more members of the household and increased waste production, you may need to have the system pumped more often.

Don’t use your toilet as a trash can. Only flush human waste and toilet paper down the toilets. Improperly discarded items can block pipes and will not dissolve in the tank. Some commonly disposed of items include the following:

  • Baby wipes or other wet wipes
  • Menstrual hygiene products
  • Diapers
  • Paper towels
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • Cooking oil or grease
  • Coffee grounds
  • Cigarette butts
  • Cat litter

Think at the sink. Garbage disposals are a convenient way to get rid of food waste, but they can result in the need for more frequent maintenance. Materials like coffee grounds, eggshells, and bones will not decompose easily in the tank, so be mindful of what is going into your septic system.

Maintain your drain field. The soil surrounding your drain field is essential for recycling the wastewater. To avoid compacting the soil or crushing pipes, don’t drive heavy machinery or park above your drain field. Vegetation with deep roots–like trees and shrubs–can potentially damage the drain field, but native grasses and ground cover will not disrupt the system. Avoid planting vegetables near the drain field, as they can be contaminated by sewage effluent and may not be safe to eat.

Use water wisely. Your drain field can get overwhelmed by high water volume. To prevent this, avoid water-intensive activities–like running multiple loads of laundry–on particularly rainy days. Investing in low-flow toilets, showerheads, and appliances can keep from overwhelming your drain field while also lowering your water bill.

Don’t use additives. Your septic tank relies on the bacteria and enzymes that come from human waste to break down solids. Sludge busters and other tank cleaners will disrupt the natural decomposition and may degrade the tank itself. If you believe your system is backed up, hire a trusted professional to inspect and pump the tank.

Knowing When Your System Needs Maintenance

A worker opening the lid to a septic tank system.Like everything else in your home, your septic system is going to need maintenance at some point. Keep an eye (and a nose) out for the most common signs of issues with your septic system.

  • Backed up toilets
  • Slow draining sinks and showers
  • Gurgling sounds from plumbing
  • Sewage odors in the house or yard
  • Mushy soil near the drain field
  • Suddenly healthy-looking lawn
  • Grayish standing water in the yard
  • Bacteria in well water

If you notice these signs, act sooner rather than later. Your local health department or the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA) directory can help you find septic service professionals in your area. If your tank is full, you may only need to have it pumped to remove solid and liquid waste. Broken pipes or other issues may require excavation of your yard and will be much more expensive.