A couple of weeks ago, my eldest turned nine and we celebrated with an art party at new art school in town. (If you haven’t checked this out, do. It’s incredible.) and a post party taco bar and cake fest up at my house. Knowing I was about to have a bunch of kids over, I gave the guest bathroom a quick once-over.
After a quick scrub, I flushed the toilet and noticed that it wasn’t flushing with its usual gusto. A wave of panic rushed over me. The last time that happened was when my 18 month-old flushed a bar of soap. Faced with rapidly rising waters that didn’t respond to any unclogging method we tried, we hailed a plumber who first tried plunging, then snaking, then scoping and finally, he took the whole assemblage apart to find a white bar of Dove stuck in the drain pipe.
Trying to assess the situation, I flushed the toilet in the master and noticed it wasn’t draining well, either. It was not just a problem with one toilet. It was worse.
A quick search through my files showed that I pumped the septic before we went to New Zealand – but I really don’t know how the septic was used while I was gone. Nor do I know what my kids are flushing. So I figured I’d start with the easiest thing: pumping and inspecting the septic.
Pumping a septic is an easy maintenance task to have done and it can save tens of thousands in repairs. Depending on how you use your system, pumping it every three to five years is recommended. It had been three for us, time to get it pumped.
Septic systems typically aren’t very complicated things. All the drains in your home – your toilet, sink, washer and dishwasher – come together in a single pipe that leads a big tank burned in your yard (ours is a 1,000 gallon tank for a three bedroom house). Once it gets to the tank, it starts to separate. The heaviest stuff sinks to the bottom and gets called sludge, any oils or proteins float to the top and they get called scum, and in the middle is a liquid simply called grey water.
These systems are designed so that sludge and scum stay in the tank and any grey water is pushed out to a set of pipes that act like irrigation pipes, draining the grey water out to a drain field (also called a leach field). There are lots of nutrients in grey water, which is why the grass above a leach field is greener and fuller than anywhere else.
As easy as these systems are, they do require care and maintenance and you can’t skimp on it. Or else you risk a septic back up – and nobody wants to deal with a septic back up. Nobody. Especially with a house full of pre-teen girls.
So if you are new to septics or never gave your septic a second thought, here are a few tips that I’ve learned along the way that can potentially save you from disaster.
- When buying a home, a septic test is an excellent idea
Septic tests are required by most lenders and loan programs but as a matter of course, they are a good idea. A septic inspection, done by a licensed engineer, will tell you the age, functionality, and condition of the septic system and will include information about the condition of the drain field. A septic test will catch an improperly designed system or even a system that’s not adequate for the number of bedrooms in a house.
- Pump your septic tank every two to five years.
What goes in must come out. That simple. A 1,000 gallon tank providing service to four people in a household should get pumped every two to three years. If there are only two people in the house, every four to five years will do.
- Mind what goes down the drain.
Just because you can flush it doesn’t mean you should. Flushable wipes, cat litter or any type of hygiene product? Don’t flush those down a septic. Coffee grounds are notorious septic cloggers, either trash them or compost them, but never run them down the sink.There are all sorts of useful bacteria living in your septic system and that’s a good thing. Too much bleach, drain cleaner, or anti-bacterial cleaner and you’ll knock back your septic’s ecosystem. You don’t want to do that.
- Take a day or three off from the laundry.
Modern high-efficiency washers don’t come with lint traps like they used to. Lint is super fine and instead of sinking to the bottom of a septic tank, it either floats in the scum or gets caught up in grey water and pushed out to the leach field. Synthetic fabric lint doesn’t break down in a septic system and can clog the leach field.Advice I’ve received is to space out your laundry during the week to give your septic a chance to process the lint that goes through and to only use liquid laundry soap. Some dry laundry soaps use clay as a filler which can wreck havoc on a septic system.
- Walk the field
Once in a while, pay attention to your leach field. If it’s soggy and mushy and it hasn’t rained in a while, that could signal a septic issue. The grass growing over your septic system is a fabulous barometer of your septic’s function. If it’s unusually thick and lush, especially when it hasn’t rained in a while, you might have a clogged system.
- Use Less Water
It’s simple, the less water you use, the more time your septic system will have to deal with tank contents and deliver grey water to the drain field. Shorter showers, low-flow shower heads and toilets, efficient washers and dishwashers all contribute to a healthy septic system.
A great bit of advice I received is to think of a septic system as a living ecosystem. Don’t feed it anything it can’t digest and don’t give it more than it can eat or drink at one sitting.
- Keep a log
It’s important to remember when and how often you’ve pumped your tank and what kind of servicing has been done to the system. It’ll be important information to have when it comes time to sell.