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Your Septic System Basic Questions, Answered

One in five households in the US have onsite wastewater systems. Prevalent in the Northeast and South, septic systems are alternatives to a residential home being on public sewer. A septic system traps the waste and the liquid makes its way out to the leaching fields where it will filter out into the ground water over time. If you have a septic system on your property and have septic questions about how it works (or you are just really into onsite wastewater systems like we are) read on to learn some septic system basics.

Septic System Basics: Anatomy

Although there are many types of septic systems and the specific design and components vary, the basics of each system are generally the same. The primary function of a septic system is to collect wastewater as it leaves the home, separate the solid waste from the liquid waste, and filter the liquid out into the leaching field. Each component of a septic system plays an important role in the process of separating the waste.

How a typical septic system worksA main sewage line connects the home’s plumbing to a septic tank that is located outside the home underground. A septic tank is typically a concrete or plastic container that is rectangular in size and water tight. When waste reaches the septic tank, solids settle to the bottom of the tank and as the liquid level rises it exits the tank through what is called the outlet line. To prevent a lot of movement in the tank when waste enters, there are typically baffles or “T”s in place on both the inlet and outlet sides of the tank. Preventing movement helps the solid waste and liquid waste remain separate in the tank.

Once the waste is in the tank and the solids/sludge has settled to the bottom, bacteria helps to eat away at the solids. Use of a regular bacterial additive, like CCLS, is helpful to increase the level of healthy bacteria. Over time, however, some solids remain and build up in the tank. This is why regular service is an important part of maintaining a healthy septic system.

The liquid effluent makes its way out of the tank typically into what is called a distribution box. The function of a distribution box is in its very name, to distribute the liquid effluent as it leaves the septic tank to the lines of the leaching field.

The leach field is a set of drainage pipes that are layered with crushed stone and top soil. The layers allow for further filtration of the effluent before it enters the ground water.

Septic System Anatomy – Recap

To recap, the main components that comprise a septic system are:

  • Inlet pipe: Directs waste from the home to the septic tank
  • Septic tank: Where the liquid effluent separates from the solid sludge
  • Outlet pipe: Where the separated effluent exits the septic tank
  • Distribution box: Distributes liquid effluent to leaching lines
  • Leaching field: Set of drainage pipes that allow for further filtration of the liquid effluent back into the environment’s ground water

Other Septic System Components

Some septic systems have components that are not mentioned above. Septic design and septic installations vary because every property is different. For example, some septic systems require a pump to be installed to help move the liquid effluent from one component to the next.

Another component that you might see is what we call a “candy cane”. A candy cane, which is actually a vent pipe, allows for proper air ventilation for the leaching field. Sometimes vent pipes can also be installed to run through the home’s main plumbing ventilation, but other times a candy cane is necessary to properly vent the leaching field.

Septic System Basics: Do’s and Don’ts

A septic system is a large (and expensive) aspect of your home. Maintaining it properly is vital to prevent any emergency situations like backups in the home or worse, total system failure.

Let’s start with our septic system DO’S:

  • DO spread laundry use over the course of the week rather than multiple loads in one day. Running your washing machine over and over throughout a short period of time can overload a system with liquid. If the system becomes too full with liquid with not enough time to allow for proper leaching, you may experience a soggy yard where your septic tank is located or the system might backup into your home.
  • DO make note of where the components of your system are located. Key components to note are where the covers are located in the yard and where the leach field is on the property. This is helpful not only when it is time for regular service, but also if there is an emergency or if you are planning to place a structure on the property.
  • DO have the system serviced regularly. This one is a part of Wind River’s 3 step process to maintaining a healthy system. Like we mentioned earlier, although SOME solids break down with the help of bacteria, some do accumulate in the tank overtime. Without service, they are left to build up in the tank creating less and less room for liquid effluent to enter which causes it to overload the system.
  • DO use septic safe products. Household cleaning products, such as laundry detergent, should be concentrated, low-sudsing, low (or no) phosphates, and bio-degradable. A full list of septic safe products can be found on our website by clicking here!

Now for the DON’TS:

  • Don’t overload the system with high volumes of water. This relates back to spreading laundry out over the course of the week.
  • Don’t allow fats, oils, or grease (FOG) down the drains. This can clog up your pumping and your septic system.
  • Don’t enter a septic tank without proper training and ventilation. Entering a septic tank requires special certification and training. There are very strict procedures on entering confined spaces such as septic tanks and no one should enter one unless they have been specially trained to do so.
  • Don’t allow vehicles or heavy equipment to drive across your septic tank and leaching field. This can crush the components of the system.
  • Don’t flush anything other than human waste and 1 ply toilet paper down the drains. We have an extensive DO NOT FLUSH for septic list on our website here.

Septic System Basics: Services, Repairs, and Inspections

Wind River Environmental is committed to extending the life of your septic system. We recommend a three step process to help keep your system healthy and functioning properly.

3-Step maintenance program

  1. Regular Septic and Cesspool Pumping Service

Several factors should be considered when deciding how often your septic tank or cesspool system needs to be serviced. You must take into account the age of the system, the number of occupants in your home, the use of a garbage disposal and the amount of laundry being done in the home. Every system is different. What is right for your system may not be right for your neighbor’s. Speak with your Wind River Environmental technician or call our customer service center to discuss the appropriate frequency of septic service for you.

  1. Bacterial Additive Products

Bacteria must be present in the septic tank or cesspool system in order to break down the organic solids. Today, households use a wide range of anti-bacterial soaps, detergents and cleaning fluids. While these ordinary household products do a great job killing unwanted bacteria in your home, they also destroy beneficial bacteria that your system. In our experience, over the counter solutions are not properly formulated to meet today’s cesspool needs.

a. To ensure consistent periodic introduction of bacteria into your system, we suggest using our CCLS bacterial additive. One quart every other month will likely be sufficient to help your system function at its best. CCLS also keeps the pipes in your home clean, destroys household plumbing odors and reduces odor in trash cans

b. Boost is applied to your septic tank or cesspool by your Wind River Environmental Technician at the time of service. Wind River Environmental Boost introduces enzymes intended to breakdown organic waste such as food products and grease from kitchen waste and garbage grinders. It is essentially a shock treatment for your septic tank, and true to its name it will give your tank the bacteria boost it needs to break down solids.

3. Septic System Filter

If your septic system was installed with a filter, it should be cleaned at every septic service. We recommend that you install a septic tank filter if you do not have one. It is an important tool that will protect your leach field by acting as a strainer, keeping the hair, grit, grime, and larger particles not yet broken down in your tank from getting out into your leach field lines. If you have a cesspool system there is no outlet tee to install a filter, so it is very important to follow the first 2 steps to maintain a healthy system.

Septic Inspections

At the time of a septic pumping service, our technician does perform a brief inspection of the system. The technician will assess the levels in the tank, inspect the covers of the system to ensure they are intact, clean the filter, and of course service the tank. His findings and any recommendations will be noted on the customer service report.

Sometimes, a more formal and detailed inspection is needed. For real estate transactions in Massachusetts, for example, the home owner must obtain what is called a Title V inspection before the property transfers ownership. The Title V inspection involves exposing the components of the system to fully inspect them and must be completed by a technician who is certified to perform Title V inspections. Wind River employs several Title V certified technicians for our customer’s convenience. After the inspection, a formal report is filed with the town. Depending on the inspector’s findings, the system can pass, fail, or conditional pass. A conditional pass may require follow up work that will then need to be inspected by the town at which point the town will determine if the system has met the necessary requirements to receive a certificate of compliance.

Septic System Basics: Repairs

Septic Build ups (risers): A build up, also known as a riser, is a plastic collar that fits on top of the opening of the septic system. A build up is helpful in the event a home owner’s septic covers are buried deep underground. We are able to cut the riser to size, so the customer can have the cover brought to 6 inches below the ground’s surface or we can bring it “to grade” which is right at the surface of the ground.

Septic Cover Replacements: Wind River Environmental takes septic cover safety seriously. At each service, our technicians inspect the condition of each septic cover. Once the covers to the system are exposed they are inspected for integrity and safety. If our technician discovers a cover which is unsafe, his first action will be to secure and block off the area. He then reports the cover to his manager and customer service and remains onsite until the customer has been notified.

Septic covers are available in a variety sizes and types to fit the system. Our professional technician will always be on hand to consult with you about the best onsite options for your replacement covers. For example, green plastic covers can be used to blend naturally with the yard.  If the cover is in an area where it would be weight-bearing, such as a parking lot or driveway, special load-bearing covers are used to ensure safety.

Filters: Like we mentioned in our three step plan to septic health, a filter can be an integral part in keeping solid waste out of your leach field. Depending on your specific system there are several options for septic filters.

Component Replacements: Sometimes components of the septic system require replacement over time, such as the inlet or outlet T’s or the distribution box. Wind River has a team of technicians dedicated to repairs of this nature.

So, what is it going to take to keep my septic system healthy?

The most important thing you can do for your septic system is regular service. Without regular septic service, solids and sludge can build up over time. Adding a filter and bacterial additive, as suggested by Wind River’s 3 step maintenance program, can also help to prolong the life of your system.

Still looking for more information? Here are some additional resources to learn more!

Replacing A Septic System Cover to Enhance Safety

Choosing Septic Safe Products

Septic Services 101

How Often Should You Pump Your Home Septic Tank?