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The Complete Guide to Your Septic System

A septic system isn’t the most pleasant of topics, and it’s likely not one that you love talking about with your friends and family. The last thing you want to happen is for it to back up at your Super Bowl party, and instead of talking about who won the game, everyone is talking about where not to go for the game next year.

By now, you probably know we are talking about a septic system and what could happen when your system fails, it can be an embarrassing disaster. That’s why we at Wind River Environmental have put together the complete guide to your septic system to help you keep your system healthy, stop issues before they happen, and of course, keep things flowing. Everything from septic system pumping and the depths of your septic tank to a leach field and how to care for it. 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!

What is a Septic System? 

Prevalent in the Northeast and South, a septic system is an alternative to a residential home being on public sewer. A septic system is an onsite wastewater treatment system. The EPA estimates that more than one in five households in the U.S. have onsite systems to treat wastewater. Commercial businesses can also have private septic systems if a public sewer is not available in that area.

A septic system consists of different materials that range from concrete to fiberglass, a septic system traps the solid waste in the tank and allows the liquid to make its way out to the leaching fields where it will filter out into the groundwater over time.


Components of a Conventional Septic System

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 a home or business, 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 essential role in the process of separating and treating waste.

In a conventional septic system, the main sewage line connects the home’s plumbing (i.e., toilets, sinks, anything with a drain, really) to a septic tank that is located outside the house underground. A septic tank is typically a concrete or plastic container that is rectangular in size and watertight. When the 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 significant movement in the tank when waste enters, “T”s or baffles are typically placed on both the inlet and outlet sides of the container. Preventing movement helps solid waste, and liquid waste remain separate in the tank.

There are typically 2-3 access points to the septic tank itself. These access points are about the size of a sewer cover and will usually be located at the inlet, outlet, and occasionally in the middle. During a service, the inlet and the outlet covers are exposed and opened for access to the tank. Some people will choose to have the level of their cover flush with their yard while others prefer their covers to be a few inches underground. When the covers are a few inches below the surface, it allows grass to grow over the top removing the eyesore from the yard (don’t forget where it’s buried!). If a septic system cover is far beneath the surface, a septic cover riser might be recommended if the cover is below the ground level surface for easier access. But more on risers later!

Once the waste enters a tank, and the solids and sludge have settled to the bottom, bacteria help to eat away at the solids. The use of a regular bacterial additive, we love WRE Septic System Treatment, can be helpful to increase the level of healthy bacteria. Over time, however, some solids remain and build up in the tank. This buildup is why regularly having a septic system pumped is an essential 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.

A leaching field is a set of drainage pipes layered with crushed stone and topsoil. The layers allow for further filtration of the effluent before it enters the groundwater.

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 (drain field): Set of drainage pipes that allow for further filtration of the liquid effluent back into the environment’s groundwater

Other Components

Some septic systems have components that vary from those described 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 waste from one component to the next.

Pump Chambers/Lift Stations: A pump chamber can be installed as a separate aspect of your system or submerged into the final chamber of the septic tank. In instances where a system is working against gravity to push wastewater along from the distribution box to the leaching field, a pump chamber is necessary. The pump will also include floats that will help activate the pump as the liquid levels rise within the chamber, telling the pump to turn on and move the liquid through the system. Many people have alarms in their homes for their pump chambers to alert them in the event the septic pump chamber has malfunctioned.

Vent Pipe: Another component that you might see is what we call a “candy cane”. You’ve likely seen them in other people’s yards or maybe on your last visit to the North Pole. 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 central plumbing ventilation, but other times a candy cane is necessary to vent the leaching field properly.

Septic Filter: Not all systems require a filter, but if a system allows for it, we recommend installing a filter on the outlet pipe of the septic tank. This filter is an additional barrier for solid waste, preventing any solid particles from making their way into the leaching field. In combination with regular septic pumping services and the use of bacterial additives, a filter is one more step in maintaining a healthy septic system.

How Large is my Septic System?

Septic system sizes can vary, and the one at your house could be different from your neighbors. Generally, the size of a tank is dependant on how many people reside in a household. For residential septic customers, systems are typically between 1,000-2,000 gallons in size. The size of a residential septic system should be dependant on how many bedrooms are in the home, and when the property was constructed. Pump chambers can also add another 500-1,000 gallons to the total amount of a septic system. Commercial septic systems can vary greatly, from 1,500 gallons to 15,000 gallons.



Lifetime of a System

The EPA estimates a septic system lasts between 15 and 40 years. The lifetime varies greatly and can be extended if a system is taken care of properly.


Types of Septic Systems

Conventional System

Conventional systems are one of the most common types of septic systems and can come in one of two styles.

Gravity systems are one of the most common types of septic systems. Due to their simplicity, a Conventional Gravity System is a very affordable option for single-family homes or small businesses. This system is positioned so that wastewater can be transported by gravity into the septic tank and flow into a gravel/stone trench where effluent can be separated before wastewater enters into the soil.

Another conventional system is a Conventional-Pump System. Conventional-Pump Systems function the same as a gravity system; however, there is more flexibility in the placement with this system. This flexibility is largely because rather than using gravity to transfer wastewater, the system uses a pump to remove wastewater from the septic tank and transport it to the leaching field, where effluent is separated. Both systems generally use gravel/stone in their leach field to filter effluent


Chamber System

A Chamber System is similar to conventional systems though they operate with a gravel-less drain field that often uses large open-bottomed plastic piping (leaching chambers) fitted within a trench in the ground. After passing through the septic tank and distribution box, wastewater finds its way into these leaching chambers, where it makes contact with the soil. Within the ground inside the chambers, effluent is disposed of and dispersed, allowing for wastewater treatment before it enters the soil.

Plastic piping used for these chamber systems can be produced from recycled materials making it an excellent option for reducing one’s carbon footprint.


Drip Distribution System

A Drip Distribution System is an alternative system that uses a network of tubing to disperse effluent over a large area. This type of system typically consists of four parts which are the septic tank, pump tank, a dosing chamber, and lastly, a soil distribution area where the tubes are installed. Wastewater is stored in the dosing chamber until the distribution tubing is empty and can disperse more effluent.

Because these distribution tubes are small (usually around ½ inch in diameter), these systems must be equipped with a filter unit to prevent clogging of the lines. The filter unit on these systems can consist of a sand filter, a screen filter, or a disk filter. This unit is in place to prevent large debris from entering the tubing system and bringing drip distribution to a halt.

While the distribution area is more flexible because of the size of the distribution tubes, the dosing tank on this system is quite large. These systems can also require additional maintenance and electrical power, making this system a more expensive option than conventional septic systems.


Aerobic Treatment Unit

The Aerobic Treatment Unit gets its name because it uses oxygen to generate a biological process within the treatment unit to assist in the breakdown of solid and liquid waste. These systems inoculate the treatment unit with oxygen, which then increases the natural bacteria present in the tank. Aerobic Treatment Units often consist of pre-treatment tanks as well as final treatment tanks. These tanks help in removing contaminants from the effluent before dispersing it into the environment.

This type of system is common in homes where conventional systems are too space-consuming, or the soil conditions cannot support a traditional system. Due to the complexity of aerobic systems, they can be a more expensive option.


Mound System

There are many alternatives to a Conventional Septic System, which type of system depends primarily on the environment where a septic system is required. Many locations may not support a gravity system since it relies on a slope to transfer effluent. At some sites where an alternative system is needed, a Mound System may be a great option or may already be present at the location. Some reasons a mound system may be required is if a high waterbed is present or if the soil depth is inadequate for conventional dispersal of effluent.

A Mound System is somewhat of a combination of a Conventional Pump system and a Drip Distribution System in that it comprises of a septic tank and a pump tank that doses the leaching field. The difference here is that the leaching field is a raised mound instead of a typical system of piping or tubing. The pump tank will inoculate the mound with effluent in intervals so that it is distributed appropriately throughout the leaching pipes within the mound.

The pipes direct effluent into the mound, where they gradually release it. The mound is comprised of soil, sand, and a gravel bed, which all filter the effluent to ensure it is adequately treated before it makes contact with the natural environment.


Recirculating Sand Filter System

Recirculating Sand Filter Systems (RSFs) are capable of comprehensively treating wastewater and effluent more so than many other alternative septic systems. This system is often used for small municipalities that generate low wastewater flows. RSFs, like Mound Systems, are great in areas with high waterbeds, inadequate soil depths, or limited space on site. RSFs perform in a way very similar to a leach field, however, on a much smaller scale.

Though this filter system is much different from conventional septic systems, like many other alternatives, a septic tank remains present. The process begins in the septic tank where effluent is treated before moving into a re-circulation tank. A re-circulation tank is dosed with an appropriate amount of wastewater that is then introduced to a sand filter.

Sand filters function as a highly effective treatment method for wastewater when effluent is pumped to the top of the re-circulation tank. Effluent is treated as it travels through the depths of sand to the bottom of the tank, where it is recirculated into the pump tank. Before re-circulation, effluent can be discharged from the pump tank, where it then passes into a discharge system for additional treatment.


Evapotranspiration System

Evapotranspiration Systems, while simple in nature, are unique systems. What makes this system so unique is its drain field. Rather than consisting of a series of networks of piping, chambers, gravel, etc. Evapotranspiration Systems transport water from a septic tank to an open-air tank where it is evaporated.

These types of systems are only appropriate in particular environments due to their vulnerability to failure in rain and snow events. An ideal location for Evapotranspiration Systems is in a geographic area with plenty of heat and sunlight to assist in the evaporation process.


Constructed Wetland System

Constructed Wetland Systems are another very unique alternative type of septic system. A Constructed Wetland System is a man-made recreation of the environment’s natural wetlands. These types of systems may be necessary for locations where the soil is not easily penetrated.

In this system, wastewater and effluent flow from the source (home, small business, or community) and into the septic tank. Once being pre-treated in the septic tank, wastewater is carried to a wetland cell just below the surface of the ground to prevent contact with humans or animals. The cell is fitted with a solid bottom and filled with aquatic plants that can thrive under these conditions. These aquatic plants assist in the breakdown of effluent and wastewater while producing oxygen to remove nutrients from the cell.

Constructed wetland systems may be equipped with a sump to control the water levels, or effluent may continue into a drain field for continued treatment via the use of soil.


Cluster/Community System

This type of system is often found in small community neighborhoods that collect wastewater from two or more homes or businesses. Community Systems can come in a few different forms depending on the environment where the system will be located. All Community systems first take on waste in a septic tank for initial treatment. From the septic tank, multiple options are available as a drain field option in community systems.

Wastewater may exit the septic tank into a more traditional style drain field that consists of a series of gravel or stone trenches where effluent can be separated before wastewater enters into the soil. Alternatively, a Drip Distribution System may be constructed that consists of a series of small tubes, about ½ inch in diameter that allow effluent to be treated and dripped into the soil for further treatment. Another option may be a Constructed Wetland System, where effluent is transferred into a wetland cell where it is treated by aquatic plants.




Septic Tank Risers


What is a septic tank riser? 

A septic tank riser is a cylinder tube that creates a doorway from the opening of the top of a septic tank to ground level to make locating, accessing and servicing a septic tank easier. Because septic systems are buried in the ground, they can be challenging to find if they are not well marked or a map of the system is not readily available. You may have noticed them in someone’s yard as a green circle on the ground or even a larger concrete mass.

Most companies that service septic systems will dig a few inches for free but charge if extensive digging is required to gain access to the tank. Installing a riser eliminates the need for digging and searching for access to the tank itself, in turn saving money and making the task easier for everyone involved. Because each home is unique, the size of a riser will be dependent on how deep the septic tank is buried. Risers can range from as little as 5 inches tall to 50+ inches and anywhere from 12 to 32 inches in diameter.

Some states and local governments require septic tank risers to be installed; however, in many areas’ risers are not yet required by law.


Septic System Filters

While screens and filters are not required in all states, some jurisdictions legally require outlet filters to be installed on a septic tank. They’re a critical component to a system being well-maintained and performing correctly.

Older septic tanks may not have a filter present; however, as septic systems have evolved to be safer and more efficient, outlet filters have become present on most properties. Outlet filters (aka pump screens, effluent screens, or effluent filters) help to prevent foreign objects from entering your drain field and causing costly damage.

Effluent filters are a cheap way to improve the efficiency of your septic tank system and extend its life. These filters can easily be installed into existing tanks, and like a septic tank itself, filters require some maintenance.

Because of the nature of these filters, clogging can occur. This clogging means the filter is working as intended; however, it is important to continue following the best practices of septic system maintenance.


Finding Your Septic Tank

Finding your septic tank can be difficult without landmarks or a riser present to quickly identify where it is in the yard. A map of the property, including the septic tank, should be provided when purchasing a home, but if it wasn’t, local records departments generally could provide this.

If a map is not available, following pipes may lead you in the direction of the tank. Septic tanks connect to sewer lines that leave the house and are often found in the basement. Flush a toilet and listen for water rushing through a pipe, this is your sewage pipe. Try to locate where the pipe exits the home and find the corresponding area outside the home. Using a soil probe, follow the sewer by probing every few feet until you locate the tank. Most septic tanks are located within 10-25 feet of where the pipe exits and, in some jurisdictions, cannot be closer than 10 feet from any building.

Look for visual clues in the yard to help locate a septic tank. We know the septic tank will not be next to a well, or near a lot of trees or plants. Keep an eye out for any differences in one area, such as differently colored grass or even grass that grows faster in one spot. Look for any areas that may show evidence of a tank being present, such as a hill or mound. A bald spot might also be a sign that a septic tank is below. If you’re in a climate where there is snow on the ground, septic tanks can melt snow above where they are positioned. Probing these areas with a thin metal rod, if possible, could reveal the location of a septic tank.

If you are unable to locate the tank yourself, a professional septic service can assist. Once the septic tank has been found, consider installing a riser or clearly marking the site with a rock or yard ornament. Draw a map and put it somewhere safe for next time, or in the event of selling the property, pass along the map to help the next person.




Septic Tank Pumping

Whether you’re a first-time homeowner or just new to septic systems, knowing what to expect when having your septic tank serviced is beneficial. Many septic service companies will charge a fee for locating and digging up a septic tank and the lids, so it’s essential to know how to find your septic tank. Once the location is known and service is scheduled, a technician will come to the property with a truck to pump out and clean the septic tank. During the service, inlet and outlet covers must be exposed and opened to access the waste inside the tank. A technician will insert a large hose from a pump truck and remove the sludge and solids into the truck.

If you are home when the service is performed, considering talking with the technician to learn more about your system. Knowing the sludge levels and how many gallons your septic tank is will help you gain an understanding of how often you’ll need to schedule pumping. The average septic tank requires emptying every 1-3 years; however, many factors will affect how often you need your septic pumped (link to blog/section on water use, etc.).

How often does my septic need to be pumped?

The average septic tank requires emptying once every 1-3 years. Many factors will affect the frequency that your septic tank will need to be pumped, such as household size, wastewater produced, and the size and the age of the septic system.

Depending on the household size, the frequency of service will vary. A household with three occupants living in it typically will have a 1500-gallon tank and likely requires service once every 2-3 years dependent on water usage and if a garbage disposal is present and utilized.

Every product that uses water in a household contributes to the amount of wastewater produced by the home — toilets, washing machines, sinks, and showers, etc. The use of high-efficiency appliances can help delay the frequency of pumping service. Toilets alone can use as much as 8 gallons of water in a single flush. More modern bathrooms and high-efficiency toilets use 1.6 gallons of water or less with each flush.

Consider adding high-efficiency showerheads and faucet aerators to your home to reduce the amount of unnecessary water usage. Refrain from allowing trash into the toilet and consider every item that gets rinsed down the sink. Remember that anything that goes into toilets and drains will find its way to the septic tank and could be harmful to the system. To help prevent damage to your septic system, remember the Septic System Do’s and Don’ts.

Septic System Do’s and Don’ts


Septic System Do’s

  • Do spread laundry use over the week rather than many loads on one day.
  • Do make a permanent record of where the key parts of your septic system are located for future maintenance (e.g., septic pumping service or field repairs).
  • Do have septic pumping service regularly.
  • Do keep the records of septic pumping service and septic system maintenance.
  • Do use water-conserving devices where possible such as low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads.
  • Do clean the lint trap on your washing machine regularly.
  • Do check any pumps, siphons or other moving parts of your system regularly.
  • Do remove or prevent trees with large root systems growing near the leach field.
  • Do keep surface water from upslope or from roof drains away from the leach field.
  • Do check your interceptor drain regularly to ensure that it is free-flowing.
  • Run water regularly in seldom used drains such as sinks, tubs, showers, etc., to avoid noxious gases from building up and causing odors inside.

Acceptable Products

  • Detergents – should be in liquid form, concentrated, low-sudsing, low- or no-phosphate and bio-degradable.
  • Toilet Paper – should be single-ply toilet paper because it breaks down in the septic system faster and better than higher ply count toilet paper. Use toilet paper labeled biodegradable, recycled or septic-safe.
  • Cleaning Products – should be non-chlorine, non-ammonia, non-antibacterial, non-toxic and biodegradable cleaning products. Most all-natural cleaners are septic safe.

Septic System Don’ts

  • Don’t overload the septic system with high volumes of water.
  • Don’t connect basement sump pumps to your septic system.
  • Don’t connect backwash from water treatment devices directly to your septic system without professional advice.
  • Don’t use a garbage disposal. Chopped up food particles do not break down in the septic tank and can make their way out into your leach field lines causing clogs.
  • Don’t allow large amounts of fats, chemicals or solvents to enter the septic system; and don’t allow any plastics to enter.
  • Don’t enter a septic tank without proper ventilation. A second person is required to be present above ground, and other requirements by law are met for confined spaces. Sewer gases can be fatal.
  • Don’t allow vehicles or heavy equipment to drive over or park on the leach field. This may compact the soil and crush the piping.
  • Don’t plant anything over the leach field except grass. Especially do not cover the septic tank or leach field with asphalt or concrete or other impermeable material.
  • Don’t put in a separate pipe to carry wash waters to a side ditch or woods. These “greywaters” also contain disease-carrying organisms.
  • Above all else, don’t wait for signs of system failure. Check your septic system regularly.

Do Not Flush

The best thing to do for your septic system is to be sure not to flush anything other than human waste and toilet paper, preferably single-ply toilet paper.

Even if items are marked as “septic safe,” do not flush them. For example, some baby wipes and cat litter may be labeled this way. It is not good for your septic system to flush anything other than human waste and toilet paper because it does not break down in the septic system correctly.

No Flush List

  • Backwash water from water softeners
  • Cigarettes
  • Cloth
  • Coffee grounds
  • Condoms
  • Dental floss
  • Disinfectants
  • Disposable diapers
  • Fats, grease, and oils
  • Kitty litter
  • Other chemical wastes
  • Paints
  • Paper towels
  • Pesticides
  • Photographic chemicals
  • Pills and unused medication
  • Plastic materials
  • Poisons
  • Sanitary napkins
  • Sump pump discharge
  • Tampons
  • Thinners
  • Tissues
  • Varnishes
  • Waste oils



“But I still need to know more about septic systems!”

We can help! Reach out to us and let us know what you’re interested in learning more about, and we’ll set up a time for you to chat with one of our experts.