Septic Facts

Know about your septic

Septic Related Questions

Septic tanks are usually located about 7 ft from the house wall where the largest vent pipe on the roof of the house is. There is usually a cap on the ground next to the wall (which may or may not be buried in some cases), this cap is an opening where your septic company technician can run a drain opener through the pipes to clear any pipeline clogs (it is not a place to pump out a septic tank). The access to pump out a tank is on top of the tank and is usually sealed to be water tight.

The drainfield is usually near the tank, and in some instances it may be in a different area or elevated on the property (a “mound system”) where a pump in another separate tank pumps the water “up” to a higher elevation. Tthese “mounds” are required where regulations and specifications by the state health department apply.

If you have a pump to pump the effluent from the septic tank to a mound or higher elevation drainfield where simple gravity will not do the job, an alarm box on the system will go off if there is a problem. (Seek immediate help from a septic contractor or risk a backflow into your home.)

Septic systems are designed to provide long-term, effective treatment of household waste when operated and maintained properly. However, most systems that fail prematurely are due to improper maintenance. Less serious problems are usually with plumbing (such as pipe blockages from tree roots growing into the pipe). Sometimes the septic tank, although durable, can deteriorate or have other structural problems. The most serious problems are the result of a clogged drainfield. Unfortunately, this is the most expensive to repair. Once the absorption field is clogged, it must be replaced and can cost thousands of dollars.

This is an area that may be used for replacing or expanding the drainfield. It must meet the same criteria, such as acceptable soils, setbacks, etc., as a regular drainfield and should be protected in the same way.

Usually when a septic system fails, the drainfield is not functioning properly. When a septic tank overflows, the effluent cannot pass to the drainfield, clogging up the pipes. This causes sinks and toilets to back up in the house. Other signs include: slow draining toilets and drains, an oder of sewage, wet area on or near the drainfield, or contaminated well water.

Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance! If your system has been properly designed, sited, and installed, the rest is up to you. Inspect your system annually and pump as needed (usually every three to five years), avoid excess water use, and watch what you put down the drain and flush down the toilet. Garbage disposals are not recommended, keep trees off tank and drainfield area, fix leaking toilets and water spiggots quickly. Avoid “wipes” flushed down the toilet. Avoid using liquid fabric softener for laundry. Keep vehicles off drainfield and tank area. Use septic treatment monthly.

Yes, particularly if the effluent is not adequately treated, as in a failing system. Untreated effluent is a health hazard and can cause many human diseases. Once this untreated effluent enters the groundwater, you and your neighbor’s wells can be contaminated. Also, if this sewage reaches nearby streams or water bodies, shellfish beds and recreational swimming areas may also be jeopardized.

Some health departments and districts in the West Volusia, Seminole, Orange, and Lake County areas have low-interest loan and grant programs to help residents who live in shelfish protection areas or need financial assistance to maintain existing systems and repair failing septics.

Septic tanks are mainly settling chambers. They allow time for solids and scum to separate out from waste-water, so clear liquid can safely go to the drainfield. Over time, the scum and sludge layers get thicker, leaving less space and time for the waste-water to settle before passing to the drainfield.

There are limits to the amount of water septic systems can treat. For every gallon entering the tank, one gallon is pushed out. In some instances, too much water may back up into your house or overload the drainfield and surface in the yard. Large volumes of water in short periods of time may also not allow solids enough time to settle, and may be carried out to the drainfield, ultimately clogging pipes.

Garbage disposals have a dramatic impact on how often you’ll need to pump your septic tank. Food particles usually are not digested by the bacteria and accumulate as scum. If a large amount of water enters the tank, it can then push the food particles into the drainfield, causing clogging. If you must use a garbage disposal, your tank will need to be pumped more frequently.

Yes, many materials that are poured down the drain do not decompose and remain in the tank. In addition to minimal use of a garbage disposal (see question above), don’t pour grease, fats, and oils down the drain or place coffee grounds and egg shells in the disposal or down the drain. Keep chemicals out of your system.

Flush only human waste and toilet paper down the toilet. Avoid flushing dental floss, cat litter (including “flushable” varieties), hair, Kleenex, cigarette butts, cotton swabs, feminine hygiene products, condoms, paper towels, static cling sheets, diapers and disposable wipes. These items could clog your septic system components and cause a failure.

Yes. Adding a stimulator or an enhancer to a septic tank to help it function or “to restore bacterial balance” is sometimes necessary. The naturally occuring bacteria needed for the septic systems to work are already present in human feces. However, using disinfecting cleaners or antibiotics can destroy this bacteria, and using a septic treatment helps to restore slow systems.

Grass is the ideal cover for drainfields. Grasses can be ornamental, mowed in a traditional lawn, or in an unmowed meadow. Or, you can try groundcovers and ferns. For plantings over septic tanks, keep in mind, if you don’t have risers installed, you will need to dig up the ground to access the tanks for inspection and pumping – generally every 3 to 5 years.

Trees and shrubs generally have extensive root systems that seek out and grow into wet areas, such as drainfields. As a result, trees and large shrubs should be kept at least 30 feet away from your drainfield, and may require greater setbacks depending on the root structure and soil type. If you wish to plant treas near a drainfield, consult an expert who can determine types of plants and distances, based on your property’s soil type.

No. Growing vegetables over a drainfield is not recommended. Vegetables need watering, and excess water in the soil reduces it’s ability to treat wastewater. The deep roots of some vegetables may damage drainfield pipes. Bed preparation, such as rototilling or deep digging, can also damage pipes. Plus, there is the risk of contaminating food crops with sewage.

No. Plastic reduces the necessary air exchange in the drainfield soil. Even mulch or bark over the drainfield is not recommended, because it reduces air exchange and retains water.

No, for two reasons. First, you should avoid driving over the drainfield – the pressure of vehicles and heavy equipment compact the soil and can damage pipes. Second, impermeable materials such as concrete and asphalt reduce evaporation and the supploy of oxygen to the soil. Oxygen is critical to the proper breakdown of sewage by soil microorganisms. If you want to put a house addition, have your system located first. Don’t build over it or you will doom your system to complete failure.

Livestock should be kept off of drainfields. In the winter, livestock trample and muddy the soil; in the summer they compact it. Again, this is not good for the soil’s ability to exchange oxygen. So, sorry, even one horse is not recommended.

Yes. Downspouts and stormwater from surfaces such as driveways and patios should be diverted off the septic tank and drainfield. A small trench uphill from a drainfield can help direct water away.

Water lines should be at least 10 feet from all components of the septic system. Be sure all sprinkler lines are fitted with approved backflow prevention devices.

If planning to put drains (interceptor, French, curtain) or retaining walls within 30 feet of ANY PART of the septic system, check with your local health department or district. Never cut through drainfields for drains, walls, or irrigation lines. French drains are notorious for carrying pollution from septic systems into water bodies or streets.

Inspection and Pumping Questions

Over time, sludge and scum build up in the septic tank and unless it is removed it will flow into the drainfield, clogging the soil pipes. Once a drainfield is clogged, it must be replaced, which is an expensive repair costing anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 or more. It is also possible that you could have a leak in your tank.

In either case, you risk contaminating ground and surface water resources, which could affect you or your neighbor’s wells or nearby streams and other water bodies. And finally, you may eventually have a plumbing backup in your home.

Unless you have risers installed, you will need to dig up the ground above the septic tank to inspect it. Risers give easy access to the septic system without disturbing the soil above the tank. By keeping maintenance records, you can have it pumped on a routine schedule, based on the previous years’ rate of solids accumulation.

Contact your local health department or health district for a list of certified pumpers in your area – most have lists on their websites.  In addition, we at Alpha Environmental Services are certified septic system pumpers and can inspect and/or pump your septic system.

Yes, you can inspect your septic tank by opening the tank and measuring the scum layer on top & sludge layer on bottom.

How often you need to pump depends on the size of the tank, the numer of people in the household, and the amount and type of solids. A septic tank should be inspected annually to check for needed repairs and pumped as needed, usually every 3 to 5 years. Some alternative systems that are more complex may need pumping more frequently. If you are unsure if your tank needs pumping, have it inspected and get a recommendation for how many years you can go between pumping. Write this schedule down on a maintenance chart or where you keep your maintenance records and stick to it!

Pumping can cost from $175 and up. We recommend contacting at least three pumpers and asking them a series of questions before choosing the best pumper for your needs. Experience plays a big part in who you should choose!

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