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Your Septic System: A Quick User’s Guide


Growing up we had a septic system, still do in fact, and we figured it was pretty much a glorified sewer system (as do many septic system users). Consequently, we didn't devote much of our time and effort pondering about the health of our system...until it failed that is. Failing septic systems are, unfortunately, so common in the industry that it's pretty much understood that they will all fail eventually if not sooner. Twenty years is actually a pretty good lifespan for most systems. Some of that is due to design. Older systems eventually get clogged leach fields and sealed soils. In recent years, though, there have been some significant breakthroughs in septic system technology and failure due to design isn't necessarily inevitable anymore.

Unfortunately, much of the reason systems fail has nothing to do with design, it has everything to do with user error. Turns out septic systems are not glorified sewers: they are living, breathing, organic digestive systems. After our system failed we took to calling it "Joe" so we could talk about it more easily: "guys, don't use too much water, Joe's a little full right now," "We've got to get Joe pumped again," etc. But we probably should have anthropomorphized our septic system a lot earlier because it may have helped us avoid some problems. The bacteria that populate and operate the enormous digestive system that is a septic tank originate from, you guessed it, your very own gut. Your septic tank is, in reality, a macrocosm of your own digestive system. There in the septic tank those gut bacteria continue doing for your septic system what they did for you: breaking down solids into their nutrient constituents. And therein you can see one of the main problems inherent in thinking of a septic system as a sewer system.

Imagine what would happen if you took a nice long drink of dishwashing soap, or antibacterial hand soap, or laundry detergent, or disinfectant...Not a happy thought! The same thing happens to your septic tank when those chemicals hit it. No wonder our septic systems fail.

In addition to the products we use, septic systems can struggle with our usage patterns and habits as well. For example: creating intense water events like washing a load of laundry while you shower and flush the toilet can literally stir your tank up and send undigested effluent out to clog your drain field; or really lathering up your greasy dishes to get them sparkling clean will suspend the fats in a soap emulsion where fat digesting bacteria can't reach them.

Who knew that a little septic system could be so complicated.

To help out all of those who are like we were until our painful learning opportunity, here are a 10 helpful tips and resources:

  • Tip 1: If you can't digest it, neither can your system. Limit the number of antibacterial products you put down the drain and choose soaps and detergents that easily break down into plant nutrients. For a truly septic friendly cleaning option check out the products from Oasis Design (Oasis Dishwasher and Cleaner and Oasis Laundry Detergent) which are biocompatible, meaning they bio-degrade into bio accessible components.

  • Tip 2: Fats and oils are the last things to digest and are notoriously good at clogging systems. Scrape or wipe off as much fat or oil as you possibly can before washing dishes and then wash with biodegradable soaps. Remember that it's not just frying oils that count: tanning oil and liquid milk fat and residual salad dressing all count too.

  • Tip 3: Filter your laundry water. The same kind of lint that comes out in your dryer also goes out with your wash water. If it's cotton or wool that's not too bad because bacteria can break that down, but synthetic materials are not only indigestible, they also float, and they'll float right out to clog your field.

  • Tip 4: Pump your tank at least every couple years. There are many things that go down the pipe that can't be digested: dirt, rocks, etc. Your body eliminates those things naturally, septic tanks can't. The solution is to pump the tank. After it's pumped, don't worry about jump starting your system, you'll do that naturally the next time you flush.

  • Tip 5: Use 1 ply, easily biodegradable toilet paper. You can test your paper by putting a square of it in a bowl of water, leaving it for 30 minutes or so, and then gently shaking the bowl. The paper should pretty much disintegrate. If it doesn't, it will clog your system.

  • Tip 6: Pay attention to your water use habits and the force with which water enters your tank. Take the lid off your tank and watch what happens when the toilet flushes, or the second story jacuzzi empties, or the washing machine pumps out, or all three happen at the same time. Water that enters the system with force will stir the tank. Also consider spreading out high water usage activities: do a couple loads of laundry a day through out the week rather than 10 loads of laundry in one day.

  • Tip 7: Never put solvents or poisons down your drains. After all we've discussed this should be a no brainer.

  • Tip 8: Don't waste your money on expensive products to help clean or boost your system. The only boost your system needs comes every time you flush down some solid waste. It would probably be wiser to make sure your own system is functioning well and smoothly: probiotics, lots of fiber and water, limited sugar, etc. That way your septic system will get a healthier, more effective free boost a lot more often.

  • Tip 9: If you are thinking of purchasing a property with a septic system on it, have it thoroughly inspected before you sign. Just because a system seems to be working it may not be working well enough. It may be teetering on the brink of failure, or functioning well enough for a two person household but not for your five person household. Though an inspection may cost you $1000, it could save you $40,000 shortly down the road.

  • Tip 10: If the worst should happen and you do need to replace your system, replace it with a technologically advanced system that won't fail again. There are a number of options available, but we recommend the systems from Enviroseptic. They were designed by septic people who spent years in the trenches learning about why systems fail and developing one that wouldn't fail and wouldn't contaminate ground water systems.

It is pretty amazing how sensitive septic systems are. The other day we learned that blood is really hard on a septic system. I told Burton and his response was "what isn't?" So, after our experiences with and learnings about septic systems in general, we have been looking long and hard for a better waste management solution that will solve the problems inherent to septic systems:

  • Sensitivity

  • Inability to kill or remove pathogens

  • Necessity of pumping (read not exactly self reliant)

  • Broken nutrient cycles (you can't put the nutrients from your food back where they came from)

  • Ground water contamination potential

  • Etc.

So far we're leaning toward composting toilets with a grey water system for sinks, showers, etc. The trick is making a composting toilet feel "normal" and not like you've got a privy in your house. We've also looked at methane digestors (not confident there), incinerators, algae systems, various solids removal options, etc., etc. If anyone knows of any brilliant waste management option that can be owner managed, allow people to avoid interacting too much with their waste (I know we shouldn't be so squeemish but 99% of the US population is so...), close nutrient cycles, control pathogens, and can handle milk fats and blood and soap and food scraps and feces, etc, let us know!

A final suggestion for using septic systems if that's what you've got to work with: feel free to give your hard working system a name. Sally, Bertha, Joe, John.... After all, we give our systems enough crap, we probably ought to give them a little love too.

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