Keeping Your Septic System Happy
Even on a proper diet, septic systems still need regular attention. Get yours on a schedule of checkups and clean-outs, and it will serve you well for a long, long time.
In the Nick of Time
If you have a new septic system, it's a good idea to check sludge and scum levels annually. Not only will this tell you how rapidly solids are accumulating in the tank, it will indicate how well (or poorly) you're treating your system, and give you time to remediate any usage problems.
A Fine Mess
Never lean into or over a septic tank. The fumes generated in these tanks are deadly, and can rapidly cause poisoning or asphyxiation. They're also flammable, so smoking around a tank or using any other type of flame is also verboten.
Septic tanks should be inspected on a regular basis. Every two years is the minimum,with an annual inspection being ideal. You'll want to hire a licensed septic-field inspector for this. The tank may not need to be pumped out this often, but this schedule will also help diagnose other problems, such as worn or damaged baffles, clogged pipes, or damage to the drain field.
Sludge and scum levels are measured during inspections, but this is also something you can do yourself. All you need is an 8-foot length of lumber-a 2 ×2 works well-and an old white towel or a large rag.
First, find the tank. Typically, it will be located about 10 feet from where the sewer drain exits your house. There will be a manhole and possibly an observation pipe. Open one or the other. Wrap the towel or rag around the bottom 5 feet of the board. Lower it into the tank until it touches bottom. As you do, you should be able to determine the thickness of the scum as the board penetrates it. Hold it therefor a couple of minutes. Then raise the board and inspect the towel. The discolored portion will indicate the depth of the sludge layer. If it's greater than 24 inches deep, have the tank cleaned out.
As mentioned in Causes of Septic Problems, all septic tanks, no matter how large, need to be pumped out on a regular basis. How often depends on the following:
Number of people in the household
Volume of solids in the wastewater
Garbage disposal use
You'll want to call a licensed septic pumper and hauler for this. Many people simply schedule a pump-out every three to five years or so. However, if you have a small tank and a large family, you'll definitely need to do it more often. As an example, a 1,000-gallon tank might be able to go for almost six years between pump-outs if only two people are using it. In a six-person home, it might need annual pumping.
If you use a garbage disposal, plan on pumping your tank more often, too. The age of the system and how well it has been maintained will also determine pumping frequency.
Depending on where you live, you might be required to pump your system on a regular basis. Check with your local planning and zoning department to see what regulations, if any, are in effect.
It's a good idea to keep a maintenance record on your septic system, including who serviced the system, what was done, the date, and a brief description of the system's health.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Common Household Disasters © 2005 by Paul Hayman and Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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