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Maintaining Septic Systems

  • How often should my septic tank be pumped?

    • In general, a septic tank should be inspected every 1 – 3 years and pumped every 3 – 5 years. The frequency of pumping the septic tank depends on the tank size, number of people in the household, habits of water use as well as the amount of solids accumulated in the tank. Some alternative systems that are more complex may require more frequent inspection or pumping. If you are unsure, ask your local septic system professional. A septic tank effluent filter may also require frequent maintenance and should be included in the inspection and maintenance activities.

  • I’ve never pumped my septic tank, is that a problem?

    • If you have not pumped your septic tank in several years, but do not seem to be having any problems, it may mean one of several things:

      • There is minimal water use in the home, and/or the size of the septic tank and the biological activity maintains the solids at sustainable levels. This is rare but may occur when there are only one or two people in the home.

      • The tank has a leak and is discharging wastewater into the ground instead of into the drainfield.

      • The tank is full of solids, which are slowly migrating and may eventually clog the drainfield. This may increase the cost of pumping the tank and may require replacing the entire drainfield if it becomes clogged. 

  • What kind of additives are acceptable for use in my septic system?

    • EPA does not make recommendations on individual septic system products. Commercially available microbiological and enzyme additives are promoted to reduce sludge and scum accumulation in septic tanks. However, these additives are not necessary for a septic system to function properly when treating domestic wastewater. Use caution when using additives in your septic system as they may decrease the performance of septic drainfields, which treat the wastewater from the septic tank. In general, do not use additives made of organic solvents or strong alkali chemicals because they pose a potential threat to soil structure and groundwater.

    • A variety of publications and organizations have assessed the impacts and effectiveness of different kinds of additives. EPA’s Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual has additional information. Further, some states and localities have state-specific rules and regulations regarding septic system additives. Contact your local permitting authority (i.e., local health or environmental department) for more guidance. 

  • How long does a septic system last?

    • The lifespan of a septic system depends on the material it is made of, the design, installation, service and exposure conditions, and maintenance of the system. Typically, a septic tank made of concrete may last 50 years or more, although older tanks may not be as well constructed as newer tanks. Tanks made from other materials, such as plastic may last a similar timeframe. See the manufacturer for projected lifespan estimates as well as strength, design, installation, and warranty information.

    • If your septic system includes a pump, many pumps and controls will need to be replaced every 10 – 20 years. If you have an advanced treatment unit, check with the manufacturer for estimates of lifespan and warranty information.

    • If your drainfield is more than 25 – 30 years old, the natural biomat that forms in the bottom of the trenches or beds can thicken and reduce the ability of the drainfield to properly discharge the wastewater into the ground. This can cause ponding in the drainfield, surfacing of untreated wastewater, or backing up into the septic tank and into the plumbing in the house.

    • If your septic system is more than 25 – 30 years old, start planning for an upgrade before you are in an emergency situation. It is likely your system is close to its useful lifespan."

Pump, pump, pump!

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