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Septic Systems

Understanding Groundwater & Septic Systems

According to numerous reports about one-third of septic systems fail each year, which has a huge impact on groundwater and/or surface water. The main problem is that the septic systems that were installed in homes are much older and maybe unsuitable before adequate design standards of today were in place.

Septic systems are being used in approximately 25% of all U.S. homes. Septic systems that are properly planned, designed, installed, managed, and maintained can provide effective treatment of wastes. However, if any of these requirements for a healthy septic system are done through malpractice then your groundwater may be in jeopardy. If the malpractice is severe, it can become an issue between you and the federal and state program with responsibility for water resource issues.

How Septic Systems Work

Septic systems are usually made up of three parts: the septic tank, the distribution box, and the absorption field.

Septic Tank

A septic tank is a tank, typically underground, in which sewage is collected and allowed to decompose through bacterial activity before draining by means of a leaching field.

Distribution Box

The distribution box is a watertight chamber below the outlet level of a septic tank or treatment unit and from which effluent enters the absorption system.

Absorption Field

Finally, the absorption field is a leeching or seeping field engineered to receive septic tank effluent. A rundown of how your typical septic system works goes as such: wastewater is directed to the tank once it leaves the home. Solids in the wastewater separate from the liquid effluent over a period of about 24 hours. Greases and fats in the wastewater are lighter and tend to float to the top of the tank, forming a scum layer. The heavier wastewater particles settle to the bottom, forming a layer of sludge. In between the sludge and scum layers is the liquid portion that is discharged to a soil absorption field.

Caring for Your System

Cleaning the Tanks

If properly designed, septic systems should not require additives. Over time, however, sludge and scum accumulate in the septic tank, limiting the area between the two layers for the clarified effluent. When that limited space becomes too small, solids may begin to move out to the soil absorption field and begin to restrict soil infiltration. To maintain adequate wastewater detention in the septic tank, hire a professional to periodically remove scum and sludge. For most single-family home septic systems, tanks should be cleaned every 3 to 5 years.

Videos courtesy of Meade Septic Design Inc.

Cleaning the Filter

Make sure the cleaner thoroughly removes all the sludge, effluent, and scum from the tank. Homeowners also should routinely remove and clean effluent filters every 6-12 months. Simply hose off the solids back into the tank. If effluent filters plug up every few months, it is time to call the septic tank cleaner.

Impacts On Individual Wells

Unlike public drinking water systems serving a large population, individuals with their own source of drinking water do not have experts that regularly check the source of the water and its quality before it is consumed. To help protect individuals with their own wells, almost all states license or register water-well installers. The most important factor in protecting your drinking water from septic impacts is to consider where you're well is located and how it is constructed.

Protecting Your Drinking Water

A well should be cased to a minimum of 25ft below the ground surface. The head of the well (the parts seen at the ground surface) should protrude from the ground such that surface runoff (rain or snow) drains away from the well. Experts suggest a well be placed 50ft from a septic tank and 100ft from a septic leach field. Place the well uphill from the septic system (yours and your neighbor's).

Protecting Your Groundwater

Without protection, contamination of the groundwater can create serious health problems and damage to your home and yard. Groundwater is water present beneath the ground surface in spaces between dirt and sand (called "pore spaces") or in cracks in rocks. Groundwater is present beneath most of the surface of the earth. Some can be found at shallow or deep depths. 50% of Americans use groundwater as their primary drinking source and it supports rivers and other aquatic systems during dry periods of the year.

Groundwater & Septic Systems

The main concern is how much of an impact groundwater and septic systems can have together. Impacts such as surface runoff, tank leaks, spills, etc. can reach shallow groundwater much quicker than deep groundwater. This is important to be aware of because of the effects it can have on your water for drinking, bathing, toilet use, and other uses. Septic systems are used to treat and dispose of small volumes of wastewater, usually from houses.

Impacts of Septic System Problems

Septic systems are present in almost all modern-day homes. Septic system problems, if neglected, can lead to serious property damage to your home and/or yard: backyard seepage, non-flushing toilets, flooded basements, and worse, illnesses from contaminated drinking water.

Materials Not Suitable For Septic Systems

Some materials cannot be processed by the septic system and can lead to septic system problems. Some of these materials include:

KitchenBathroom Laundry RoomGarage
Oil Pharmaceuticals Powdered laundry detergents Fertilizers
Grease Feminine products Household cleaners Pesticides
Large food particles Non-biodegradable toilet paper Bleach Paints or paint thinner
Coffee Contraceptives Arts and crafts remnants Mechanical oil
Paper towels Diapers Cat litter Gasoline
Cigarette butts Dental floss Lint Solvents

Maintenance Tips for Your Septic System

  • Avoid flushing any object or substance that does not easily decompose
  • Avoid planting trees around the system, especially near the absorption field inlet pipe
  • Avoid using septic system additives (solvents used to treat sewage problems)
  • Avoid vehicular traffic and construction activities in the absorption field area before and after installation
  • Divert run-off water from your lawn, roof, and basement drain away from the absorption field
  • Have the tank pumped every 3 to 5 years
  • Minimize garbage disposal use; compost or throw food wastes in the garbage

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