Understanding and Maintaining the Down Under
It is easy to "flush and forget," without giving a second thought to what goes down the drain to your septic system. Septic systems can work amazingly well that way, but they do require occasional maintenance, and a little TLC can prevent over-clogging and thousands of dollars of repair work to fix or rebuild the system.
I knew that our own septic system was long overdue for pumping, but kept putting it off, only because life can be a never-ending list of pressing problems, and there is always something seemingly more important at the top of the priority list. Instead of pumping our septic tank every three to five years, as recommended, we let ours go for twenty years. Fortunately, our septic system wasn't damaged by neglect. We avoid bleach, or other toxins that could kill off biological activity in the septic system, and much of our wastewater and grease is treated separately in a greywater system. Thus, our septic system wasn't overtaxed, so we had it pumped out and asked the driver to land-apply the nutrients to our pasture.
If you are considering building a home and want to compare the pros and cons and integration of septic systems, biogas, composting toilets, greywater systems, reedbeds, and plant rock filters, be sure to consult Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction for a concise discussion of each. And for in-depth coverage about septic system function and maintenance, scroll down this page for additional resources.
Recommended Guide Books
The Septic System Owner's Manual
Subterranean Mysteries Revealed
by Lloyd Kahn, Illustrated by Peter Aschwanden
The gravity-powered septic system is a wonder of technology - past and present. Its operation is so quiet, natural, and energy-free that we tend to forget the vital function it serves.
Sewage is carried from the house to the tank via gravity - no motors, no fossil-fuel energy consumption, no noise. Wastewater goes from the tank to the drainfield - also via gravity - where microorganisms in the soil digest and purify bacteria and viruses. When the soil is suitable and the system healthy, it is an example of efficient design and natural forces, returning clean water to the water table (or to plants or the air) - all functioning silently under the surface of the earth.
There are more than 25 million septic systems in the United States. Moreover, each year, some 400,000 new systems are built. Yet in spite of such widespread usage, the average homeowner seems to know little about the basic operation and appropriate maintenance of a septic system.
This book describes the conventional gravity-fed septic system, how it works, how it should be treated (what should and should not go down the drain), how it should be maintained, and what to do if things go wrong. There is also basic information on the recent evolution in composting toilet systems, designs for simple graywater systems, and some of the typical alternatives to the standard, gravity-fed septic system.
There is a chapter with advice to any community faced with town-wide septic upgrades, and last, an illustrated chapter on the history of waterborne waste disposal.
This is not an engineering treatise. Nor does it cover any of the many non-conventional systems in use in various parts of the country by a variety of wastewater engineers and soil scientists. This is a basic manual for the average homeowner, based on conventional systems, providing practical advice on how to keep these systems up (or should we say down?) and running.
The Septic System Owner's Manual is primarily for homeowners or tenants with septic systems, but also for builders, architects, plumbers, septic contractors, pumpers, and realtors, as well as health departments, wastewater districts, and small towns - anyone who wants to understand these very important, but often misunderstood, working principles.
If you are buying a house with a septic system, it is very important that you understand septic basics, so that you know what you are getting. Coverage includes:
Working systems: By understanding septic system principles, you will know how to treat your system intelligently and maximize its useful life.
Partially failing systems: By changing daily household practices, and perhaps making minor repairs, you may be able to nurse along an ailing system or even bring it back to life.
Failing systems: You will be given a discovery process to search for the problem in a given order. You will discover if the problem is relatively easy to fix (as with pipe blockage), or major (drainfield failure). You will understand what went wrong and be given a variety of options for repair.
Alternative systems: By this we mean alternatives to the gravity-powered system - typically, mounds, pressure-dosed drainfields, sand filters, etc. - often required by health officials these days. You will be given the basics of these designs so you will understand how they work and what purpose they serve.
Although the principles described here are more or less the same all over the world, there are local factors of soil and climate, as well as practical experience, and code requirements, that will differ from region to region. Once you understand the basics, we suggest you talk to local builders, septic tank pumpers, and homeowners. There is no substitute for local experience.
How to Construct a Small Septic System