Understanding Your Septic System: A Beginner’s Guide To Sanitation

Kenneth Wilson

Every dish washed, bath drained, and toilet flushed creates wastewater that no longer has a place in our homes. Once that water escapes our eyesight, however, we may never again consider what happens to it.

With over 21 million households in America utilizing septic systems, this technology pervades everyday life for people across the country. Yet, despite its importance, we never learn what it does or how it works.

Not understanding where our waste winds up can land us in hot water if anything should go awry. Conversely, educating ourselves ahead of time could prevent unwanted – and ill-smelling – issues from occurring in the future.

What is a Septic System?

Whenever someone uses a toilet or drains a sink, that contaminated liquid has to vacate the premises. With bathrooms accounting for 25-30% of household water usage, significant amounts of water need to escape somewhere, somehow. The solution to that issue comes from septic systems.

Septic systems lie underneath a homeowner’s property, treating whatever wastewater passes through them. To efficiently flush out this effluent, these systems unite the power of tanks and drainfields. (Related: Plumbing Terms Every Homeowner Should Know When Remodeling Their Bathroom)

What is a Septic Tank?

When designing a new house, architects bury the homeowner’s septic tank somewhere inconspicuous throughout the property. This underground position keeps most homeowners in the dark as to their septic tank’s location or appearance.

No matter the style, every septic tank uses concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene to ensure no water can escape. All water disposed of in the house filters into this container, where it is transformed into either sludge or scum. Withheld solids break down into sludge while contained oils and greases dissipate into scum.

Specialized compartments inside the tank prevent these contaminants from leaking out too soon. Once the tank has held them long enough, these compartments open and transfer their inhabitants to the drainfield.

Every septic tank comes at a size suited to that specific household’s water output. The more residents a property houses, the more wastewater the septic tank must cycle through. While there’s no industry standard size, each septic tank must contain a minimum of 1,000 gallons in America.

What is a Drainfield?

Drainfields receive all incoming contaminants and disperse them throughout a shallow, covered excavation site. Unsaturated soil suits their purposes best, given the items soon to occupy them.

Each field varies drastically in size depending on its individual waste intake. A multilevel mansion would require a much larger drainfield than a single-floor row home. The average three bedroom house would require a 750 feet drainfield at the minimum.

How Does a Septic System Work?

The septic system activates as soon as anyone within its attached household utilizes any source of water. Toilets, sinks, showers: all connect to a central drainage pipe. That pipe leads directly to the underground septic tank.

Once inside the tank, everything contained splits into three divisions: solids, wastewater, and floatable matter. The septic tank compartmentalizes these substances until they have decayed and then sends them off to the drainfield. Each of these components sits in a series of pipes beneath the drain field and slowly permeates the surface world. The soil gradually absorbs this leftover liquid, now known as effluent.

The speed at which this effluent incorporates itself back into the soil depends on the ground it inhabits. Sandy soil can percolate an inch of water in 3 minutes, while clay-ridden soil would require up to 48 minutes. But the soil does more than simply house the effluent: it treats it. When wastewater percolates into the soil, dangerous contaminants therein die off. Bacteria, viruses, nutrients – all meet their demise at the hands of the drainfield.

This process keeps soil protected from bacteria like coliform, an element of fecal matter. Coliform inhabits the intestines of humans and other, warm-blooded mammals, making it an all too common component in wastewater. Without this safeguard, the property’s drinking water could infect homeowners to dangerous degrees.

Where Are Septic Systems Located?

While cities rely on centralized sewer systems, anyone refraining from an urban lifestyle will depend on septic systems. Rural areas use them almost exclusively, with 55% of Vermont maintaining a septic system. Compare that to the 10% of California that utilizes one and the difference is clear.

If you’re located outside of a city, there’s a sizable chance that your household possesses a septic system. If you want to verify your suspicions, there are numerous indicators to hone in on.

Does your household use well water for its baths, sinks, and toilets? Then that is a surefire indicator that a septic system is in place. Homeowners can identify wells by their capped casing that protrudes at least eight inches from the surface of one’s yard.

Water meters also clue homeowners in on whether or not a septic system is present. Technicians install these meters under metal plates commonly located in parking spaces or sidewalks outside one’s home. If you cannot find a meter attached to your waterline, that’s a sign of septic incorporation.

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at your water or property tax bills. Anyone with a septic system would show that they pay $0.00 for “Sewer Amount Charged”. If there’s no charge, it’s because there’s no sewer in use – thus the existence of a septic system.

Symptoms of Septic Problems

Although technicians design septic systems to function perfectly, every product develops flaws somewhere along the line. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you contact a professional immediately upon witnessing any of the following symptoms.

Drainfields are prone to flooding whenever they become overloaded with liquid. These floods usher any liquid left underground to the surface. But this overflow isn’t contained to the outdoors – backups can come gushing out of sinks and toilets, too.

As wastewater seeps above ground, it morphs the grass until it is bright in color and spongy in texture. Watch out all the more during dry seasons when grass would ordinarily be browned and stale.

Sight alone is not the only sense to rely on when discerning whether there’s a septic issue. Defective tanks and fields produce strong odors in their surrounding vicinities. If the smell of sewage pervades your surroundings, wastewater has likely leaked out.

Kenneth Wilson
October 17, 2021

Kenneth Wilson

Retired contractor. Currently residing in Southwest Florida. Now in semi-retirement, I write and manage this blog focused on helping home owners make savvy decisions when it comes to finding contractors and getting their projects done. I also operate remodeling design service for homeowners.

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