Flushed away

Regular maintenance is the key to a happy septic system

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If you’re used to flushing everything into the sewer, coming to grips with a septic tank can be a new experience.

Some villages and hamlets have a sewer system, but most of us here rely on the old-fashioned septic tank (they go back to the 1860s) to deal with our wastewater and effluvia.

Yes, it’s another responsibility for the new country dweller, but septic tanks aren’t complicated. And you don’t have to worry about alligators or snakes climbing up your pipes into your toilet.

Septic tank basics

The people in your house produce waste, which goes through your pipes and into the tank. Once in the tank, the grease and lighter solids float on top, while the heavier solids sink to the bottom. Not just poop and TP, but food that went down your sink and anything else that got flushed down the toilet. (Most of which probably shouldn’t have been flushed in the first place, OK?)

Bacteria in the tank break down the solids.

The wastewater goes out to the leach field and gets dispersed.

What’s a leach field? Basically, it’s a trench filled with clean stone. A perforated pipe comes from the tank and runs down the length of the trench. Wastewater goes into the pipe and gets dispersed into that part of your yard. The soil around the trench removes any harmful bacteria.

Care and feeding of the tank

Repeat after me: I will get my tank pumped regularly, not just when things start gurgling and there’s a funny smell in the backyard.

“Penn State did a study,” said Ned Lang, owner of Enviroventures in Narrowsburg. “A tank should be cleaned out every 2.7 years.”

Just do it. Don’t wait for it to be full of sludge. Don’t use additives that promise to extend the time between pumpings.

“Some can cause [the solids in] your tank to just turn and not settle,” Lang said. When you look in the tank, you can see “an oily black slime and the water is black.”

When the bacteria stop working, then the sewage starts making its way into the leach field. You don’t want that. The Washington State University Cooperative Extension wrote that some additives “can also corrode concrete tanks and distribution boxes, causing them to leak and potentially break apart. Research found hydrogen peroxide degrades soil structure in a drainfield, reducing its ability to treat and absorb wastewater effluent.”

Watch your water use, Lang said. “Try to use low-flush toilets, low-water-use showerheads.” Water softeners or conditioners release a large amount of water when they backwash, which can overload the system, he explained. “The salts will cause harm to your bacteria in your septic tank, causing solids to escape the septic tank and enter the drain field.” In fact, “fix running toilets,” for the same reason.

Be careful what you flush. Those flushable wipes? Aren’t flushable. They’ll block your indoor pipes (that’s a plumbing problem) and they can get into the septic system, where they don’t break down, Lang said. For that matter, don’t flush garbage, feminine hygiene products, dirt, dental floss, hair, or cat litter. Just because something can go down the toilet doesn’t mean it should.

(If you’re bored, Google “strange things found in septic tanks.”)

Just follow some simple rules, get the tank pumped regularly, and, well, you’re good to go.

Want more info? Visit Pennsylvania Septage Management Association at www.psma.org.

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