You probably never thought of it this way, but by cleaning and recycling our water, septic systems keep water local, and help to make our communities a beautiful place to live.
How Septic Systems Work
When you flush your toilet, take a shower, or rinse food down the sink, you are creating wastewater. Wastewater is made up of two very different components: liquids and solids.
The solids are captured in your septic system’s “holding tank.” The holding tank is a big concrete box where your wastewater sits quietly for a while so that solids can sink to the bottom or float to the top. The solids are then stored or “held” in the holding tank until they can be removed by a septic system contractor.
While the solids are being held, bacteria break-down the waste and reduce its volume. The solids in your holding tank shrink as they break down, but they never disappear. Eventually, the solids have to be cleaned-out.
Once the solids have separated from the liquids in the holding tank, the liquids flow out of the tank to the “leaching field.” The leaching field spreads the liquids over a large underground area. Beneficial bacteria in the soil digest the pollutants in the liquid, and then the purified water percolates through the ground to join your community’s groundwater.
Septic vs. Sewer. What’s the difference?
- Septic systems treat wastewater, then recycle it locally, into the ground, where it helps to sustain ponds, streams, wetlands and wildlife.
- Sewers send wastewater to a facility to be processed, which might be many miles away from the homeowner’s property. In the Neponset River Watershed, sewer systems lead to the Deer Island Treatment Plant, where it’s processed and then released into Boston Harbor.
Water-testing data shows that most water pollution problems in the Neponset Valley are caused by leaking sewer systems.
The bottom line – keeping a septic system working properly will save money in repairs and will help to keep our groundwater healthy!
When septic systems are ignored for years and not properly maintained, they are more or less guaranteed to cause water pollution and create big repair bills. (You wouldn’t try to drive your car for 100,000 miles without an oil change.) Yet without thinking about it, many people routinely dump ten years worth of waste into their septic system, and expect it to disappear.
Maintaining your septic system is much cheaper than replacing it or installing a sewer. Proper septic system maintenance – generally consisting of a pump-out every other year – works out to about $130 per year, or $260 every other year, for a typical 1,500-gallon tank, including pump-out and disposal.
Leaking and poorly maintained septic systems release nutrients and pathogens (bacteria and viruses) that can be picked up by stormwater and discharged into nearby waterways. Sewage from failing septic systems pollutes ponds, streams and wetlands, choking them with mats of algae and aquatic vegetation, causing fish kills and making swimmers and fishermen sick. And failing septic systems can pollute drinking water wells that you and your neighbors depend on for tap water.
Under Massachusetts law, your septic system must pass state inspection guidelines before you sell your home. Consider that with proper maintenance, your septic system could last up to 30 years. Without maintenance, it can fail in 5-10 years. While minor repairs on a well maintained system are often inexpensive, the cost of completely replacing your system can reach from $12,000 to as high as $55,000.
This is why we advise you to follow these simple rules of septic system maintenance. Together, we can save money and keep the Neponset Watershed’s waterways clean and flowing!
Pump it out!
- Most people should have a septic system contractor pump-out their system every other year.
- People using garbage disposals and those with very large households will probably need to pump every year.
- Very small households may be able to go 3 years between pumping.
Pumping is cheap insurance, so when in doubt, pump it out! Regular pumping will keep solids from spilling out of the holding tank and ruining the leaching field. It will also help you find and fix small problems before they become big headaches.
Also, remember that chemical additives or septic system cleaners (despite advertisements) are no substitute for pump-outs; they don’t make solids disappear! The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection does not recommend using septic system additives.
Reduce Water Use
Household water conservation will make your septic system last longer, and reduce your water and energy bills. Keep these tips in mind:
- Repair leaking fixtures, such as toilets, faucets, and showerheads.
- Upgrade with water efficient appliances, such as toilets, faucets, showerheads, clothes washers, and dishwashers. Check with your water department to see if they offer rebates.
- Change your habits. Don’t let the water run during teeth-brushing, shaving, or dishwashing.
You can help your septic system get in shape by putting it on a low-solids diet. Here’s how you can send fewer solids down your drains:
- Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket.
- Avoid using a a garbage disposal, or better yet, don’t install one at all.
- Watch out for certain foods, like cooking grease, that are sure to cause your system heartburn. Since grease is difficult to break-down in a septic system, collect it in a can and keep it in the fridge instead of pouring it down the drain.
Don’t Sterilize It
Beneficial bacteria are one of the keys to a healthy septic system; anything you put down the drain that kills bacteria also harms your septic system.
- Try to limit your use of harsh chemicals and antibacterial products such as bleach, ammonia and drain cleaners. For example, spot-clean mildew in the shower with bleach instead of cleaning the whole shower using a cleanser containing bleach.
- Clear clogged drains with a plunger, boiling water, or a drain snake rather than with chemicals. In one study, less than 12 grams of drain cleaner killed the bacteria in a septic system!
- Finally, never put paint, motor oil, pesticides or other household hazardous wastes down the drain. Bring them to your Town’s Hazardous Waste Collection Day.
Know Where Your System is Located
Map the location of your holding tank and leaching field to prevent damage to your system. Knowing where your system is can help you avoid partaking in activities that can block, crush, or crack system components.
To protect your septic system:
- Don’t drive across your septic system.
- Don’t pave or brick over it.
- Don’t plant shrubs or trees above it.
- Don’t dig into it (for things like swimming pools).
- Don’t block access to the holding tank
You might have a septic system problem if you notice:
- Sewage or wet spots on the ground above the leaching field
- Gurgling or slow-draining indoor drains
- Plumping or septic tank back-ups
- Sewage odors in the house or yard
- Persistent problems despite pump-outs
- Test indicating bacteria in nearby well water, streams or ponds
- Build-up of algae and other aquatic vegetation in local waterbodies
Please schedule an inspection if any of the above occurs!
A common reason that septic systems fail:
- A system hasn’t been pumped in a while
- Excessive solids will build up in a holding tank and spill over into the leaching field and plug up the soil
- When we dump solids or liquids faster than they can be treated
- When the water table is too high because of flooding or heavy rains
- When tree roots start growing into the leaching field pipes
- When bacteria die-off due to chemicals
- When there is a crack or obstruction in the system
Protect Water Quality and Local Waterways by Using Fewer Chemicals
Whether it’s a septic system or a sewer system, everything that goes down the drains in our house eventually makes its way into our environment. Our wastewater directly affects the cleanliness and quality of groundwater and surface water in local waterways, the Neponset River, and Boston Harbor, impacting drinking water sources and environmental habitats.
The choices you make in your home will make a difference in water quality.
- Replace harsh chemical cleaners with non-toxic, more environmentally-friendly products.
- Follow the directions on cleaners and use only the recommended amounts.
- Never flush or pour any medications down a drain! Proper disposal of medications helps to protect our drinking water, rivers, and aquatic life
Research the the toxicity of household chemical cleaners, as well as personal care products, on the Environmental Working Group website.
About Title 5 (MA Dept. of Environmental Protection)