Septic Systems, Safety, and Options

Posted by Woodrow Aames ~ August 14, 2009

About one quarter of American residents rely on what is termed "on-site wastewater" treatment. And almost all of these are septic systems. Proper installation and routine maintenance not only ensures proper operation of septic tanks and drainfields, but can impact health and safety of the residents and wildlife on the land. Knowing simple rules for living around your drainfield and what items should never go into your septic system can make a huge difference.

If you want to go to the source, the Environmental Protection Agency has published a Homeowner's Guide to Septic Systems. In short, you simply do not want to flush any of the following items into your septic system:

  • Bathroom items: gauze bandages, sanitary napkins, kitty litter, disposable diapers, condoms, human hair
  • Kitchen items: coffee grounds, cooking fat, grease, or oil
  • Garage or workshop items: chemicals, paint, pesticides, varnish, thinners, or machine oils.
Types of Septic Systems Most septic systems rely on a drainfield to disperse liquid waste from the septic tank. Drainfields are most commonly constructed from pipe and gravel components, with a trench that lies at least one foot below ground level and more than two feet above the existing water table. A solid pipe funnels effluent from the tank to a network of perforated pipes that leech the materials into the field.

Another option is the drywell system. The drywell is a covered pit made of concrete or stone--or more recently of plastic or fiberglass. Drywells can handle gray water, typically emitted from showers or home laundry machines. They are not especially effective in handling human waste. Seepage pits--trenches in the ground--are options for human waste in areas where drainfields can't be installed due to soil conditions.

You may also want to consider sand-mound systems as an optional septic system, especially where the water table is shallow and above-ground seeping systems are the best alternative. Mound systems are costly to install.

Septic System Maintenance It's a good idea to have your tanks pumped annually. And avoid planting anything nearby that can sink roots into your system. Stay away from the absorption field if possible. Certainly, don't drive vehicles over it or pave over the top for a driveway. You can help prevent overtaxing the system by using water-saving devices in the home and diverting roof downspouts or other water runoff sources away from the field.

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