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Homework: Pumping septic tanks

This is the access hole cover for a

This is the access hole cover for a septic tank. Don't even think of removing it unless you're a professional septic tank cleaner. Photo Credit: Tim Carter

1. Pumping it

Unfortunately, there is no definitive timetable for cleaning and pumping a septic tank. Many professionals who do this work will tell you it should be done every three years, but there are septic systems that probably should be pumped annually.

2. Breaking it down

Wastewater from your home contains solids. Some of these solids break down and are devoured by bacteria in the tank. Solids that can't be digested and broken down start to accumulate on the bottom of the tank, reducing the amount of water in the chambers of the tank. Furthermore, there's a layer of scum where floating material like grease and lightweight solids start to accumulate. These also, over time, reduce the amount of water in the tank. You need water in the tank to fuel the breakdown of the solids.

3. Leaching it out

If you don't get sufficient breakdown of the solids in the tank, the small particles pass through the tank and are delivered to your leach field. The leach field is a critical part of the wastewater treatment system of a standard septic system. This field is comprised of perforated, interconnected pipes into which the effluent from the septic system flows. Usually the pipes are surrounded by sand or very loamy soil.

4. Keeping it clean

As the nearly clear effluent from the septic system passes through the sand and soil, the remaining pathogens are removed and safe water is the result. A septic system that's in good working order does not pollute the groundwater or the surrounding area.

5. Making it safe

However, if solids are transported from the tank to the leach field because they are not broken down in the septic tank, over time the leach field will fail. If this happens, you will create a serious pollution hazard and you could create health issues for your family and surrounding families.

6. Maintaining it

Regular pumping of a septic tank ensures you will not ruin your leach field. Replacing a leach field is an expensive proposition that costs thousands of dollars. The price to pump a septic tank is usually just several hundred dollars. It's well worth the price.

7. Figuring it out

The reason no one can give you a definitive schedule for pumping a septic tank is that it's all a function of how large the septic tank is and how many people are discharging waste into the tank each day.

8. Hiring a pro

You may have purchased a home and have no idea if the current tank is sized properly for the number of people living in the home. If this is the case, hire a professional with years of experience with septic tanks. Frequently a seasoned pro can tell the size of the tank after it's pumped. Once that is known, he or she can tell you how often it needs to be cleaned and pumped.

9. Keeping records

If you have a septic tank installed, keep several copies of the plan drawn by the septic designer. The plan might show the exact tank, the size and capacity in gallons of each chamber of the tank, and even the type and model number of the pump needed for the system. Also, hold on to the original septic tank permit, which is very valuable. Without the original permit in hand, you may spend hundreds or thousands of dollars proving your system was installed correctly.

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