This bare spot of ground is a clue that a...

This bare spot of ground is a clue that a warm septic tank is just below the surface. That warmth promotes biologic activity in the tank. Credit: Tim Davis


1. Don't do it yourself


A nonprofessional should never attempt to clean or pump a septic tank. It's dangerous work, not least because you can expose yourself to dangerous pathogens that thrive in a septic system. Never stick your head in the void space of a septic system, as the decomposition of the waste material generates methane and other gases that push out oxygen from the system. You can pass out and die if you try to peer deep inside the tank.


2. What the pros do


When you call a professional, they almost always come to your home with a large tank truck. The truck is equipped with a suction pump and a large flexible hose. Think of it as the largest wet-dry vacuum you've ever seen. This truck sucks the liquid and solids out of your tank so your septic system works better.


3. The leach field


Septic tank cleaning helps prolong the life of your leach field. The leach field is an important part of a septic system that usually consists of piping surrounded by washed gravel or coarse sand. Partially treated water exits the septic tank and flows into the leach field to be purified by bacteria in the soil.


4. Liquid space


For a septic system to work properly, it needs to have a significant volume of liquid space in the tank so the waste that's dumped into the tank can start to break down. However, if the tank starts to fill with solids like sand, silt, gravel and any other solid objects that displace water, there is less liquid in the tank. What's more, the tank needs to be regularly cleaned of scum, grease and any other material that floats on the surface of the liquid in the tank.


5. Cleaning schedule


The cleaning schedule depends upon several factors. This includes how heavily the septic tank is used, what's put in it and if it was originally sized correctly for the size of the house. There is no set schedule that works for everyone and every tank. Call several septic system cleaning companies to see if they will come out and evaluate your system. It's well worth the money. If you wait too long, you can permanently harm your leach field. Those are very expensive to replace.


6. No-no's


To extend the life of your septic system, you need to clean it regularly. Then watch what you put into the tank in between cleanings. Obviously human waste is fine to put into the tank, as is anything you might put into your mouth to eat or drink. Anything else is pretty much a no-no.


7. Eschew chlorine


Avoid putting chlorine bleach into your septic tank. Chlorine bleach can be added directly from bottles, but it's also usually found in cleaners and soaps. Chlorine bleach can kill beneficial bacteria that break up solid waste in the tank. However, you should consider adding oxygen bleach to the septic tank, as the oxygen increases the bacterial activity.


8. Grease is bad


Do not add grease, paint or chemicals of any nature to the tank. Rinse heavily soiled and dirty clothes in a bucket and pour the muddy, sandy water outdoors. Remember, muddy clothes contain solid silt particles that can cause problems in the tank and leach field if they get that far. Latex paint is especially sinister in a septic system and can wreak havoc in the leach field. Never clean paintbrushes in a sink and allow the water to flow into your septic tank. Never clean any chemicals of any sort in sinks allowing the water to enter the tank.


9. For more information


One of the best authorities to consult is the National Small Flows Clearinghouse. This is an independent research organization associated with West Virginia University ( wastewater.cfm or 800-624-8301) that has an abundant amount of free information that will help you maintain your septic system.


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