Almost 30 million home or business owners across the US rely on on-site dedicated septic systems to treat wastewater. This is particularly true in rural areas where homes are not connected to public centralized sewer systems. If your own home or business property relies on a dedicated septic system, you likely have come across the idea of septic tank additives designed to enhance and maintain the efficiency of septic tanks.
But are septic tank additives really necessary? For the most part, septic tank additives are not necessary because a well-maintained septic system will have everything it needs to perform its function of treating wastewater and processing effluent. The fact of the matter is some studies have even shown that the use of septic tank additives can actually cause more harm than good: to your septic tank, your drainfield and the surrounding groundwater. One research, for example, even found that the use of a biological additives caused the solid sludge layer at the base of the septic tank to decompose too rapidly than is ideal. This led to rapid production of septic gases, which are quite hazardous.
It will help to have a basic knowledge of how septic systems work, in order to understand why septic additives are not entirely necessary. A typical septic system installation consists of a septic tank, a drainfield, and surrounding ground soil. Wastewater from your property’s bathroom, kitchen, and laundry flows to and are collected in the septic tank. Here, the solid wastes (called sludge) are separated from liquid wastes. The lighter organic wastes like grease and fat form what we refer to as the scum layer and float to the top. The living bacteria within the septic tank help break down the organic wastes, especially the solids. These wastes remain in your septic tank for one to two days before the effluent moves out to the drainfield. The drainfield further filters the effluent until it passes into the surrounding ground soil where it can be safely integrated into the groundwater. With regular and proper maintenance, a standard septic system will function for 25 to 30 years.
Because these components of septic systems are underground, they are frequently or easily neglected. Only when problems occur do property owners remember how expensive having a septic system can become. Home and business property owners alike need to remember that regular and periodic maintenance of septic systems will be substantially more cost effective than waiting around for problems that require repairs and/or replacements. Doing so will keep your septic system working efficiently for as long as possible. Avoid falling for the marketing hype around septic system additives that claim that these products will revive and/or keep septic systems flowing efficiently. A lot of septic tank additives also promise to extend the time between septic tank pumping. Do not believe these easily!
It’s true, a lot of us fall easily for “silver bullet” promises. Who does not want an inexpensive fix that saves time and money, right? Septic system additives claim to help rejuvenate your system so that you won’t have to pump your septic tank as frequently as recommended, but be wary. Septic tank additives may actually end up costing you more money because of the potential damage to your overall system that these products can cause.
Keep in mind that there simply is no research that proves the effectiveness of septic tank additives, despite manufacturers’ and sellers’ claims. In fact, most research has suggested just the opposite: septic tank additives are potentially harmful to septic tank systems, as a whole. A number of septic tank additive manufacturers or merchants falsely claim that bacteria or enzyme additives are helpful, especially to new or recently-pumped septic tanks. They might suggest that these bacteria are needed to help dissolve the waste in your tank, but this is untrue. Human biological wastes will supply the septic tank with sufficient quantities of bacteria to aid in the efficient breakdown of organic wastes in the septic tank. The simple acts of flushing your toilet and proper dishwashing habits already promote the growth of healthy bacteria needed to make your septic system function. The actual amount of bacteria or enzymes in an additive dose remains small compared to the bacteria already present in a tank and therefore provides little, if any, benefit in the breakdown of wastes. Additionally, if many of the bacteria in your septic tank perished due to the unfortunate introduction of harmful chemicals or substances (like engine oil, paint thinners, and the like), any added bacteria will likely die, as well. Take note of one study conducted on 48 septic tanks found no difference in sludge level between tanks that utilized bacterial additives and those that did not (McKenzie, 1999).
Of course, there will always be exceptions to the rule. In Arizona (and similar locales), for instance, a lot of homeowners are what we refer to as “snowbirds.” They live in their homes only part of the year, which means their septic systems are basically unused during the months they are away. And this means that the septic tank in the property is not getting the helpful bacteria it normally would from daily wastewater. Infrequent use of septic systems can cause solid wastes to accumulate more quickly than normal in the septic tank, and so the use of septic additives may be necessary for vacation or occasional homes or properties.
Unfortunately, many of us still hold obsolete beliefs about septic tank additives that have otherwise been debunked. One is such beliefs is the supposed benefit of adding yeast to one’s septic system. However, according to septic expert Dr. John Winneberger, adding yeast to your septic tank will become beneficial “only if you eat it first.”
Harsh substances like pervasive synthetic chemicals or yeast can harm your septic system. Yeast is an active substance and will foam up, preventing the regular settling of the solid matter. Yeast can also cause the ineffective coagulating of grease matter in the tank. This agitates the solid waste and prematurely forces it out into the drain field, compromising the life of your system and clogging up your treatment soil. There is a certain level of natural bacteria that is needed by your septic system and harsh chemicals like bleach and potent disinfectant will likely damage your septic system and contaminate your drainfield and treatment soil.
Another common belief is that adding a recently-slaughtered chicken will help save a failing septic system. Reasonably speaking, while freshly-slaughtered fowl may be a source of healthy bacteria, you need not go to these lengths just to do so. In most cases, regularly maintaining your septic system to keep it healthy and introducing waste naturally are the best ways to help healthy bacteria thrive in your septic tank.
Simply put, whatever you put into your septic system will greatly affect its ability to accomplish its function. Always keep in mind that your septic system contains living organisms (bacteria) that digest and treat waste. As a general rule of thumb, never dispose of anything in your septic system that can just as easily be put in the trash bin. Your septic system is not built to be a garbage bin and that the accumulated solid wastes will eventually need to be pumped out. The more solids that go into your septic tank, the more frequently your tank will need to be pumped, as the risks for septic failure goes up, too.
Septic Tank Treatment: What Works?
There are a number of septic tank additive products out there that come with the claim of being able to revive septic systems and will allow you to go longer in between septic tank cleanings or pumping. To be blunt, to fall for this is basically the same as you gambling on the $25 box of additives to save you the cost of septic tank pumping every 3 to 5 years.
While in some cases, septic tank additives may be worth the extra security for maintaining an efficient and healthy septic tank, it’s not a complete substitute. Septic tank additives can be a great addition to a septic owner’s routine. But, they are definitely not a “cure-all”.
Septic tank additives come in different types. The first of which are Biological Additives. These use a combination of bacteria and enzymes that act as “boosters” for the natural process already happening in your septic tank. However, the number of bacteria contained in these additives do not actually match the number of bacteria in a healthy septic tank. In fact, the bacterial content of such additives are extremely low and insufficient. As was mentioned, it’s a boost, nothing more If you anticipate your septic system is about to be subjected to high-volume usage (like during the holidays or before an extravagant gathering), giving a boost never hurts.
The next type of septic tank additives are Organic Solvents. These are concentrated chemicals similar to those used on mechanical parts to break down oil and grease. While organic solvents may be good for getting rid of tough greases and oils, these types of additives can kill the good bacteria when used excessively or too frequently. In addition, they have the potential to contaminate groundwater. Organic solvents are actually banned in some States. To find out if you can use them in your location, visit your state’s Health Department website.
Finally, septic tank additives classified as Inorganic Compounds use strong alkalis or acids to help break down stubborn waste matter. Similar to organic solvents, improper use of inorganic compound additives may lead to the degeneration of the naturally-occurring bacteria in your septic tank system. If used too frequently, it can cause corrosion within your pipes and a concrete septic tank, if that is what you have.
Relatively, organic solvents and inorganic compounds are far less benign. These two types of additives typically contain harsh chemicals, acids or alkalis used to break down oils and grease, as well as remove clogs. However, these additives can actually destroy the good bacteria that are essential in keeping your septic system running smoothly. Furthermore, but they can disrupt the natural separation process that happens inside your tank, which may result to the contamination of the groundwater and surrounding soil. Again, particularly harsh products can also cause structural damage to your pipes and septic tank.
Septic tank additives are mostly meant to act as boosters, and not a miraculous cure-all for potential septic tank difficulties. When used with a healthy, well-maintained septic tank, septic tank additives may work well in protecting the efficiency of your septic system further. The real magic word here is “well-maintained”.
Septic Tank Care
The best way to keep your septic system functional and optimized is to ensure that you have it pumped every two to five years, depending on the size of your family and volume of usage. We cannot reiterate it enough that septic pumping is necessary to remove the buildup of solid wastes from the bottom of your tank. Experts likewise recommend the following maintenance tips to keep your septic system at its best and to maximize the life of your septic system:
- Annual inspection of your septic tank. Routine inspections provide property owners with much-needed peace of mind and ensures that any potential septic problem or issue does not get out of hand and cause major expensive damage.
- Conservative water usage. Excessive water use prevents your drainfield from efficiently absorbing water. This leads to potential overflow problems.
- Space out your dish and laundry loads. Doing all your laundry or dishwashing in one go puts tremendous strain on your drainfield. High greywater volume may overwhelm your system, leaving your ground with insufficient time to absorb it.
- Dispose of oil, grease, or fats in the trash. If you allow these matter down the drain, they can clog up the holes or crevices in the drainfield.
- Do not use your toilets and sinks as a garbage can. The more you flush or drain things other than toilet paper and typical plate scraps, the more often you will need to get your septic tank pumped out.
How to Remain Additive-Free
Certain conditions, especially related to the location of your property and, therefore, your septic system, may actually make the use of septic tank additives beneficial. However, keep in mind that these chemical products also have the potential to destroy the needed bacteria in the septic tank. Think of a septic system as a finely-tuned small-scale ecosystem. Its own environment can thrive better without the addition of unnatural substances. But if your property’s situation requires the introduction of such, use them with caution. Treat these septic tank additives as mere inoculation for the system when restarting an idle system. As soon as your septic system has come to life with the flush of the toilet or washing of dishes, your septic system gets back what it needs from the system for it to function properly. Therefore, the general conclusion to be derived is that treatments are not entirely necessary and will not work as effectively with prolonged use as the manufacturers or merchants may lead us to believe.
Follow these tips to help keep your septic system working property without the use of additives while minimizing costs:
• Never allow toxic chemicals to go down your drains. Properly dispose of solvents, paint, varnish, oil, and pesticides at the local garbage transfer station, or look in the Recycling Directory proper waste disposal.
• Keep non-biodegradable substances out of your system as much as possible. Cigarettes, left-over medications, feminine hygiene products, kitty litter, and other similar solid items should go into the trash and not in your septic system. These, especially left-over medications, have the high potential to kill the essential bacteria in your tank.
• Limit the use of your garbage disposal unit. Garbage disposal units increase the amount of water and solid wastes into your septic tank, requiring more frequent pumping.
• Divert runoff and drainage water. Never drain swimming pools or hot tubs into your septic system or drainfield. Downspouts and roof runoff should be directed away from your drainfield so as to regulate volume of water getting into your septic system.
No septic tank additive can ever compensate for poor septic system design, regular inspection and maintenance, and septic tank pumping every two to five years. Septic tank additives that claim to eliminate the need for frequent pumping usually just re-suspend solids, prematurely moving them to the drainfield, thus clogging up your septic lines and leading to system failure. Even well-designed septic systems need to be replaced eventually, anywhere between 20 and 30 years, depending on usage and septic tank construction. “Safe” septic additives will likely be ineffective, while an “effective” additive will likely be unsafe to use, especially in high amounts. Money spent on septic tank additives would better be spent pumping your septic tank every two to five years. Research and expertise all demonstrate that regular inspection and maintenance of properly-designed and installed septic systems will truly prevent system failure and prolong system life.