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12 Best/Safe Laundry Detergents for Septic Systems

Close to 25% of US households rely on septic systems to dispose of sewage and wastewater. Laundry contributes a major percentage of total wastewater collected. This said it is critical to know which laundry detergents are safe to use with septic systems. Septic tanks require a delicate balance of bacteria and enzymes to effectively break down waste matter and some home cleaning products and detergents can disturb this balance, unfortunately. Being discerning about what type of cleaning agents you use can actually help prevent expensive tank maintenance and serious health hazards all around.

What laundry detergents are best to use for septic systems? The quick answer is: it all depends on what type of septic system it is you have. If you have a conventional, gravity-powered system, liquid laundry detergents are recommended. If what you have is an aerated system, you should opt for powdered detergent in order to limit foam in the aeration chamber.

What To Consider When Picking a Detergent For Septic Systems

In general, though, it is wise to avoid the lesser-known or inexpensive powders as these often contain fillers that can cause clogs. Whichever product you choose, always make sure that it is labeled safe for septic tanks or systems.

However, powdered laundry detergents, even those that claim to be septic system-safe, can cause serious clogs in your tank. Detergent powders may contain granulated plastic and other materials that don’t fully break down. When these materials enter your drain pipes and septic tank, they settle or stick to the sides and accumulate over time. Eventually, you end up with a clog that requires professional servicing. Liquid laundry detergents, in general, are a safer choice as these dissolve completely, and many are available with non-toxic and natural ingredients that are not detrimental to the enzyme balance of septic systems.

Laundry detergents that have low levels of surfactants are generally safe for septic systems. Surfactants are common in laundry soaps because of their ability to “lift” stains out and keeping them from settling back into the fabric. While convenient for removing stains, surfactants can contaminate ground and surface water if your septic system is not able to sufficiently process them. Natural surfactants are derived from plant oils and produce less suds than petrochemical surfactants made from crude oil, making the former a better alternative.

Likewise, laundry detergents labeled as “biodegradable” are best for septic systems as this means that these agents provide nutrients for microorganisms and naturally decompose. DIY-ed or homemade laundry soaps are safe for septic systems. That is, if they do not contain filler substances that forms clogs. Homemade recipes would typically contain natural ingredients like baking soda and do not yield too much suds. Septic-safe commercial laundry detergents might cost more than others, but these actually go a long way in keeping your septic tank operational and balanced, making them more cost-effective in the long run.

For you, we have put together a list of top laundry detergents that are best to use for septic systems. Apart from product highlights, we have likewise included some disadvantages to each product for your objective reference.

#1 Arm & Hammer Laundry Detergent

Arm and Hammer Plus OxiClean is a mid-priced laundry detergent available in the market. Ingredients include biodegradable surfactants, enzymes, baking soda, and oxygen bleach. It promises to deliver “whiter whites and brighter brights”.

PRO: Arm and Hammer Plus can be used as pre-treatment to help remove tough stains. It is formulated for both standard and high-efficiency washing machines and performs well in all water temperatures.

CON: The packaging was not manufactured with recycled materials, as a lot of consumers are now looking for. The measuring cap is somewhat difficult to read, as well as the product does not indicate its full ingredients listing on the container label.

#2 Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap (in Citrus)

Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soaps are made with over 90% organic ingredients. It is safe for any skin type, not to mention the environment, as it is made with plant-based ingredients with none of the synthetic preservatives, thickeners, or foaming agents. Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Liquid Soap is 3x more concentrated than most liquid soaps in the market. With this, you get multiple uses in just one product: laundry, mopping, hand-washing dishes, all-purpose cleaning, washing pets and more. 

PRO: Its highly-concentrated formula goes a long way. You can dilute it with water and still expect great cleaning power. The product is fully biodegradable and use all-natural ingredients that are environment-friendly.

CON: Some consumers find that the citrus fragrance was not very distinctive. Another downside is the higher price point.

#3 Eco-Me Natural Non-Toxic Concentrated Liquid Laundry Detergent

Eco-Me’s Natural Concentrated Liquid Laundry Detergent leaves your clothes clean and with a fresh lavender blossom scent. It may not be fragrance-free, but its formulation does not include any synthetic fragrances. It is also free of formaldehyde-, paraben-, sulfate-, chlorine-, phosphate-, and dye-free. It is safe for sensitive skin, children, and pets.

PRO: The plant oils that make up this formula also help to fight bacteria. This product is both eco-friendly and cruelty-free.  You get up to 64 loads with one 32 oz bottle.  It is likewise safe in HE washing machines.

CON: The scent may smell great from the bottle, but it seems to only lightly transfer over to your clothes. If you have hard water, it tends to not lather up as much.  This product may be more efficient in areas with soft water.

#4 Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Laundry Detergent

Mrs. Meyers Clean Day Laundry Detergent’s concentrated formula is effective yet gentle on clothes. The mild wildflowers and fruity scent leaves clothes smelling fresh and clean. The enzymes and plant-derived ingredients are tough on dirt and stains, yet the formulation is gentle enough for baby clothes.

PRO: It is a highly-efficient but earth-friendly brand. Mrs. Meyers Laundry Detergent is biodegradable and works well with both HE and conventional washing machine. You get 64 loads of laundry per 64 fl. oz bottle.

CON: One downside to this product is its higher price point, compared to other brands and type.

#5 Seventh Generation Natural Concentrated Laundry Detergent

Seventh Generation’s Natural Concentrated Laundry Detergent is made with a triple enzyme formula that helps fight even the toughest stains.  It is also hypoallergenic, making it a safe choice for people with sensitive skin and for babies’ clothes.  It is also biodegradable, with its plant-derived main ingredients.

PRO: The 4x concentrated formula makes Seventh Generation’s Natural Concentrated Laundry Detergent go a long way.  This makes it cost-effective in the longer run. There are no artificial dyes, fragrances, or fabric brighteners in the formula. It is not just safe for you clothes and skin, but is also safe for the environment and septic systems.

CON: Some consumers have indicated that the bottle tends to leak a bit, especially during shipping. Its price point is a little on the high side.  It is recommended to stick to the amount prescribed per load, because a little really does go a long way. Also, it does not leave any sort of scent on your clothes, which some consumers may actually look for.

#6 Grandma’s Non-Detergent Laundry Soap

Grandma’s pure and natural Non-Detergent Laundry Soap was made through traditional, hand-crafted methods to best preserve the quality and effectiveness of its all-natural ingredients. This natural laundry soap’s formulation includes no detergents, dyes or fragrance that can irritate sensitive skin, making it perfect for babies, too. Grandma’s Non-Detergent Laundry Soap is effective in removing odor and oils from fabrics.

PRO: Consumers love Grandma’s for its fragrance-free freshness and its ability to clean clothes. Its all-natural ingredients make Grandma’s highly-biodegradable and safe for septic systems. Grandma’s works well in soft water.

CON: Since this natural laundry soap does not contain artificial softeners, clothes may not feel as soft after washing. Also, it may not work as well with hard water.

#7 Good Natured All-Natural Eco-friendly Lavender and Eucalyptus Laundry Soda/Detergent

Good Natured’s Laundry Soda/Detergent in Lavender and Eucalyptus is an all-natural and non-toxic blend of plant-based soaps that leaves clothes clean, soft, and fresh. It is hypoallergenic and biodegradable formulated without petroleum-based detergents and artificial fragrances.

PRO: Made with plant-based, biodegradable, salt-based minerals, and fresh lavender and eucalyptus essential oils, this all-natural laundry detergent works well with both standard and HE washing machines. It thoroughly cleans your laundry and leaves it smelling fresh and natural.

CON: Product does not come with a scoop, making it tricky to measure when doing laundry loads.

# 8 Planet 2X Laundry Detergent

Planet 2x Ultra Laundry detergent is a septic safe, hypoallergenic formula.  It leaves your laundry fresh and clean without the added chemicals. Planet 2X Ultra does not contain dyes, fragrances, and brighteners. It is great to use on baby clothes and for people who have skin sensitivities.  

PRO: All of Planet 2x Ultra’s ingredients are phosphate-free, as well as free from all dyes and fragrances, making it an effective hypoallergenic choice.  Furthermore, it is effective even in cold water settings on washers.  No more need for hot water to get the stains out.

CON: Planet 2x Ultra has been known to not be as effective on laundry in areas with hard water. Some consumers have also said that the inside of the cap is a bit difficult to read due to the design.

#9 Biokleen Free & Clear Laundry Powder

Biokleen Free & Clear Laundry Powder is up to 3x concentrated, meaning it does not take very much to get your clothes clean. It is free of fragrances, dyes, and preservatives. Biokleen is eco-friendly and safer for septic systems.  

PRO: The super-concentrated formula can get you up to 150 loads in a standard washer, and up to 300 loads in an HE washer with just one 150 oz bottle. Biokleen Free & Clear is tough odors and stains, effective in cold water, and leaves your clothes free and clear from stains and odors.

CON: Although labeled as natural citrus, a number of consumers say that it doesn’t leave much of a scent on clothes.  Also, the bottle design is a little wanting because detergent drips from the spout when you use it, allowing for wastage.  Minimize the wastage by wiping the spout off with a clean cloth after each use, and then tossing the cloth into the washer.

#10 Ecover Zero Laundry Detergent

Ecover Zero Laundry Detergent is free of harsh chemicals and dyes, making it a septic-safe detergent.  It is manufactured with plant-based ingredients guaranteed effective on tough stains, even on cold water settings.

PRO: Ecover Zero’s formula is highly concentrated, so a little goes a long way.  This means that you use less of Ecover Zero than you typically would use with other laundry detergents. The ingredients, as well as the packaging itself, is made from plant-based materials.  The packaging is biodegradable, making it eco-friendly and safe.

CON: It’s a bit pricier than your average detergent, but still reasonable for any hypoallergenic formulation. It does not include any fabric enhancers that enhance the brightness of clothes.

#11 Start Fresh Super Concentrated Laundry Detergent

Start Fresh is hypoallergenic and super concentrated. Just a little goes a long way. Made with 100% biodegradable, phosphate -free, and cruelty-free ingredients. It has a color-safe, heavy-duty cleaning power that keeps your clothes looking their best.

PRO: Its hypoallergenic formula makes it great for baby clothes. It has a water-trap formula that allows for a clean rinse.

CON: Start Fresh is fragrance-free, so clothes may not be as fresh-smelling as some consumers may prefer.

#12 Heritage Park Fine Fabric Wash

Heritage Park Fine Fabric Wash is especially formulated to gently and effectively clean without causing damage to costly fabrics, especially for lingerie and delicates. Its concentrated formula works great with both standard and HE washing machines. It is the perfect blend of powerful cleaning enzymes, effective in removing tough stains, while staying gentle on garments on sensitive skin.

PRO: Its natural, fragrance-free, and hypoallergenic formulation makes Heritage Park Fine Fabric Wash gentle enough for babies and sensitive skin, but effective in its cleansing power. It has a neutral pH level and is guaranteed biodegradable.

CON: Some consumers have indicated that Heritage Park Fine Fabric Wash may have low-stain-removing power for its relatively high price point.

Cleaning Products that are Safe to Use with Septic Systems

Typically, septic systems can handle most chemical cleaning products, but in moderation. Using too much chemicals will potentially throw off the bacterial balance inside the septic tank. This happening can lead to septic problems such as clogging, groundwater pollution, and drainfield malfunction. Trouble arises when excessive amounts of the chemicals are allowed into the system. For best results, it is recommended to always use septic-safe products as indicated on the label.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assigns each potentially dangerous chemical a registration number. This indicates if the product is safe for homes and for use with septic systems. Many common household products contain these labels. Any biodegradable or environmentally-friendly product is likewise perfectly safe for use with septic systems.

All-Purpose Cleaners. Laundry detergents or any other all-purpose cleaners that can be applied without needing to use hand gloves are generally safe for use with septic systems. Natural, phosphate-free detergents and other multi-purpose cleaners are also generally safe and will not harm the helpful bacteria inside the septic tank and in the drainfield. Go with cleaners that are non-toxic, biodegradable, and chlorine-free.

Household Bleach. Products containing bleach are generally safe for use with septic systems in moderate amounts. Bleach is a chemical that kills bacteria, but when it is diluted with water (as in most household applications) it won’t be potent enough to kill all the helpful bacteria that are vital in the tank and drainfield. Whenever possible, though, it would still be best to use alternatives to bleach in order to protect the essential bacteria in the tank and drainfield. Food-grade hydrogen peroxide (3% solution) vinegar diluted in water, and baking soda are good alternatives.

Water-Based Cleaners. Most water-based cleaners are safe for septic use. Water-based cleaners do not contain harsh solvents that can harm septic system components and the essential bacterial that are naturally present. Water-based cleaners should always list water as the main ingredient on their labels.

Septic-Safe Drain Cleaners. If you use drain cleaners, note that only drain cleaners in liquid form are safe for septic systems. Solid or foaming drain cleaners should be avoided as these can damage the septic system. Although, even liquid drain cleaners may cause septic tank damage if used too frequently or excessively. Use sparingly and only when absolutely necessary.

Ammonia Cleaner. Pure ammonia and cleaning products containing ammonia are also considered safe for septic system use in small amounts. Ammonia will not kill the healthy bacteria in the septic system and it will not leach into the groundwater. But, just like any chemical, ammonia should be used in moderation. Remember, too, to take precautions and not to mix chemicals like bleach with ammonia.

Household Items. Items you typically have around the house like baking soda and vinegar are actually effective cleaners that are safe for your septic system. They can be used to deodorize, disinfect surfaces, and whiten. Vinegar and baking soda work well in the laundry and for cleaning surfaces. Use these to naturally clean your toilet, or use it to scour hard-to-clean surfaces. Still take caution as improper and excessive use of baking soda and vinegar may actually upset the necessary pH balance in your tank.

Household cleaners that are safe for septic systems and can make your life easier. Natural cleaners could be more affordable, too. Although, as with everything else, anything in excess can be more harmful than helpful.

How Septic-Unsafe Laundry Detergent Affects Your Septic System

Your choice of laundry detergents bear a big impact to the health of your septic system. To help treat the pathogens and other contaminants present in wastewater, septic tanks are filled with essential bacteria. Whether aerobic or anaerobic, bacteria both mineralize and decompose the waste in wastewater. Laundry detergents affect the population of bacteria in your septic system. Certain cleaning agents, such as bleach, non-biodegradable and antibacterial soaps can weaken or even kill off the bacteria that maintains your septic system’s health. Moreover, excessive detergent substance in a septic tank can cause clogged soil pores, which results to drainage difficulties and sewage backups. Typically, detergents in liquid form are the best option when it comes to healthy septic systems.

Certain detergent products are labeled to be septic-safe and they are almost always in liquid form. This is because liquid detergents have less of the potentially harmful ingredients that may damage septic system components. Some dry or powdered detergents use clay and sodium as fillers, which are likely culprits to system clogs.

What to Do If You’ve Been Using Non-Septic-Safe Laundry Detergent

If you suspect that you have been quite indiscriminate with your detergent use but still unsure of what to use, one of the first steps to undertake is to limit the use of anti-bacterial soaps and cleaning agents. Anti-bacterial soap, obviously, is made to kill bacteria. While this may be great for cleaning all around, too much use of anti-bacterial agents may be catastrophic for your on-site wastewater treatment system. By its very nature, anti-bacterial soaps are detrimental to the essential bacteria in any septic system. Inside the septic tank, bacteria break down solid waste, while the bacteria in the drainfield eliminates harmful pathogens, making it safe for the treated effluent to be released back into the environment. While a single use of antibacterial soap has little to no effect, using antibacterial products on a regular and prolonged basis can harm the bacteria living in your septic tank and will seriously curtail their effectivity. Thus setting off a chain of septic components’ malfunction, potentially leading to system failure.

Consult with the septic service professional that pumps out your septic tank to find out what products they recommend as suitable for septic systems. As a general reference, we have likewise come up with a list of 101 septic-safe products.

Should you ever need to use septic tank treatment products to mitigate excessive usage of septic-unsafe laundry detergents, choose a product that adds good bacteria to the septic tank. Opt for products that bear natural active bacteria and enzymes that are proven effective in breaking down household waste. Make sure that the treatment you use is compatible with the type of septic system you have. Again, your septic professional will be able to help you out with this.

You may also go totally natural and flush a packet of brewer’s dry yeast down one toilet (ideally on the ground or bottom floor) once a month. The yeast will help add “good” bacteria to your septic tank and break down waste.

Using septic-friendly cleaning products can help prevent expensive repairs and avoid serious health problems. Generally, most all-natural cleaners are safe for use with septic systems. One of the best ways to make sure that you are using septic-safe laundry soap is to reference the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) list of Safer Choice products. Also, note that non-chlorine, non-ammonia, non-antibacterial, non-toxic, and biodegradable cleaning products are better for, not just your on-site treatment facility and its occupants, but for the environment as well.

7 Best Hypoallergenic and Septic-Safe Laundry Detergents

Most of the laundry detergents you can find on the market contain artificial dyes and fragrances. These two substances are known common allergens. Chemical dyes wear down the natural protective layer of the skin. One becomes susceptible to dry, itchy skin or, worse, develop a condition known as contact dermatitis. Know that these artificial dyes serve no purpose in cleaning clothes. Extra caution needs to be taken if your household includes members that are allergy and asthma sufferers. Laundry detergents can be a source of (or a trigger for) serious skin irritations and other allergy symptoms such as stuffy nose and headache.

On the other hand, fragrances may cause respiratory problems and also trigger allergic reactions (this is especially true for allergy sufferers and small children). Again, note that fragrances are not true indications of cleanliness.

Hypoallergenic laundry detergents do not contain these allergy and asthma-inducing chemicals. They are dye-free and fragrance-free. Hypoallergenic laundry detergents are the ideal for the clothes of allergy sufferers and people with skin conditions (like psoriasis, dry skin, or eczema). The only thing better than hypoallergenic laundry detergents are hypoallergenic laundry detergents that are also safe for use with septic systems. Which is why we listed down seven of the best of such products.

Sun & Earth Natural Laundry Detergent

Sun & Earth Natural Laundry Detergent is made from 100% plant-based ingredients. So it is safe, not only for family members and pets, but for the environment, as well. Sun & Earth does not contain dyes or preservatives and is fragrance-free. It’s guaranteed safe for sensitive skin types.  

PRO: It is a powerful stain-remover, yet gentle on sensitive skin. The absence of perfumes and dyes does not, in any way, deter its cleaning abilities.

CON: Some consumers have complained that its packaging is unsatisfactory, as some have experienced leak-y packaging. Some have also noted that product is not 100% unscented as labeled.

Nellie’s All Natural Laundry Soda

Nellie’s All Natural Laundry Soda is safe on skin, yet time tough on dirt and stains. If you want your clothes feeling fresh, soft, and absolutely clean after washing, Nellie’s will be a good choice. It does not leave residues and harmful chemicals on your clothes. It does not contain fragrances, chlorine, phosphates, gluten, SLE and SLES. It comes in “powdered foam” form, promising utmost cleaning power for whites and colors. What’s important is that it is biodegradable. It also works in any water temperature in various washer settings.

PRO: Perfect for sensitive skin and baby clothes. It is safe for the environment because it is guaranteed biodegradable.

CON: The fact that it is not in liquid form, some consumers might still be unsure if this will work optimally with on-site septic systems.

Ecos Baby Laundry Detergent

Ecos Baby Hypoallergenic laundry detergent is effective in removing tough dirt stains on babies’ clothes. More importantly, it remains gentle on clothes and your baby’s sensitive skin. Its formulation is ideal for allergy sufferers, as well. It does not contain phosphates, optical brighteners, or parabens. Also, it is made without dyes and fragrances.

PRO: The product is dermatologist-tested. Made from plant-based ingredients, Ecos Baby is biodegradable, making it safe for septic systems and the environment as well. Ecos Baby is EPA Safer Choice-certified.

CON: It might not remove stains as thoroughly as you will expect. Its cleaning power isn’t as great as the non-hypoallergenic brands.

Tide PODS Free & Gentle Laundry Detergent

It is unscented and hypoallergenic, making it a perfect choice for sensitive skin. Tide PODS Free & Gentle is likewise free of dyes and perfumes, ideal for babies’ clothes and allergy sufferers.

PRO: This product is dermatologist-tested. Compatible with both standard and HE washing machines. It dissolves in both hot and cold water.

CON: It may not dissolve as effectively, at times leaving residue on clothes. Some consumers have also indicated the inconvenient packaging.

Grab Green 3-in-1 Laundry Detergent Pods

This 3 in 1 naturally-derived detergent cuts through dirt, leaving your laundry clean and fresh. It is an effective laundry detergent that’s at the same time, earth-friendly. This biodegradable laundry detergent is formulated free of phosphates, chlorine, dyes and masking agents, making it a perfect choice for babies’ clothes, sensitive skin, and allergy sufferers.

PRO: Grab Green 3-in-1 is compatible with both standard and high-efficiency (HE) washing machines. It has a mild calming scent that will last throughout the washing and drying cycle all the way to when you use your fabrics and linens.

CON: Pods don’t dissolve as effectively as detergents in liquid form.

Purex Baby Soft Liquid Laundry Detergent

Purex Baby has a light fragrance that’s just right for babies’ clothes and leaves them smelling fresh and clean. It is hypoallergenic and free of dyes.  Purex Baby Soft Liquid Laundry Detergent is dermatologist-tested and formulated to be gentle sensitive skin and allergy sufferers. 

PRO: This highly concentrated formula delivers 2X more cleaning power so you only need to use half as much than you would other detergent brands.

CON: A few consumers have expressed dislike for the product’s scent. They’ve indicated more of a chemical scent rather than “baby fresh”.

All Liquid Free & Clear Laundry Detergent

All Liquid Free & Clear is dye- and perfume-free. It is recommended by dermatologists, allergists and pediatricians for sensitive skin and babies’ clothes.  

PRO: This concentrated formula delivers 2X more cleaning power in every drop. This means that you have to use as much to fight through tough stains. Product is tough on stains yet gentle on skin.

CON: Dissatisfied customers have cited faulty or inconvenient packaging, especially the spout. It may also happen that the bottle might leak during shipping.

Using soap or detergent in excessive amounts can be problematic for your septic system. Many laundry detergents contain surfactants. While surfactants may make detergents be effective in lifting dirt off the surface of a fabric, these chemicals can likewise be serious contaminants to ground and surface water. In addition to using septic-friendly laundry detergents, do make it a habit to space out your laundry loads over a few days rather than doing one heavy load at once. Also, make sure to use normal (prescribed) amounts of detergents in your laundry loads. Remember that more detergent does not necessarily mean cleaner clothes and it could cause problems for your septic system in the long run. Allowing excessive amounts of detergent into your septic tank also means introducing more (potentially-harmful) chemicals into your entire system, which in turn is detrimental to the helpful bacteria that are naturally present in your septic system. And besides being discriminate in your use of laundry detergents, having your septic tank pumped out regularly will definitely help keep your septic system healthy and functional for a very long time.  

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Are Septic Systems Aerobic or Anaerobic?

There are two different types of septic systems, aerobic and anaerobic, in this article we explain the difference between the two.

On-site septic systems are the most common wastewater treatment in rural and suburban areas where properties do not have access to a centralized sewer system. Conventional septic systems would typically have a septic tank and a drainfield. The septic tank is where bacteria break down the organic solids in the wastewater into simpler solids and gas, rendering the wastewater (effluent) leaving the tank cleaner than when it came. The drainfield is responsible for the final filtration before it releases treated wastewater into the ground. An Aerobic Treatment System (ATS) would appear to be similar, but is, in fact, different from a conventional septic system (anaerobic). If you are wondering if your system is aerobic or anaerobic, read on as we discuss the distinction between the two types of septic systems.

Are septic systems aerobic or anaerobic? Traditionally, most septic systems in the United States have been anaerobic. More recently, though, aerobic treatment systems have emerged in popularity. Basically, the difference between aerobic and anaerobic septic systems lies in the presence (or absence) of oxygen. Conventional anaerobic systems operate in septic tanks buried underground and in the absence of oxygen. Hence, the bacterial colonies that digest wastewater must be able to thrive without oxygen. On the other hand, although most aerobic septic tanks are also buried underground, they depend on an “aerator” which injects oxygen into the tank. Aerobic treatment systems, thus function with aerobic (oxygen-loving) bacteria. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types of systems, which we will discuss further in this article.

All wastewater that goes down your drains or flushed through the toilets end up in the air-tight septic tank. In a conventional anaerobic septic system, anaerobic bacteria thrive since oxygen is not naturally present here. The anaerobic bacteria digest the solid waste matter, leaving you with effluent that is suitable for traveling to the next major septic component: the drainfield. The anaerobic breakdown is a process where anaerobic bacteria transform solid waste into renewable energy that is usually utilized for industrial wastewater with high concentrations of biodegradable organic matter. This method is energy-efficient, requires fewer chemicals, and costs less compared to other treatment systems.

In aerobic treatment systems, on the other hand, wastewater is also collected in a septic tank, but one that is fitted with an aerator. This mechanism pumps oxygen into the air-tight tank, allowing for the survival and thriving of aerobic bacteria which take care of the digestion. As the resulting effluent leaves the tank and reaches the drainfield, more oxygen-loving bacteria get to work. As the effluent trickles downward through the ground with gravity, aerobic bacteria in the soil kill off harmful pathogens in the effluent before it joins clean groundwater. This is why your soil needs to be in good condition (suitable for percolation) and with the correct pH levels. Aerobic treatment systems (ATS) include fixed-film systems, continuous flow systems, retrofit systems, and composting toilets. The main difference between an ATS and a conventional (anaerobic) septic system is that ATS produces effluent of higher quality (cleaner) and they require smaller drain fields.

Aerobic or Anaerobic: Which is Best for You?

Are you trying to decide between anaerobic or aerobic for your home or building? Let us take a closer look at their distinctions.

Aerobic (oxygen-loving) bacteria are generally regarded as more efficient for on-site wastewater treatment. It has been found that aerobic bacteria are less susceptible to household chemicals than anaerobic bacteria are. Aerobic bacteria are also better at breaking down human waste than anaerobic bacteria. However, aerobic bacterial colonies are less able to digest inorganic solids, so aerobic systems are a little more prone to clogs than their anaerobic counterparts. Aerobic bacteria also require constant aeration, so long periods of power outages can harm bacterial colonies in aerobic systems.

It is believed that anaerobic (oxygen-hating) bacteria in a standard septic tank system are more inefficient in reducing the wastewater strength. Organic pathogen levels are diminished by only 30% to 40%. Therefore, the drainfield must perform 60% to 70% of the water cleansing task. Converting your septic tank to be able to accommodate the more active aerobic (oxygen-loving) bacteria reduces the work load for your drainfield, possibly allowing it to recover in cases of malfunction or failure. This is because there is a huge variance in the ability of aerobic bacteria to break down organic matter over anaerobic bacteria. It’s been found that aerobic bacteria will generate 20 times or more energy from the same amount of organic matter than anaerobic bacteria can. Also, aerobic bacteria can reproduce and consume organic matter at a much faster rate as compared to anaerobic bacteria.

As we all know, the drainfield is a component of a septic system that’s responsible for receiving partially-treated wastewater from the septic tank and for distributing it evenly to the soil through perforated pipes for further treatment. Because aerobic bacteria are able to more treat wastewater more completely, aerobic treatment systems typically require smaller drainfields than anaerobic septic systems would. Aerobic systems are thus the more space-saving choice, and maybe the best option for properties with limited space or soil that is not optimal for drainfields.

Cost-wise, aerobic treatment systems are a bit more expensive to maintain than anaerobic septic systems. Also, because aerobic septic systems contain working mechanical parts, such as the aerator, they are more susceptible to mechanical malfunction, thus would require more frequent routine maintenance. Aerobic treatment systems require power to operate, so this adds up to the monthly electricity bill.

Another advantage of an aerobic septic treatment system is that it is typically fitted with an alarm that alerts a homeowner to any problems within the system, while anaerobic septic systems commonly do not have this feature. This is important because septic problems that go undetected can quickly escalate and major septic repairs can be very costly. Bear in mind, too, that a failed septic system may require a total replacement.

There are certain property conditions under which you might actually require an anaerobic system. First of all, for an anaerobic septic system to work, the soil must be capable of effective percolation. A septic service professional can come out and perform a percolation test on your soil to see how rapidly water is absorbed by it. If the water doesn’t filter through the soil quickly enough, a traditional anaerobic system won’t be optimal. Depending on your property’s land, an aerobic treatment system may be more efficient for you. In some cases, it might be your only option.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic: What are the Costs?

In general, installing an anaerobic septic system is simpler and therefore, less expensive. Aerobic treatment systems are a little more complex as these involve additional machinery, making it more expensive to install and maintain. Aerobic treatment systems are fairly complicated systems and have an average installation cost of $10,000 to $20,000. Meanwhile, the simpler anaerobic septic system has an average installation cost between $2,000 and $6,000.

When installing and maintaining an on-site waste treatment system, prepare for the following universal costs. Site evaluations and permits may cost you between $200 and $400. You will need to have your system inspected and pumped by a septic service provider once every three to five years (on average), which has an average cost of $200. Septic tanks themselves can cost anywhere between $500 and $2,000 depending on the size and make of the tank. Piping and other incidental materials may cost anywhere between $100 and $200.

Specifically, aerobic septic systems require aerobic bacteria so expect to spend for an air pump to aerate the septic tank to promote the population of aerobic bacteria and facilitate the breakdown of waste matter. Though total costs can vary depending on system size, soil conditions, and location, aerobic system setups tend to be more complicated (thus expensive) than their anaerobic counterparts. Aerobic treatment systems may require motor and alarm replacements periodically. Motor replacements may cost you around $500 to $600 while timers or alarms have an average cost of $100.

Anaerobic septic systems rely on anaerobic bacteria to break down waste material. Anaerobic bacteria will not require aeration and costs for such systems will vary based mainly on system size, location, and soil conditions. An anaerobic septic system comes with an average cost of $2,000 to $5,000. However, areas with higher labor rates and equipment/material costs may cause prices to rise anywhere between $4,000 and $15,000.

Finally, finding the right septic service professional to install and maintain your aerobic or anaerobic septic system will, of course, add to overall costs. Remember, though: this is NOT an area to cut corners on. Everything needs to be done right.

Converting from Anaerobic to Aerobic

Basically, a conventional anaerobic septic system is a lot simpler than an aerobic treatment system. A conventional (anaerobic) septic system usually consists of a single septic tank that could be divided into multiple chambers. Aside from regular pumping, there is no high-level operational requirements for an anaerobic septic system. An aerobic treatment system likewise mainly consists of a single tank that is divided into multiple chambers, but the main difference is that an aerobic treatment system requires a method for introducing oxygen into the wastewater. This means additional equipment are needed such as mixers, air compressors, and media that make electrical power and additional maintenance necessary to function. If you are planning to convert your septic system from a conventional anaerobic to aerobic, you have two possible options in doing so:

Option 1: Additional Equipment. There are mechanisms available that can be installed in a septic tank to convert it to an aerobic treatment process. These would typically consist of an air compressor, some tubing, and a diffuser. By introducing air into an otherwise dormant tank, however, the solid waste matter that would normally be settling to the bottom would now be swirling around the tank. This will require a settling compartment right below the compartment that receives the aeration. If you have a septic tank with multiple chambers, add air to the first compartment and use the second chamber for settling. Keeping a single chamber septic tank despite aeration will likely cause too many solid waste matter to pass out of the tank and travel to the drainfield where clogs can develop. It is also recommended to add beneficial microbes once the aeration system is installed. By adding the microbes, you are somewhat “jump-starting” the population of aerobic bacteria which will treat the wastewater in your aerated system.

Option 2: Total Replacement. Replacing your conventional septic tank system with an aerobic treatment system is, expectedly, the most expensive route. Though, it will be most effective, take note. By replacing the entire system, you can be sure to get a septic tank that’s specifically designed for aerobic treatment. You can also opt for additional components that enhance the quality of the water going in and out of the treatment system based on your property’s requirements.

Should you decide to make the conversion, keep in mind that this DOES NOT address the drainfield and any drainfield issues there may be. If you have a clogged or damaged drainfield, it will have to be addressed separately. In other words, simply converting from conventional anaerobic to aerobic treatment will not fix a failing drainfield.

Both anaerobic and aerobic septic systems are vital for breaking down waste in wastewater treatment and disposal. The important thing to consider would be the different types of microbes at work between these two septic system types. Since aerobic and anaerobic bacteria do so much in the whole process, it’s essential that you do all you can to ensure that these microorganisms thrive, regardless of the type of wastewater treatment system it is you have. Natural, biodegradable, and septic-safe products are always most recommended while avoiding the use of anti-bacterial agents, bleach, ammonia and other harsh chemicals because these can kill the good bacteria in your septic system.

Are Septic Systems Environmentally-Friendly?

Not everybody might realize this, but an on-site, dedicated septic system is actually a very environmentally-friendly option for wastewater treatment and disposal. It is quite easy to understand why so many people do not recognize the environmental benefits of a dedicated septic system. After all, the septic system is not something most property owners really think about. As long as wastewater is disposed of, whether via a centralized sewer system or on-site septic, without any negative impact on their immediate surroundings, one can simply assume that all is well. What we should all understand, though, is that both sewer systems and septic systems bear an impact on the environment.

Are septic systems environmentally-friendly? On-site, dedicated septic systems rely on a completely natural process when treating and disposing of wastewater, unlike some commercial waste treatment facilities, that use synthetic and potentially hazardous chemicals in the process. The wastewater generated in every household or business facility operating on a septic system is digested by healthy bacteria, rendering it free from pathogens and other contaminants, before it is released back to the environment. These helpful bacteria that break down the waste matter occur naturally in the environment, allowing your septic system to function as intended and keeping the community safe. No matter how much or how little you think about septic systems, the reality is that they have a number of significant environmental benefits. Here, we will discuss just some of the advantages of having your own on-site septic system that impacts both you and your community.

One of the reasons why proper waste disposal is so crucial is that domestic waste can present a disease risk to the community as a whole. Serious illnesses are spread through contaminated water and soil, and a well-functioning septic system can actually prevent this, protecting the environment and everyone in the community. Of course, the level of protection relies on the maintenance practices applied to each septic system and the quality of its components. This is why regular inspections are so crucial.

When properly situated and adequately maintained on a regular basis, septic systems are an excellent waste management option. However, when neglected, a failing septic system can cause contamination of surface and groundwater resources, leading to public health and pollution hazards. It is recommended that a septic system be submitted for an inspection once every 3 to 5 years, which is similarly a good schedule for regular pump-outs. Although, the actual frequency of pumping and inspection depend on several factors such as the tank’s age and size, number of occupants at the site, average water consumption, and others. It is best to contact a professional septic service provider to help you determine the optimal schedule for your particular on-site system.

Are Septic Systems Better than Sewer Systems When it Comes to The Environment?

Dedicated on-site septic and centralized municipal sewer systems work in similar ways. That is, utilizing beneficial microorganisms (bacteria) to filter out microbes, viruses, and other disease-causing pathogens and contaminants before releasing the safe water back into the environment.

When it comes to the sewer vs. septic system debate, the objective truth is that both systems have their pros and cons. A septic system re-cycles treated wastewater back to the area where the water was taken, recharging the water table. A municipal sewer system’s treatment plant will usually just dump treated wastewater into a river, lake, or ocean. For this reason, shorelines and coastlines near sewage treatment plants have seen upward spikes of waste matter levels, in the last 15 years alone.

Modern septic systems are far more cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly than sewage treatment systems. For installation, a septic tank can cost between $4,000 and $6,000. If it is to be installed in a less-than-ideal area, like near a water source, it may cost between $10,000 and $15,000. But with proper maintenance and regular inspections, these septic tanks can last almost indefinitely. With a centralized sewer system, on the other hand, you can expect to pay $10,000 for the piping to your house or building alone, not yet counting the fees, plant costs, permits and other charges which can tally up to as much as $30,000 just to connect to the sewer system. There will also be monthly charges ranging from $25 to $75, depending on usage.

A major advantage of a municipal sewage treatment plant is that it is run by trained personnel. In septic systems, on the other hand, the responsibility for proper installation and maintenance rest squarely on the property owner. Therefore, septic systems may not always be monitored as systematically as a municipal plant would be, potentially causing problems down the line. Septic tank systems can be beneficial to the environment only if operated and cared for properly.

Now, if either system fails, they will both require time to recover. During which, raw wastewater will still need to be disposed of. If a septic system fails, a large area will be exposed to this wastewater; but if a municipal treatment plant fails, everyone will be affected.

The real question is this: which is better for the environment, sewers or septic systems?

The easy answer is that both systems are as hygienic and sanitary as can be expected when the subject is wastewater treatment. But in either system, things can go awry, leaving humans, animals, and the environment at risk. First of all, neither system can truly handle non-biodegradable and synthetic substances that careless usage allows into drains and toilets. This includes grease, hair, female hygiene products, diapers, and hazardous chemicals. Both systems are susceptible to clogging from such items, which also have the potential to damage water tables. Also, excessive rains and flooding can overrun both types of treatment systems. The more moveable/mechanical parts there are (such as pumps), the more vulnerable to the damage they are.

The bottom line is that both sanitation systems are configured to do the job – as long as the systems are properly maintained. If you have a septic system on your property, the critical thing to remember is to regularly have the sludge and scum accumulation removed every 3 to 5 years, or as recommended by your septic service provider. Watch what you allow down your drains and toilets, too. And finally, practice conservative water usage. Observe these three basic rules and you, your family, and the environment should do just fine.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Septic System

In general, most people seem to prefer to be on a shared sewer system if the option is available (not all areas have access). This is mainly because of the responsibility of keeping the system functional and healthy falls on the local government. Furthermore, wastewater is hauled away to a centralized treatment facility in a shared sewer system. Anybody who has ever experienced a sewage back-up or flooding on their property can truly appreciate this particular advantage of off-site wastewater treatment.

Another advantage to a shared sewer is that such full-scale systems are usually built to withstand heavy waste loads and can better accommodate periods of heavy precipitation or storm surges that might overwhelm smaller, poorly-installed or maintained dedicated septic systems. Septic systems, being on-site, would typically be significantly smaller, thus more prone to overflowing and sending contaminants to nearby surface and ground waters.

Septic systems do have their advocates, though, who firmly believe that a professionally-designed, installed and maintained septic system should be able to withstand even the biggest storms. All it takes to guarantee effective wastewater treatment is to have a skilled professional examine and confirm the presence of adequate, unsaturated, and suitable soil conditions beneath the soil treatment area in order to allow for effective wastewater percolation.

When septic systems are not properly taken care of by property owners, though, they can become a huge nuisance for the surrounding ecosystem. Inadequately-treated wastewater from a poorly-maintained septic system can contaminate surface and groundwater and expose the public to serious health risks. According to experts, improperly-treated sewage can be the main culprit behind the spread of hepatitis, dysentery, and other diseases from drinking water contaminated with pathogens, while likewise compromising natural water bodies like lakes and streams. Additionally, flies and mosquitoes that are drawn to and breed in wet areas where sewage pools on the surface can also spread infectious diseases.

5 Ways to Make Your Septic Systems More Environmentally-Friendly

People are now more conscious about “going green”; striving to be more eco-friendly wherever possible. If your property relies on a septic system, there are ways of caring for your system, keeping it functional while staying kind to the environment. 

  1. Avoid Harsh Chemicals. As much as possible, avoid using bleach or drain cleaners with harsh chemicals when cleaning your drains and toilets. These chemicals are harmful to the natural bacteria in your septic system, deterring them from properly digesting solid waste. Aside from the harm they can inflict on your system, harsh chemicals are detrimental to the environment, especially if they seep into the groundwater. In order to maintain a healthy septic system and a balanced environment, use septic-safe and eco-friendly drain cleaners and cleaning products.
  2. Watch What You Flush. Waste, water, and (biodegradable) toilet paper should be the only things flushed down your toilet. Other substances that are non-biodegradable will be difficult to break down, potentially causing clogs and damage to your septic system. Non-biodegradable materials can likewise be harmful to the environment. Septic-safe and biodegradable products are the only two things finding their way into your septic.
  3. Disconnect Your Garbage Disposal from Your Septic System. Garbage disposal units can be quite useful, but if you are on an on-site system, the high volume of food scraps (and who knows what else are thrown on there) can be damaging to your septic system, causing clogs and other issues. Instead of using a garbage disposal unit, opt for a more environmentally-friendly disposal method, such as composting.
  4. Observe Conservative Water Usage. Excessive water consumption can overwork your septic system, leading to damage and possibly reducing its lifespan. Some tips include spacing out your laundry and dishwashing loads (several lighter loads over days instead of voluminous loads at one go), diverting tub, pool, and surface run-off away from your septic, and installing low-flow or water-efficient fixtures Water conservation can be very helpful to the environment, especially in areas prone to water shortages. 
  5. Adhere to Regular System Maintenance. Regular maintenance is the best way to avoid damage to, as well as prolong the life of your system. This way, you can arrest minor issues before they escalate into bigger, more costly problems. Additionally, regular maintenance will help prevent leaking or overflowing septic tank, which can cause contamination of groundwater. Find out signs of a full septic system here.

Now that environmental pollution is at a critical level and has become a serious global concern, eco-friendly and sustainable options should always be considered first. For some of us, we fortunately now have the freedom to choose environmentally-friendly sewage treatment options. If you have not already done so, now is the time to schedule your next septic system inspection. Having your septic system, regularly inspected and maintained will certainly go a long way in preventing unexpected and unfortunate failures that can compromise you, your family, and your environment.

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Why is Your Toilet Gurgling on a Septic System?

You may be a part of the 20% of Americans that rely on an on-site septic system to dispose of your sewage. In a properly functioning septic system, your drains clear wastewater at a speed of about one gallon every 30 seconds. The “silence” of the entire process is something we easily take for granted. That is until we experience what could be increasingly persistent gurgling sounds with every flush or draining of water.

You might notice that your toilet gives out a gurgling sound during flushing, or sometimes, at random times. The gurgling sounds are basically gas bubbles being released from collected water and this is a certain sign that there is a problem somewhere. Diagnosing the actual issue may take a bit of detective work, but gurgling sounds from your plumbing, definitely, should not be ignored.  

Why is your toilet gurgling on a septic system? The simplest (and least worrisome) diagnosis is that the plumbing drain directly underneath your gurgling toilet, or within close proximity of it, is clogged. This causes slow drainage and gurgling in all fixtures connected to that drain. When a toilet gurgles, it is an indication that negative air pressure (suction) is building up in the drain line, creating an air-lock. This is often caused by non-septic-friendly items being flushed down the toilets (such as disposable diapers, sanitary pads, cigarette butts, and other non-biodegradable matter). A worse possibility is that your septic tank is full, preventing or interfering with the flow of greywater from the tank and into your drainfield. Here, we will discuss the details of what causes your toilet to gurgle and what you can do about it.

If a minor plumbing blockage is a culprit behind the gurgling sounds coming from your toilet, your drains may appear to otherwise be working properly. Although, you may be noticing a sluggishness in how quickly your sinks and toilets drain. This is especially noticeable on days when there are surges in water output (like laundry days or when you have additional guests). More often than not, these clogs require snaking or jetting to remove the blockages. 

The first thing to do, if you wish to investigate where the gurgling is coming from, is to seal off the drains in nearby sinks, showers, and tubs and then use a plunger on your toilet. If the cause of the gurgling is in the drainpipe, simply using a plunger on the toilet could create sufficient pressure to dislodge a light-to-moderate blockage. Bathroom fixtures (bathtubs, sinks, showers) typically connect to the same drain line (or the line that runs from the toilet) this is why, before plunging, you’ll want to seal off these other drains. Duct tape will do. If you plunge without sealing these other drains, the pressure from the plunging can escape through these other drain fixtures, instead of dislodging a blockage. With the toilet bowl full of water, fit the head of the plunger tightly to the drain hole in the base of the bowl. Try to dislodge the clog with 10 to 15 firm pumping motions. Then wait to see if the toilet gurgles again. If so, you will certainly need to investigate further into your septic system.

How to Fix a Gurgling Toilet

As one of the most-utilized fixture in the house, a fully-functioning toilet should be a top priority. Fortunately, you can diagnose the cause of bubbling and gurgling sounds coming from a toilet (as there are several possible causes), but if the longer you leave it unresolved, the problem could get worse. Such sounds can come from the water line or the toilet itself, depending on the actual cause. As you undertake to fix one or several of such toilet problems, expect to need locking jaw pliers or vice grips, a wrench, and a screwdriver, at the least.

A clogged toilet bubbles and gurgles when it flushes. The easiest way to fix a clog is to use a plunger. The pumping action creates suction through the toilet trap that moves the blockage up and down to loosen it. Sometimes the force is enough to remove the clog. It is also possible that the vent is clogged from backed-up sewer solids. In this case, use a plumber’s snake to access the blockage through the toilet vent up on your roof. Plumber’s snakes are available at your local hardware or home improvement store. You could also rent a powered model from a home rental yard.

The air within the plumbing lines cause sounds in the toilet as it fills. The air causes the water fill line to spurt and spit, resulting in bubbling and gurgling in the toilet. To remove air from your water lines, turn on all the faucets in the house until the water starts flowing smoothly. Allow the water to run until the spitting and spurting subsides, and then shut all the faucets off. If the problem persists in your water lines, inspect for a plumbing leak elsewhere in the facility.

The build-up of sediment in the toilet tank due to iron, calcium or magnesium in your water can cause the tank’s equipment or water lines to get clogged. If hard water scale forms at inlets to the tank, this could cause the water to spurt, gurgle, and bubble as the tank is filling up. If you notice a red-orange fur-like formation on the inside of your toilet tank, replace water inlet lines from the facility to the tank. You may use a scrub brush and a little amount of bleach to break down the iron bacteria buildup in your toilet tank.

If in spite of these DIY remedies, the gurgling persists, you are best advised to call on your trusted septic service provider for assistance. It is possible that the problem lies further into your septic system.

Why a Full Septic Tank Causes Gurgling in Your Plumbing

The most common reason for gurgling toilets and drains operating on an on-site septic system is that it, at the very least, is due for routine servicing. A full septic tank deters your septic system from properly functioning by interfering with the flow of greywater from the tank and into the drainfield. A full septic tank will not drain properly because sewer lines are blocked and wastewater is unable to flow out as it should. An over-full septic tank may eventually lead to catastrophic septic system failure, including ruining your drainfield and causing sewage to back up through the plumbing and into your home or building.

A septic tank, if left un-pumped for a long period of time, fills up with septic sludge and/or septic scum. The wastewater that comes from your home or facility carries with it solid waste matter. The heavier solids sink down to the bottom and form the sludge layer. Meanwhile, lighter solids (such as fat, oil, and grease) float to the top, forming the scum layer. What’s left is a relatively clearer middle layer of liquid, called effluent, and this fluid is what should leave the tank and travel to the drainfield. The excessive accumulation of sludge and scum will leave little room for effluent, eventually causing it to leave the septic tank prematurely.

That is, with more solid waste matter content, as it had less time to separate. This results in a build-up of solid waste matter ending up in your drainfield. This is where the “catastrophic septic system failure” earlier described begins. Scum and sludge in your drainfield will clog your soil, leading to sewage back-ups and pooling in your property’s surface.

There are four major factors that affect the rate at which your septic tank fills up:

  • Septic tank size
  • The number of occupants in the home or building
  • Water usage
  • The volume of solid wastes in the wastewater

A skilled and licensed septic inspection professional should be able to determine whether or not your tank needs to be pumped. Also, by analyzing all of these factors specific to your property, your contractor should be able to tell you the frequency of regular pumping that your septic tank will require.  

Troubleshooting Septic Tank Problems

Let’s now take a more detailed look at the three most common septic tank issues and the best way to manage them.

Sludge build-up. The buildup of sludge in your septic tank is almost always the result of poor maintenance practices. It is vital that everyone in the household or facility watch what has flushed down toilets; it can be incredibly easy for solid waste matter to accumulate in a septic tank to the point where it can no longer hold anything else. In order to best avoid the need for septic tank repair, the septic tank should be inspected and pumped-out by a septic service professional on a regular schedule – typically every three to five years.

Broken drain lines or broken septic tank baffle. Broken lines require the assistance of licensed septic professional with the right equipment. They’ll need to perform a video inspection to locate and confirm the damage, whether it lies in drain lines or other components. Broken septic tank baffles (usually as a result of sulfuric acid or rust build-up) are an early sign that your concrete or steel septic tank is failing. Consider having the entire tank replaced with a more modern fiberglass septic tank. The good news is, your drainfield may still be fine.

Tree root pervasion.  Tree roots are particularly drawn towards the area of septic fields and tanks and they can cause curtailed functionality or even complete breakdown. This is why it is important to maintain a distance clearing between trees or large shrubs and your septic areas. Simply cutting off the invading roots won’t work as these will simply recover. Your best bet is to hire a septic professional who understands how to treat the problem in the most effective way. Additionally, since roots in drain fields are treated differently, they’ll have the knowledge and experience to handle the problem permanently.

Fortunately, if you observe proper and regular septic system maintenance practices, it is relatively simple to prevent these disastrous and costly events from ever happening. If you follow a periodic schedule for septic service and inspection, you greatly reduce the odds of having to deal with a flooded (and foul-smelling) yard, overflowing toilets, backed-up drains, etc. Remember, the more you can avoid septic tank repairs, the better! If despite your best DIY efforts, your toilet gurgling persists, it is best to call in the professionals. Professional plumbers or septic system contractors are skilled, not to mention have specialized equipment, such as mini-cameras that drop in to vent stacks and powerful sewer augers that can chop right through tree roots. There’s also a slight possibility that the main sewer line in your property has come broken or has collapsed, requiring excavation and professional repairs. Though, we cannot say this enough: It is always better to prevent the repairs with best maintenance practices.

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Sources Used In This Toilet Gurgling Article

How Your Septic System Works (Complete with Diagrams)

Septic systems are dedicated on-site wastewater treatment structures, typically relied on by properties situated in rural areas with no centralized sewer system access available. These systems use a combination of nature and reliable technology to treat wastewater from the household’s or building’s plumbing coming from its bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry. Simple yet effective, these tank-and-soil absorption systems remove solid matter from wastewater and send the treated wastewater into the ground, where filtration, helpful microbial activity, and time all work together to render clean water safe for release to the environment.

In a nutshell, a conventional septic system consists of a septic tank and a septic drainfield (also known as a leach field or soil absorption field). It is in the septic tank where the separation of solid and liquid wastes present in wastewater happens. Heavier solid waste settles to the bottom of the tank as sludge and the lighter waste (like grease, fat, etc.) float to the top to form the scum layer. It is also in the tank where primary digestion of organic matter is effected. The relatively clearer middle layer, referred to as effluent, is then discharged from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in the connected drainfield, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the treated effluent into the soil. Here, we will discuss the finer details of how your septic system works.

All wastewater runs out of your house or facility through one main drainage pipe connected to your septic tank.

Illustration 1. Sewer Pipe

The septic tank is a water-tight container usually made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene typically buried underground. Its function is to store the wastewater long enough to allow solid wastes to settle down to the base of the tank (sludge layer) and lighter wastes, like oil and grease, float to the top (scum layer).
A T-shaped outlet prevents the sludge and scum from exiting the tank and traveling into the drainfield.

how septic system works – diagram 1

Illustration 2. Inside the Septic Tank

The middle liquid layer (effluent) then exits the tank and into the drainfield.

The drainfield is a shallow (covered) excavation ideally in unsaturated soil. The pretreated effluent is discharged through a series of perforated pipes onto porous surfaces that allow the effluent to filter through the soil. The soil receives, treats, and disperses this further-treated wastewater as it percolates through it, naturally removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens, before finally discharging to groundwater. Below is an overview of a simple drainfield:

depiction of the inside of a septic tank

Illustration 3. Drainfield

If a drainfield is overloaded with excessive liquid (from rainwater or surface run-off), it can flood, causing sewage to flow to your ground’s surface and/or sewage back-ups in your toilets, sinks, or drains.

Putting it all together, below is a simple diagram of a typical domestic septic system:

common septic system design image

Illustration 4. Overview of a Typical Septic System

The Septic Tank: A Closer Look

Made of concrete, plastic, fiberglass, or steel, septic tanks are the first and most important component in a septic system’s treatment process. It is fitted with two main pipes (as inlet and outlet). The inlet pipe is basically the tank’s connection to the house or building it serves. Wastewater comes into the septic tank through the main sewer pipe from the home or facility, as shown in Illustration 1.

To reiterate, water and waste from every toilet and drain in your home or building make their way into your septic tank, where it remains long enough for a crucial process to be completed. The collected wastewater inside the septic tank needs to undergo the separation of solid and liquid wastes. There are three (3) resulting layers: the top layer is composed of oil, fat, and grease that float above all the waste. These form the scum layer. The bottom layer is made up of heavier solid matter that sinks down to form the sludge layer. The middle layer that’s left after the settling and floating have happened is a relatively clearer layer of liquid waste with few waste particles remaining. This layer is known as the effluent. Ideally, it is only this middle layer that leaves your septic tank to travel onto your drainfield. Refer back to Illustration 2 for the cross-section of a septic tank.

drainfield diagram

Inside the tank, helpful bacteria digest the solid waste. These bacteria decompose the solid organic matter rapidly, allowing the liquid parts to separate and drain away more efficiently. Most modern septic tanks utilize multiple chambers and baffles to maximize the wastewater’s holding time inside the tank. This allows more time for the solid waste to separate from the liquid and for the bacteria to digest it. This is important as this limits the amount of solid waste that ends up in the drainfield. Accumulation of solids in the drainfield can lead to clogs and, eventually, system failure. Incoming waste is directed downward in the tank, minimizing disruption to the rest of the tank’s contents. A wall baffle between chambers helps keep most of the sludge out of the final chamber, the contents of which are first to leave the tank for the drainfield. Below is a simple diagram of a multi-chamber septic tank.

Illustration 5. Multi-chamber septic tank

Septic tanks need to be subjected to regular pumping to empty it of all the sludge and scum that have accumulated. If not, the potential problems this brings are numerous, disgusting, and can be fatal for your entire system. How often you need to have your tank pumped is unique as there are several variables that contribute to the required frequency. For instance, the general average for septic tank pumping is once every 3 to 5 years. However, smaller tanks would likely need to be cleaned once every 1 to 2 years, as the smaller size means it will fill up faster. If a septic tank is left without regular pumping, toxins and possibly, anti-bacterial substances may start to form, killing the helpful bacteria needed in the digestion of waste. Interference in normal bacterial activities in one’s septic tank is one of the causes of system failure as excessive solid waste build-up cause blockages, potentially leading to overflowing in the system. It is always best to have a trusted septic service professional do annual inspections of your septic tank and other system components in order to determine when the next pumping should be and, more importantly, to gauge the overall health of your septic system.

Every responsible property owner would know to follow a strict septic tank maintenance routine to protect the system against clogging and failure. Most septic tanks need to be pumped every 3 to 5 years, on average. The actual frequency will depend on the system’s tank size, the number of solid wastes allowed into it, and the overall usage habits of the users. The only way to be certain of how frequently a particular septic tank needs to be pumped is to have it submitted to inspection annually. Measuring the sludge and scum layers’ thickness determines when pumping is required. Whenever the bottom of the scum layer is within 3 inches of the bottom of the outlet baffle or if the top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the bottom of the outlet fitting, then you know that your septic tank needs to be pumped out.

If you cannot remember when your septic tank was last pumped, this could be your first sign to expect a system problem sooner than you think. Neglecting to have a septic tank pumped over a long time slows down the decomposition process, leading to blockage and sewage overflow. Over time, excrement, food, and other solid wastes build-up, and if left to accumulate, the septic system could give up and back up completely.

It is not always easy to detect when a septic system is in trouble. A septic system’s lifespan can last through several decades or just a year or two. Rather than sitting around and waiting for your septic system to reach its demise, it is simply good sense to act upon the first signs of malfunction. Better yet, having your septic tank regularly cleaned out every 3 to 5 years and having it inspected periodically will certainly optimize your entire system’s life.

The Drainfield: A Closer Look

As wastewater from your home or building enters your septic tank, it displaces the wastewater that’s already in there. The “older” wastewater flows out of the septic tank and into your drainfield – a septic system’s second major component. The drainfield is made up of a series of gravel-filled trenches and perforated pipes buried underground. A typical drainfield pipe is about 4 inches in diameter and is buried in a trench that is typically 4 to 6 feet in depth and a width of 2. Gravel fills the bottom 2 to 3 feet of a trench while dirt covers the layer of gravel. Once displaced by fresh waste, the effluent from the tank makes its way into these perforated pipes, either by gravity or with the aid of a mechanical pump. Distribution boxes can help distribute the effluent about the drainfield. In the ground of the drainfield, the bacterial population is crucial, just as it is in your septic tank. As the pre-treated effluent trickles out of the perforated pipes, through the gravel, and into the soil, beneficial bacteria (and some other organisms) in the ground digest the pathogens present, leaving clean water to trickle further down and into groundwater reservoirs.

You may have heard the expression, “grass is always greener over the septic tank.” Actually, this is more accurate for the drainfield where the grass really is greener due to the presence of moisture and nutrients in the area. In a healthy and properly-functioning septic system, all the bacteria that are required to process waste is naturally present. Bacteria that aid our own physiological digestion travel with waste into the septic tank, where they feed and thrive. With each flush of solid waste, new colonies are added.

The real bottom line is that bacteria are what make septic systems work. Beneficial bacteria break down waste, removing harmful pathogens in the process, leaving the water clean enough to safely filter down to the ground. These helpful bacteria are present in the septic tank but do most of the “hard labor” in the drainfield.

A septic system is typically powered by gravity. Wastewater flows down from the facility to the septic tank and then down to the drainfield. This is what’s referred to a completely passive system. The size of a drainfield is determined by the soil conditions in your property, i.e. how well the ground absorbs water. In locations where the ground consists of hard clay that absorbs water very slowly, you will need a much bigger drainfield.

Types of Septic Systems

Septic system size and design can vary widely across properties due to a combination of factors. These factors include the size of the household, lot size, soil conditions, site slope, proximity to water formations, weather conditions, and even local regulations. Below are just some of the most common types of septic systems utilized across the country.

Conventional System. Conventional Septic Systems are, basically, individually-serving, on-site wastewater treatment units opted by properties that are not connected to centralized municipal sewer systems. Conventional systems consist of a septic tank and a trench or bed sub-surface wastewater infiltration system: the drainfield (or leach field). These systems are typically installed in properties with a single-family home or small business facility. In this system, a watertight tank buried beneath the ground receives and partially treats raw wastewater. Heavy solids settle to the bottom of the tank while greases and lighter solids float to the top. The solids stay in the tank while the wastewater is discharged to the drainfield for further treatment and dispersal.

In a gravel/stone-design drainfield, effluent is piped from the septic tank to a shallow underground trench of stone or gravel. A geo-fabric (or similar) material is placed above the trench so sand, dirt, and other contaminants do not enter the clean stone. The effluent percolates through the stone, undergoing further treatment by microbes before it reaches the soil beneath the gravel/stone trench. Gravel/stone-design drain fields are relatively larger and thus may not be suitable for all residential sites or conditions.

Chamber System. Gravel-less drain fields have been widely used for over 30 years in many states, becoming a conventional septic system technology replacing gravel systems. These systems can be manufactured with recycled materials and offer a significant reduction in one’s carbon footprint. An example of a gravel-less system is the chamber system. A chamber system serves as an alternative design to the conventional gravel/stone system. The primary advantage of a chamber system is its ease of delivery and construction. These systems are likewise ideal for areas with high groundwater tables, where the volume of wastewater that enters the septic system is highly variable (such as vacation homes or seasonal lodges), where gravel is scarce, or in areas where other technologies such as plastic chambers are available. A chamber system consists of a series of connected chambers with the areas around and above these chambers are filled with soil. Wastewater travels from the septic tank to these chambers where the wastewater comes into contact with the soil. Microbes on or near the soil treat this received effluent.

Drip Distribution System. The drip distribution system is a type of effluent dispersal system that is compatible to many drainfield types. The main advantage of this type of system is that it does not require a large mound of soil because the drip laterals are inserted into the top 6 to 12 inches of soil. The disadvantage of the drip distribution system, though, is that it requires a large dose tank after the septic tank in order to accommodate the timed dose delivery of wastewater to the drip absorption area. Other additional components, such as electrical power, are necessary to operate a drip distribution system, thus tallying up to added expense and additional maintenance requirements.

Aerobic Treatment Unit. Aerobic Treatment Units (or ATUs) use many of the same processes as a centralized municipal sewer system but on a smaller scale. An aerobic system pumps oxygen into the treatment tank, increasing the natural bacterial activity within the system that is crucial for the treatment of the nutrients in the effluent. It is common for aerobic systems to have multiple tanks (such as a pre-treatment tank and a final treatment tank) where further disinfection occurs, reducing pathogen levels in the effluent. The advantages of ATUs include suitability to homes or properties with smaller lots, inadequate soil conditions, and to areas with very high water tables and those that are close to a surface water body that could be sensitive to contamination with nutrients from wastewater effluent. ATUs require regular lifetime maintenance. 

Mound Systems. In areas with shallow soil depths, high groundwater, or thin bedrocks, a mound system is an option. In this system, a constructed sand mound encloses a drainfield trench. Effluent from the septic tank flows to a pump chamber where it is pumped to the mound in measured doses. The treatment of the effluent occurs as it is discharged to the trench and filters through the sand, before it disperses into the soil. While mound systems can be a viable alternative for particular soil conditions, these systems require a substantial amount of space and periodic maintenance. 

Recirculating Sand Filter Systems. In this system, effluent flows from the septic tank to a pump chamber. It is then pumped to the sand filter. The sand filter is typically a PVC-lined or a concrete box filled with sand. Effluent is pumped under low pressures through the pipes at the top of the filtering system. Treatment happens as effluent leaves the pipes as it filters through the sand. Afterwards, the treated wastewater is discharged to the drainfield. Sand filter systems can either be constructed above or below the ground. Sand filter systems provide a high level of treatment for nutrients and are ideal for locations with high water tables or those that are close to water formations, though these systems are commonly more expensive than a conventional septic system.

Evapo-transpiration Systems. Evapotranspiration systems require unique drainfields. The bottom of an evapo-transpiration system drainfield is lined with a water-tight material. After the effluent arrives at the drainfield, it evaporates into the air. Unlike with other septic system designs, the effluent never filters to the soil and never reaches groundwater in evapo-transpiration systems. Although, note that evapo-transpiration systems are only useful in particular environmental conditions. Evapo-transpiration systems require arid climates with adequate heat and sunlight. These systems are optimal in shallow soil. This, however, makes these systems susceptible to failure in the event of heavy rains or snow. 

Constructed Wetland System. A constructed wetland system simulates the treatment processes that occur in natural wetlands, hence the name. Effluent flows from the septic tank and enters a wetland cell. The effluent then passes through the filtration media and is treated by microbes, plants, and other matter that remove pathogens and nutrients. The wetland cell typically includes an impermeable liner, gravel and sand fill, along with the applicable wetland plants, which must be able to survive in perpetually-saturated environments. A constructed wetland system can work with either gravity flow or with pressure distribution. As effluent flows through the wetland, it may exit the wetland and flow into a drainfield for further wastewater treatment through the soil.

Cluster or Community Systems. These are decentralized wastewater treatment systems under some form of common ownership. A cluster or community system collects wastewater from two or more facilities and conveys it to a treatment and dispersal system situated near the facilities it serves. In other words, it is similar to a centralized municipal sewer system, but in a much smaller scale. These systems are common in rural subdivisions or similar remote areas.

In summary, the latter alternative septic systems work with the aid of pumps or gravity to allow effluent coming from septic tanks to trickle through sand, organic matter (such as peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative septic systems are designed to allow the evaporation of wastewater or some form or disinfection treatment it before it is discharged to the soil.

Septic System Care

When a septic system is operating smoothly, it could be easy to neglect it. But every responsible property owner living with a septic system knows that it requires stringent monitoring and maintenance on regular intervals. Aside from having a trusted septic service provider on contract to handle the “dirty work”, a property owner’s primary responsibilities are to enforce the maintenance schedules and to be aware of and observe proper usage practices that can help preserve its functionality and extend the system’s lifespan.

One of the first things to ingrain into every property occupant’s usage habits is to remember that “the toilet is not the trash”. Water, human waste, and toilet paper (biodegradable and septic-friendly, please) are the only things that should be flushed down every toilet. Anything else, and you run the risk of clogged drains, sewage back-ups, a damaged septic tank, and worst of all, a failing drainfield.

Because septic systems treat wastewater on-site (rather than transporting it to full-scale, specialized facilities), conservative water usage becomes crucial. Always remember that the septic tank can only hold so much and, similarly, your drainfield is static (size-wise). Excessive water consumption may overfill the septic tank, diminishing the time allowed for sewage to separate the solid wastes before it leaves for the drainfield. This can then result to high amounts of solid waste entering the drainfield, leading to clogs and, soon enough, failure. To cut down on water consumption, install as many water-efficient or low-flow fixtures as possible, and space out laundry and dishwasher loads over a few days. Most importantly, find and fix every leak in your plumbing.

Relatedly, make sure that discharges from pools or hot tubs and rain gutter downspouts are diverted away from both the septic tank and the drainfield to prevent flooding in both components.

Septic systems are generally robust and resilient, but only to a certain point. Careless usage that leads to a constant influx of hair, food scraps, FOG (fats, oils, and grease) and harsh chemicals potentially leads to damage and system failure. The basic rule of thumb to adhere to should be easy enough to remember: nothing non-biodegradable should ever find their way into your septic tank. Install strainers, screens, or filters over your drains. Lint and grease traps, too, for your dish and laundry washers and dryers. These simple, inexpensive things are most useful in keeping coffee grounds, food scraps hair, FOG, and lint out of the tank. A build-up of non-biodegradable and synthetic substances in your septic tank can present problems for the entire system, leading to clogs and potential system failure.

Septic system trouble becomes a real possibility when excessive amounts of non-biodegradable matter and synthetic chemicals are allowed into your system. Whatever you pour or let down any drain affects the health and longevity of your system. Synthetic and harsh chemicals can actually eat away at the good bacteria in your drains and in the rest of your septic tank system. The absence of this helpful bacteria (that digest and break down waste matter) in your septic system will likely cause clogs, sewage back-ups, foul odor, and a number of other expensive septic problems. Make it a point to use only septic-safe products (always check the label). Remember that biodegradable or environmentally-friendly products are likewise perfectly safe for use if what you have is an on-site dedicated septic system. 

Septic system-considerate usage habits and regular pumping of the septic tank go a long way to prevent a clogged drainfield that’s likely on its way to failure. Though most solid waste is processed in the septic tank, it is realistic to expect that small quantities do make it to the drainfield. But the helpful bacteria and other organisms in the ground can usually digest those that make it through. The problem lies when a septic tank has not been pumped and sludge has accumulated beyond its threshold that all incoming wastewater is pushed out of the tank faster than it needs. The premature release of effluent from the septic tank likely means that it was not given sufficient time for the sludge and scum to separate, settle or float, thus getting carried away to the drainfield. The distribution pipes and even the absorption soil can become clogged, preventing wastewater from percolating thoroughly enough. Foul odor, sewage puddles, and particularly lush vegetation over the drainfield are all indications of an impending failure. Additionally, you may observe slow drains or toilets and gurgling sounds from the plumbing that cannot be remedied with a plunger or snake as other symptoms of drainfield problems.

Besides making sure the tank gets pumped and careful usage habits, there are a couple of things to avoid or watch out for outside the facility and around the tank and field areas. First would be to ascertain that trees and large shrubs are planted with enough clearance from said areas. Tree roots will naturally be drawn towards the high nutrient levels of the drainfield and the vicinity of the septic tank (especially if there are small leaks present). These roots can encroach on pipes and even the tank body, causing or aggravating leaks. Trees need to be 30 feet away, at least. Also, avoid driving vehicles or operating heavy machinery over your drainfield (to avoid compacting the soil) and over your septic tank (to avoid the possibility of cave-ins). Likewise, heavy foot traffic (human or otherwise) should be avoided, as well as building heavy structures over said areas.

To summarize, your septic tank is like your settling pond: heavy sold wastes settle down to the base of the tank (forming the sludge layer) while the lighter solids float up to form the scum layer. A relatively clearer middle layer of liquid waste (known as the effluent) is left, awaiting discharge to the drainfield. A septic filter is ideally installed to further prevent solid waste from leaving the tank and entering the outlet pipe. The effluent’s next destination, the septic drainfield, is home to bacteria and microorganisms that are instrumental in the decomposition of pathogens in the effluent before it percolates into the ground. The perforations in the septic pipes in the drainfield allow for the gradual trickling of effluent into surrounding gravel. Gravel allows water to flow into the soil and for oxygen to reach the bacterial colonies. This process cleans up the wastewater, rendering it clean enough to assimilate into the groundwater and aquifer.

Septic systems go by a few different names: on-site wastewater treatment systems, dedicated sewage systems, etc. However they are called, they are essentially crucial wastewater disposal solutions especially for those in remote, rural areas and other locations where centralized sewer systems are not readily available. Because they are on-site, there is, expectedly, a greater degree of responsibility on the hands of the property owners to monitor, maintain, and take good care of them.

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How to Restore a Septic Drainfield

An adeptly-designed, properly-installed, and well-maintained septic system should last you for decades. Unfortunately, it can likewise fail in just a few years, with any of the three aforementioned elements lacking. Practically speaking, maintaining a healthy septic system is not all that expensive, but you could easily spend thousands to excavate and replace a system that has failed. Good maintenance practices are rooted in an adequate understanding of how a septic system operates and just how it can be a potential cesspool (no pun intended) of problems. Let’s take a quick review of what’s supposed to happen in a fully functioning septic system, focusing on one of its main components: the septic drainfield.

The drainfield, or soil absorption system, is a series of perforated pipes or chambers buried underground that channel the pre-treated wastewater, otherwise known as effluent (the liquid discharge from your septic tank). The effluent from the septic tank travels to the drainfield where the effluent is moved gradually down through the soil, allowing for natural purification, before it is released back into the aquifer. An aquifer is an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock, rock fractures or unconsolidated materials (gravel, sand, or silt). Although your septic tank holds out most of the heavier solid wastes (scum and sludge) and breaks them down to virtually half, the effluent (clear middle layer) still has a high amount of biodegradable organic matter with high bacterial content. Your septic drainfield acts as a natural filter for effluent as it absorbs organic matter, further reducing or removing pathogens, making it safe to be assimilated into groundwater. This critical function of removing pathogens and safely disposing treated wastewater through subsurface soil absorption is what makes the health of the drainfield a crucial concern for all septic system owners. If your septic drainfield starts showing indications of failure, you will need to restore it immediately.

One of the first and most obvious indications of a failing drainfield is surfacing effluent. If the soil’s ability to accept the effluent being delivered is diminished, the effluent will either rise to your ground’s surface, or even ‘blow out’ at the end of the field’s trenches. This compromised capacity of the soil to accept the pre-treated effluent is most often due to the biomat formation. As the effluent enters the drainfield, bacterial growth in the soil is promoted due to the new “food source”. As these bacteria grow, a thick slimy colony called the biomat is formed and this restricts the flow of effluent to the surrounding soil. If there is a clog in your drainfield, you need to subject the drainfield to repairs, and you need to do it soon. To restore the septic drainfield you will likely need to check your septic tank for possible clogs, as well as take corrective steps to prevent the drainfield from becoming clogged again down the line. A drainfield that has been left untreated over a number of years, especially if non-biodegradable substances (like grease and oil) are constantly flushed into it, is susceptible to clogging.

Rehabilitating Your Drainfield: Short-term Solutions

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where your drainfield is failing, but let’s say your vicinity is soon to gain access to the centralized public sewer system, you would be better off resorting to a short-term fix like water conservation. Although, bear in mind that drainfield failure must be considered a serious health hazard and water conservation is not really a definitive solution. But sometimes, an overloaded drainfield may recover if stringent water conservation practices are adhered to by the property owner and all building occupants. Besides best practices such as spacing out dishwashing and laundry loads, you may want to consider switching to water-efficient or low-flow toilets and fixtures. Conservative water usage reduces the output of effluent and, in turn, gives the soil around the drainfield piping time to dry out, possibly allowing it to function properly once again. This method obviously requires serious owner-and-occupant commitment. It typically takes about a 30% reduction in total water usage for there to be any significant impact to drainfield recovery.

There now are some relatively new technologies that may provide temporary relief to afailing drainfield. The first is what we call “jetting”. This procedure utilizes special pumps to inject water into the drain lines in high pressure to break up silt and other deposits. There is necessarily a powerful vacuum line, too, that can suck out the broken-up deposits out of the lines to avoid re-settling. A sewer jetter can help you break down sludge and flush them out along with any residue. This helps to reduce the need for subsequent cleaning of your lines, too. To make the task easier, power the sewer jetter with a gas pressure washer rated 2.0 to 4.0 GPM (gallons per minute). Lower GPM’s from a smaller electric machine will not be suitable for cleaning septic drainfields. It is ideal that you locate and expose (through digging) the downhill end of each septic line by digging a large-enough hole under each end to allow the sludge to flow out and be collected as you clean the opened line.

An alternative approach would be to locate and expose your system’s distribution box and then feed the sewer jetter through each line that exits the box. To review, a septic system’s distribution box functions to evenly distribute the wastewater into the drainfield, typically aided by gravity. Wastewater flows downhill where the distribution box is located and is then distributed out to the drainfield lines. Note that the size and shape of your distribution box depends on the type of septic tank you have. Distribution boxes are most commonly made of concrete or plastic and will have several openings for the drainfield lines where the wastewater flows out of. Be advised, though, that it could be more difficult to thoroughly flush out the sludge uphill toward the opened distribution box as you’ll frequently need to pump out the residue that flows back into the box.

Now, if you clean your septic drainfield with a sewer jetter, you have to remember to:

  • Wear fluid-resistant work gloves and eye protection (such as work goggles). Proceed with extra caution especially if you believe the lines might contain drain-cleaning chemicals.
  • Connect the drain cleaner to your trigger gun, start the pressure washer, and then carefully guide the nozzle to at least a foot into the exposed septic line opening before you turn on the water flow.
  • Guide the sewer jetter into the line as you squeeze the trigger. For more thorough cleaning, pull back about halfway every few feet before proceeding forward.
  • Be careful not to release the trigger to stop the water before you’ve gotten the nozzle to the opening.
  • Replace any fittings, check the system, and restore the dirt fill after you have completed the task.

If, for any reason, you suspect that there could be tree roots infiltrating your drainfield lines, you may be able to loosen the fine roots with a sewer jetter and then pull out the long root strings by hand or with a mechanical drum auger equipped with a root-cutting blade. Mechanical drum augers with cutting blades are certainly required for the larger tree roots that may have found their way into your drainfield lines. This equipment may be rented from providers. Once the roots have been cut, you can then flush the line with a sewer jetter to remove the sludge.

If the failure of your drainfield is caused by compacted soil conditions, temporary relief may come in the form of a technology known as “soil fracturing.” Specialized equipment with a pneumatic hammer drives narrow probes into the drainfield soil, typically to a depth range of 3 to 6 feet. Through these probes, air is then forced into the soil at a controlled rate, fracturing the hard soil, thus creating small open channels through it. Afterwards, polystyrene pellets are injected into the newly-aerated soil. These pellets will keep the channels open, preventing the soil from compacting again. Note, though, that this technology has netted mixed results and is only approved in certain states. You should first check with your local health department to find out about a similar process (if any) that is approved for your jurisdiction.

A known technique to rehabilitate a failing drainfield, preventing the need for a total septic system replacement, is to restore the beneficial bacteria in the drainfield. A septic service professional will need to pump out your drainfield system, including the distribution box. The distribution box would normally have a build-up of biomat which needs to be cleared out. The biomat, a bacterial slime layer in the soil just below the drainfield, is a critical component of on-site septic systems. The biomat is responsible for the treatment and reduction of organic solids and pathogens in septic effluent which is discharged into the drainfield from a septic tank. After this clean-out, about 4 gallons of septic shock bacteria is poured into the distribution box, which in turn will feed it into the drainfield. A gallon of this septic shock bacteria is typically applied to the sinks and drains inside the house or facility. Finally, there is about 1 to 3 weeks of waiting for the solution to really penetrate the drainfield, allowing it time to digest solid matter and biomat.

You should remember that merely aerating the entire system does not eliminate the sodium accumulation from the soil. Aeration systems can cost up to $1,500 and should be backed up by electricity at all times. Be warned that the toxic fumes inside the septic tank can be detrimental to one’s health. If you’re not comfortable performing any of these steps, hiring a septic service company could save you money in the long run. 

In cases of physical damage to the drainfield, system restoration may require just the leveling of the distribution box or repairing crushed or broken pipes. If tree roots are the culprits of the drainfield disruption, these can be removed with specialized equipment. If you constantly find solid waste in your drainfield, this is a likely indication of broken or deteriorated baffles in your septic tank. Regular inspection of the tank should include the inspection of the baffles, as faulty baffles will allow solid waste to be transported to the drainfield (which, we now know, should not be the case). Faulty baffles need to be replaced or repaired promptly.

Rehabilitating Your Drainfield: Long-term Solutions

Sometimes, corrective measures or temporary solutions are not enough to restore a septic drainfield. In such cases, a new soil absorption system must be installed. Drainfields are ideally placed either in 1) a remote or isolated area of the property so the old system is not disturbed in the process or 2) in between the existing trenches (if space therein is adequate). These additional lines are to become part of an alternating drainfield system. A diversion valve is installed so that it will be possible to direct the flow from the septic tank to either of the two drainfields down the line. After the new drainfield is in place, the flow is diverted from the old drainfield. The latter is expected to naturally rejuvenate gradually over time that it can be used again in the future. The rejuvenation process of a drainfield placed on this “resting state” takes about 2 years to recover and requires naturally-occurring bacteria to decompose the biomat that has formed and restore the absorptive system to its near-original capacity. Your old drainfield can recover more quickly if you contract a septic pumper to open the field and remove as much of the ponded wastewater as can be managed. After you have installed a new drainfield where your effluent will be diverted to, you can switch back to the old drainfield after 2 years, and then switch back and forth between the two systems annually. This allows for a cycle of use-and-rejuvenate for both drainfields and should contribute significantly to preventing future failures.

Alternating drainfields are effective in providing relief for a failing septic system. A serial drainfield is made up of a series of trenches. The first trench comes out of the septic tank and has an overflow pipe that leads from the first trench downhill to the second trench. The perforated pipes allow wastewater to seep out the base. When a trench becomes clogged, wastewater cannot seep out anymore and will go to the top of the pipe and into the overflow pipe. The first trench must be completely filled up before water flows into the second trench and so on.

If an adequate area for a new drainfield is not available, but the old system is a trench system with at least 6 feet of undisturbed soil between the trenches, it will be possible to install replacement trenches interlaced between the old ones. However, if you are to take this route, it is important to keep the plumbing for the new and old systems entirely separate so that when one is functioning, the other drainfield’s plumbing has the opportunity to dry out.

Another approach for the significant reduction of organic load on the drainfield is to add an advanced treatment system such as an aerobic treatment unit or a sand filter. These systems utilize natural processes to treat wastewater and are frequently used to restore clogged up, failing septic tank-soil absorption units.

Typically, sand filters are used in the secondary stage of wastewater treatment after the solid wastes in raw sewage have been separated in the septic tank. Sand filters are beds of sand with depths of about 2 or 3 feet and are often enclosed in a liner. Sand filters receive partially-treated effluent in irregular doses, where it slowly trickles through the sand, collected in an underdrain, and then flows to further treatment and/or its final disposal. Sand filters are proven to be effective in the removal of suspended solids and are capable of handling heavy hydraulic loads. These two characteristics make sand filters particularly useful in the event of overloaded drainfields – either hydraulically (water) or biologically (biomat).

Aerobic Treatment Units (ATUs) are similar to septic tanks in that ATUs rely on natural processes to treat wastewater. The remarkable difference lies in an ATU’s need for oxygen to carry out the treatment process. ATUs rely on a mechanism to inject and circulate air inside the treatment tank so as to encourage the population of aerobic (oxygen-loving) bacteria. These microorganisms work to break down and digest the wastewater inside the aerobic treatment unit.

Why Do Drainfields Fail?

Drainfeld failure can be caused by several factors, including excessive rainfall, tree roots infiltrating the drain lines, or vehicles and heavy equipment driving over the system and damaging pipes. But the two most common causes are: hydraulic and biological overloading. Hydraulic overloading happens when too much water is allowed to an under-designed system. Biological overloading, on the other hand, is the result of high concentrations of organic matter in the effluent.

The installation of appliances, such as garbage disposals and dishwashers, are also factors that can significantly alter the quality of the wastewater being sent to the septic system. These appliances send increased amounts of solid wastes to the system, potentially causing biological overloading. Use these appliances in moderation, keeping in mind that a garbage disposal unit is not a waste receptacle.

Your septic tanks is where wastewater from your home or building is separated into three layers: solids that settle at the bottom (sludge), scum (lighter solids that float to the top), and the relatively clearer middle liquid called effluent. The settled solid sludge and lighter scum layer are decomposed by microorganisms. The middle layer or effluent leaves the tank and travels through a series of underground perforated pipes into your drainfield. In the drainfield, gravel and soil act as biological filters to remove pathogens from the wastewater as it sinks into the ground.

Typically, state health codes mandate the installation of an effluent filter in septic tanks, so it is important to comply. Without the effluent filter, solid waste particles could be allowed to pass into the perforated pipes and cause problematic, not to mention costly, clogs. This is likely to happen especially if you are allowing filter-clogging materials down your drains or toilets (such as grease, fat or food scraps). Extensive digging will likely be needed in order to clean and unclog the system if this is allowed to happen. Most effluent filters don’t need to be cleaned until the tank is pumped, which is typically every 3 to 5 years, so they are not that difficult to maintain.

This is why the use of garbage disposal units is not entirely ideal. A disposer unit does not break down food particles enough and thus can increase the amount of solid matter in your septic tank by as much as 50%. Flushing plastic materials, disposable diapers, paper towels, and other non-biodegradable items and tobacco will also definitely clog up your septic system.

The failure of a septic system can be caused by several factors, as well. If you would like to avoid having to deal with a malfunctioning drainfield, and thus the costly worry of a failed on-site dedicated wastewater treatment, you definitely need to watch out for these:

  • Overloading your system with water. Home and property owners should know better than to be overwhelming a septic system with too much.  Space out laundry loads over days throughout the week rather than having just one ‘wash day’ where you wash an entire laundry load within a 24-48 hour period. Likewise, if you have swimming pools or hot tubs, you had better divert drainwater from these away from the plumbing leading to your septic system.
  • Disposing of non-biodegradable matter such as coffee grounds, cigarette filters, disposable diapers, sanitary pads, grease, and other synthetic substances into your septic system are the primary causes of clogging problems. Same goes for harsh or toxic chemicals.
  • Allowing tree roots to infiltrate your drainfield and septic plumbing. Tree roots are naturally drawn to the high concentrations of nutrients in wastewater, but neglecting to curtail this growth can cause damage to your system.
  • Driving vehicles and/or operating heavy machinery over the drainfield. Heavy equipment over your absorption field will compact the soil of your drainfield, thus compromising its natural percolating abilities. Avoid driving or parking vehicles over the drainfield, as well as building structures such as sheds over the area.
  • The system’s lifespan. Typically, septic systems are designed for an average operational life of 20 to 30 years. As your system ages, the more it requires regular monitoring and maintenance. And you should expect the possibility of having to replace it as inevitable.

How Can You Tell If Your Drainfield is Failing?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines septic system failure as “a condition where performance requirements are not met” in its Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Manual (2002). Typically, septic system failure is declared when wastewater is noted on the ground surface or if it’s backing up into the house’ or facility’s plumbing. When a drainfield fails, it has the potential to pollute nearby water resources, therefore endangering public health. Children are most vulnerable to these health risks because they are more frequently the ones who come into contact with the contaminated areas.

The drainfield (also known as leach field, absorption bed, disposal field or seepage field) is a major component of septic systems as it accepts and treats wastewater (or effluent) coming from the septic tank. The drainfield processes the effluent before it returns to natural aquifers beneath the earth’s surface. All septic systems rely heavily on the drainfield soil’s ability to absorb water.

Many people whose properties rely on dedicated septic systems may encounter problems such as foul odors, slow drains and toilets, gurgling sounds from the pipes, sewage back-ups, and sewage water pooling in the yard. They are quick to attribute these to issues with the septic tank. This, however, is not accurate. The most common cause of septic system problems and eventual failure is the septic absorption component – the drainfield – that’s become impermeable that it is no longer able to absorb wastewater into the soil.

You can tell that your drainfield is failing if you observe the following:

  • Foul odors emanating from the septic tank and/or drainfield areas.
  • Water and sewage from toilets, drains, and sinks backing up into the home or building.
  • Slow flushing in toilets and/or slow draining in sinks or tubs.
  • Gurgling sounds coming from the building’s plumbing.
  • Puddling water or damp spots near or around the septic tank or drainfield areas.
  • Exceptionally lush grass or vegetation patches especially over the septic tank or drainfield, even during dry weather.
  • High concentrations of nitrates or coliform bacteria in water wells.
  • Algal blooms in nearby ponds or lakes. This is the rapid growth of microscopic algae or cyanobacteria in water, typically resulting in colored scum appearing on the water’s surface.

A malfunctioning or failing septic system causes untreated (raw) sewage to be released and transported to where it shouldn’t be, endangering humans, animals, and, of course, the environment. A responsible septic owner is alert to the signs of septic system failure, regardless of the age of his system, and is able to address the issues promptly upon early observation. Immediate response to any indication of septic system failure may save the property owner money in repairs or replacement and, more importantly, could prevent illness among those living around and other negative implications to the environment.

How Long Do Drainfields Last and How to Maintain Them

Drainfields are designed, constructed, and installed according to the type of soil and the soil percolation rate present on the property. You might even encounter raised drainfields that facilitate the absorption and evaporation processes of effluent. Even if septic drainfields are made differently, their life cycle really depends on the care and maintenance practices that the entire septic system is subjected to.  If your septic tank is well-cared for – regularly pumped, inspected periodically, and receive helpful treatments monthly – then you could be assured of a drainfield that will last for as much as 50 years or more. On the other end, if the septic components and pipes were not installed properly, a drainfield can last just 24 hours at most.  On average, a conventional drainfield has a lifespan of about 25 years, conservatively speaking and with proper care.

The adequate maintenance of your drainfield begins with monitoring water consumption and water usage practices in the home or facility. Likewise, a huge factor is what’s generally allowed into your septic system. Drainfield malfunction is a serious problem that needs to be addressed in a timely manner. If this is neglected, the drainfield could put everyone’s health and safety at definite risk. 

Most septic system failures are caused by problems with the drainfield.  The entire septic system relies on the drainfield to filter and dispose of wastewater. Now, when wastewater or solid waste builds up on the soil at the base of the drainfield, the soil clogs up and thus unable to drain properly. Common causes of drainfield malfunction include:

  • Allowing harsh chemicals, grease, paint, and other similar complex substances you’re your drains and toilets.
  • Excessive water usage in the building, including leaking faucets, toilets, and other water fixtures.
  • Water runoff from heavy snow or rainfall.
  • Damage from heavy vehicles, machineries, or structures over the drainfield.
  • Infiltration to sewer plumbing by tree or large plant roots.
  • System age.

Additionally, another main factor that can cause drainfield malfunction is the failure to have your septic tank pumped on regular intervals. Sludge and scum contents need to be cleared out periodically. On average, a septic tank should be pumped every 3 to 5 years, but actual frequency of required pumping will depend on how big the septic tank is and the size of the household.

A septic system that was properly designed and installed needs only occasional pumping to remove the sludge and scum from the tank. But without responsible or conscientious practices by property occupants, your septic system can be susceptible to harm and, yes, total failure. What follows are notes on what to avoid and what to watch out for if you would like to maximize your drainfield’s longevity.

  • Waste that decomposes slowly (or, worse, not at all) flushed down drains and toilets like cigarette butts, diapers, sanitary pads, coffee grounds,  and other non-biodegradable matter are leading causes of septic problems due to clogging.
  • Garbage disposal units, especially when used excessively, can send too much solid waste into the septic system, hampering natural flow processes. Also, high levels of solid waste likely result to too much sludge. Very thick sludge levels in the septic tank reduces bacteria’s ability to digest them. Excess sludge can also overflow into the drainfield. Remember, too, that sludge and scum can plug up crevices in pipes.
  • Allowing lint from synthetic fibers to flow from your washing machines are potentially problematic. The natural bacteria in the septic tank and drainfield will be unable to digest these.
  • A number of common household chemicals like disinfectant cleaners, detergent, and antibacterial soaps kill the helpful bacteria that otherwise naturally thrive in septic systems. Most systems can handle light to moderate use of these products, but in this case, less is always better.
  • Overwhelming your septic tank with too much water volumes will tend to flush out the tank too rapidly. Time is needed to effectively separate the sludge and scum from the effluent before it should leave the tank for the drainfield. Rapid flushing of the tank may allow raw sewage (with a lot of solid matter) to travel to the drainfield, potentially causing blockages in the field. Observe conservative water usage. Space out laundry loads over days throughout the week. If you own swimming pools or hot tubs, you should divert water from your septic system. You’ll also want to install water efficient fixtures in your facility, such as low-flow toilets and faucets. Aside from doing laundry in bulk, enjoin all occupants to make it a habit to avoid long showers and anything else they can think of that can overwhelm the septic system with water.
  • Tree and shrub roots should be far enough from your drainfield area as the roots will naturally be drawn to the nutrient-rich environment. Roots infiltrating the area can clog and damage a drainfield.
  • Avoid driving vehicles, operating heavy machinery, or building any kind of permanent structure over your drainfield. Besides that the force or weight can inflict damage to the physical structure of your field, this can compact the soil. Compacted soil deters the seepage of effluent and deprives that natural bacteria of oxygen. Drainfields are ideally in a remote, characteristically undisturbed space in the property.

The Cost of Installing a New Drainfield

The costs of installing a new drainfield will vary according to the size of the drainfield, soil conditions, and costs of local permits. On average, you can expect to pay anywhere between $5,000 and $20,000 for a drainfield replacement. The drainfield is easily the most expensive component of a septic system.

The price of replacing your drainfield relies heavily on soil type. A drainfield does not need to be as large when porous soil conditions are present as it needs to be for less porous soils. While areas with naturally sandy soil allow for good downward percolation (filtration) of the wasterwater, clay soils retain water. The accessibility of your potential drainfield location is likewise a consideration. If trees or fencing need to be removed for the drainfield to be installed, that will add to your costs. You also will need to factor in the cost of replacing sod in the area or planting new grass after the installation has been completed.

If you are about to lay out a substantial amount for the installation of a new drainfield, you, of course, would want to take measures to ensure that you will not need to replace it again for as long as possible. Refer back to the previous section on drainfield lifespan and maintenance practices. 

More and more everyday, we all learn the impact of septic systems on groundwater and surface water quality. This is why the interest in optimizing these systems’ performance has grown, too. When properly designed, installed, and maintained, septic systems can have a life expectancy of 20 to 30 years, minimum. Septic systems were never intended for lifetime use without maintenance measures. Neglecting maintenance of the components of a septic system only leads to failures. Expensive failures. Restoring a drainfield can be a very costly undertaking. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. If you are serious about saving money in the long run and maximizing the lifespan of your septic tank and drainfield, adhere to the maintenance practices and schedules as religiously as you are able. Be responsible and mindful of how you use your water and drains. Diminish if not totally eliminate the use of antibacterial soaps and harsh detergents. You should also make it a point to install the most efficient drain filters to keep hair, soap scum, fibers, and other solid wastes that could potentially clog drains and pipes. Observe conservative water usage. Even the smallest steps can go a long way in maintaining your drainfield’s longevity. And with it, an enduring septic system.

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