Warning signs of an improperly functioning septic system are many – some are obvious and some require more effort to notice.
Around the house
- the grass over the system may become unusually green or spongy to walk on
- toilets, showers and sinks may take longer to drain
- occasional sewage odours may become noticeable, often after a rainfall
- you may see gray or black liquids surfacing in your yard, or backing up through plumbing fixtures into the house
In lakes and ponds
Leaks from septic systems can cause weeds and algae to grow in lakes and ponds. Just a small amount of additional phosphorus (which can come from soaps, shampoos, household cleaning products and detergents) in a lake or pond can make a huge difference in the amount of weeds that grow during the spring and summer. Lakes sometimes develop “dead zones” as a result of an overload of phosphorous – which can lead to too much algae, deplete oxygen supplies and kill fish.
Keep your septic system working well
Fortunately, regular septic maintenance and watching what you pour down your drains can prevent the problems above. Moderating your water use will help, too.
Watch what you put down the drain
Bacteria are critical in the septic system — they are what make it work. They thrive on wastewater but certain chemicals can kill them. Flushing even small amounts of prescription medications (e.g., antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs), paints, solvents, thinners, nail polish remover and other common household compounds can poison these helpful organisms. Laundry bleaches, toilet bowl cleaners and caustic drain openers can slow the treatment process, allowing sewage to pass through without proper treatment. And often, the chemicals themselves seep into the ground, sometimes contaminating wells or surface water.
Septic systems cannot digest oils, grease and fat. Besides plugging up your pipes, grease can combine with detergents and flow into the drainage field where it may clog the soils. Fats can form a blob in the top of the tank and interfere with the work of the bacteria. Oils, grease and fat can be composted, in moderation, under suitable conditions. These materials can usually go into the green bin or, if needed, out with the garbage. Adding these materials to your backyard composter may attract pests. You also shouldn’t use your septic system to dispose of garbage. In-sink garbage disposals are unwelcome strains on the system. Disposable diapers, sanitary products and many other kinds of garbage can create problems for septic systems. If something doesn’t break down naturally, don’t flush it into your septic tank.
Maintain it regularly
One of the most important things you can do to keep the system functioning properly is to have the septic tank pumped regularly. Many experts recommend pumping a tank every three to five years, but a tank may need to be pumped more or less frequently depending on how many people use the system, what they put into it and whether or not it’s used for garbage disposal. A safe approach is to have the tank inspected by a qualified septage hauler before the tank is pumped.
Keep heavy things away from the septic bed
Driving cars or machinery over your septic system will crush it. The soil surrounding the pipes may become compacted, making it less able to absorb the wastewater coming out of the pipes. Snowmobiles compress the snow cover over the septic field, reducing its natural insulating effect and increasing the risk of freezing pipes.
Be a mindful gardener
Planting trees and shrubs (especially willows and poplars) near the field is risky because their roots travel significant distances to seek water and can plug or damage the pipes. And watering of the grass over the field, whether by in-ground systems or by hand should be eliminated or minimized. Watering interferes with the soil’s ability to absorb liquids and break down wastes.