The septic tank system was once the standard and used in both urban and rural settings. The systems are used far less frequently now and account for only one quarter of the wastewater treatment. The design and materials of the septic tank are relatively unchanged from their origins. Because of their nature and what they are designed to do, the septic tank owner must not only be aware of things they do that may change efficiency but must also be aware of things that may cause system failure. This guide will help the average person better understand their system, including ways to keep their septic tank running better and the costs associated with maintaining one.

What Is a Septic Tank?

A septic tank system is a method of treating wastewater using anaerobic (without oxygen) bacteria that will decompose or mineralize solid waste while leaving the liquid remains behind. This bacterial-based system can be used alone or in connection with other, more sophisticated systems as well.

The typical septic tank uses a large tank made of either concrete or plastic. Some septic systems use more than one tank. Both liquid and solid material flows into the first pipe of the system to be routed into this tank. Solid material will settle at the bottom, while the liquids will either collect on top of this solid material or will be pushed through a secondary piping system and then to another tank or, more commonly, to what is called a drain field. This field can be called by other names depending on location and can include “leech field” or “seepage field.”

Requirements for the size of the septic tank as well as for the drain field will vary by the following:

  • Local ordinances
  • The size of the family that is using the system
  • The type of septic tank that is being used
  • The climate of the area in which the system is being located.

It is important to choose the right system so that it runs correctly as well as preventing costly fines and legal challenges.

Installation of the Septic Tank

While some people do have the skills and the tools required to install their own septic system, most do not and will need to hire a professional. Whether you are a do-it-yourselfer or you hire someone, you must be prepared for the sheer amount of work and the considerable expense before you even get started. For a new system, the cost can range from $8,000 to $20,000, depending on a number of factors. A replacement system will cost less but will still be in the $3,000 to $7,000 range. Factors that can impact your cost include:

  • The size and style of the tank you are installing.
  • The condition of the property that you are working on. The more work that it takes to break ground, the more the cost will go up.
  • Regulations and requirements that may also influence your expenses.
  • Permits, inspections, and environmental testing that may drive your costs up as well.

On average, the typical septic tank can be installed and ready to be used in two to three days, but that may depend on obstacles, the weather, and the inspection process itself. Even if you hire a professional service, it is important to speak to the local health department so that you are aware of any type of permits and/or testing that will be involved so that you can stay on top of things. You don’t want a professional to try to cut corners, especially when it will be you, the homeowner, who will pay the price in the end.

Installation of a new or replacement septic tank does involve moving fairly substantial amounts of dirt and can disturb landscaping, tree roots, and more.

Properly Maintaining Your Septic Tank

There is some debate about whether additives are necessary or not. Some systems function better without them. It is always best to let the system function as it was designed without adding anything extra, but if an additive can buy you an extra year or two between pumping/cleaning and the expense is a good investment, then you can do so. There are additional ways that you can stretch the time between septic tank cleanings, which lowers your cost of maintenance as well. It is important for you to remember how the system works—including the bacteria that do the main job of breaking down the solids. Anything that can make it harder for the bacteria to do their job is something that can ultimately cause your system to fail and can require costly repairs.

Eliminating all excess sources of water is one of the fastest and easiest ways to help your system out. It is also a great way to save money and harm to the environment by reducing waste, so it is an all-around beneficial plan of action. This means repairing or replacing any leaky faucets and toilets. Switching to a low flush toilet is also a great investment that will reduce your water bill and pay for itself fairly quickly. You should also divert extra water from sources such as washing machines, dishwashers, and other appliances. Known as “gray” water, some localities will allow this to be diverted to a separate tank or field, while others require them to be routed into the septic tank. Just check with your local health department to see what the rules are—you may be able to use the gray water to water plants and lawns.

In addition to not allowing excess water to get into the system, you will also want to be careful about other things that might find their way into your tank. These include things like cooking grease and oils and coffee grounds. All of these can be harmful to the bacteria. Colored or scented toilet paper and heavy duty paper towels can interfere with the decomposition process and may not completely break down. Sanitary napkins and even tampons can also clog up the system and just add to the solid waste that will eventually need to be pumped out of the tank.

Septic Tank Pumping and Cleaning

No matter how carefully you observe the previously mentioned maintenance, eventually the tank will be full, and you will need to have the septic tank pumped. Allowing too much time between cleanings can lead to failure of the system. You will recognize this problem by foul smelling water backing up into your yard or even into your basement. The average septic tank cleaning interval is three to five years; however, some systems may need even more frequent cleanings, such as one to three years. Your range will depend on the size of the tank itself, the volume it is required to deal with, and a host of other factors.

Once you have determined that you do in fact need to have your septic system cleaned out, you will need to start with bids from at least three qualified septic tank service companies. The bids will need to include full pricing estimates based on the size of your system and should cover things such as pumping, dumping fees and other potential costs. Most companies will charge you extra for time spent looking for your tank and exposing it, so you may be able to save some money by doing this on your own. Make sure that the company is legitimate and that they are not illegally dumping their trucks. Costs can vary widely in various parts of the country, so do your research and find reputable septic tank pumping companies. Make sure that all estimates are in writing and that you are given a full receipt once the service has been completed.

To Repair or Replace: Why Do Septic Systems Fail?

While the septic tank should last fifty years and potentially beyond, there are times when the system can fail even when proper maintenance has been performed on a regular basis. Some of these potential problems can be caused by the way the tank was installed. It can also be related to things way beyond your control, like the weather and even more serious issues, such as earthquakes.

Some of the most common reasons for septic tank failures include tree roots, which can cause tanks to be dislodged or breached. Tree roots can also block, break, or damage pipes leading to the tank and can cause the system to back up and overflow. Foreign objects, such as sanitary napkins, diapers, cigarette butts, and more, can lodge in the pipes and may lead to backup and overflowing issues as well. Another thing that can block a pipe and cause issues is cooking grease, which not only destroys the bacteria in the tank but can actually congeal in the entry pipes before it even reaches the tank at all. Once it congeals, there is a risk of overflow because nothing can get through.

Excess water from natural and other sources is also problematic. Certain climates where heavy rainfall is common may see more septic tank problems and failures than in drier climates. There are designs that can accommodate these conditions, which is why it is important to find the right person to install the system that is right for your area.

If your septic tank is broken or is in danger of failing, you will have to determine whether you are going to repair or replace it. In some cases, it might be a simple matter of replacing a pipe and then cleaning out the tank, while in others it might be time to upgrade the system and replace an old tank. If your tank has reached over half of its projected, useful life, it makes more sense in the long run to replace rather than to repair and hope for the best.

Whether you are repairing or replacing, follow the same guidelines that you would use to find a good septic tank pumping company, including getting at least three written estimates and only choosing reputable companies.

A Lifetime of Service and the Costs Associated with a Septic System

For most people, the septic tank is an investment that should last them at least forty years. Properly installed and maintained, there should be few issues beyond the routine maintenance of these systems, so the septic tank cost becomes far more reasonable over time. However, there are expenses, and these are something every homeowner should be aware of.

  • First is the cost of the septic tank itself. Again, cost will depend on location, requirements, size, and type of the system and whether it is a new installation or a replacement of an aging system. The cost of replacement may also be influenced by the reason that the previous system is being replaced as well. Estimates vary but can be between $3,000 and $20,000.
  • Second is the cost of the maintenance, which can include additives that you choose to add to the system at regular intervals as well as cleaning and dumping of the tanks. Septic tank pumping costs can be as little as $75 or as much as $200 depending on the size of the tank, the time and effort it takes to find and get to it, and whether there will be digging to get to the cover.
  • Finally, there is the cost of repairs or replacement if something happens to the septic tank. These costs go far beyond just the cost of the new system though. You will also have to deal with problems that can range from water backing up in your yard or, worse, into the house. You may also need to pay to have new plants and landscaping installed. The heavy equipment that is used to complete the work may also damage or destroy other structures.

You should also keep in mind that a septic system failure may also lead to legal issues with the local board of health to the federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, that can levy major fines for not installing or properly maintaining your system. Inspections, which must be done before, during, and after major installations, especially of new systems, can delay progress and can even lead to issues when you are buying, selling, or building a home.