Bay-Friendly Living Tip: Maintain Your Septic
Mackensie duPont Crowley, Save The Bay’s communications specialist
What happens to all of that wastewater from your toilet, sink or shower? For many homeowners, it gets piped to a central, wastewater treatment plant. But for many others, wastewater is treated in a septic system, which is in the ground on their property.
Septic systems are buried, water-tight containers that act as individual wastewater treatment systems, typically used for individual homes in rural or lot settings where central wastewater treatment is impractical. Consisting of a septic tank, a distribution box and a drain field or leach field connected by pipes, a septic system uses soil to treat small wastewater flows.
The average home with three people produces about 85,000 gallons of wastewater a year — more than 200 gallons per day! In homes with septic systems, this means 200 new gallons of wastewater are added to an underground tank and leach field every single day. If those septic systems aren’t functioning properly, untreated wastewater leaches into the groundwater we drink and the local waters in which we swim and fish.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, poorly functioning septic systems can cause excessive nitrogen to discharge into coastal waters and cause phosphorus pollution of inland surface waters. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution can increase algal growth and lower dissolved oxygen levels in these already sensitive water bodies. In watersheds like Narragansett Bay, this type of pollution can cause contamination of important shellfish beds and swimming beaches.
A failing septic system* can not only degrade our local environment, but can also pose a risk to public health, reduce the value of your property, and result in a costly repair. Follow these tips for proper septic maintenance:
DO have your system inspected once per year.
Regular inspections minimize the risk of failure and can help you detect issues before they become big problems. Annual inspections and upkeep expenses are also cheaper than remedying a septic failure.
DO have your septic system pumped every three to five years, depending on usage.
If the tank fills up with an excess of solids, the wastewater will not have enough time to settle in the tank. These excess solids will then pass on to the leach field, where they will clog the drain lines and soil.
DON’T use septic system additives — they are not a substitute for regular pumping.
Maintenance treatments are not a substitute for regular inspection and pumping! With all the septic tank additives on the market, it’s tempting to think at least a few of them might help your system run more efficiently. In reality, septic systems are made to work without additives. Biological additives, like bacteria, yeast or enzyme products, are largely a waste of money, and chemical additives can harm the system.
DON’T put anything down the toilet or sink that can’t normally decompose
This includes diapers, sanitary products, disposable wipes, cooking fats, grease and coffee grounds. If you use a garbage disposal, you’ll need to get your septic tank pumped more often than the recommended 3-5 years, since food can increase the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus in your wastewater.
*The warning signs of a failing system include sewage surfacing over the leach field or backing-up into your home, lush growth over the leach field, slow draining toilets or drains, and smelly sewage odors. If you suspect your system has failed, contact the board of health to make the necessary repairs in time to preserve our waterways and mitigate the risk to other water supply users!