Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Was the tank full?

A. This is by far the most common question asked. The answer is yes - it is supposed to be full. The tank will fill to a normal operating level and stay at that level as it is used. Once it reaches its operating level, for every gallon of water that enters the tank, a gallon goes out. The tank will fill rather quickly after it has been pumped, depending on water usage, usually in a week or so.

Q. How does my system work?

A. There are many different types of systems, however, the primary objectives are to dispose of, AND provide adequate treatment of all the wastewater from a residence. All systems consist of two main components - the tank and the soil absorption area. Some systems may have additional parts, but for the sake of simplicity, we will discuss the basics here.

The job of the tank is to trap and hold the solids in the wastewater stream. Settling occurs in the tank, allowing solids to sink, and soaps and grease to float. This separation allows clear water (effluent) to pass through the tank and on to the soil absorption area, where micro bacteria that are present in the soil, will digest and clean up the pathogens still present in the water, as it drains into the soil. The solids in the tank are consumed by naturally occurring organisms. This process creates a byproduct of sludge and scum to build up in the tank over time. If the buildup gets up to a certain level, it will flow out with the effluent, causing the soil absorption area to fail.

This is a very simplified answer and much more information can be found on the University of Minnesota website.

Q. What should I be adding to maintain the system?

A. Nothing. The only maintenance needed is periodic pumping and inspection. For an unbiased opinion on additives please look at the research information on the University of Minnesota.

Q. How often should I have the tank pumped?

A. This will vary from one family to the next, but the rule of thumb is that no tank should go longer than 3 years without being checked to monitor the build-up of solids in the tank. There are some factors that will increase the buildup of solids such as -the number of people in the household -the use of a food disposer -certain medications used These may increase the need for more frequent pumping.

Also, if your system has a lift pump in the tank it will require more frequent pumping. The important thing to remember is this... regularly scheduled maintenance will prolong the life of the system, saving you money in the long term.

Q. Where do you empty your truck?

A. Every load is taken to the Water Treatment Plant for disposal and treatment.

Q. What kind of soap should I use?

A. The use of detergents, household cleaners, and soaps are a question of balance. The best choices for the septic system are concentrated liquid detergents for laundry and limiting the use of anti-bacterial hand soaps to no more than one per household. Bleach should be used in accordance with the directions on the bottle. In other words, bleach needs to be diluted as per instructions and not used in excess. Other items to avoid are automatic toilet bowl cleaners, harsh chemical cleaners, polishes, solvents, paint, etc.

Q. What can I do to increase the life of the system?

A. There are a number of things that can be done to maximize the life of the system.

First, keep track of your water usage. All systems are designed for a certain number of gallons per day. For example, a typical design may call for a loading rate of 400 gallons per day. If your usage is consistently over 400 gallons per day, the soil absorption area will be overloaded and the system will promptly fail. A water meter should be added to help track usage.

Secondly, proper maintenance will greatly extend the life of your system. Just as regular oil changes on your car will increase engine life, regularly scheduled pumping will also extend the life of the drain field.

Third, do not allow vehicle traffic over the drainage area. The result will be compacting of the soil, which limits its ability to absorb water.

Fourth, water discharged from sump pumps, foundation drains, downspouts, and water softeners should NOT be allowed to enter the septic system. Leaking faucets and toilets that run will add a tremendous amount of water to the system. These should be corrected immediately.

Fifth, avoid using the toilet as a garbage can. Do not dispose of cigarette butts, sanitary napkins, paper towels, wet wipes, kitty litter, or disposable diapers. These will not break down in the septic tank and will tend to plug up pumps and pipes.

And finally, when having a new system installed, make sure the design is adequate for your family's lifestyle and water use habits. A system that is undersized from the start, will not be able to survive for very long. A little extra investment up front can pay off in longer service and less inconvenience later on.

Q. If I want to sell my house, am I required to have a new septic system installed?

A. If you sell or if you apply for a building permit, an inspection may be required. The inspector will look at several factors to determine if the system is compliant or not. This will including checking the tank to verify that it is water-tight, making sure the baffles are in place, and that a proper tank cleaning access (manhole) is present. The soil absorption area will be located and checked to verify that there is adequate vertical separation (typically 3') between the drain field piping and the high water table mark in the soil. The soil absorption area will also be inspected for surfacing effluent, excessive slope, distances from shorelines, water wells, property lines, buildings, etc.

If all of these conditions are correct, the inspector will issue a certificate of compliance. If there are some issues that need to be corrected, they will be noted. If the system is using a drywell, and/or a non-water-tight tank, a notice of non-compliance will be issued. If the system is found to be non-compliant, you have a choice of replacing it or selling the house as is. There are pros and cons to either choice. The pro, having a new septic system installed prior to the sale, will add value to the house, allowing you to recover the cost of installation. It will also sell easier as the buyer will see it as a plus. If you choose to sell as is, the buyer will have 2 years to upgrade a non-compliant system. This will save you money from having to install a new system. However, the cost of replacement will be negotiated from the selling price of the house. This option gives the buyer more flexibility in the design and layout of the system. If the inspector happens to find evidence of surfacing wastewater, not only will the system fail, it will be classified as an imminent public health threat. It will be required to be upgraded in 8 months.

Q. What should I do if the septic alarm goes off?

A. Some systems with a built-in pump also incorporate an alarm. The alarm sounds when the pump is not working. This is to warn that continued water use will end up on the basement floor. The first thing to do is stop using water and call for service. The alarm can be silenced and often times a service tech can be there in an hour or so to get things working again.

Q. Why are mound systems required?

A. The conditions that exist on your site will determine if you are required to have a mound system or not.

The main factors are: -the soil type and structure -the water table

If you have heavy clay soil, the permeability is low and it will not drain water away very well. A properly designed and built mound can overcome the challenge of slow draining soil. If you have a high water table, sometimes also referred to as seasonally saturated soil, a mound will allow for proper filtration of effluent before it can reach the water table, preventing contamination of drinking water supplies. This is the primary reason that drywells are no longer legal. More often than not, a drywell is contaminating ground water. In this area, there are many such sites where a mound system is required for adequate treatment and successful operation of such a system. However, if your site has suitable soil and enough vertical separation, (3' minimum between the drain field piping and the water table) a traditional gravity system may be used.

Q. I know people who have never pumped their septic tank for 20+ years and it is still working. Why?

A. First off, to use the word "working" is wrong. It would be more accurate to say "disposing". We too have seen this. This is a situation where the water has found a passageway out. What essentially happens is the tank will eventually plug solid. And the water (and everything else) will cut a path through to wherever it goes. Perhaps a swamp, a ditch, a river or lake. It may go into the groundwater, or come to the surface.

One thing is certain. Any system that has been ignored for a long time is most definitely polluting. What will often happen is a plug will cause a backup situation, forcing attention on the system. This generally happens on the older systems, whereas the designs from the mid- to late-80s are more apt to show a problem in the yard or backup into the basement if ignored for very long.

Q. Is there a best time of year to pump the tank?

A. It isn't a problem to pump any time of year, as long as it works out for you. What I mean by that is some like to pump in the spring before planting if we need to bring the hose in around a flower garden. Others like to have it done in the heat of the summer if we need to back up on the lawn. The vast majority prefer the fall when everyone is getting ready for winter. It seems to be one of those things to scratch off of a to-do list. Some choose to wait until the ground freezes hard if their lawn is sensitive to the weight of the truck. Others just rely on us to send out a reminder for service at a preset interval. The point is, don't wait until you have water in your basement. By keeping your system on a scheduled maintenance program, you can get the best service life with trouble-free operation.

Resources

Web Links
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University of Minnesota
On-site sewage treatment program at the Water Resources Center.

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