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What to know about septic systems

Septic tanks and septic systems are an important, but often forgotten part of the home - much like electricity or water. To quote a popular power ballad by rock (and spectacular hair) band from the 80s, Cinderella “You don’t know what you’ve got, ‘til it’s gone.”

You may hardly think about your septic system or the condition of your septic tank, but when it isn’t working, there isn't much else you can think about.


What is a septic system?


Living in a rural area, you are probably a bit familiar with what a septic system is. If you have just moved into your home or are moving to a rural area for the first time, here is a crash course on what a septic system is and how it works.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines septic systems as “underground wastewater treatment structures, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.” So if you don’t live in an area with a centralized sewer system, you have to have a septic system.

There are typically two parts of a septic system - the septic tank and the drainfield or soil absorption field.

It may not be fun to think about, but if you have a septic tank it is important to know how it works. The plumbing from the home is pumped into a septic tank. The septic tank digests the organic matter and then separates the floatable matter (like grease or oil) from the solids in the wastewater. The EPA states: “soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field (also called a drain field), chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent (or liquid waste) into the soil.”

Septic systems are sophisticated and necessary to maintain the health and safety of you and your family. Living in a rural area means not only does your home use a septic system but also a well. It is important to have proper distance from the well to the drain field, and make sure each part of the septic system is properly maintained so it operates correctly. Tanks must be emptied regularly and drain fields should be monitored. Failure to do so can result in contaminates entering the ground near the well which could impact your home’s drinking water.


large blue and white upscale house with a big freshly mowed backyard


Types septic tanks


There are several types of septic tanks available for homeowners to choose from including concrete, steel, plastic and fiberglass.


Concrete septic tanks are a reliable wastewater system option for homeowners and commercial businesses. Concrete is the ideal material for a septic system. Michigan’s heavy snows and rains can saturate the ground, but concrete septic tanks will never rust or “float” to the surface inevitably leading to failure. If a septic tank floats, it can become dislodged from the piping system to the drain field leading to backups into or around the home.


Along with being a solid, heavy material, concrete is one of the most reliable and notable products used around the world. They are also environmentally safe and do not affect ground water quality. Precast tanks are the most common way to purchase a concrete septic tank. The tanks are delivered ready to be put in the ground and installation is straightforward.


The durability of concrete means a tank can be used for up to 40 years without replacement. The solid structure also can be pumped empty without the fear of collapsing the tank (which can happen with other types of materials). A precast tank is also made airtight so owners do not have to worry about groundwater leaking in or septic water leaking out.

A concrete precast septic practically lets homeowners set it and forget it with maintenance only every few years. However septic tanks are susceptible to weather as the bacteria inside the tank can have difficulty surviving in low temperatures. When the thermometer dips below 50 degrees bacteria slows and even stops moving. This can cause a build-up of sludge. Midwestern homeowners should be sure to seed their septic tanks with bacteria that can function in colder weather. Also avoid using heavy cleaners such as bleach that contain antibacterial properties.


The heavy rains of spring are also a time to keep an eye on drain fields. Heavily soaked lawns from rain or melting snow cause the ground to be saturated making it difficult for water to drain from the septic system. It is also important to point all gutters away from the drain field to reduce the amount of water seeping into the ground.


slightly flooded yard with a few trees

When there is a problem


Septic systems should be inspected every three years by a professional to make sure everything is working properly. There are some red flags, however, that you should keep an eye out for to make sure your septic system is working properly.


· Sewage backup – if you notice any raw sewage backing up in your home’s sinks or toilets call a professional immediately. This could mean that the pipe system has failed due to a floating tank or other issue.


· Puddles in the drain field – if the backyard has too much wastewater it will puddle signifying need for replacement. This could mean the drain field has a problem in the pipe system.


· Foul odor – smelling a foul odor near the septic tank. This could mean the septic tank is not sealing properly allowing vapors to escape. While it could be a simple fix, it could also mean the entire tank may need to be replaced.


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