FEATURE ARTICLE — Septic systems need regular maintenance to function properly

By Meghan Sittler, Extension Educator

National Septic Smart week is Sept. 17–21, 2018. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses a week in September each year to focus on improved awareness of proper operation and maintenance of septic systems across the U.S.

The wastewater of approximately 25 percent of the population of the U.S. is treated by on-site or individual wastewater systems. In Nebraska, that statistic holds consistent with approximately 25 percent of our state’s population served by onsite wastewater systems on farms, acreages, suburbs and even some small communities.

Septic systems are the most common type of onsite system utilized throughout Nebraska. Certified on-site wastewater professionals are trained and required to install on-site wastewater systems. Regular large scale maintenance such as pumping septic tanks or major repairs of system components should be handled by certified professionals as well.

However, on a day-to-day basis it is up to the individual system owner to operate and maintain the system correctly. Systems that are not operated or maintained correctly by the homeowner can potentially cause damage to property and negatively impact water quality and public or environmental health. Wastewater carries pathogens, nutrients, bacteria, organic matter and other chemicals which are harmful to human health and water resources if left untreated.

Septic systems are designed to use naturally occurring aerobic and anaerobic bacteria to digest nutrients and organic matter within the tank. Treatment within the tank is step one in the treatment process. Water that leaves the tank enters the drainfield and enters the soil. The soil performs its natural “filter” action to continue to remove, digest or hold the majority of potential contaminants before they continue into groundwater resources.

However, like most things, “too much of anything can be a bad thing,” so it is the responsibility of the homeowner to do their part to help septic systems function properly. Here are some ways homeowners can “be septic smart.”

THINK AT THE SINK
• Don’t pour cooking oil or grease down the drain.
• Use boiling water or a drain snake to open clogged drains instead of chemicals.
• Paints, solvents or large quantities of chemical-based cleaners should never be poured down the drain.
• Reduce or eliminate the use of your garbage disposal. The garbage disposal introduces small particles of food as well as oils or grease that can change the stratification of the layers within your septic tank. Consider composting instead.

DON’T OVERLOAD THE COMMODE
• The toilet is also another inviting place to dispose of items that can damage your septic system or cause it to fail.
• An easy rule of thumb to remember is to never flush anything — liquids or solids — besides human waste or toilet paper.

DON’T STRAIN YOUR DRAIN
• Average water use for each person in the U.S. is 75 gallons per day. Conserving water in the house means there is less water entering the septic system which reduces the risk of the system failing and improves the operation of the septic system.
• Consider installing water-efficient fixtures in your home:
* High-efficiency toilets use 1.6 gallons of water or less per flush instead of 5 gallons of water per flush in old toilets.
* High-efficiency showerheads reduce water use to a maximum of 2 gallons of water per minute.
* “Energy Smart” washing machines use 50 percent less water than standard models. (Also remember to spread washing machine use out through the week and select the appropriate load size.)

SHIELD YOUR FIELD
• Don’t drive or park on your drainfield which can damage the laterals that are dispersing the water across the area.
• Only plant trees or shrubs with large root systems a safe distance from the drainfield. Roots can damage or clog the laterals causing the system to fail.
• Make sure you direct stormwater or other drainage away from your drainfield to ensure the additional water flow doesn’t impact the wastewater treatment process.

PROTECT IT AND INSPECT IT
• Set a regular schedule to have the system inspected and pumped by a certified professional.
• Keep all records including system location and design, registration, inspection results, maintenance dates and repairs.

DON’T FORGET ABOUT YOUR DRINK WATER WELL — THE OTHER HALF OF YOUR WATER SYSTEM
• Test your drinking water regularly.
• Practice good wellhead protection habits.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
• Nebraska Extension has many wastewater resources at http://water.unl.edu
• U.S. EPA has many resources at http://www.epa.gov/septic