Why Septic Tank Pumping Is Crucial for Maintaining Your System

Amy Pawlukiewicz
Written by Amy Pawlukiewicz
Updated February 4, 2022
Young daughter helping dad washing veggies
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  • Septic systems pump and store waste from your home.

  • Tank pumping costs around $400, or $0.30 per gallon.

  • Pumping should be done every three to five years.

  • Replacing a septic system costs between $3,000–$10,000 on average.

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Septic system maintenance isn’t crazy complicated, but if you’ve never lived in a home with a septic tank, there are some important things you should do (and not do) to take care of it. Here’s some information about septic tanks, what maintenance you should be doing, and when to clean versus replace it.

How Septic Systems Work

Septic systems are used in areas where there’s no centralized sewer system. They are underground wastewater treatment structures that only treat the water on your property. Septic systems have two main elements: the septic tank and the soil absorption (drain) field.

When you have a septic system, all water from your home runs out via one drain pipe into your septic tank. The tank holds the water while the waste separates. The heavy waste becomes sludge and sinks to the bottom of the tank, while the lighter waste floats to the top, forming scum. The system then empties the water from the middle into the soil absorption field. As the soil and the water mix together, the soil naturally removes bacteria from the water.

How Often Should You Pump Your Tank?

Pumping residential septic tank
Photo: Artur Henryk Bialosiewicz / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Because your septic tank is storing the waste that it separates, that waste needs to be pumped out periodically. A good rule of thumb is to have your septic tank pumped every three to five years, but you should have it inspected once a year to keep it in good working order. Septic tank pumping costs around $400, or about $0.30 per gallon.

You may need to have your septic tank pumped more or less frequently based on:

  • The tank size

  • The size of your household

  • How much wastewater you generate

  • Volume of solids in wastewater

If you have a local septic tank pro inspect your tank yearly, they’ll be able to give you a better feel for how often you should pump your septic tank.

The Difference Between Septic Tank Pumping and Cleaning

Generally, “pumping” and “cleaning” are used interchangeably when it comes to septic maintenance, but there is a difference between the two. Septic tank pumping means that a pro uses a vacuum and sucks out all the liquids in the tank, including water, scum, and any sludge that will come out. Cleaning means that the company removes all the water and the compacted sludge from the bottom of the tank. 

As time goes on, your system will eventually need to be cleaned, as waste will compact on the bottom of the tank. However, pumping your system regularly—like every three to five years, more often depending on the factors mentioned previously—will prevent you from having to replace your system and reduce the frequency with which you’ll need to have it fully cleaned.

Keeping Your Septic System Healthy

There are measures you can take in your home to ensure your septic system runs smoothly. One key thing is to avoid septic tank additives. Septic tanks run on a delicately balanced bacterial system, and when you start adding chemicals into that ecosystem, you can mess it up.

Watch What You Flush

The only things you should be flushing down your toilet are toilet paper and human waste. Anything else can mess up your system, including: 

  • Feminine hygiene products

  • Dental floss

  • Cat litter

  • Paper towels

  • “Flushable” wipes

  • Pharmaceuticals

Do your system a favor and stick to only flushing what was intended, and you won’t have to replace it for a long, long time.

Think About What You Put Down the Drain

You should avoid putting cooking oils or grease, paint, and even chemical drain cleaners down your kitchen drain if you have a septic system. If your drain is clogged, use a drain snake or, if you have metal pipes, pour boiling water down the drain. Never use boiling water on PVC pipes, as it can melt the plastic and break the seals.

Care for Your Drain Field

Keep in mind that when you have a septic system, your drain field is a huge part of it. Never park cars on your field or plant trees near it, because the roots can interfere with the system. Sump pumps, roof drains, and any other drainage systems should be kept away from the field as well because excess water can leave a soggy mess and slow down the treatment process.

When to Replace Your Septic System

Sometimes, a simple cleaning isn’t enough to get your system in good working order. If your septic tank has a strong odor, wastewater is backing up into your drains, you have pooling water around your system, or you see bright green, spongy grass in your soil absorption field, you probably need to replace your septic system. The cost to install a septic system is between $3,000 and $10,000 to replace, and the cost varies based on location, permitting requirements, and the elaborateness of the system.

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