Everything You Need to Know About Septic Tank Maintenance (Including How Often to Pump It)

Matt Marandola
Written by Matt Marandola
Updated February 3, 2022
A gorgeous home exterior
Photo: PC Photography / iStock / Getty Images Plus / Getty Images

Highlights

  • Septic tanks need a pump every three to five years.

  • Only put appropriate items down drains, and avoid grease, hair, wipes, and solid foods.

  • Avoid chemicals where possible to maintain a healthy amount of bacteria.

  • Limit your water usage to prevent septic tank overflows.

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Despite your septic tank handling all things “waste” wise in the home, failing to maintain your septic tank properly can lead to a much stinkier problem. At minimum, commit to routine treatment, but for truly responsible septic tank maintenance? Well, sometimes it can get as nitpicky as handling laundry throughout the week rather than all at once. 

By properly maintaining your septic tank, you ensure the highest possibility of your septic system hitting its 30-year average lifespan. Keep reading to learn more.

Learn the Ins and Outs of Your Septic Tank System

Every septic system has two parts: a drain field (sometimes known as a leach field) and a septic tank. The size and scale will vary by house, so obtain as much information as possibly about the system from the previous owner if you’re purchasing a home on a septic.

If the previous owners don’t have the documentation needed, you can also contact your local municipality to source records of permits, installations, and an "as-built"—a drawing of the septic system.

Treat Your Tank Regularly

A septic tank system
Photo: senssnow / Adobe Stock

One of the most crucial components of septic system maintenance is pumping the septic system every three to five years. Over time, waste and sludge gather throughout the drain field and in the tank itself, which can overflow into the surrounding drain field and back through your pipes as the system hits capacity. 

Here’s how to tell if your septic tank is full and needs emptying:

  1. Pooling water around your drain fields

  2. Slow sink, bathtubs, or toilet drains

  3. Unpleasant odors

  4. An overly healthy lawn, such as greener, more lush grass

  5. Sewer backup

  6. Gurgling pipes

On average, the cost of pumping a septic tank is around $400. Keep in mind that septic tank pumping varies vastly, depending on the size of the house and the number of people living in it. If you’re concerned it’s been a while since your last septic tank pump, it’s best to hire a local septic tank company to check it out and offer some timely recommendations.

Only Flush Appropriate Items Down the Drain

Unlike a city sewer main, repairs are on you if anything happens to your septic system. If you’re in the habit of flushing no-no items down garbage disposals or drains like solid foods, grease, wipes, or hair, try to break this habit. Flushing items that don’t decompose properly can lead to a septic tank backup and even physical damage to the system itself. If this happens, septic tank repairs can cost anywhere from $200 to $6,000 to fix.

Avoid Chemicals Where Possible

When you buy a septic tank system, you’re also buying trillions of little working bacteria whose job is to break down the waste that enters the tank and drain field. While chemicals such as bleach may have been a cleaning mainstay when connected to city sewers, these harsh chemicals may kill the good bacteria in the septic system. Fewer bacteria means less waste breakdown. Avoid using them when possible to provide a “healthy” workspace for the bacteria.

Don’t Neglect the Drain Field

That large, open space in the backyard may have you pondering why previous owners never created a backyard oasis or poured a driveway there, but if you have a septic system, there’s probably a good reason. Drain fields locations are finicky and created in certain spots on purpose. Unfortunately, this renders that space relatively unusable for things like swimming pools, garages, or additions.

Day-to-day drain field precautions include:

  • Avoiding parking cars in the area

  • Not planting or moving trees and other deep-rooted plants in the area

  • Directing rain and water away from the drain field

  • Not dumping large amounts of water in the area

  • Forgoing patios, gravel, pools, or decks in the area

Drain fields don’t make the area totally unusable, as you can still plant shallow-rooted plants and grass. If you have a little one (child or pet), this area leaves plenty of room for outdoor activities!

Decrease Your Water Usage Where Possible

City sewage heads to a central location somewhere (hopefully) far from your property. Because your tank acts as the central location for all of your sewage and water, there’s a higher chance for the septic system to get overloaded. You should take extra daily precautions to save water and maximize your efficiency, such as:

  • Limiting the amount of time spent in the shower

  • Switching out older toilets for more efficient newer models

  • Running the laundry and dishwasher only when they’re full

  • Changing out showerheads for high-efficiency models

Again, a septic system pro near you can advise on further methods to keep your system operating for decades, no matter who in your family comes and goes.

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