02 Apr

By Kris Frieswick  /Wall Street Journal

March 21, 2024, 10:00 am ET  

Your septic system will not be ignored. 

You may want to ignore it. It’s designed to be ignored—buried somewhere in your backyard, like a shameful secret or a mortal enemy who has mysteriously “disappeared.” But there is only one thing worse than personally interacting with your septic system and its component parts—the septic tank and leach field—and that is ignoring it. Much like a trophy spouse, your septic system demands little except your consideration and maintenance, without which it will make your life seriously unpleasant. 

Waste-management systems are an essential part of any functioning, healthy community. Proper waste management is so crucial that instructions on it can be found as far back as the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 23:12-13. “Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself,” it commands. “As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement.” Bet you didn’t know you had a big old hunk of Moses-approved engineering history buried next to your rhododendron and arborvitae, a system that has helped to make modern civilization possible. 

How does it work? 

About 20% of American homes are not connected to a town or city sewer system and instead have an “on-site wastewater system,” which includes private septic systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These systems are not much more complicated than the Old Testament hole in the ground and the operating principle is mostly the same. 

Your effluent flows through pipes into your oxygen-free septic tank, where bacteria (most of which is thoughtfully provided by your gut) eats undigested material, explains Robert Rubin, emeritus professor of biological and agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University. “Their purpose is to break organic material down and recycle nutrients in our body, but those organisms continue to do that when they get out of our body,” he said. Gut bacteria is the hard-working rock star of organisms; like the Taylor Swift of the human body.

Once those little bacterias in the tank get to work, the solids float or drop and the watery part drains off via pipe to a leach field. And this, friends, is where the magic happens: The leach field and the microscopic creatures that live and work there behave like a filter that breaks up, digests, or attaches to the stuff you don’t want to end up in your groundwater. When rainwater passes through, it aids dilution, says Brian Baumgaertel, director of wastewater at the Barnstable County, Mass., Department of Health and Environment. With enough natural dilution, “whatever plume of waste reaches your well, it’s been diluted to the point where it’s not harmful to human health.” Although, he notes, some contaminants can be harmful even in very low concentrations. 

What could go wrong? 

So many things. Septic tanks can get cracks in them, like if your brother-in-law parks his new motorcoach on top of it, or they can back up if the pipes get clogged with grease, inorganic material, or roots from trees or other types of plant life. Systems can also stop functioning properly if the water table in the area rises and effluent can’t flow into the soil in the leach field. 

Another major no-no is flushing stuff that can’t dissolve or dilute. Septic systems also hate anything inorganic. Especially prophylactics, which, according to Matt Estes, managing partner of Bynum Septic Service in Lilburn, Ga., won’t just mess with your septic system. It can also blow up your marriage. On more than one occasion, Estes has been sent out to pump a tank at a newly built home that hasn’t been pumped out before. He opens the tank and sees floating condoms. 

Tip the person who shows up to pump your septic tank. Whatever their salary is, it’s not enough. 

Trouble starts when he suggests to the homeowners, in the spirit of education, that they shouldn’t be flushing condoms, and one of them says “‘We don’t use those.’ I’m like, ‘sorry to be the bearer of bad news,’ ” says Estes. 

The other thing Estes says is problematic, though not quite as devastating as the condom situation, is flushable wipes, which aren’t biodegradable and can clog up the system and burn out a pump if your system has one. Even his pump truck hoses can’t get them out of the tank. Don’t flush them, he says, no matter what it says on the box. 

Just say no to flushable wipes. Finally, he says to use antibacterial soap sparingly. It and other bacteria-killers like bleach can kill off the Swiftian bacteria that make the magic happen. 

How do I maintain it? 

First off, says Estes, before you buy a house, hire a septic company to do a thorough inspection to make sure the system is functioning properly, doesn’t show evidence of past failure or stress, and isn’t cracked or leaking. Home inspectors don’t inspect septic systems, and only a few states, such as Massachusetts and Washington, require septic inspections as part of the pre-closing process. 

Septic capacity in many states is based on the number of bedrooms, no matter how many bathrooms you have. Often, homeowners will add additional bedrooms after the septic has been installed, but they don’t add additional septic capacity. Make sure the home’s septic complies with your state’s requirements. 

You may want to ignore your septic tank, buried, as it is, in your backyard. Do so at your peril. 

Other pro tips: Use liquid detergents, says Estes, not powder, which can cake to the sides of your septic pipes. Fix drippy faucets and leaking toilets, which can add more than 50 gallons of extra water a day to your system, according to Dr. Rubin. Too much water can degrade the system’s effectiveness. 

Hire a septic company to pump the tank out at intervals based on use. The truck will then dispose of your waste at a waste treatment facility, where it is usually incinerated. This costs around $650 for a three- to four-bedroom home in Estes’s service area, but varies based on market. (Another pro tip: Slip the pump truck driver some cash. That person’s salary is not big enough, no matter how big it is.) Heavy use means pumping every two to three years, and normal usage means every three to five years, says Baumgaertel. If you can’t find your tank, get an “as-built” septic plan, which is usually filed with the home’s deed in your county Registrar’s office or local health department. 

How much does it cost if it breaks? 

A lot. 

If you promise to treat your septic system well, it promises it won’t cost you tens of thousands to fix.

Replacing a broken tank, and collapsing and filling in the old one, can run between $5,000 and $10,000 in Bynum’s Georgia market, and will vary widely depending upon local conditions. If you have to replace the entire onsite system, because, say, the leach field is proving to be not so leachy, you could be in for $15,000 to $18,000 depending upon whether the existing tank is reusable and whether you need a pump. 

About the only thing you can count on to never give up in your septic system is those little hard-working Taylor Swifts in the tank, doing their magical thing non-stop to make the world a better place. 

Write to Kris Frieswick at kris.frieswick@wsj.com

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