How to Be Kind to Your Septic System

There are many ideas out there about how to treat your septic system so it lasts a long time. There’s also a lot of false information out there, but here are the essentials I’ve found to be true after researching and writing about septic systems for 20 years:

No bleach, ever: A coffee cup’s worth of bleach can kill all the beneficial microbes in a 1000 gallon septic tank. Sure, the microbes will eventually re-establish themselves, but in the meantime you’ve got undigested bits of sewage floating around in your tank, ready to make their way downstream into your leaching pipes. And even when the bleach leaves the tank, it’s going to make your leaching bed very sick, too. That’s why you should have an iron-clad, no-bleach policy for stuff going down the drain. My wife keeps our clothes nice and white without bleach. When she does use a little bleach occasionally for some small special cleaning job, we pour the remainder out on our gravel driveway. Never put bleach down the drain of a septic system. This warning is also true if you’ve got your own chlorine injection system for treating drinking water or you’re connected to a municipal water supply treated with chlorine. Your septic system will always be suffering if you pour chlorinated domestic water into it.

Spread out sewage loads: Every septic system has a maximum amount of sewage it can process in a given time. Instead of doing 5 loads of laundry a day, spread the work out over the course of a few days of a week. Try and convince people to take showers at different times of the day, too.  This really makes a difference.

Avoid powdered laundry detergent: Powdered detergent is less expensive than liquid, but powder doesn’t usually dissolve completely. Small particles of undissolved detergent often remain in suspension in the water, making their way into the leaching bed and plugging it in time. Use only liquid laundry detergent if you’re connected to a septic system.

Eliminate deciduous trees: Deciduous trees are the type that have leaves (as opposed to needles) and leafy trees generally love septic beds to death. Runners and roots from poplar, willow, maple and most other trees with leaves will seek out and home-in on the rich effluent coming out of leaching pipes.  Roots like these can travel 30, 40 or even farther than 50 feet seeking out sewage. The roots enter the holes in the leaching pipe and set up shop inside. Eventually roots can clog the whole pipe, preventing sewage flow. Watch for root congestion early on and take steps to solve the problem while it’s still easy. In warm regions tree roots can even worm into the tiny gaps between holes in septic tanks and the pipes that enter and exit them. All this is why a chainsaw is one of the world’s greatest septic system maintenance tools.

Keep your leaching bed mowed: There are two reasons to do this. First, regular mowing prevents shrubs, bushes and non-grass species from moving into your bed, clogging your leaching pipes. Grass and the usual sort of herbaceous weeds are  what you want on a leaching bed because plants like these have relatively short and well-behaved roots. Also, the blades of grass transpire a lot of moisture from the earth. The second reason to mow is to keep the grass growing vigorously. Grass that goes to seed isn’t growing nor transpiring water as much as actively growing green grass. Remember, 90% of the septic purification process happens because of plants and microbes in your leaching bed.

Despite all the do-it-yourself shows on TV, the DIY spirit is weaker in society than it used to be. People don’t do for themselves the same extent of things that my father and grandfather did. In many cases this makes sense given the fact that most households devote more time to earning money than they used to. But when it comes to a septic system gone bad, the situation is serious because the financial stakes are so high. Roll up your sleeves in an old fashioned sort of way, invest a little bit of sweat and you might just find that you come out way ahead financially and with a new sense of self reliance.