Frequently Asked Questions
Selecting a System
How much does a septic system cost?
The cost can range from $10,000 to $25,000 or more for a new system, including installation. Buyers should also consider costs of maintenance, operation, replacement, and required land that will be permanently dedicated to the system. See the cost comparison table
What are the best choices for a septic system?
The best long-term choice for home sewage treatment is a system that uses a membrane bioreactor. This is the best available technology adapted and simplified from municipal treatment facilities. It is considered innovative for home sewage treatment but will likely become the standard in the future. The technology has been proven for twenty years in larger scale use. It fully treats home sewage and removes all of the complications of relying on a yard’s soil for treatment. It will never require a replacement dispersal field and the associated impact on landscaping and tree removal.
Should I select a system that requires semi-annual service?
Yes. All systems require attention, or they will malfunction or destroy the distribution field. Wastewater treatment is an essential function of the home. A little proactive attention can double the life of your system and save you $20,000 or more in the future. Also, taking and testing a sample as part of your service call lets you know the sewage treatment system is preventing the discharge of harmful bacteria into your yard, your neighbor’s property, or the environment.
What should I look for in a septic system?
It is in your best interest to make sure you buy a sewage treatment system that does not allow untreated or partially treated sewage to reach the surface of your property. Insist on performance assurances that the system has enough fail-safe mechanisms to protect you and your property. Ask county health officials for records of performance on systems they monitor. It is your responsibility to properly maintain your system, but also make sure the system is designed to warn you if too much water is being used and does not discharge until all wastewater is properly treated.
Should I buy a mound system?
The biggest drawbacks of a mound system are cost and that it permanently disrupts the look of your yard with a large mound and visible vents. It may be your only choice, especially in clay soils. To avoid a mound, you can explore spray irrigation dispersal if it is an option in your state. Spray dispersal costs less, can be hidden, operates once per night, and, if you select a treatment system that ensures removal of harmful bacteria, can be a much better choice.
Safety and Environment
Is spray dispersal safe? Will a spray system freeze in the winter?
Spray is safe if your system fully treats the sewage before dispersal and has fail-safe mechanisms that ensure treatment 100% of the time. You should not consider a spray dispersal system if you do not intend to have it checked twice a year by a qualified service technician. You should also have a sample of the effluent tested once per year and keep the test report. This will assure you that your system is well-maintained and in compliance with health standards. When you buy the system, insist on a performance guarantee that at least covers the first few samples. In colder climates, you can purchase spray systems that will not freeze up in winter. The better ones do not require electrical heat tape.
Do septic systems affect well water?
They definitely can. This is one more reason to buy a system that cannot discharge untreated or partially treated sewage. Once in the ground, water can move a long distance and can find its way to a well that might have a cracked casing. Also, heavy rains can soak the ground and push poorly treated sewage to the surface. Test both your septic system effluent and your well water for harmful bacteria at least once per year.
Can treated sewage water be recycled, reclaimed, or reused?
Most states allow reuse of treated water from a municipal treatment plant, but no states allow reuse of treated water from a home sewage treatment system. This could change over time as the best municipal treatment technologies like membrane bioreactors become more popular in home systems. However, spray dispersal of highly treated wastewater is a first step for beneficial reuse of treated wastewater. It allows grass, plants, and trees to absorb nutrients left over after treatment and saves on using well water for irrigation.
Septic System Maintenance
How do I care for a septic system?
Follow the Homeowner’s Guide provided when you bought the system. Use a service provider routinely and follow their advice. Use common sense. Do not put harsh chemicals into the system. They will disrupt the living beneficial bacteria you need for treatment. And don’t overload your system with grease, disposal wastes, or lots of water. When your alarm goes off, quit using water and follow your manual. More on how to care for a septic system
What happens if a septic system is never pumped out?
The collection tank of a septic system should be checked every year and pumped out when indicated. This could range from 1.5 to 5 years, depending on usage. The first tank of a septic system holds solids that do not degrade or dissolve. They sink to the bottom of the tank while grease and oil float to the top. Both should stay in the tank until it is pumped. If the tank becomes too full, they flow out into the distribution field and clog it. Pump the tank when recommended to avoid destroying your distribution field prematurely. If you are buying a house, ask the owner for service records including how often the tank was pumped.
What are signs of a failed septic system?
Look for slow-flushing toilets; backed-up drains or toilets; odors in the house, yard or near the septic tank; standing water in the drain field or near the septic tanks; and springy or spongy grass in the drain field and strips of greener than normal grass. If you see these, call a professional. Remember, a failed septic system can put untreated sewage in your yard. Do not go in this area without proper protective equipment, such as coveralls, watertight gloves, a mask, and eye protection.
What should I do if my septic system fails an inspection?
An inspection failure can be caused by temporary use of too much water and by a poorly maintained disinfection system. Both of these are easily remedied. If it is caused by a malfunction of the aeration device or unpumped tanks, these may be fixable if they did not cause damage to the distribution system. A damaged distribution system is not fixable and will require a replacement. When replacing a dispersal field, also consider replacing the treatment system with one that is better designed to never disperse poorly treated or untreated wastewater. You might also consider a spray dispersal system to avoid the dispersal system investment and future failures altogether.