Septic Systems

What is a Septic System?

In areas where there are no city sewers, homes and businesses have an onsite sewage disposal system installed. This buried sewage system typically consists of one or more septic tanks and pipes laying in gravel that are covered with sand. The process of the wastewater (called effluent) filtering down through the gravel and sand cleans it up to remove harmful bacteria, viruses and nutrients.

To locate an existing septic system on your property, you may have to contact a local health department’s environmental health office. You may have also received information when you purchased or built the home with a drawing showing the location of the septic tank and septic system. Another option is to contact a local septic pumper or a certified septic system inspector who can assist with finding the system and tank.

How to Maintain Your Septic System

By properly using your septic system, you can avoid pricey replacement costs. By keeping large objects and food waste out of your system, you can maintain the tank’s natural bacteria balance and keep it working for a long time. Things you should not put down your drain include: feminine products, cooking grease or oil, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, dental floss, cat litter, paper towels or personal hygiene wipes, prescription medicines, excessive food waste in a garbage disposal, paint, solvents, toxic cleaners, toys and anything too large to flush. Remember that the bacteria in the tank and septic system are there to digest and treat the wastewater from your home. Proper care and attention can keep the system working properly.

Water from your home such as leaky toilets, old or dripping faucets and water softeners can create septic system failure over time. This slow dripping of water into the septic system can cause overload and flooding. To prevent this, check for leaks and repair them. Ask your local authority or health department if water softener water can be discharged to the ditch or ground surface as an alternative to your septic system. You can also replace your fixtures and appliances with low water use parts to reduce the total amount of water going into your septic system.

Septic systems and tanks typically have a maintenance schedule that is required to keep the drainage in proper working order. Septic tanks are recommended to be inspected within three to five years of moving into or building your home and thereafter as recommended by the septic tank pumper. Timing for pumping out the tank depends on household size and the amount of wastewater generated.

Dos and Don’ts for Septic Systems

  • Do pay attention to when your septic system is draining slowly. There may be an issue and it is time to do some maintenance
  • Don’t use the garbage disposal for a dumping ground of food waste, grease, oil, cleaners, paint or other solid items
  • Do find a record of where your septic system and tank are located on your property. Knowing where the system is allows you to visually inspect it to see if it is overloaded and flooding your yard.
  • Don’t forget to have the tank inspected and pumped out if the sludge waste is within 6 inches of the outlet of the tank. The solid waste in the tank cannot go into your septic system and should be removed from the tank by a professional licensed septic tank pumper
  • Do remember to fix leaks and replace appliances and fixtures with low water use ones that can promote the longevity of your septic system

For more information on septic system tips and information contact NSF’s Consumer Information Specialist at or +1 800.673.8010.