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What To Do When Things Go Wrong With Your Septic System

Tips on how to avoid a smelly disaster with your septic system, straight from the experts at NSF.

Often, families who have lived in the city, where a septic system wasn’t needed, don’t even know what they are until they move out to the country. To help you avoid a dirty disaster, our experts offer valuable information about what exactly a septic system is, along with some useful tips for taking care of it.

What Is a Septic System?

  • Your septic tank may be made of plastic or concrete, and you may have more than one.
  • Your tank may have a filter called an effluent filter to help keep debris out of your treatment system or septic field.
  • Effluent is the liquid discharged from the septic tank into the field, where it then seeps into the ground.
  • You may have a treatment system attached to your tank. It may be adding chemicals, air or other treatments to make the effluent cleaner before it gets to your field.
  • The field acts as a filter for the effluent coming out of the tank. It may consist of sand, gravel and pipes, as well as fabric or straw to keep the sand from getting into the gravel.
  • A septic field is aerobic — that is, it must breathe for the bacteria to do their job.
  • Your tank will form layers, such as soaps and fats, oils and grease (FOG) at the top; clear liquid effluent in the middle; and sludge waste at the bottom.

Don’t Panic if Your Toilet Won’t Flush

  • Put a Halt to Hairballs in the Shower

    Put a screen over the drain to prevent hairballs from forming and blocking the drain, and clean the screen as often as needed.

  • Avoid Yuck in the Yard

    If it smells like sewage, it probably is. Don’t touch it, don’t let your kids play in it and don’t let your pets drink it. Call your local septic installer or septic tank pumper for assistance.
  • Don’t Rush the Flush

    Put personal care products, wipes and other nondegradable items in the garbage. Even with an effluent filter in your septic tank, you can still plug it with the wrong things going into the toilet.
  • Tackle the Tank

    Every three to five years, have your tank pumped by a licensed septic tank pumper. Follow the pumper’s recommendations based on how much sludge they pumped out to help your tank work its best. If you have more than one tank, both should be pumped.
  • Skip the Sewage Blues

    If your sink drain is moving slower than a sloth, try a plunger. It may be something you dumped from breakfast — like fat, oil or grease. Wipe pans with fat, oil or grease in them before rinsing with hot water or washing.
    Want to know where your septic is located or how old it is? Contact your local health department. Have questions about which onsite septic treatment systems or effluent filters are certified? Visit our wastewater listings database.

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