How Does A Septic System Work?

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Demystifying your Septic System.

 It’s hard to think of another system regarding your home that is filled (no pun intended) with more mystery than your septic system. So just exactly what is a septic system, and how does it work? We’re going to demystify the ins and outs of a septic system, and also help you identify what you can do to help keep your septic system healthy, and running smooth for the long run. 

First and foremost, let’s get into the what, and how of a septic system, and what exactly its job is. Then, we’ll cover a brief history of septic systems, and what you can expect when it comes to maintenance, inspection, and what you can do when things go wrong.

So, what is a septic system, and what exactly does it do?

What is a Septic System?

Septic systems in Idaho are fairly common, due to its rural nature and the distance that many homes might be from municipal water treatment and sewer lines.

Chances are, if you grew up in Idaho, you probably knew somebody who had a septic system, and there was a little mystery attached to what it was, and what it did. You may have been told you shouldn’t put this or that down there, or not to flush your toilets too often, and other esoteric bits of mythical information. Truth is, many septic system owners themselves don’t actually know what their septic systems do, or how to take proper care of them, so let’s remove some of the mystery behind owning a septic system in Idaho!

In essence, a septic system is nothing short of a simple onsite sewage facility, right there in your backyard. The most easily associated component of the system is a large container, made of concrete, plastic or fiberglass. The systems are designed to treat the kind of wastewater you would expect from bathrooms, kitchen drains and the laundry room. The water from these different sources is then directed out of the house or building through pipes, that lead to an underground reservoir or container, that takes advantage of natural processes to break down, or “treat” the waste. 

Who invented septic systems?

They are simple, yet exacting systems that have been around since 1860, when Jean-Louis Mouras built the first septic tank prototype out of concrete. Like most people, he’d become dissatisfied with having to go outside, and so necessity prompted the inventionof the modern septic system.

But did Jean-Louis know what he was doing when he first devised a septic tank? As a matter of fact, the natural processes which we have come to depend on and expect when we construct a septic system were still a mystery at the time, and Jean-Lious and his friends were quite surprised to find that when they dug into the system after ten years, that all there was inside the tank was mostly liquid with a bit of scum floating on top!

To improve the system, he began working with a scientist and after several more prototypes, he was able to successfully apply for a patent and share what he’d discovered over 20 years prior. So since 1881, society has been enjoying the benefits of the modern septic system, beating the weather and all the drawbacks of all prior waste management processes. The French may have invented the septic system, but the Americans can take the credit for fully adopting and perfecting them. 60 years later, septic systems were very popular all across the United States and Idaho, due to how cheaply and consistently they could be built.

Add another 20 years however, and it was pretty obvious that some changes were going to have to take place as concerns about groundwater contamination and failing tanks began to take shape. Cities and suburbs were growing fast, and municipal treatment facilities just couldn’t keep up, so new ways had to be devised in order to build better septic tanks and systems, faster.

So in order to reduce the failures that were being experienced due to cracking, rust, and concerns over drain pipes and leach fields, septic tank systems began to be constructed using better processes and more durable materials. Concrete tanks were precast, and other tanks were made from fiberglass, PVC, polyurethane and other durable plastics. With proper care (the mysteries we lead this article with) these systems could last much longer, with less risk of failure or impacting groundwater in deleterious ways. In fact, where water tables are high there are special requirements (now that’s a relief). 

Septic Tanks can be made of pre-cast concrete, Fiberglass, PVC and more.

But How Does a Septic System Work?

Septic systems have come a long way, from France all the way to Idaho and the modern era. But what about the mysteries behind how a septic system works, and how do you properly care for your septic system?

Jean-Louis didn’t know what to expect when he went to inspect his septic system after ten years of service, but we can safely guess what he might have been assuming. So what processes are in place that provide septic system owners in Idaho with the same consistent, pleasant outcomes?

Jean-Louis was unaware that what he had constructed behind his home, was a place for bacteria to relax, kick-back, and do what bacteria do best; break things down. Given time, and the right conditions, bacteria can do amazing things, like take household waste, and reduce it down to just a few basic components and water.

Waste finds its way to the septic tank, and that’s where the bacteria get to work. The word we like to use for water waste is “effluent”, and this is what fills the majority of the tank, most of the time. From here, it then separates into sludge, which falls to the bottom of the septic tank, and scum that floats on the top. Filters keep anything solid from leaving the tank, and the rest of the bacteria do their “dirty work” by breaking down what makes it out of the septic tank, in the drain field. So as you can see, there are really two sections, and two teams of bacteria, all doing their very best to turn the unmentionables that go down your drains into harmless, treated water.

When everything is working correctly, these two bacterial teams are healthy and busy, breaking down waste and keeping things moving. In fact, septic system maintenance is all about keeping bacteria happy, by giving them enough time and the right kinds of things to occupy that time. That means that what goes down the pipes, has a direct impact on the health and happiness of your system, and can end up costing you thousands down the road.

So how do you keep your bacterial teams in tip-top condition and happily breaking waste down?

How to Keep Your Septic Tank Happy.

Bacteria need two things to be happy and do their jobs correctly: time and materials, just like everybody else. If you don’t give them enough time, or you give the wrong materials, the quality of their production is going to go down, and your repair bill is going to go up.

That means that if you flush the toilet too often, or run too many materials through at once (think Thanksgiving and a full house!) you can throw off the balance in the septic tank, and things are going to get a little bit chaotic! This is where the recommendation to not relentlessly flush the toilets or shower excessively comes from, as moderation is always the best policy.  

Also, if you use a lot of bleach or anti-microbial products like antibacterial soap, you will decimate their numbers and things will get really backed up. As with everything, there are bad bacteria and good bacteria, and the bacteria who live and work in your septic system are the good guys, and they’re depending on you to keep them alive on the job!

Using the garbage disposal too much can overwhelm them, as well as flushing things that decompose very slowly, or not at all (think wet-wipes, cigarette butts, and more). Instead of throwing food scraps down the garbage disposal, you may want to consider composting or disposing of them in the trash. The garbage disposal can’t break the food scraps down into small enough pieces to avoid throwing off the balance in the tank or clogging your outlet pipe and drain field, causing issues you won’t be able to ignore in the future.

Also keep in mind that they can’t digest the synthetic fibers that find their way down the drain of your washing machine, either in the tank or in the drain field, so you may want to consider installing a filter to catch these fibers before they destroy it. While cotton fibers will decompose, they decompose very slowly, and some fibers like rayon or polyester never will, creating an impenetrable barrier that will impair drainage and starve your drain field team of oxygen.

Excessive sludge (or scum) can block or plug the outlet pipes, or make its way to the drain field (overwhelming your team on the green, and upsetting the neighbors too). Similarly, if you damage the drain field you are also going to reduce the bacteria’s ability to do their job effectively. That means parking or driving heavy equipment across it, which blocks the flow of effluent and starves the bacteria of the oxygen they need to thrive. That’s why it’s imperative to know not only where your tank is located, but where your drain field is too.

Replacing your septic tank can be costly, so preventative maintenance is key!

How Do I Know if My Septic System has Failed?

Now that you understand what your septic system needs in order to stay healthy, and how it works, how do you know that something is wrong, and how do you go about fixing it once it’s gone south? Only a trusted, experienced contractor who understands the science behind your septic system can properly assess, maintain, and service your septic system in Idaho. They can recommend a proper pumping schedule, and guide you regarding the amount of times you should flush your toilet, do your laundry, and allow your relatives to visit for the size of your particular system.

But if your system fails, how will you know? Slow drains, slow flushes, a sewage smell in the house, frequent backing up, and gurgling sounds from the drain are all compelling clues that you can look for inside the home. Outside, look for particularly vibrant patches of vegetation or grass (undigested waste is supercharged fertilizer), foul smells, or standing water (or worse) in the drain field.

If you have identified any of these symptoms, the next step is to contact an experienced contractor to properly assess the situation, make an accurate diagnosis, and suggest the best way to mitigate the issue or repair the damage. After these steps have been completed, your bacterial teams (in the tank and on the green) will have the right balance of time and materials restored, and your septic system will go back to being that (somewhat) less mysterious thing buried somewhere in the backyard of your Idaho home.

If you have questions about your septic system, need an assessment or some repairs, give us a call or send us an email today!

If you have any questions about your septic system and want to chat, give Fitzgerald Mechanical, Septic and Excavation a call at (208) 340-4691 or email Ryan at ryan@fitzgeraldmechanical.com!

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