If you move away to your perfect country idyll, it’s highly likely that it will have a septic tank. Heidi M. Sands ‘steps in’ with a layman’s explanation of the system and the ‘dos and don’ts’
Like a lot of people with an older property, we live with a septic tank. What this means is that we aren’t on mains drainage and our property has its own private system. The trouble is that septic tanks are generally quite old arrangements.
Most new properties with their own sewerage systems have a more up-to-date way of doing things: possibly a biodigester, a mound system, or even a reed bed.
When we moved here over a quarter of a century ago, the house hadn’t been lived in for quite some time. Maps and plans didn’t exist, and although we knew we had a septic tank, we didn’t know where it was. We didn’t find it until nine months later when things began to go awry and a large wet patch developed into a small pond. It’s an occupational hazard, sadly, because septic tanks take correct management to obtain the best and consistent results.
In common with other forms of private drainage systems, you are responsible for the workings of your own septic tank, and if it goes wrong you need to be able to deal with any problems or find someone to do the job for you. Public sewerage is, of course, cared for by the local authority, and for that you pay a standard charge. At present this doesn’t apply to a septic tank, but it may do in the future, especially if plans to monitor and check all septic tanks for adherence to rules come into play.
A septic tank is generally below ground level, under some kind of lid.
If the lid is lifted up it will reveal a tank in which all liquid and solid waste from your property ends up via a series of pipes, which also lie underground. All manner of waste goes into the tank, including water from your bath and sink, toilet waste, water from your washing machine and dishwasher, as well as rainwater from gutters and grids. The septic tank may also collect run-off water from yards and livestock areas, including washing water from kennels, loose boxes, stables, dairy areas, etc., although this may be frowned upon.
Unfortunately, other things can end up going into the septic tank, as well as the permitted toilet paper:
What you really don’t want in it, however, are nappies, sanitary wear, kitchen roll (from experience it doesn’t melt away well), baby wipes or make-up removal pads and cotton wool products. If it doesn’t dissolve readily in water, then don’t put it into your septic tank. If you do, don’t be surprised if things block up or stop working.
Don’t be tempted to lift the lid off the tank without experienced help:
Dangerous gases can build up under the tank lid and you really shouldn’t be exposing yourself to them. Bacteria thrive inside the tank, digesting the waste within it and rendering the outfall safe. What this means in reality is that the less solid rubbish that goes into the tank, the better it will work and the less it will need emptying. If you pour cooking fat down the sink or, heaven forbid, flush cat litter down the loo, don’t be surprised if it stops working. Don’t use harsh cleaning products either, as these can cause the system to stop working, as too can pouring petrol or waste car oil, paints, thinners or chemicals down the drain.
Remember, if you can bin it, then do so, and go easy on your septic tank.
There are biological products that you can put down your septic tank to restart or replenish a sluggish system. It’s debatable whether these actually work, and while it’s said that you should have your septic tank emptied annually, it may be better to leave things alone if they are working well. Specialist cleaners will come out to empty the tank for you and dispose of the waste.
A septic tank is a simple system:
Wastewater and necessary solids flow away from the house and buildings down a series of pipes into the tank. Solids sink to the bottom and floating waste rises, with liquid in between. The solids are broken down by bacteria and the whole slowly drains from the tank by another series of pipes, generally through gravel or similar before draining into the surrounding land. Given that some of these systems are rather old, each one varies slightly. Due to differing ground conditions, outfalls can be quite different from each other.
It pays to know your own system:
If you are moving to a property with a septic tank, make sure you ask relevant questions of the outgoing householder. Know where pipes and drains run and find out how to access individual access points so that any blockages can be reached with drainage rods. Know, too, where the outfall from your tank goes, and check it at regular intervals. Watching what comes out of your septic tank will give you a good idea if it’s working correctly. If only clear water emerges, then all is probably fine; if it stinks to high heaven and there’s black sludge, then it may be time to call in the experts.
Learn how to use your whole wastewater system effectively:
Too much water running continually into your septic tank will overload it and prevent it from working properly. That means turning off running taps, fixing any leaks and avoiding emptying large amounts of water such as swimming pools or hot tubs into it. In short, use the system wisely.
Once you know where your septic tank is, ensure that the lid is easily accessible:
It helps if it has small access points to it as well as the ability to be opened completely, but remember the aforementioned gases and leave the actual opening of it to the experts. Ensure that all buildings are well away from the tank.
In days of old, when many of these tanks were first put in, it would be teams of men who built and emptied them, but today it’s more usual for a tanker to do the emptying, and for that good access is needed.
Keep the area free from trees and tree roots too. Tree roots can grow down, causing havoc to a tank by damaging the walls and pipes. Remember, too, that if your tank is under a grass or lawned area, the grass will be damaged during any cleaning. Friends of ours landscaped their septic tank area with low-growing shrubs only to find a few years later that they needed to gain access to it. The end result was a sorry-looking mess in more ways than one.
To date we’ve had our septic tank emptied once in twenty-five years, so although I can’t claim to be an expert in such matters, in general it seems that we’ve got a good idea of how our own system works. We’ve got used to looking out for problem areas and addressing them sooner rather than later.
Things to look out for:
Include any pollution issues at all anywhere along the system. This means any surge of liquid or solid from any manholes or drains, as well as the aforementioned smell or sludge. Likewise, if the toilet water doesn’t flush away, the bathwater won’t flow down the plughole, or the shower tray remains full of water, you’ve got problems.
It pays to begin looking for potential causes of problems like these near to the house. Ensure that all pipes are clear and then look further along the system if things do not improve.
One tip we’ve found useful over the years is to iron out any bends in the pipework; it’s here that toilet paper can get stuck and cause blockages.
If you’ve done all that and still nothing flows freely, it’s most likely one of two things that are causing your problems: either the tank is deteriorating (if it’s very old), or the soakaway isn’t able to do its job. The soakaway is where the waste from the tank ends up, and if it becomes blocked you’ll need help to address the problem.
It may seem as if septic tanks are nothing but work and worry, but thankfully, when they are working well you hardly know they are there, so it pays to learn about your own system and keep it sweet and clean. Yes, it can be a bother teaching all and sundry not to put bleach down the loo at regular intervals, but it is worth it for peace of mind and cleanliness.
Always have the contact details for your local Environment Agency office to hand in case of urgent septic tank issues – they are there to help – but please note that areas of the UK do differ in their approach to septic tank rules and regulations, including septic tank registration and inspection.
There are alternatives to septic tanks for anyone off the main drainage system, as tying up to it is often limited to the resources of a Russian oligarch or an oil baron. The following websites provide information on just some of those alternatives.
www.ruralcostarica.com/biodigester.html for info on biodigesters.
www.ehow.com/facts_5733376_mound-septic-system_.html for info on mound systems.
www.reedbeduk.co.uk/plants%20&%20bacteria.html for info on reed beds.