Since the 1880s, septic system additives have been marketed as helpful in maintaining a working septic tank. And now, more than 120 additives are on the market claiming to keep tanks “trouble-free” by “breaking down organic waste.” However, research over the last 10 years has been sounding a very different note.
Many of these products contain bacteria and enzymes that are based on the idea that many household cleaning solvents reduce the effectiveness of the natural bacteria in septic systems, which causes them to need to be regenerated. And although some of these additives may prove to be a short-term help, they can cause problems that are even more expensive, inconvenient and time consuming to fix.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that “the use of septic system additives containing [bacteria, enzymes, yeasts and other fungi and microorganisms] additives is not recommended,” and that it could “interfere with treatment processes, affect biological decomposition of wastes, contribute to system clogging and contaminate ground water.”
Septic system maintenance may sound gross, but many of the ingredients found in commonly used additives can create a whole slew of even more disgusting problems that you can’t avoid fixing.
Research conducted at Washington State University found that the natural bacteria in a septic tank greatly exceed the number found in additives, which researchers said “provides little, if any, benefit in wastewater breakdown.”
In 1994, the Washington State Legislature, which banned the use, sale and distribution of septic tank additives the year before (unless specifically approved by the Department of Health), said that “Chemical additives do, and other types may, contribute to septic system failure and groundwater contamination.”
One university research study, for example, demonstrated that the use of a biological additive caused the solid sludge layer at the bottom of the septic tank to decompose too rapidly, which led to rapid gas production. “As a result, solids floated up in the tank and were transported into the soil absorption field, which clogged soil pores, and led to reduced soil absorption rates.”
In contrast, another study found that some additives can cause solids to become suspended in the liquids, where they clog pipes and soil pores, which can lead to the failure of the septic system.
And the problems don’t stop there.
In addition to causing immediate problems in the breakdown of the waste, degreaser additives in particular may contain cancer-causing carcinogens that flow directly from groundwater into treated sewage into surrounding groundwater.
So, instead of using additives, which can cost a person $50 to $100 a year, a better option is to simply monitor the sludge and scum levels annually and to have your tank pumped every 2 to 5 years (about $150 to $250). Not only will this prevent unpleasant build-up and back-up, it will save you money and avoid negative environmental impacts.