Septic System Basics

Carol Steinfeld shares information on septic system basics, including soil absorption systems, pumping waste, septic additives and septic care.


| October/November 2002



These septic system basics will help homesteaders handle septic problems.

These septic system basics will help homesteaders handle septic problems.


ILLUSTRATION: PETER ASCHWANDEN

Learn homesteader septic system basics needed to maintain your property's waste processor.

Adapted from The Septic System Owner's Manual.

David Hayward came home one summer day to find brown, swampy puddles in his front yard. As he puzzled over the brown ooze, his neighbor strolled over and identified the problem: "Looks like your septic system went." Until that day, David didn't know septic system basics, he didn't know that septic systems died — he thought of his system as a simple underground tank that just made wastewater disappear.

His local septic contractor pumped the system out — twice. The diagnosis: Clogged leach field. The recommendation: Replace the entire leach field to the tune of $12,000.

While city dwellers connected to a public sewer typically flush and forget about it, homesteaders living outside of the municipal sewage system are forced to face their waste and are required to have their own wastewater treatment system, typically a septic system. And septic systems commonly fail, says Joe Brown, who operates Septic Sage, a septic pumping and consulting business in Newburyport. Massachusetts. "A septic system is more than a disposal system -it's a living ecosystem. You wouldn't feed your pet something it couldn't digest, nor would you give it more than it could eat or drink at one sitting. Yet we do that to septic systems all the time, and then wonder why they suffer from backups or clogged arteries and fail." To get the maximum life from your septic system, Joe says, install a good system in an appropriate place and monitor what goes into it.

In a poorly sited or malfunctioning septic system, disease-causing organisms and toxic chemicals can move into groundwater sources. A faulty system can leach nitrogen nutrients from urine into drinking water, causing a variety of problems. When ingested, nitrogen interferes with the blood's ability to carry oxygen, a condition known as methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome, which can be fatal to infants. Nutrients also can make their way into surface waters, such as lakes and streams, resulting in excessive growth of plants. As the plants die and decompose, they consume oxygen in the water, further choking off other aquatic life. And if you don't have a well-functioning septic system, you might be cited by local authorities and required to upgrade your system, often for a price tag of thousands of dollars.





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