Following the Flush to Septic Bliss

| 12/2/2008 4:35:56 PM

Tags: septic system,

Back when our drains dumped into a city waste water system, we didn’t think much about sewage — beyond what might be behind a plunger. But after moving to a farmhouse with a neglected, though functioning, septic system, we’ve found ourselves flush with tank tips.

toilet paper
  Rob Jones

First, what we did wrong: We didn't ask the home seller to dig up the lid of the septic tank before we bought the house. We had a pretty little map that showed where the septic system should be, but it took a dowsing stick experiment, lots of digging (that included tearing up parts of our deck) and three visits from a pro (who had to resort to fishing in our toilet with a tracking device as bait) to find our tank.

Next, five things we (and you) can do right. After chatting with our friend, Jim Levine of Vann Boys Septic Service in North Carolina, and the folks at Outhouse Rentals & Septic Tank Pumping here in Floyd, Va., we’ve gathered some important tips:

  1. Septic additives fall somewhere on the scale between pointless and harmful. On the other hand, helpful bacteria can be added to counteract what’s killed by household cleaners, much in the way eating live-culture yogurt can replenish intestinal bacteria after a round of antibiotics.
  2. Be thoughtful about what goes down the drain. Gentle cleansers deplete fewer bacteria, and grease just clogs up the system. As Jim suggested, we scrape all our grease and fatty leftovers into old cans that we keep in the freezer until our next trash run.
  3. Space water use. Despite having a high-efficiency washer, we have discontinued laundry day in favor of a trickle of laundry throughout the week. We’re also careful to space out dishwashing, showering and other water-intensive chores.
  4. Coated toilet papers might be nice for the tush but they’re garbage in the tank. The folks at Outhouse suggested testing paper by putting a couple of sheets in a jar of water and giving it a good shake. If it shreds, it’s septic safe. Just say no to any TP that stays in nice, neat squares.
  5. Allow only grass or shallow-rooted bulbs and perennials to grow in the septic field. Tree roots are the main cause of system failure.

For more septic system tips, try these articles:

Understanding Septic Systems
The Truth About Septic Systems
Septic System Basics

beth r
5/28/2009 3:56:03 PM

I believe the reason you find some people diverting gray water from their septic system and others who don't is because it is illegal in some towns/states to run gray water anywhere other than your septic system/sewer system. I worked for a very small town's sewer & water system for over 5 years and read through many rules established by the State's Department of Public Health who are the primary enforcers of this statute. When a home is inspected before it sells, this usually comes up. But when we purchased our home, the washer machine water discharge line was buried and going in the same direction as the septic tank! We had no idea that we were already sending our wash water out to water the trees!

sarah beth jones
12/11/2008 7:33:23 AM

Jim, our pumper buddy in NC, said that it's very common there to divert washing machine water elsewhere, but I haven't met many people in Virginia who do the same. Who knows why? But I do want to look into it for our house - it makes perfect sense and I'm sure the scraggly apple tree just outside the door would love the extra TLC! I've never heard about the sugar and yeast trick, but it also makes sense - the sugar gives the yeast something to munch on and, I suppose, grow into healthy bacteria that munches on the rest of the tank contents? I'll have to ask my pumper friends if they've ever heard that one... -SBJ

caroline halliwill
12/10/2008 2:23:06 PM

I, too, divert my wash water into my garden. The laundry detergents do not harm my flowers and bushes. During the winter, the water goes out onto the ground instead of the garden. It drains into an area that has gravel from the previous owner (who lived here over twenty years ago) when he put up a shed and the ground is sandy, so there is no standing water. Only our bathrooms drain into the septic. We shut the water off to the toilets during the day (we have a disabled son who likes to watch the water swirl down the drain) and flush only when absolutely necessary and always at night, then we turn the water off again. The kitchen drains into an old pit. It has never filled up and we never put anything but liquids down the drain. I use vinegar about twice a month to clean out the drains.

12/10/2008 1:16:27 PM

When we moved into our mountain house over 20 years ago, the previous owners instructed us to dump 2 cups of sugar and one packet of yeast down each toilet, every month. We've never had a problem. The toilets are the only thing that empties into the septic, which keeps it from filling. Everything else is grey water. We have many happy trees!

gladys rayhill
12/10/2008 11:33:21 AM

Doesn't the detergent harm the plants? I'd love to use dishwater/wash machine water etc to water a living snow fence we have created near our driveway. It sure would save on water and use of our pump in the deep water well. We live too far from anywhere to have city sewer/water etc...

barbara pleasant_3
12/5/2008 2:25:25 PM

I once had an old house where a garage had been built over a failing septic system. Replacing the tank to bring it up to code would have required us to take down two buildings, so we limped along for two years, until a new town sewer system finaly came through. One of the things we did was to divert washing machine water out of the system most of the year. Except in winter, we let it run out through a pipe on top of the ground. Since then I've noticed that this practice is common in some areas but not in others. What gives? Next summer I'm thinking of piping my washing machine water to my perennial bed. No edibles there, just flowers.

sarah beth jones
12/5/2008 7:20:11 AM

Thanks for the great insight, Mary - I had heard rumors that codes can make septic fixes true budget-busters and I was quite relieved when ours was in working condition! I'm glad yours is all healed! -SBJ

12/3/2008 11:37:47 AM

When our drain field failed, we learned a couple of things: 1. Don't call the health department if there's standing water on the ground. Codes vary; check with yours. But here in VA, if there's standing septic water, they can FORCE you to fix it however they think best. Our local inspector liked bubbler systems ($10,000). (Our ground was only wet; we were able to get a second drain field put in for $2400.) 2. They told me that, if the field dried out, bacteria would grow in it that would open it up again. They said it needed to be dry for about 6 months. Right after we put in the new field, we had a 6-month drought. Our new field wasn't really satisfactory, so we switched back to the old field--no problems! 3. We put in a diverter valve so we could select which field to use. HTH, Mary

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