Blog    |    The Harder They Are, The Bigger They Fail

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Septic tanks are not a new concept, especially for families and businesses located in areas outside the cities and the sewer options available to urban folk. They were invented by a man named John Mouras, a Frenchman, around the year 1860. His prototype was quite simple. He created a concrete tank and connected it to pipes made of clay. Although the plumbing system has changed so that we use far fewer clay pipes today, many septic tanks are still being manufactured out of concrete.

Industrial Options

Concrete is no longer the only option available. Septic tanks can now be made of steel, fiberglass, or hardened plastics, and each of these options has their own strengths and weaknesses. Fiberglass is a newer option and essentially functions as a harder plastic option. Steel septic tanks have been around for a while and are popular among industrial areas that need larger tanks. Both steel and fiberglass are often more expensive, and steel has the potential to rust and decay over time, and this can only really be fixed by replacing the entire tank. Fiberglass, on the other hand, does not rust, but it is vulnerable to fractures and cracks if it is mishandled.

Plastic Septic Tanks vs. Concrete

If you are a homeowner or you operate a small business operator, you are probably looking for a more affordable option than steel or fiberglass. These are easy to find in the form of plastic and concrete septic tanks. Both plastic and concrete tanks are significantly less expensive and perform the same as steel or fiberglass over time. Each material type has their own strengths and weaknesses, and potential buyers should weigh their options carefully before making a decision in purchasing a new septic tank.

The Rise of Concrete Septic Tanks

Concrete is the original material from which septic tanks were made. It was introduced from France to the United States in 1883, but it quickly became apparent that mishandled septic systems led to disease and environmental pollution. In response to this unfortunate discovery, Massachusetts put into place a set of regulations called “Title 5”, which was used to ensure the safety and uphold proper standards of septic systems.

By 1950, concrete septic systems were the norm and the regulations, created by the Massachusetts Board of Health, had created sustainable, environmentally safe draining fields. With a few further innovations in the form of septic tank risers and special filters, the septic tank today is a safe and successful alternative to the sewer systems found in cities.

The Benefits of Concrete Septic Tanks 

Concrete septic tanks have stood the test of time. John Mouras went out and dug up the original concrete septic tank in 1880 – 20 years after he had installed it, to see what was inside. His system moved effluent into a cesspool in his backyard, and when he opened up the tank, he discovered it was mostly empty. It had lasted 20 years and still had plenty of use left in it. Of course, we need to remember that the septic tank that only has to work for one person or one small family will likely outlast a tank established for a business or a commercial center because they will easily have to do exponentially more work. Nevertheless, concrete septic tanks usually have a long life.

Another great benefit to concrete septic tanks is that once they are installed, they settle quickly and do not move regardless of the activity of their contents. They are large and bulky; unless you attack them with a jackhammer, you are not likely to damage them very easily.

With proper maintenance, a concrete septic tank should last you decades. Most of this maintenance involves having your tank pumped out regularly to remove the buildup of sludge (solid material) and the addition of special enzymes to the tank contents to keep up a level of healthy bacteria that break down waste.

The Downsides of Concrete Septic Tanks

Everything has a breaking point, and concrete septic tanks are no exclusion to that rule. When properly cared for, they can last decades, but eventually, they begin to wear down. Concrete is not carved stone, and over time, acids in the wastewater can begin to break down the bonds that hold the concrete together, forming weakened areas, corrosion, and eventually cracks in the tank itself. Lower quality concrete also utilizes steel struts for support, and these are susceptible to rust over the years.

When these tanks crack, and waste begins to leak out, it causes a horrible smell and can poison the area and any nearby water supply. If a breakdown occurs, the tank must be dug up, and in some cases raised up and emptied. Since concrete septic tanks are so big and bulky and settle so quickly into the ground, this is often a very difficult task. While concrete can be easily patched (as we often do in sidewalks or other outdoor pavement), those patches do not match the same molecular level as the original concrete and will fluctuate their density in response to temperature changes differently than the original tank. This means, any kind of “patches” are often just a band-aid that can be worn off or refracted within a short amount of time. These are short-term fixes at best. Most often, any serious damage to a concrete tank requires the replacement of the entire tank.

To be fair, significant cracks in tanks of any material type often require replacement. However, due to its size and weight, concrete replacements are often more expensive than lighter materials. Attempts to purchase less expensive concrete will decrease the amount of time it will last and increase the possibility of it suffering accidental breaks.

When these concrete tanks work, they work well. When they break, though, it is a burdensome, expensive, complicated mess to clean up.

The Benefits of Plastic Septic Tanks

When some people think about plastic tanks, they think about milk jugs, plastic cups, or occasionally the plastic containers used to hold fuel for lawnmowers and chainsaws. Plastic as a material, however, is a technology that has enjoyed continual improvement throughout the 20th and 21st century. Plastics have been used to create armor to deflect bullets, withstand high heats, frozen temperatures, hold together large and small pieces of equipment at once, and protect property from harsh weather conditions. As a material, it can be made quickly and easily, which means it is far less expensive than materials like steel or fiberglass.

While it comes closer in price to concrete, it is many times lighter, which means you incur less cost installing a plastic septic tank than a concrete septic tank. In most home installations, you do not require heavy machinery or special lifting equipment to get it into the ground. This light weight and ease of transport can be especially important for rural dwellers who may live in places that are not accessible to the heavy machinery required to install heavier types of septic tanks. Plastic is also impervious to rust and much more resistant to any form of decay that plagues concrete and steel tanks in particular.

There are basically two ways that plastic septic tanks suffer damage. One is if they are hit or dropped during installation. If this happens, they are less likely to crack than fiberglass, and more likely to form a dent, which will not likely affect their function in your septic system. The other way they suffer damage is through temperature changes that can change the density of the plastic material compared to any metal pipes or fixtures. Plastics, however, are more flexible and perform significantly better than the harder materials such as fiberglass, steel, or concrete. Plastic bends where other materials break.

The Downsides of Plastic Septic Tanks

Plastic tanks are a much cheaper and more durable option for septic tanks, but there are a few challenges they face as well. The lighter weight of these tanks is the cause of many of these challenges. In areas with high water levels, the tanks can sometimes shift around underground. This causes them to tilt and sometimes disconnect from their intake and output pipes due to the strain. Because of this, certain areas require that plastic tanks be weighted down to help hold them in place. Other areas do not allow them to be installed at all. It is important to check with local ordinances to be sure plastic septic tanks are allowed on your property before you purchase and install one.

The only other downside to plastic septic tanks is that they do not come in as large of sizes as steel and concrete septic tanks can be made. For this reason, plastic septic tanks are an excellent choice for homeowners and small businesses rather than major industrial or commercial areas. Maintenance is far simpler and more affordable for them, and even if a full replacement is necessary, it will be an easier, more affordable solution for you than dealing with a harder, heavier septic tank.

The Conclusion?

While there are pros and cons to both plastic and concrete septic tanks, the facts seem clear: if you value convenience, plastic is the way to go. To find the right plastic septic tank for your home or business, reach out to the experts at Go To Tanks.

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