Blog    |    Septic Tanks 101: How Septic Tanks Work


Wastewater management isn’t something you likely have cause to think about very often, but if you’re in the market for a new septic tank, it pays to be educated on the subject. Knowing which type of tank you need for your property can ensure your system works for your needs and budget. You don’t want to end up having it pumped too often or have trouble if it overflows and causes a costly and hazardous problem to your property. In this article, we’ll cover some basic info that will help you feel more confident as you navigate the world of septic tanks.

What is a Septic Tank?

A septic tank is a plastic, fiberglass, or concrete chamber placed underground to hold wastewater from your household if city sewage is not available to you. We have been using septic systems for over 150 years. The idea was conceived by Frenchman John Mouras when the Thames river became infected after people disposed of their waste into the once-fresh water. He came up with the idea to use pipes to remove bathing and toilet water and store this waste in a collection tank. When that chamber overflowed, more pipes then carried the wastewater to a community cesspool.

Thankfully, septic tanks have evolved into environmentally-safe, regulated systems that do their intended job well. They also provide nutrients to the soil on your property. The septic tank requirements such as size of the tank depends on how many people are in your home, how many bathrooms you have in your house, and the size, shape, and soil of your property.

Septic tanks need to be maintained properly to ensure the long life of your purchase. Some types are designed to distribute certain portions of environmentally-safe greywater back in the deep soil on your property. If you do not maintain your septic tank, waste that is supposed to settle in the bottom could build up and seep into the absorption soil. Most septic tanks can store waste for two to four years on average, but maintenance is a must to prevent hazardous and costly repairs.

How do Septic Tanks Work?

We usually don’t think about how septic tanks work, but if you’re in the market for a new system, there is good reason to understand the processes, types, installation, and maintenance.

Septic tanks use pipes to carry wastewater out of homes and store it in a collection chamber. Inside the reservoir, different types of filtration systems separate the layers into specific types of waste. A bacteria layer forms inside the tank, performing a very important function: breaking down solid waste.

Greywater is considered water that is safe to return to the environment. It comes from baths, sinks, dishwashers, and washing machines. The distribution system inside a septic tank uses pipes to then deliver the greywater safely into deep soil, a resourceful way to maintain your property’s appearance. Other heavier wastes stay inside the bottom of the chamber until it is emptied by professionals who remove this layer entirely from the tank. This usually happens annually but can be done as rarely as every three years, depending on your system.

Understanding how septic tanks work can help a homeowner maintain their system’s functions and prevent overloading the septic tank system. Because these layers are important to keep separate inside the chamber, homeowners should be cautious of certain aspects of water and even land management. If your land settles and the tank is not maintained on level, this could cause the tank to tip to one side and leave the contents building up unevenly inside. Solid waste could then be distributed into the absorption soil layer instead of staying in the bottom to be later removed by a professional.

Overloading of the tank with excessive greywater can also cause an imbalance within your septic tank system. You should immediately fix leaky faucets, running toilets, and refrain from doing a lot of laundry in one day, which will help keep these layers properly balanced. If the filters, risers, and compartments of septic tank systems are maintained by professionals and with care from the homeowner, this system will be a resourceful and cost-saving way of removing wastewater and replenishing nutrients to your land.

Types of Septic Tanks

When deciding what type of tank is right for you, you will first need a soil analysis by a professional. There are four septic tank types, depending on your housing situation. The most basic systems simply involve gravity to collect wastewater into chambers. This system works in places where placing a container underground is feasible. Septic tank requirements include the type of soil on your property and square footage of your absorption field. If you have hard ground, sand, or uneven property, there are other options available to you. The other septic tank designs include low-dose pressure systems, which allow you to pump wastewater out of your home a couple times a day into a much smaller septic tank. Multiple pipes then flood the gravel area under your property’s designated drainfield. There, the properly-aerated land can help break down the wastewater in an environmentally-friendly area. Another septic tank type is the evapotranspiration system. These septic tank designs are for specific regions where arid conditions require an open trench where natural evaporation is utilized.

The most popular and practical septic tank design is the aerobic septic system. This is akin to the sewage waste removal that is provided in city environments. This systems uses oxygen to increase the amount of bacteria in the septic tank. This bacteria breaks down the waste with natural efficiency. These septic tank designs have a pre- and final treatment segments that creates purified greywater that is safe for sprinklers to distribute onto your absorption field. This is the most natural way to dispose of wastewater and return nutrients to the environment.

Septic tank requirements for your location determine your overall cost of purchase of the chamber, style, and installation. There are 225 gallon septic tanks for two-person, one bathroom households with low-dose pressure systems. Multiple bedroom/bathroom households could need a 1000 gallon tank. The septic tank costs vary depending on how big of a chamber you require and what type of land you own for the distribution field. Installation of the entire system is where the bulk of the cost is generated. The tank itself ranges between $500 to $1500 but the manpower required for septic tank installation could range between $2500 to $4500 on average.

Maintenance and understanding of your system is most important after installation, as emergency septic tank costs could be anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000, depending on the degree of breakdown of the system. If your septic tank backs up and you have sludge rising up from your shower or toilets, the damage done to the interior of your home can bump up these repair costs to much more than just the re-excavation of land and system repairs.

Proper maintenance includes pumping the bottom sludge layer to maintain an equal balance of layers. If the sludge builds up and begins to mix with the distribution of greywater, this is an environmental hazard. Prevention of problems will protect your investment for years to come. Professional drainage can cost between $250 to $500. Anaerobic septic tank systems, such as gravity septic tank designs can need drainage annually. The popular aerobic septic tank systems can extend the drainage schedule to three or even four years apart, depending on your circumstances and system maintenance. Learning about the right design for you can reduce your overall septic tank cost for professional installation, pumping, and maintenance.


Septic Tank Installation

When you schedule your soil analysis with a professional engineer, you will work closely with them to decide the septic tank type, design, and cost that is right for your household and property. Septic tank installation requires that the professional engineer does a site survey and soil test. They will discuss your options based on topography, household water usages, and how close your property is to a well. There are laws for septic tank installation as far as how close to the house boundary a septic tank system can be installed. It is usually 50 feet. The professional company will obtain the proper permits to fulfill these septic tank requirements and begin working on your property.

If you are seeking to install a new septic tank, such as a basic gravity system, a professional company will dig, drill, and place your septic tank and pipes on your property using various excavation and digging equipment. The septic tank installation process will place the entire system underground in the designated areas, including the pipes to drain to your absorption field. You should call to set up appointments for an inspector to come out to ensure that the pipes, tank, and system is within state regulations. Proper inspection should be done before the ground is recovered by topsoil so the inspector can see all hardware. Most professionals suggest calling the inspector when the process begins so you can schedule frequent visits throughout the entire septic tank installation process. They will ensure that health regulations are being met or exceeded to protect your family and property.

Now it’s up to you to choose the right system for your needs. Septic tank cost, installation, and type needed are the most important decisions you will make. Understanding how your system functions and how to best prolong its components as a whole will ensure you get your money’s worth, along with an enduring private waste management system for your household.

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