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Should You Buy a House with a Septic Tank? Read this!

My house has a septic tank; is that bad? If you grew up in a house with a city sewer system, a home with a septic tank and septic system will seem a little different at first. But it’s not the end of the world; you need to know a few things first.

This is very common in rural areas when they don’t have a complete water treatment system infrastructure. So here is our guide to having a house with a septic tank and septic systems.


What is a septic tank?

A septic tank serves as a wastewater treatment system for your house.  A septic tank can be made from concrete, polyethylene (hard plastic), or fiberglass. The septic system accumulates all of the liquids and waste from a household in the septic tank. If it goes down a drain (sinks, toilets, bathtub, washing machine), it passes through your septic tank.

Over time the septic tank fills up and will need to have the waste removed. The liquid is then removed from the concrete septic tank periodically, either through a pump in the house (liquid only) or a septic truck that removes all liquid and waste. The tank is usually buried underground with an access point sticking out of the ground.


How do I know if I have a septic tank?

If you don’t have a sewage line hookup, you most likely have a septic tank or a cesspool.  This tank can range in size from 750 to 1315 gallons. Septic systems are a common setup for people who live in the country as opposed to people who live in the city and are attached to a municipal sewer system.

The difference between cesspools and septic tank systems is worth noting because cesspools are usually older and will have more things to consider when buying a house.


What is the purpose of a septic tank?

A septic tanks purpose is to gather all of the liquid waste and matter of a house when a sewer connection is not available, much like a cesspool does.

The septic tank holds that material until it is pumped by a septic truck or the greywater is pushed out to a septic field or drain field. This is an area where the greywater from the house is returned to the water table for a long period of time.


How does a septic tank work?

Here is how a septic tank works. Everything that goes down a drain in your house ends up in your septic tank. Any liquids or solids that pass through your washing machine, dishwasher, toilet, bath, shower, or garbage disposal all end up in your septic tank the same way they would in a sewage system. If it goes down your drain pipes it passes through your septic tank and drainfield. 

The difference with a septic tank system is that they all end up in the same tank eventually and don’t go anywhere until later.

While some things settle in the septic tank, other things pass through to your leach field or drain field (also known as a septic field). The three of these combined are what are commonly referred to as water seepage.

There are two chambers in a tank; the first compartment gathers all of the sewage from the house. While the sludge settles and scum forms on top, the liquid then moves to a second compartment. In the second compartment, the liquid wastewater is pumped periodically to a drain field.


What are the contents of a septic tank?

The septic tank has three parts that go into it wastewater, sludge, and scum.  The sewage from the house goes into the septic tank, and then the solids settle to the bottom while the scum rises to the top; this scum looks exactly like you would expect… like scum.

The water in the middle is the liquid wastewater, or greywater, or septic tank effluent, and is eventually pushed out from the tank into a second compartment and then your leach field (drainage field, or septic field, depending on where you live). Your septic tank will need to be pumped regularly; how frequently will depend on the size of the tank and the setup. You read more about septic tank pumping here.


Septic Tank Diagram

This diagram gives you a better idea of how a conventional septic system works.

septic tank diagram

How much does a septic tank cost?

The installation of a conventional septic tank will vary in cost. They typically range from $4,000 to $10,000 for the tank and system, but depending on conditions, the price can rise from there.


What about solid waste?

The solids break down while they are in the septic tank, but over time they gradually build up. As the septic tank fills up and you will need to contact a septic truck to come and pump out your tank.

For some households that do not have a manner of getting rid of their wastewater into a drain field, this can be every week, for others a year, or even 3 to 4 years depending on usage, circumstance, and size of the tank.


Can you flush toilet paper in a septic tank?

Yes, you can flush toilet paper down into your toilet tank. But that is it.

Paper towels, dental floss,  disposable diapers, cat litter, feminine products, and other non-biodegradable cannot be flushed down your toilet when you have a tank because it won’t break down and can clog in the line.


Do you need to use special toilet paper for a septic tank?

It is best to use septic-safe toilet paper it is meant to be flushed, but the host of other things people through into a toilet can have a hard time in the tank and lead to clogging it. It is a good idea to not flush too much toilet paper at once as this can clog any toilet, resulting in you having to unclog the toilet.


Is a septic tank bad?

Septic tanks are one of the most common wastewater treatment systems in rural areas. While they are a relatively low-cost option for treating wastewater, they can also pose significant risks to human health and the environment if they are not properly maintained.

One of the biggest dangers posed by septic tanks is the potential for groundwater contamination. If septic tanks are not regularly pumped, the solid waste that accumulates in the tank can leach into groundwater, contaminating wells and surface water sources.

In addition, septic tanks can emit methane gas, which is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. While septic tanks have their drawbacks, they can be a safe and effective option for treating wastewater if they are properly maintained.

Septic tank pros and cons

There are several advantages to using a septic tank. First of all, septic tanks are relatively low-maintenance; once they are installed, they require very little care.

Secondly, septic tanks are environmentally friendly; they use natural processes to treat wastewater instead of chemicals.

Finally, septic tanks are relatively affordable; they can be installed for a fraction of the cost of connecting to a city sewer line.

However, there are also some disadvantages to using a septic tank. One potential problem is that if the tank is not properly maintained, it can become clogged and cause sewage to back up into the home. Additionally, septic systems can be costly to replace and repair if they break down.

If you are buying a house septic tank, it’s a good idea to get a septic system inspection, so you know about the age of the house. This will include a septic tank inspection as well so you know how many years you have with the system. Septic system failure is a result of a poorly maintained septic system. 


What does a septic tank mean for my budget?

If you have a septic system, you will need to budget for it to be pumped. Finding a septic service is pretty easy. It’s likely your neighbors have a septic tank so you can ask them. There may be a sticker on the tank, or you can search for a septic tank cleaning near you.

You will need to pay for a septic tank pump/ cleaning whenever your septic tank is full.

Budget wise the septic tank cleaning cost will vary depending on the size of your tank and the frequency of pumping.

For example, we have a drain field (more on those next) and a large tank. We get it pumped annually. However, since we built,  the regulations changed for leach fields in our area, and some houses need to have their tank pumped every week because they don’t have a drain field.

Make sure to ask about this before you make an offer on the house.

Check out Holding Tank vs Septic Tank: What you need to know


What affects the cost of pumping a septic tank?

There are several things that can affect pumping out your septic tank.

  1. The first is the location of your house; if the truck has to drive a long way to get there or has to drive a long way to dispose of the waste, you could face a surcharge.
  2. The location of the tank on the property is also an issue. Is it easily accessible, or are there any obstacles in the way that need to be removed, such as trees, soil, or other large objects?
  3. Does the lid removed easily, and is there a riser installed? If not, you could be charged because of the time involved to get the lid off.
  4. If the lid is not sticking out of the ground, or if the access point of the septic tank has been covered by the soil, it may need to be excavated and have a riser installed. In which case, you may have to pay an excavation charge based on the flat or hourly rate depending on the commercial septic company, depending on the resources needed.
  5. Is the septic tank easy to find? If you lived there for many years, you probably know where your tank is located. For new homeowners, they may not know where the tank is on their acre of land and if a lot of time is needed in trying to locate it by the septic tank company. A charge can be easily avoided with a little bit of searching or asking neighbors or checking municipal records.


What is a leaching field?

A leaching field, also known as a septic field or drain field, is a field where the greywater from the tank gets pumped out and drains back into the water table over time. Having a leaching field can make things easier and less costly because the tank disperses the wastewater rather than containing it, allowing for the tank to go longer in between cleanings.

By having a leaching field, you effectively get rid of the grey water in your system, which means that you don’t have to call for a septic professional to come and pump your tank as often. Your municipality may have restrictions on how small a lot you can have a leaching field. We had over an acre of land, so it met the needs of the area.


Aerobic Septic System

Aerobic septic systems are a type of system that refers to an aerobic treatment system. These water treatment systems are like a mini sewage treatment plant that uses an aerobic process to break down sewage rather than an anaerobic process like the kind that is used in a conventional septic system.


How is an aerobic septic system different from a normal septic system?

Aerobic systems use the aerobic treatment of sewage in the tank to break down the solids in the wastewater to provide extra processing to the wastewater (effluent).

The aerobic bacteria breaks down the biological waste in the effluent, and the remaining solids settle to the bottom of the tank, much like in a normal tank. This is the sludge that needs to be removed periodically when the tank fills up.

The next stage of the aerobic process is the cleaning or disinfecting of the wastewater, where chlorine is used to disinfect the water to create an output that is deemed antiseptic. This last stage is necessary if the effluent is going to be used above ground. This treatment is done with special chemicals and is used to disinfect the effluent.

Check with your local municipality as to whether or not your land is suitable for an aerobic septic system as there are various local laws that may need to be complied with.

The main difference between what is considered a standard septic system is that an aerobic septic system creates a secondary effluent (wastewater or greywater) which can be sterilized and used for surface irrigation. This means that the size of a drainage field can be cut in half under some circumstances.

Need a detergent that is septic tank safe? Read our Nellie’s Laundry Soda Review (it’s septic safe!)


Septic System Maintenance Plan

Talk to your septic tank cleaning professional about a maintenance plan for your tank. All tanks and households are different. The best thing you can do is talk with your cleaning professional and set up a maintenance schedule.

This should be established so that you can keep your tank working properly and also maintain the lifespan of your septic leach field. An inadequately maintained tank will lead to a breakdown of the leach field, resulting in higher costs down the road. Having your tank pumped regularly is also a good way to prevent a septic tank smell in your house.

Another good thing is to use toilet paper that is septic safe. Here are the best septic-safe toilet papers.


Septic Tank Camouflage

Let’s face facts, a giant circle sitting on top of your yard is a little ugly. It’s a constant reminder of where your sewage is, and it is a blemish on your landscaping. But like that rear projection TV in your basement, you are stuck with it. So what do you do?

If your septic tank cover is sticking out of the ground and you want to hide that big ol’ piece of plastic in the yard, look no further than a fake rock cover.

We recently bought a rock cover from Dekorra, and we absolutely love it. Normally these kinds of rocks are fairly obvious that they are fake, but the ones from Dekorra are amazing. If you are looking to hide your tank lid, then look no further than Amazon to get a larger look or to purchase; click on the link below to go to Amazon.

Related: Septic Tank Camouflage: How to hide septic tank lids and systems


Septic Tank Insurance

It’s always a good idea to make sure your insurance policy for your home covers your tank. Common issues that can arise from the tank are when the pump fails, and the tank starts to flow back into the house. This usually will happen at the lowest drain, such as a shower or bathtub (here’s how to unclog a bathtub, read it before you need to know it).

The best thing to do is to call your insurance company and ask them if your policy covers septic system failure and sewage backup. Many insurance policies will require a writer on top of the home policy to cover such things. It’s an extra cost, but pumps fail, and it’s a better thing to have than to risk.

At some point, the tank will need to be replaced. For most people, this is when the pump quits, but it’s good to know your pump’s lifespan and talk to your tank professional about how often your pump should be replaced and if you are due.


How long do septic tanks last?

Most septic tanks last about 20-30 years before they need to be replaced. If you are nearing this point you may need to consider the extra costs that will be involved in replacing the septic system. 


Do all houses have septic tanks?

No, not all houses have septic tanks. In fact, most houses in the United States are connected to the city sewer system. Septic tanks are usually only found in rural areas or in older homes that predate the city sewer system. 


How often should a septic tank be pumped?

A septic tank should be pumped every three to five years, depending on the size of the tank and the number of people using it. See more in our Septic Tank Cleaning article.


Tips for your Septic Systems

One of the biggest septic tank problems is too much water going into the tank. If you are using a garbage disposal in your house, it will greatly speed up the time in between septic tank cleanings, as all of that matter is still solid and fills up your tank quickly. Some reports have claimed that garbage disposals will fill up a septic tank 3 times quicker than without one!

Don’t plant trees around your tank; the tree roots can force their way in.  Doing so will cause your tank to crack and give you a host of issues.

Another tip is to be careful of leaks. If you have a toilet that is constantly running or a leaky faucet, you are filing up your tank faster than normal. It’s a good idea to fix those issues quickly. Otherwise, you will be paying for more cleanings.


Click Here to Find a Local Septic System Professional



Final Thoughts on Houses with Septic Tanks

While this was a lot to take in, a house with a septic tank is pretty easy to maintain as long as you aren’t flushing things that shouldn’t be flushed. A filter before your pump will go a long way to preventing a lot of the issues.


Click Here to Find a Local Septic System Professional

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