Septic Tank and Septic Systems 101

septic tanks and septic systems

Written by Andrew

February 15, 2020

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My house has a septic tank is that bad? If you grew up in a house with a city sewer system a house with a septic tank and septic system will seem a little different at first. Here is our guide to septic tanks and septic systems. 

What is a septic tank?

A septic tank is a tank made from concrete, polyethylene( or hard plastic) or fiberglass, that accumulates all of the liquids and waste from a household. The liquid is then pumped from the tank periodically either through a pump in the house (liquid only), or a septic truck that removes all of the 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.


What is the purpose of a septic tank?

A septic tanks purpose is to gather all of the liquids and waste matter of a house when a sewer connection is not available.


How do septic tanks work?

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, garbage disposal all end up in your septic tank. They all end up in the same septic tank eventually.

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

There are two chambers in a septic 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 waste water 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, scum, wastewater and sludge.  The sewage from the house goes into the 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 waste water, or grey water, or 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).


Septic Tank Diagram

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

septic tank diagram

How much does a septic tank cost?

The installation of a 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 the solids (poop) in a septic tank?

The solids breakdown while they are in the tank but over time they gradually build up. As the 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 waste water into a drain field this can be every week, for others a year, or even 3-4 years depending on usage, circumstance, and size of tank.


What is a Leaching Field

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


Aerobic Septic System

Aerobic septic systems are a type of system that refers to an aerobic treatment system. It is like a mini sewage treatment plant that uses an aerobic process to breakdown sewage rather than an anaerobic process like the kind that is used in a standard septic tank.

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 waste water to provide extra processing to the waste water (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 septic 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 waste water 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 (waste water or grey water) 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.

Septic Tank Problems

We’ve had our share of septic tank problems over the years. Trying to figure out what problem you are having with your septic tank can be a tricky thing. Septic tank and field problems can come in all shapes and sizes and pinpointing what your problem is boils down to identifying the issues.

NEVER go into your septic tank, the gases in there are toxic and you will likely get stuck and die. We know of several instances in our area where this has happened. Always leave it to a professional to maintain your septic tank.

Is it full?

Many issues come from a full septic tank. As we mentioned there are two parts of the tank, one larger part for the sludge, waste and scum. The other part is the grey water that gets pushed out to your septic field, or leaching field, and goes back into the water table over time.  

Hair in the pump?

A common problem that comes up with septic tanks isn’t the tank itself but the pump. There is a pump that pushes the grey water into your septic field or leaching field. Over time this can  get clogged from hair or other items that can’t break down and block the pump.  The hair from sinks and showers can find its way into your tank and then pass through to the grey water side. As it gets pushed to the septic field or leaching field the hair can get caught in the motor.

A simple solution to this is to have a filter installed before the pump. This happened to us. We had a filter installed just before the pump (our is indoors, but other pumps may be in the tank itself). This will catch most of the large items and hair that makes its way through the grey water will be caught up in the filter before going into the pump.

Too much water at once

If you have an alarm on your septic tank you may have heard it go off and then stop. It’s happened to us on several occasions.

This left us to wonder if something has happened to your septic tank. This can happen when your tank gets too much sewage at once. It’s not uncommon in a house to have the dishwasher, washing machine going at the same time, throw in a full bathtub draining all at once and you are going to hear that alarm.

While this is one instance of an alarm going off. It can go off when the pump burns out or other issues arise. If too much water goes in and the alarm has gone off you could get water flowing back into your house.


How often should a septic tank be pumped?

This isn’t an easy question as it sounds. Your need to get your tanked pumped and cleaned is going to depend on your usage, size of tank and how many people are in your household. We have a family of four and a leach field and we get ours pumped once a year. Our tank is 500 gallons.  We do our best to conserve water, and we don’t have a garbage disposal, those will fill your tank very quickly.

Factors that determine frequency for pumping your tank

Other factors that may be involved in getting your tank pumped will be the location of the septic holding tank. If the pumping company has to excavate the soil around or on top of you tank to get down to your tank you could be charged machine hours and labor if needed.

Additional Charges

Additional charges that can arise are if there are blockages in the lines running to the tank or to the leach field. If this is the case then you will be charged an hourly rate depending on how long the blockage takes to get cleared.

Find Out The Charges To Pump Your Tank  First

Before you have your septic tank pumped it is always a good idea to ask how much they charge for the cleaning and what that charge covers. If you think it is going to be more than a basic pump and clean and then it’s a good idea to mention it first so that the qualified septic professional can come out with the proper equipment.

What is involved in cleaning my septic tank?

Having your septic tank cleaned requires locating the tank, pumping out all of the effluent, scum and solids at the bottom of the tank.Then there is spraying the tanks interior with water from above to rinse out any residuals. Next returning the tank to its former state by putting the lid back on. A Septic tank company will then dispose of the waste on your behalf at a near my by landfill or sewage lagoon.

How much does it costs to have a septic tank cleaned?

The cost of having your tank cleaned will depend on three factors:

  1. The size of the tank
  2. The location of the house
  3. The location of the disposal site

That said you can expect to pay between $100-$250 per cleaning depending on the location. Of course these are averages, in some parts of the country it’s been known to be as high as $500 per cleaning. There are other factors that can affect the cost, see below.

How often should I have a septic tank cleaned?

There are a ton of different answers online the best I have found is a family of four should have their tank pumped once a year if that tank is 500 gallons this is of course using a septic leach field system. A system with no septic leach will fill up possibly within a week or less depending on how large of a tank.


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 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. Location of the septic tank on the property is also an issue is it easily accessible or there are many obstacles in the way that need to be removed such as trees, soil or other large objects.
  3. Does the lid removed easily? If not and 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 soil it may need to be excavated. In which case you may have to pay an excavation charge based on the flat or hourly rate depending on the septic tank company, depending on the resources needed.
  5. Is the tank easily findable? If you lived there many years you probably know where your tank is and can possibly easy access it you should be ok.  For many new homeowners they may not know where the tank is on their lot, 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.


How do they find the tank?

If you do not know where your septic tank is your septic truck professional can look to get the tank for you at an additional charge. This will involve taking a prod stick and walking around the property pushing the stick in it every couple of feet in an attempt to locate the lid of the septic tank.

Next they will need to dig out the lead by removing the sod in the dirt you can save yourself money by digging this out yourself.

How Much Does Septic Tank Pumping Cost?

What costs are involved when you are getting your septic tank pumped? While many septic trucks use a flat rate for a simple pump. The real cost to pumping your septic tank will depend on several factors.

What’s involved in pumping a septic tank?

Normally when a tank is pumped it involves removing all of the grey water, sludge, effluent and scum from the tank. This is the most common and basic pump, however other factors can affect the septic tank pumping cost.

Size of Septic Tank

Tanks come in a variety of sizes.They can range from 500 gallon tank which under a normal usage for a family of 4 would need to be pumped every year to 1750 gallons which would take a few years for a typical family household to fill. The Septic trucks themselves can range up to the 5000 gallons and can usually clean the whole tank in one visit depending on how full the tank is before it arrives.

Availability of Septic Pump Trucks 

In some areas there have been a shortage of septic pump trucks. This has led to an increase in demand in septic pump trucks. When demand for these services go up there can be an increase in price.

Travel time to a local drop off lagoon or landfill 

It used to be that septic trucks could dispose of their waste in any landfill. Now that it has been determined that there are environmental consequences of doing this certain disposal sites are designated as waste disposal sites for sewage. If there aren’t any landfills nearby your home the pump truck will need to travel extra to dispose of the sewage.

Time it takes to pump a septic tank

If there is no other labor and time involved and the septic tank is easy to get to and open, the time to pump a normal tank for a family of four will be in-between 30 minutes to an hour depending on the truck and the size of the tank.

Location of your house

Depending on where your house is located, you may be charged a travel charge for getting your tanked pumped. This can be either a flat rate or based on a per mile/kilometer basis. The price of gas can have a huge impact on the septic companies’ cost as well. This cost is usually passed on to the customer with an increase in tanks pumped.

Cost of cleaning your septic tank

Ultimately the cost for getting your septic tank emptied can change radically with all of the above various factors in mind. The average tank that would be pumped on a weekly or bi-weekly basis would cost anywhere between $100 and $300. You may find it for as little as $75 depending on all of the above factors but budgeting for $100 to $300 per cleaning is the best bet.

Of course pricing will depend on all of the above factors. Once the size of the tank gets above 1000 gallons the price can go up to $400-$500 depending on the time and labour involved in finding your tank. Labor involved in getting to the tank and pumping it.

Septic Tank maintenance plan

Talk to your septic tank cleaning professional about a maintenance plan for your septic tank. All tanks and households are different. The best thing you can do is talk with your cleaning professional and a set up maintenance schedule. This should be established so that you can keep your septic tank working properly, and also maintain the lifespan of your septic leach field. An inadequately maintained septic tank will lead to a breakdown of the leach field resulting in higher cost down the road.

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 septic tank lid then look now further than Amazon To get a larger look or to purchase click on the link below to go to Amazon.


Septic Tank insurance

It’s always a good idea to make sure your insurance policy for your home covers your septic tank. Common issues that can arise from the septic 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.

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 septic 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 septic tank professional about how often your pump should be replaced and if you are due.


Septic Tank tip

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


Final Thoughts on Septic Tank

While this was a lot to take in, 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.

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