How a Conventional Septic System Works

A septic system works by allowing waste water to separate into layers and begin the process of decomposition while being contained within the septic tank. Bacteria, which are naturally present in all septic systems, begin to digest the solids that have settled to the bottom of the tank, transforming up to 50 percent of these solids into liquids and gases. When liquids within the tank rise to the level of the outflow pipe, they enter the drainage system. This outflow, or effluent, is then distributed throughout the drain field through a series of subsurface pipes. Final treatment of the effluent occurs here as the soil absorbs and filters the liquid and microbes break down the rest of the waste.

Most septic systems are conventional systems that use gravity to distribute the effluent from the tank. When site conditions are not appropriate for a conventional system, other types of systems, called alternative systems, are sometimes used. There are many different forms of alternative systems. An alternative system is required when a conventional system cannot be installed because of lot size and/or soil conditions. The system might consist of a series of tanks, a compressor, a pump and a specialized drain field. A maintenance contract is required for this type of system.

Septic systems cannot dispose of all the material that enters the system. Solids that are not broken down by bacteria begin to accumulate in the septic tank and eventually need to be removed. The most common reason for system failure is not having these solids removed on a regular basis. When the holding tank is not pumped out frequently enough, the solids can enter the pipes leading to and from the tank. This can cause sewage to back up into the house or cause the drainage system to fail as the pipes and soil become congested. These problems are often costly to fix, pose a danger to public health, and are a significant source of water pollution. Seepage from inadequate or failing septic systems can contaminate both ground and surface waters. The industry recommends having a licensed company clean your septic tank on a regular basis as preventative maintenance.