Monday, March 20, 2023

Care and feeding of septic systems

A reader posted the following comment:

"Off topic comment/request: We are moving in 3 weeks to our new-to-us rural house/cabin. Neither my husband nor I have ever before lived in a home with a septic system. I've watched YT videos and read a wide variety of contradictory comments about what to do/not to do. "I would greatly appreciate suggestions from those here with the experience we lack. I've purchased a deodorizing container for toilet wipes (can those things be burned?). I've read not to use anti-bacterial soap. I need some practical, middle-of-the-road advice (not an absolute ecological purist and I'm not planning on making my own laundry detergent right now). "The septic tank was cleaned out just last year (by previous one year owner who purchased it from original builder and 24 year owner) and it's located beneath a small, rock-lined pond (formerly filled with Koi) so we really hope not to need to do this again any time soon. Any reasonable suggestions greatly appreciated."

One reader already chimed in with her two cents' worth:

"At 86, I have owned 4 homes. Three of them on septic. My current home is one of them. "Pro's" for septic are many. No sewer charge and independence from city for service are the greatest. "Cons" are more in the caution area. Remember that everything liquid in your house goes through septic. That includes washer, dish washer, bathroom sinks, disposal, etc. Don't flush Kleenex type products as they tend to float rather than dissolve. No or very little antibacterial products as they will kill your good bacteria. Good bye Clorox. Learn to check for "safe for septic" in the fine print. Depending on the size of your family, cleaning every 3-5 years is the rule. Living alone, I don't think I will ever have to have it pumped out again. Good luck and relax. It's no big deal. - Julia"

C'mon, folks, let's help this reader out. Chime in with your experience and expertise on the care and feeding of septic systems. One ... two ... three ... GO!


  1. I bought a 1969 home with the original septic. It was my first experience, so learned all over the years. Our 2 bathrooms empty into 2-500 gallon concrete tanks. Even though we buy septic safe TP, we try to not put too much down. The leach field is compromised, so we have it pumped every few years.
    The kitchen dumps into a smaller concrete tank. That leach field is severely compromised, so we have it pumped every year or so.
    Each month, we put buttermilk down toilets and kitchen sink. We have used other things in the past, yeast or commercial products, but found buttermilk has worked best at keeping the septic tanks happy. We use about a quart each month.
    We looked into switching over to aerobic…..costs $$, AND, you are then required to have quarterly inspections, and it also has many more moving parts that break. No Thanks!
    Overall, I’m quite happy with it. Seek out a local septic company that pumps the tanks and knows how they work.

    1. FYI. Do you know that you can buy powdered buttermilk?

  2. We've been on the same tank and drain field system for over 30 years. In that time we have had the tank emptied 3 times, one of which would have been unnecessary had a visiting party not flush tampons down the toilet and clogged the intake. We use bleach, one load of whites once a week. We feed it both Ridx and whatever yogurt that has expired. One of the best pieces of advice we got was to never use powdered laundry or dish detergent soap. They have waxes to keep the particles from clumping and can really mess up your tank and drain field. We use a garbage disposal, mostly veggie scraps, but never pour grease down your sink. If we have visitors we remind them no feminine hygiene products down the toilet, as well as no paper towels or "flushable wipes". Also we will put used toilet paper (urine only) in a waste basket to reduce what goes into the tank.

  3. Well, here's a thought.
    Why does everything have to go through septic? Especially now when people have greywater systems set up?
    My sink has a pipe that empties off down the hill, and trees, plants, everything down there is flourishing. Birds love that little jungle. If I could I would upend everything down there and turn it into a garden. Same is true for the washing machine. It empties down the hill and the plants thrive.
    Many people use too much soap, but I find that a good soak in hot water makes soil happy to come off with very little soap. Soap is good for pretreatment.
    Unfortunately my tub and bath sink are hooked up to septic , but it doesn't make sense for me. I'm allergic to so many things, chemicals, preservatives, drugs, I only use natural soaps. That water is only used for bathing and is wasted when it would be fine for plants. Which, when I soak in Epsom Salts I do save some for the plants. Things need to have several uses if possible, especially water.

    In the world of waste not want not, what better time to set up a greywater system than at the beginning? Especially if you have to be cautious with a septic system anyway, just learn to be cautious period.

  4. I have been here for 8 years and in the first year, I had to check on many things in this 1970's home. So before winter I had the septic checked just in case. I learned that it was a 600 gallon cement tank in good condition but it had not been emptied in God knows how long, so for caution I had it emptied just in case. I also have read in my quest of knowledge that if you never put TP in it you do not ever have to empty it. I don't know about never but I never put TP in it. I have a little note I tape onto the wall above my bathroom trash can instructing guests "all TP in trash" with an arrow showing the trash can. When bags get full I simply tie it off and place in a bag destined for the burn pile. I have also been told by old timers to put in a rotten peach down the toilet. I don't eat peaches but I do keep those dairy containers that begin to look like science experiments in the fridge, when good and moldy I dispose in the toilet, I also use commercial products to keep my septic happy. It is not a big deal, it is only a matter of changing your way of thinking.

  5. I've only lived and owned one house that was on septic. At the house sale, the seller was required to pump the holding tank and to have the drain field inspected. The house was located in a rural subdivision. We learned from neighbors that an adjacent neighbor had tapped into our drain field. I moved before there were any issues with the septic.

    I did learn after move in that the septic was not gravity fed but relied on electricity to pump the sewage. The first weekend in residence I bought my first generator for when the power went out.

    A good friend is also on septic and her house has all of the grey water from sinks, showers and the washing machine feeding into her non-edible landscaping. I don't know how the set-up works.
    SJ now in California

  6. this may have been overkill but with our tank i put in a bypass for grey water from the washing machine and dishwasher so that that went into a ditch ( well lower gravel filled area) and not the septic tank. that way i did not have to worry so much about chemicals.

  7. 1 Cor 12:23
    "...and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty..."

    When it comes to your house, the septic tank is one of those parts! A few things I found out either through research or through the school of hard knocks:

    My current house is on septic, and it's a new experience for me. I waited five years before having the tank pumped. The pumper said to NEVER let it go that long. He said it should be pumped at least once every four years. I've gotta wonder what was going through the head of whoever covered your tank with a koi pond! You need to maintain access to the tank for periodic pumping!!!

    Don't put any solids down the drain unless they've been through you first. Toilet paper is a necessary evil here. Don't put any more than you have to down the toilet. If it's brown, flush it down. Anything else can go in a wastebasket. Also, wipe your dishes into the trash before washing them. Less solids will end up in the tank, as well as less grease. Grease is harder for the enzymes in the tank to digest. A side bennie is that less grease down the drain means less goop clogging up your kitchen drain line!

    Let the "yellow" mellow. Whatever water goes down the toilet will force the same amount of water out of the tank and into the leach field. The less flow there is from the tank to the leach field the more time the enzymes in the tank will have to break down whatever you put in there. The cleaner the water is leaving the tank, the longer the leach field will last. If you can, wait a few deposits of "yellow" before flushing. For this reason I also catch the "warm-up water" in the shower in a 5-gallon bucket. The water won't end up in the tank, and the plants get watered with water you've already paid for.

    Bleach kills the enzymes in your septic tank. Go easy on it! 'Same goes for soaps and detergents. If you can divert your washing machine to a greywater outfall, this would be a good thing to do. If you can't, then at least put a lint filter on the washing machine drain line. There's a surprising amount of lint in the wash water, and most of it is synthetic. The enzymes in the tank won't digest this, and it's so light that it's readily passed on to the leach field, where it will work to clog it! I use one from a company called Filtrol.

    Don't use liquid drain cleaners! Again, this stuff will kill the enzymes in the septic tank. Most bathroom drain clogs are due to hair, and are usually right there in the drain itself. Go to the hardware store and ask for a hair snare. Use that to clean the hair out of your drains. In the kitchen, use enzymatic drain cleaner/maintainer. Used regularly, this will keep the drain from clogging with grease. It'll also help the enzymes in the tank with any grease that makes it there.

    I give the tank a shot of enzymes every six months. A lot of people use Rid-X. I've heard some negatives on that stuff. I use a brand called Roebic. I also put root killer in the leach field twice a year. You need to put this stuff in downstream of the septic tank because, you guessed it, it'll kill the enzymes in the tank. There's usually an inspection port between the tank and the leach filed. Mix the root killer with water until it's dissolved, and then pour into the inspection port.

    Good luck with your new place!

  8. How often the tank needs to be pumped depends on the size of the tank and the number of people living in your house. in our first house on septic, that meant every 5 years. The new house has a larger tank, a new drain field, and fewer people living here - when it was installed, they told us it would be fine for 10 years if we didn't do anything stupid - just make sure we used toilet paper that was "safe for septic," don't flush feminine hygiene products (who DOES that anyway?), and to use "safe for septic" laundry and dish detergents, which we do. We don't have a disposal in the sink (food waste goes to the chickens), so that was never an issue.

  9. In our experience, we’ve learned to avoid bleach product, baby wipes (plugs sump pump) rinsing way from large batches of butter (plugs the drain line), “flushable” medical wipes.

    1. p.s. Our septic service comes in late fall. No fooling around because it’s close to the house.

    2. p.p.s. We were advised by our septic fellow to never use fabric softener. They mix in animal fats.

  10. Lived on Septic systems my entire life except when not in Rural Missouri which is a pretty brief time over all. The four most important things are.
    How large is the main holding tank in the ground for it?
    How many people are using it?
    what are your local/state regulations for sewage and grey water?
    How large is your drain field and do you have trees within root reach?

    There are also a myriad of lesser questions that need to be researched and listed to figure out how to proceed in the future. Type of soil, has a perk test been done by anyone before you and filed with the county.whatever health department for them to look at you anytime they want. etc. Has you location seen a recent influx of new city dwellers looking for a suburban life they can call rural? If so you might be in for new rules soon. Remember in most places once you start working on a septic system the old rules become null and new rules apply in many places. Bottom line the green one world types want them gone no matter how much it costs you.

    The main advice I can give without knowing the intimate details is keep everything to yourself and very private or you could end up spending more money than your new property is worth.

  11. We have bidet attachments on both toilets. Bidet attachments vastly reduce the amount of toilet paper used. The jet of water from the bidet is strong enough to blast you clean. Keep a wash cloth for each person near the toilet to pat dry. Throw the wash cloth in the wash every day and put a fresh one out. We do keep toilet paper on hand- only single ply Scott.

    Never pour grease down the drain. Never.
    Dawn Ultra dish detergent is your friend. It effectively breaks down grease, oils and fats before they go into your tank.

    We do very occasionally use regular household laundry bleach and we use a little Lysol to clean the bathrooms once a week but otherwise we're not invested in antibacterial products. We fill all of the soap dispensers with Dawn Ultra dish detergent.

    Our tank has a permanent filter, a plastic or PVC basket type thing that filters remaining solids out of the waste water before it leaves the tank and goes into the drain field. That filter ideally should be cleaned every 6 months, basically pulled up out of the tank and blasted with the garden hose. Nobody wants to dig out the lid to the septic tank and lift a heavy tank lid (ours was concrete) off of the tank every 6 months to clean the filter. Hubs had the septic service company replace the buried concrete lid with a heavy duty plastic surface level lid that he can easily remove but is secure and safe. The company also installed a riser, a longer piece of PVC pipe attached to the filter, so Hubs can reach it from the surface ground level. He cleans the filter every 6 months, and we have the tank pumped out every 5 years. We have to have the tank pumped out every 5 years by law due to our proximity to a river. We've had the tank pumped twice since we bought this house. Tank was in great shape both times.

    Don't drive your vehicles over, don't park on the tank or the drain field.

  12. In my area of SW FL there is mandatory septic tank pumping every 5 years - the health dept keeps track and you will be fined if you don't comply. I'd check with city/county authorities to see what if any rules apply. My experience with septic was simple - careful with what went in, careful with water usage and with 5 people and a septic made for 8 people (2/bedroom) it was pumped every 10 years,

  13. Easy peasy.......use Rid-X once a month in your toilet.
    Have never had a problem . Happy day for you.

  14. We lived in a ranching community for 25 years and everyone had their grey water separate from the septic tank. Dishwater, laundry and shower water are great for plants. We used septic safe toilet paper and regular, too. Never a problem. Pumped out tank every few years. Once a month Rid-X down the toilet. Don't overthink it.

  15. Many, many thanks to you all for such a wealth of information and experience. Our new property is at the top of a hill and encompasses many acres, so we don't have to worry about others using our leach field. Our sole 'neighbor,' who shares part of our driveway, is the original owner/builder's son so he may know if any provision was made for grey water or care of the leach field - I have no clue!

    I've always wiped off kitchen plates and taken care not to pour grease down the garbage disposal (I don't believe my new miniature kitchen has one). I have two main concerns:

    1. How to best dispose of used toilet paper and wipes - how to prevent odor in bathroom and concern about burning the plastic bag holding them from deodorizing container I've purchased, and

    2. How to keep those mystical enzymes healthy - what to put down the drain and how often, and what to absolutely avoid (and what is sometimes okay).

    Many other issues were addressed that I didn't think of, so again, many thanks. I'm trying to regard it all as a grand adventure (amidst all the boxes and address change notifications and financial minutiae). Moving is hard at the best of times, and this is our first in many years. Definitely not planning on doing this ever again, but cannot wait to leave crowded suburbia for the privacy, quiet, and both blessings and challenges of rural life.

  16. I've lived with septic systems all my life and generally never more than 2 peps, occasionally a third for short times and other than digging new drain field twice for tree roots have never had a tank pumped. And strict rules about whats allowed in and redirected grey waters they last a long, long time. Of course location and soil consistency is probably crucial. And local laws.
    For me, just toilet contents go in. Kitchen sink drain goes to a barrel system and has been replaced occasionally due to greasy buildup. Shower, bathroom sink, and washer go to grey water system.
    As mentioned above limited tp. I do use limited bleach and or vinegar, and toilet cleaner. And let there be some build up of the yellow before flushing.

  17. My parents are at year 20 now and never have had to have it pumped; I learned from my Dad and we are now on year 11 - no pumping out needed yet.

    All I can add to the above hints is that we have and use strainers in our kitchen sinks 24/7 so no food particles go down; we do not flush anything but toilet paper. I have signs up in the bathrooms for guests to not flush tampons, hair, wipes, paper towels, etc. as well.

  18. I put yeast that is close to expiring down the toilet, and Roebic. Plumbed our water softener separately from the leach field. Pump it every 4 years. For TP if you put a few squares in a closed mason jar with water, shake and it disolves then it should be ok to use in your septic.

    1. Short and to the point - with information I am looking for. Thanks.

  19. I live alone and have had two houses with septic. I follow much of the advice above about not pouring grease down the drain and never using bleach. I also wipe off dinner plates that have grease on them before putting them in the sink, and if I melt butter in a bowl, I wipe it out, too. I had the first tank pumped at about 12 years or so and it was fine--there was almost no sludge, and no visible oils on the surface of the water.

    In the new house, the washing machine drains to the yard, so there's less volume going into the tank. I had it pumped out before I moved in and I don't plan to touch it again for a while.

    Consumer Reports rates toilet papers on how quickly they break up. Some are pretty bad; others are good. I switched to one that is better in that regard.

    The only chemicals that go into the tank are cleaning solutions (toilet bowl cleaner, sink scrubber powder, and spray cleaners for the tub and bathroom sink). I do use enzymatic drain cleaner when needed, but that's only once every 5-10 years.

  20. I have lived with a septic system my entire life. I’m 69 years old. We currently have an aerator system. (No leach field) After it does through 3 tanks, one with an ultraviolet light, the water goes into a small stream. The septic guy told us that it’s supposedly clean enough to drink. I doubt anyone has tried it. 😁 A few years ago, my brother was battling cancer and temporarily moved in with us. We ended up having to have the system pumped because it became practically solid. The septic guy told us that when someone in the house is on chemotherapy it will do that. We would have never thought about that.

  21. My stepdad used to teach professionals about septic systems i.e. installing, inspecting, trouble shooting, what the law requires, etc. Couple things to add to the above.
    1. The yeast down the drain is a myth. It isn't doing what you think it is. You just happen to take care of your system in other ways.
    2. "Septic safe" is just something to help sell products. There's no standard and it isn't necessarily so. Do your own research.

  22. We use Zep drain defense, and take steps to make sure, less grease the better !

  23. Great comments, lived on Cape Cod for 20+ years with a septic tank so I had the advantage of very sandy soil. Basic rules, no grease, only Scott Tpaper and watch for encroaching roots into the drain field. Last was either Rid X or Yeast at least once a quarter and you should be fine between regular pumping's. Good Luck.

  24. Here is the simple truth. Routing the grey water to a french drain or flower bed is a good idea, providing it doesn't cost too much. But the simple answer is just use it and pump it out as necessary (every 5-10 years or so) and that will probably be the lowest cost choice.

  25. At the local grocery I get paper instead of plastic bags. The large ones are for all the stuff I want to burn that isn't compostable. It stays in the kitchen until replaced. The smaller ones are for tp. They can fit inside the bathroom waste can and are easily removed to the burn stuff. In a pinch I'll use other garbage, such as a cracker box going to the burn stuff, to go in the wastebasket. All these
    bags are easily folded closed.
    There needs to be a separate garbage can outside to hold all this paper destined to be firestarters for the never ending yard debris from storm's and seasonal changes. Think of it as a recycling bin.
    When I transitioned to paper bags it was because there were so many storms with so much soggy yard debris and I started saving paper, but it was an incongruent mess. So I started using the large paper bags for junk mail and so forth. Later the tp idea occurred and it works fine. I haven't noticed an oder.
    Gosh! Everybody really tells all on this blog!

  26. I use ACV or citric acid for cleaning toilet. Have also used cheap, citrus dishwasher soap. Not a lot of any of those, but ACV and also citric acid are natural antibacterial cleansers.
    I got hooked on watching this one lady on YouTube clean her perfect home, and fridge, and store bulk food perfectly. There was never a head shot, and she always wore a spotless, simple apron, and I thought she must be Mennonite. Turns out she's South Korean. She made her own soaps and cleansers and made a citric acid spray for countertops and such. And citric acid in the toilet. So I googled it and citric acid is septic safe. Every time I watched her it lit a fire under my fanny to get things done.

  27. We bought an older home and renovated it. We chose not to have a garbage disposal and chose a dishwasher that does not have the equivalent of one. Rafts of finely chopped, rotting vegetation are not helpful for the septic processes. We also save paper towel and newsprint type paper to wipe the grease out of pans and off plates to reduce the fat, oil and grease (fog) load.

  28. My parents would put a half a cup of dry baking yeast down the toilet every month. It helps to break down the starches which is one of five types of waste found in your septic tank. The other four are Proteins, fibers, greases, and pectin. Make sure your leech lines are in good shape too. If they are you will have to have it cleaned out less.

  29. While on the subject, the original septic tanks were outhouses. If ever anyone decides to have one of these as a backup, similar considerations should be made for them as modern septic. The tp situation is different.
    My grandparents had an outhouse and no indoor running water when I was a child.
    Their outhouse had an extra bench on a side wall. On the bench were stacks of newsprint and other used paper, catalogs for tearing pages out for wipes, and a bucket of corncob pieces. These things are not safe for modern septic, but apart from them, it helps me think of what IS alright.
    And if I were to build one of these as a backup toilet, and I may, it might have some added amenities. A sink with a bucket underneath for handwriting, and solar or battery (rechargeable) operated lighting.
    People used to keep honey pots under their beds for going at night. One reason was snakes. Without a light you could step on one or something else unpleasant during your trip to and from the outhouse. So lighting is a must. I'd rather not have the honey pot situation !

    1. Just love how the phone changes my words! Usually check better, but " handwriting" was handwashing!

  30. and old farmer told me yar ago, put 3 cakes of yeast down toilets every couple of months and don't flush anything other than biodegradable t paper our first home we didn't clean out ever in 25 years but that was new system replaced 55 gal drum when we moved inthe next was 15 years had pumped out 1 time when neighbors back up and made a mess, but man said not much in there pretty cheap and i know you like cheap even with inflation what's cakes of yeast 10 bucks I told him what I do he said makes sense

  31. We have lived on our farm since 1987, we have never cleaned our septic. However we DO send washing machine and kitchen water to a sump pit. Probably makes a huge difference. I also flush a gallon of the super bacteria down every 6-8 months. Cheap insurance.

  32. We bought our house 24 years ago and had the septic tank pumped shortly there after. A man from the health department was talking to my husband and gave us some great advice. Once a year get 4 or 5 gallons of whole milk and put it outside in the heat and sun for about 4 days (until it separates and gets really gross looking. We buy it from the store, caution: it will expand) This has everything that the system needs to stay healthy. Then open your clean out (it will be within a couple of feet outside your house, usually white or green 4in. plastic pipe, in the direction of your leach field) dump the milk down the clean out. We do this every summer and are just now planning to have it pumped again. We use Charmin toilet paper, flushable wipes, have a garbage disposal, dishwasher, and washing machine. There were 5 people living here until they grew up and moved out. We are not having trouble with our septic system even now, we just don't want to wait until the leach field fails, you know that when it does, it will be covered by 3 feet of snow.