What are the Most Common Septic System Problems?

Kay Blynn

A septic system is generally a large holding tank for human biological waste. These systems are designed to contain biological materials until bacteria can break them down into gas, water, or solids. The most common septic system problems can arise when materials that do not break down quickly — including non-biodegradable products, oil and grease, or excess water — are introduced into the system, resulting in clogged drain pipes. Fortunately, there are some preventive measures that may ward off septic system problems.

Feminine products like tampons and sanitary pads can clog septic systems.
Feminine products like tampons and sanitary pads can clog septic systems.

Gases that accumulate in a septic system are disbursed through vents. The water is released through tubes to a leach field, a system of perforated underground pipes. These pipes, in turn, release water from the septic system into a bed of gravel under the ground. Solid materials in a septic tank that do not decompose over time have to be periodically pumped out. Septic system problems can occur when the vents or the drain pipes become clogged or damaged, or when the tank becomes too full of solid waste.

Excessive use is a major cause of septic tank problems.
Excessive use is a major cause of septic tank problems.

Common septic system problems include the introduction of materials or chemicals that the septic system is not designed to handle. For example, non-biodegradable products such as diapers, feminine hygiene products or paper towels do not degrade naturally. In addition, phosphates from common household detergents can encourage the growth of algae that can clog pipes. One possible solution is to switch to liquid detergents and soaps as these products generally contain no phosphates.

Substances such as oil or grease poured down the kitchen drain also cause common septic system problems. These chemicals break down differently than human waste. Toxic materials, such as paint thinner or solvents, should never be washed down the drain, as they don’t break down at all and can remain in the tank and the leach field for years.

Excess water can also create septic system problems because it tends to prevent the solid wastes in the tank from breaking down effectively. One possible solution is to stagger household tasks that require large amounts of water, laundry being one example. Rather than doing all the laundry in one day, do one load a day over several days. In addition, shower heads and toilets, available in “low flow” varieties that use considerably less water, can also help. Because most septic systems are buried underground, it’s generally a good idea to call in a professional septic system company to evaluate and repair any problems that might arise or to conduct routine septic tank maintenance.

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