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Septic Academy

Tips, Tools, & Materials


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Septic Academy

What is a Septic System?

A septic system is a small scale wastewater and sewage treatment system common in rural areas where connection to city sewer lines is minimal or non-existent. An anaerobic bacterial environment, that is, one existing without the presence of oxygen, causes decomposition of the waste discharged into the system. The septic system is designed to remove, and treat, then slowly release wastewater over an area of land to be absorbed by the soil.

System Features & Functions


All substances disposed of via any drain in the home will flow through the plumbing to the septic tank.


Septic Tank

The septic tank is a solid holding tank usually constructed of concrete, fiberglass, steel, or polyethylene, designed specifically to accept all wastewater from the home, and ranges in capacity from 750 to 1,500 gallons based upon the size of the residence. Most homes have one large tank with two compartments, each of which is equipped with a lid located approximately three feet beneath ground level, or which may be fitted with lid risers that extend above ground level to accommodate access to the tank compartments for inspection and cleaning. The compartments are separated by means of a dividing wall, which has an opening midway between the floor and roof of the tank.  


The septic tank connects the plumbing from the home, through the inlet pipe, also called the inlet baffle, to the absorption area, through the outlet pipe, or outlet baffle.  

The inlet and outlet baffles are designed in the form of a T to allow liquid entry and egress without disturbing the forming layers of bacteria, nor allowing thick particles to travel back into the plumbing, inevitably causing a clog. Wastewater enters the first chamber of the tank, known as the solid side, and begins to separate into one of three layers:


The Scum Layer consists of soaps, greases, toilet paper, and other organic solid materials that float to the surface to decompose and eventually join the liquid layer.  


The Liquid Layer consists of fairly clear water, separating the scum layer and the sludge, which flows through the opening in the dividing wall and into the second compartment, also known as the liquid side, for further filtration.  


Sludge consists of heavy, inorganic, solid materials that sink to the bottom of the tank, and continue to build-up until cleaning takes place.  

When operating properly, the septic tank should maintain a full wastewater level, just below the inlet and outlet baffles. Every time untreated wastewater flows into the tank, an equal amount of treated wastewater flows out.  

Absorption Area

Final treatment of wastewater occurs in the soil. Soil treatment kills disease-causing organisms in the sewage and removes nutrients through percolation of the clear water flowing from the septic tank.  


The two most commonly used types of absorption areas are the seepage pit and the leach field.  


A Seepage Pit consists of a concrete block cylinder with a closed top and open bottom, positioned vertically underground, surrounded by a layer of rock. The pit measures approximately 5’ in diameter and ranges in depth from 20’ to 38’ depending on the size of the residence.

A Leach Line consists of a rock-filled, underground trench through which a perforated pipe line runs. The leach line ranges in length depending on the size of the residence and percolation rate of the soil.

System Failure


Not all waste can be decomposed by the anaerobic digestion in a septic tank. The sludge, or accumulation of heavy, inorganic, solid materials that sink to the bottom of the tank, must be periodically pumped out. If allowed to build-up, the sludge will eventually flow into the absorption area, causing system failure. Once any solid material has passed into the absorption area, the tiny percolation holes, used to treat the waste-water, will become clogged, causing system failure and requiring expensive repairs. Unfortunately, no signs of distress to your system will be obvious until the clog backs-up into the home, when the absorption area is often already destroyed, and relocation is necessary. Meanwhile, any solid materials escaping through the absorption area into the surrounding gravel, contain toxins that harm the environment.


System Maintenance



Proper pumping will remove scum, sludge, and liquid from both compartments of the septic tank. The tank is then flushed clean using a high-pressured hose. Any film left on the tank walls or liquid left on the tank floor contains millions of bacteria necessary to ensure anaerobic decomposition will continue once the tank is re-filled. With regular use, the tank will naturally re-fill to normal operating level within days.

San Bernardino County Department of public health recommends that you, “have your [septic] tank pumped every two to four years.” Never go longer than 48 months between pumps.

Avoid Common Problems


It is extremely important to monitor the substances washed down the drain and into your septic system. The following list of items should be avoided at all costs:  


Cooking Oils & Grease can accumulate too heavily on the top layer of the tank, blocking the inlet and outlet baffles, and can form a thick coating throughout the plumbing, causing unwanted clogging.  


Non-Biodegradable Products like cotton swabs, q-tips, dental floss, paper towels, cigarette butts, cat litter, feminine hygiene products, contraceptives, baby wipes, and diapers should be disposed of elsewhere or the system will rapidly become clogged.  


Garbage Disposals allow too much undigested food solids to enter the system, lengthening  the decomposition process and causing overload.  


Water Softeners add salt to water high in calcium, which in turn, destroys needed bacteria.


Chemicals & Cleaning Solvents containing pesticides, herbicides, bleach, disinfectants, acids, anti-septics, paint, medications, anti-biotics, anti-bacterials, waxes or polish, oil, and other non-water soluble, toxins kill the bacteria needed to create the proper environment for decomposition.


TIP Drains allowing wastewater to enter the system should be equipped with strainers and other filtration devices to reduce the amount of food particles, hair, lint, and other inorganic, solid materials that do not decompose or which may clog your septic system.


TIP Start a compost pile to discard unwanted food rather than using a garbage disposal.


TIP Use minimal amounts of toilet paper.



The total amount of water and the pattern of water use affects how the septic system works. For complete and uniform treatment of wastes, the system needs time to work. Each time wastewater enters the septic tank, an equal amount of wastewater leaves the tank and flows to the absorption area. Sudden or large volumes of water entering the system in a short period of time may agitate and re-suspend sludge and scum into the liquid contents. If this happens, suspended solids can be carried into the absorption area, clogging soil pores and diminishing the soil’s ability to accept water.


TIP Rent a portable toilet or have your septic tank pumped a few days before hosting a large party to prevent likely overload.


Conserving Water Flow

Excessive water use puts an unnecessary load on the septic system. Allowing faucets to drip, fixtures to leak, and using running water to wash and rinse dishes, shave, and brush teeth are wasteful water habits. In most households, toilet flushing is the largest user of water, followed by bathing, and laundry.  


TIP Install a low-flow toilet which uses only 1˝ gallons of water per flush, as opposed to the 6 gallons per flush of a standard model.


TIP Repair leaky faucets and running toilets immediately.


TIP Flush toilets less often.


TIP Take a shower which, in 10 minutes, will use an average of 25 gallons of water, rather than a bath, which uses twice as much.


TIP Install low-flow, hand held shower heads with pause control.


TIP Wash only full loads in the dishwasher and washing machine.


TIP Reduce use of cleaning solvents by doing more scrubbing with less cleanser.


TIP Shut off water while shaving, brushing teeth, or rinsing dishes.


TIP Use liquid detergent, with less than 5% phosphate, in the dishwasher and washing machine.


TIP Purchase a front-loading washing machine, which uses approximately 25 gallons of water per load, as opposed to the 40-60 gallons per load of a top-loading model.


TIP Distribute wash loads evenly throughout the week to avoid overloading the system with large volumes of water.


TIP Insulate your water pipes to avoid wasting water while waiting for a suitable temperature.


TIP Avoid using running water to thaw meat or other frozen foods.



Driving heavy vehicles over the absorption area can cause damage. Likewise, building a playground, shed, patio, or other structures atop the septic system can do the same. Soil treatment depends on undisturbed, non compacted, unsaturated soil to treat wastes. Nothing heavier than a riding lawnmower should be driven over any part of the septic system.


Tree Roots
Do not plant trees or other plants with deep, invasive roots within twelve feet of the septic system.  Roots are a major cause of unwanted clogs and destruction of the septic tank and absorption area. Consider the mature size of trees and shrubs when planting young plants.


Health & Safety


Never enter the septic tank. The tank has two lids used to pump and inspect from the outside only. The tank contains very little oxygen and has high levels of hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon dioxide, and other life-threatening gases.


Never smoke near septic tank openings. Gases such as methane that may be present are potentially combustible.


A seepage pit can reach depths of up to 38 feet. Keep children and other spectators away from the septic system when it is being excavated and pumped.


For more information please visit the United States Environmental Protection Agency's SepticSmart website: ]