How to maintain your septic system

Summit County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The 2017 Stormwater Quality theme for the Summit County Communities for Clean Stormwater is “Lake Erie and the Ohio River Start Here-Don’t Waste Them.” One targeted source of “Waste” is leachate from septic tanks which is a major component of pollution and poor water quality.

Households that are not served by public sewers usually depend on septic tank systems to treat and dispose of wastewater. A well designed, installed and maintained septic system can provide years of reliable low-cost service. When these systems fail to operate effectively, property damage, groundwater and surface water pollution, and disease outbreaks can occur. Therefore, it makes good sense to understand and care for your septic tank system.

There are many different types of septic tank systems to fit a wide range of soil and site conditions. The following information will help you to understand a conventional gravity-flow septic tank system, and keep it operating safely at the lowest possible cost. A conventional gravity-flow septic tank system has three working parts:

Summit County Soil and Water Conservation District.
  • The septic tank.
  • The drainfield with its replacement area.
  • The surrounding soil.

The Septic Tank

The typical septic tank is a large buried rectangular or cylindrical container made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. Wastewater from your toilet, bath, kitchen, and laundry flows into the tank. Heavy solids settle to the bottom where bacterial action partially decomposes them to digested sludge and gases. Most of the lighter solids, such as fats and grease, rise to the top to form a scum layer.

Septic tanks may have one or two compartments.Two compartment tanks do a better job of settling solids and are required for new systems. Tees or baffles are provided at the tank’s inlet and outlet pipes. The inlet tee slows the incoming wastes and reduces the disturbance of the settled sludge. The outlet tee keeps the solids or scum in the tank. All tanks should have accessible covers for checking the condition of the baffles and for pumping both compartments. If risers extend from the tank to or above the ground surface, they should be secure to prevent accidental entry into the tank.

Soils that are not decomposed remain in the septic tank. If not removed by periodic pumping, solids will accumulate until they eventually overflow into the drainfield. Most septic tanks need to be pumped every three to five years, depending on the tank size and the amount and type of solids entering the tank.

“Early Warning” Levels Inside Your Septic Tank

The septic tank should be pumped when:

  • The bottom of the scum layer is within 3 inches of the bottom of the outlet tee or baffle.
  • The top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the bottom of the outlet fitting.

Some septic tank additives on the market with chemicals, yeast, bacteria, or enzymes claim to improve septic tank performance or reduce the need for routine pumping. Such products are not necessary for the proper functioning of a septic tank. Some can cause solids to carry over to the drainfield, which results in early soil clogging and the need for a new drainfield. Products containing organic solvents contribute to groundwater pollution.

The wastewater leaving the septic tank is a liquid called effluent. It has been partially treated but still contains disease-causing bacteria and other pollutants.

The Drainfield

The drainfield receives septic tank effluent. It has a network of perforated pipes laid in gravel filled trenches (2-3 feet wide) or beds (up to 10 feet wide) in the soil. Wastewater trickles out of the pipes, through the gravel layer, and into the soil. The size and type of drainfield depends on the estimated daily wastewater flow and soil conditions.

Every new drainfield is required to have a designated replacement area. It must be maintained should the existing system need an addition or repair.  

The Soil

The soil below the drainfield provides the final treatment and disposal of the septic tank effluent. After the effluent has passed into the soil, most of it percolates downward and outward, eventually entering the groundwater. A small percentage is taken up by plants through their roots or evaporates from the soil.

The soil filters effluent as it passes through the pore spaces. Chemical and biological processes treat the effluent before it reaches groundwater, or a restrictive layer, such as hardpan, bedrock, or clay soils. These processes work best where the soil is somewhat dry, permeable, and contains plenty of oxygen for several feet below the drainfield.

System Failure

Warning signs of a failure:

  • Odors, surfacing sewage, wet spots or lush vegetation
  • Pluming or septic tank backups
  • Slow draining fixtures
  • Gurgling sounds in the plumbing system

If you notice any of these signs or if you suspect your septic tank system may be having problems, contact your local health department for assistance. In Summit County, call 330-923-4891.

How to care for your septic system

Here are the Ten Essentials that you need to know to care for your Septic System.

  1. Practice water conservation. The more wastewater you produce, the more wastewater the soil must treat and dispose of. By reducing and balancing your use, you can extend the life of the drainfield, decrease the possibility of system failure, and avoid costly repairs.

To reduce your water use:

  • Use water-saving devices.
  • Repair leaky faucets and plumbing fixtures.
  • Reduce toilet reservoir volume or flow.
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Take baths with a partially-filled tub.
  • Wash only full loads of dishes and laundry.
  1.  Keep accurate records. Know where your septic tank is and keep a diagram of its location. Keep a record of maintenance which will be helpful if problems occur and if you plan to sell your home.
  1.  Inspect your system once a year. Check the sludge and scum levels inside your septic tank to assure that the layers of solids are not within the “early warning levels.” Check the tank to see if the baffles or tees are in good condition. Periodically inspect the drainfield and downslope areas for odors, wet spots, or surfacing sewage. If your drainfield has inspection pipes, check them to see if there is a liquid level continually over six inches since this may be an early indication of a problem.
  1.  Pump out your septic tank when needed. Don’t wait until you have a problem. Routine pumping can prevent failures such as clogging of the drainfield and sewage backup into the home. Using a garbage disposal will increase the amount of solids entering the septic tank, requiring more frequent pumping.
  1.  Never flush harmful materials into the septic tank. Grease, cooking oils, newspaper, paper towels, rags, coffee grounds, sanitary napkins, and cigarettes cannot easily decompose in the tank. Chemicals such as solvents, oils, paint and pesticides are harmful to the system’s proper operation and may pollute the groundwater. Septic tank additives are not necessary for the proper functioning of a septic tank, nor do they reduce the need for routine pumping.
  1.  Keep all runoff away from your system. Water from surfaces such as roofs, driveways, or patios should be diverted away from the septic tank and drainfield area. Soil over your system should be slightly mounded to help surface water runoff.
  1.  Protect your system from damage. Keep traffic such as vehicles, heavy equipment or livestock off your drainfield or replacement area. The pressure can compact the soil or damage pipes. Before you plant a garden, construct a building, or install a pool, check on the location of your system and replacement area.
  1.  Landscape your system properly. Keep impermeable materials off your drainfield and replacement area. Materials such as concrete or plastic reduce evaporation and the supply of air to the soil for proper effluent treatment. These materials can hinder getting access to the system for pumping, inspection, or repair. Grass is the best cover for your system.
  1.  Never enter any septic tank. Poisonous gases or the lack of air can be fatal. Any work on the tank should be done from the outside.
  1. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District. Check the Summit County Public Health Department for help with Septic System problems at 330-923-4891. Although some malfunctions may require complete drainfield replacement, many problems can be corrected with a minimum amount of cost and effort.

Related Content



Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!


  1. My husband and I are planning on getting a new septic tank and we are wondering how to keep it working great without needing many repairs. So thanks for mentioning that we should keep our water usage low by doing things like repairing leaky faucets and taking shorter showers. We will definitely be conserving our water so that our septic tank remains in perfect order for as long possible.

  2. I agree that you should not wait until you have a problem to pump out your septic tank. My mother in law wants to move to a farm but she will need to replace the septic system. I will make sure that she gets the best help from a professional in the area, and pass these tips on to her.

  3. My brother bought a house, and he was wondering what maintenance is needed for hos septic system. We are glad you stated not to flush solvents, oils, paint, and pesticides because they can harm the system’s operation. It would be great to have a professional pump the wast tank since you also said to do it one a year.

  4. Thank you for stating that you need to make sure that water from your roof and other surfaces doesn’t get into your septic tank. My husband and I are new homeowners and want to make sure we take great care of our septic tank, but don’t know what to do. I will definitely keep all of your great tips and information in mind when taking care of our septic tank.

  5. I appreciate that you mentioned that signs that your septic system might be failing are odors or surfacing sewage and gurgling sounds in the plumbing system. My sister and I have been house-sitting for our parents and we have noticed that where their drainage field is is starting to smell and that the pipes are starting to get louder and make gurgling noises whenever we are using a lot of water. It would probably be smart to call a septic tank company that can come out and look at it and repair it so that we can make sure it’s not going to overflow or anything while we’re here and that it can keep working well.

  6. It’s really interesting how you mentioned that having heavy vehicles drive in your drain field could cause damage to your septic pipes. Having a professional septic system maintenance system would be a really good idea if this has happened to your tank. That way they can go in and fix things in a way that will prevent any problems from developing further than they already had.

  7. The septic draining system is confusing, especially for people who don’t have the experience and knowledge on this, it is a wise decision to call on professional to check your septic to make sure.

  8. Thank you for mentioning that certain chemicals can be harmful to your septic tank. My husband and I are brand new homeowners and have no experience dealing with a septic tank. I will definitely keep all of your great tips and information in mind when trying to take good care of my septic tank.

  9. I never knew that when a septic tank fails to operate effectively, property damage, groundwater and surface water pollution can occur. My dad has been planning to install one in our home, but he’s quite worried about the overall cost and maintenance. Although we may spend on this, I guess it’s smart if we’ll just install one because as you’ve mentioned, it can provide reliable low-cost service when it’s installed properly.

  10. I really appreciate you giving some warning signs on when it’s a good idea to pump your septic tank to keep it working well. I’ll check to see if the sludge is within 12 inches tonight so that everything stays working correctly. If it’s time to pump everything out, then I’ll try to contact a septic service tonight that can do that for us.

  11. Thank you for your tip to not flush down any harmful objects down your drains such as paper towels or grease because the chemicals in them may pollute the water and damage the system. My family and I have noticed that our toilets have been having a difficult time flushing lately, and my husband was wondering if we need to service our septic tank. After the holidays, I will look into hiring a septic inspection service to come and look at our tank.

  12. I really appreciate you talking about the different parts of the septic system, like the drainage field. My parents want to get a new septic system because their current system doesn’t work. I think that they need to get a service out to their property so they can get a quote.

  13. It’s good that you point out that having your septic tank pumped regularly can prevent sewage backup. Its been a long time since my septic tank has been serviced, so I’m considering hiring someone to pump it for me. I’m going to look for a good company in the area that offers septic pumping services.

  14. Thank you for explaining how you should pump your septic tank regularly in order to prevent your drain field from clogging up. I have been thinking a lot lately about getting a septic tank for my property. I’ll keep what you said in mind and have people come clean it out often if I end up getting one.

  15. I love that you talked about the septic tank being buried underground and how the wastewater gets to it. My husband and I are looking for a septic tank repair service that can help us with the leak in the tank itself. We will keep these tips in mind as we search for a professional that can help us best.

  16. I had no clue that a garbage disposal will actually cause your septic tank to fill up or clog will need to be pumped more often. This is good to know before I have a septic tank installed on my property. If I get one, I’ll uninstall my garbage disposal so that my kids don’t accidentally throw waste into it.

  17. It’s good that you point out that your septic tank needs to be pumped regularly to keep it working properly. I want to make sure my septic tank continues to work, so I’m considering hiring a septic pumping service. I’m going to look for a good septic pumping service in my area to hire.

  18. I liked how you mentioned that you should check the sludge and scum levels in your septic tank at least once a year. My wife and I are getting a new septic system installed soon and we were wondering how we can take care of it so it works efficiently. I’ll be sure to have the system checked every year to ensure there isn’t a lot of sludge and scum in the system.

  19. It’s good to learn that you should have your septic tank inspected once a year for sludge and scum levels. My wife and I are wanting to buy our first home together and we were wondering how we can keep our septic tank in check. I’ll be sure to tell her that we should have the septic tank inspected every year.

  20. Thanks for informing me that if I have a septic tank system in my home, I should have it regularly pumped when needed to avoid clogging and waste backup. My husband and I just moved into a new home in a rural town that has its own septic tank system. Since this would be the first we’ll be living in a home with a septic tank, I’ll make sure that we follow your tips and have it pumped routinely.

  21. It’s fantastic to learn that you should check scum and sludge levels in your septic system once a year. My wife and I are wanting to build our dream home and we were wondering how we could maintain the water well correctly. I’ll be sure to tell her that we should check the water well once a year.


We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.