In rural areas with widely dispersed houses, reliance upon a centralized sewer system is not practical compared to individual wastewater treatment methods. These on-site management facilities – or septic systems – are more commonplace given their simpler structure, efficiency and easy maintenance.
California residents who live in areas where the homeowner is responsible for individual wastewater treatment must install and maintain a septic system that adheres to guidelines set forth by the State Water Resources Control Board.
Follow the Wastewater!
When a toilet is flushed in a home utilizing a septic system, it journeys through four major units:
1. Pipe: To connect from the home to the system itself, water must first travel through this conduit and directly to the septic tank.
2. Septic Tank: Pumped underground, wastewater remains in the septic tank so solids can settle into sludge and oils are able to surface as scum. The flushed water possesses anaerobic bacteria – or bacteria that don’t need oxygen to survive – which break down some of this sludge and scum, removing it from the water.
3. Drainfield: From the septic tank, water filtered and screened of its sludge and scum flows through the pipe and continues to the drainfield, leaving behind any unclarified water. Drainfields (also referred to as leachfields, disposal fields or soil absorption systems) have several trenches laid with perforated pipes, through which the water courses until it trickles through the pipes’ holes and into surrounding soil.
4. Soil: As the water’s final treatment, soil acts as a natural biological filter. Microbes in the soil consume impurities as it leaches through the ground, providing grass and other plants with the nutrients considered waste in typical drinking water.
Maintaining Septic Systems
Since septic systems are decentralized, it is the responsibility of homeowners to manage their own. Unless properly monitored, the systems can be inefficient and spread harmful bacteria/viruses.
Typical systems should be inspected at least once every 3 years, but those with pumps or other mechanical components should be inspected annually. Frequency of pumping septic tanks to remove leftover sludge and scum depends on how many people live in the home, size of the tank and typical amounts of solids in their wastewater.
Optimizing efficiency of water use can prevent the septic system from overworking. Septic systems can only handle a certain volume of water, so exceeding that could lead to system failure and wastewater backing up into the house or yard. High performance toilets, faucets and showerheads can offset the potential of hundreds of gallons of daily leaked water, a waste which eclipses the average 70 gallons of water actually used each day by a single family. Faucet aerators and shower flow restrictors can also limit the volume of water entering the system.
To further enhance the health of a septic system, homeowners should avoid flushing solids (such as sanitary napkins or dental floss) which can clog pipes or compartments within the system. Furthermore, common household chemicals can damage the system’s components and contaminate water beyond microbes’ filtration capacity, allowing contaminated water to enter the soil and pollute surface or groundwater.
The drainfield should be avoided by vehicles and any other drainage systems to prevent compacting soil and flooding the field. Additionally, only shallow-rooted plants, like grass, should be cultivated above drainfields. If roots infiltrate the field, the perforated pipes could become damaged or clogged.