Questions about Septic
April 5, 2018 6:09 AM   Subscribe

We are moving to a new house that has a septic system instead of a sewer line. Septic makes me very, very nervous. What don't I know that I need to know, plus a few specific questions.

The first question: Do we need an additional inspection in addition to the Title V inspection? I'm getting conflicting advice on this. Massachusetts requires the Title V inspection, and the owner of the property plans to get the tank pumped before he goes, but does Title V go far enough, or do I need to have someone come and do a more thorough check of the (two) septic tanks on the property? If so, who is this mystery septic inspector and how do I find them? I've been having difficulty figuring this out with Google-fu.

The second question: having read through older metafilter askme's, I know that (I think I know that) from time to time you have to.... move the pipes of the system around, or something, to different areas of the yard? How frequently must this be done? I know it hasn't been done in the last 15 years, but we have no clue as to how long before that it might have/or not have been done. How expensive is this process? How do you know when it is time to do this, or when you can just sit back and not sweat it? Do you end up destroying your nice yard with lots of digging and whatnot?

We have been reading up on not doing too much laundry, not letting food go down the drain, careful not to use anti-bacterial soaps, etc. but this could easily be one of those cases of not knowing what questions to ask because of the huge, wide, gaping holes in the knowledge of this subject at all. What else should we know?
posted by instead of three wishes to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in an area where everyone had septic. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and I’m a mile away but on sewer now. In 30+ years I can only recall one person who had to replace their line out of literally hundreds. They’re not as scary as they seem, promise!

Don’t flush anything but toilet paper. In a perfect world you’d use the cheap, single ply paper. Nothing too thick.
posted by pecanpies at 6:45 AM on April 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

from time to time you have to.... move the pipes of the system around, or something, to different areas of the yard?

I've never heard this. If you do fail Title V and you need to redo your system, then yes, I think you need to relocate it to another spot in the yard. You likely have a tank where the poop goes as well as a system of pipes to spread out the liquid. I don't think you need to get it inspected unless you're selling the house. I've never had mine inspected and I've been on the property for over 15 years.

We do as much laundry as we need to. We use the stuff in the white bottle with the happy, healthy flowers on it just because we're hippies like that, but I've never been told to use anything specific. If you live near a lake you should probably use low-phosphate soap in your washing machine and dishwasher, which is a good idea to use anyway.

I've lived with septic most of my life and I've never had any issue. We call a guy to pump it out every couple of years and that's about it.

A couple of things to keep in mind:

You should know where the access is. Chances are the last person to pump it will know where this is. Most likely everyone in town uses the same pumping company.

Careful what you put down there. Most houses with septic won't have a garbage disposal. Non-poop stuff makes your system unhealthy, though I don't know the science behind it. Organic matter is bad, I guess.

If you use "flushable" wipes your septic pumper person may charge you extra. Most people will tell you not to flush "flushable" wipes.

If you have any work done on your yard or house, make sure they don't drive heavy equipment over your septic field. This can potentially damage the pipes.

Find out what size system you have. This can limit the number of bedrooms your house can have, if you're ever thinking about doing an addition. Doubly so if your town has well water and you're within a certain distance from the wells. This is true in my case.

The best person to ask is the first person you call to pump it. They'll tell you how to keep it healthy.

Don't sweat it, it's really not a big deal. Happy pooping!
posted by bondcliff at 6:50 AM on April 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

We have a septic tank in MA that we admittedly abuse. We built the house and the septic tank so no inspections applied, but we trust the company that installed it. We do A LOT of laundry, flush cat litter (corn, tested and approved by our septic guy), have a septic safe garbage disposal in our kitchen sink (just for whatever food bits end up in the sink, we don't actively put waste in there), and we use natural antibacterial soap.

We've only been here 4 years but everything is great and we get the thumbs up from our septic guy to keep on keeping on. We've had it pumped once so far with zero issues except the smell during the process.
posted by lydhre at 6:52 AM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

1. I used to live in Massachusetts and am familiar with Title V. You do not need a separate inspection. The Title V inspection, which must be obtained by the seller, represents an assurance to you that each of the systems are working properly. The inspection includes looking not only at the tanks themselves, but digging up and inspecting the distribution boxes (which split the flow into the various branches of the system in the septic field). Older distribution boxes may be concrete and are prone to deterioration. (Newer ones are plastic, I believe.) So if all this passes inspection, you can rest assured it's in good shape. You should obtain a copy of the inspector's written report.

2. Unless there is some catastrophic failure, there should never be a need to move the pipes around. That's not a simple matter but would mean completely rebuilding the field beyond the tank, a costly proposition. If the fields are 15 years old, they should have a lot of life left in them. Down the road, if one of your fields fails, the typical symptom would be foul-smelling liquid bubbling up out of the ground. Prevention entails regular pumping out of the tanks, which removes the sediment that accumulates in them over time. If you don't do that, the risk is solids getting out into the fields, clogging it up and preventing the proper settling of the fluid. Find out from the septic inspector how often it should be pumped out; keep a good record and stick with that schedule.

You should inquire why there are two separate tanks and presumably two separate fields. It could be they are designed to be used alternately, like six months of one and then six months of the other. In this case, there is a simple valve somewhere that you'd need to turn in order to make the switch periodically. If this is not the case, your house must have part of the sewage routed to one field and part to another, not unusual in a larger house or one that was built in stages over time.

I'd be wary of flushing cat litter and avoid using a garbage disposal. It may be working for lydhre but it's risky behavior. Dump organic cat litter in the woods if possible, and compost your kitchen waste. And, what bondcliff said.
posted by beagle at 7:00 AM on April 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have been on my septic tank system for 29 years. I have it pumped every 3 years and I have never had a problem at all with it. The suggestions to use care with what you flush down from your waste system. Flushable wipes are a definite no, do not do that.
I add 1/2 cup of oxygen bleach to my system by flushing it down the toilet. I do that every month. I do that as recommended by the company that cleans my tank. I assume it helps.
If your tank is emptied on a routine schedule it should last for many years.
posted by JayRwv at 7:10 AM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

BTW, my answer, and I think all the answers so far, assume you have a standard septic system. There are alternate systems in use, such as recirculating sand filters and RUCK systems, that may require regular maintenance. If it turns out you have one of these, then you should find out what sort of care is specific to those systems.

Chances are you'd know if you had one of these. It probably would have come up when you bought the house.
posted by bondcliff at 7:18 AM on April 5, 2018

They are not that high maintenance. The worst that is likely to happen is that things don't break down correctly in there for whatever reason and you need to get it pumped a bit more often. Don't flush anything other than human waste or toilet paper, but you shouldn't do that with a city sewer line either—just because it isn't your problem doesn't mean it isn't somebody's problem. Try to go easy on things like bleach and Drāno as well, they're bad for the microbes in there.

If you do a major renovation (typically the kind that involves adding more bedrooms and/or bathrooms i.e. more people and more poop) you'll need to get your septic recertified as part of the permitting process.

No big deal though, really. I've lived with one all my life, they're fine. I never even think about it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:26 AM on April 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Like bondcliff says, the assumption in a lot of these answers is that you have a simple gravity flow system. The questions you might want to ask (and you can just ask the company that did the Title V inspection) is whether that is true or alternately if there's more to it. We had a simple system that was no worries, very in line with everyone else here, and then we recently moved to a house where the sewer line is uphill of the house so requires a pump. It's things like the pump that fail and/or need tracking....

p.s. - septic is much cheaper than sewer service (in my town at least...) so there are upsides... while the field can potentially fail and you may need other maintenance, routine use is completely free. Sewer pipes and pumps fail and cause expense too, plus you pay no matter what for the service.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:33 AM on April 5, 2018

We have been reading up on not doing too much laundry, not letting food go down the drain, careful not to use anti-bacterial soaps, etc. but this could easily be one of those cases of not knowing what questions to ask because of the huge, wide, gaping holes in the knowledge of this subject at all. What else should we know?

restless_nomad asked a question (partly) about MA septic a while ago and the answers may be useful for you. I always recommend getting The Septic System Owner's Manual from the library because it gives you an overview of what septic IS and general non-oogy-boogy info about it.

In MA septic is regulated by the town so calling the town clerk or whoever can give you information about your septic including (maybe) the map of what you have. Stay on the former owner to get the septic pumped soon because sometimes pumping can reveal that there's a problem you didn't know about before.

Like many in this thread I abuse the septic in the house(s) I have in MA that have it and it's been fine. Some places have finicky septic, some do not. Last year I got two septic tanks in MA pumped that hadn't been pumped in maybe a decade. Other than locating the tanks (a total pain in the ass involving a guy poking holes in the yard with a metal rod) and the extra expense, it was no big deal. We decided to get septic access built into the yard (i.e. manhole cover looking things covering the access) and it's better for access but worse for looks. My father (RIP) had chosen the other path and we paid for it, literally and figuratively.

People get phobic about septic the way they get phobic about bedbugs or raw chicken. it's possible it can be a huge awful deal with very bad consequences, but it's more likely to be a low grade hassle to stay on top of.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 AM on April 5, 2018

A properly built field will last for decades. You shouldn't ever need to to move it, especially if you pass the town/county/state inspection. We built a house with a septic field nearly 30 years ago. We have the tanks pumped every 10 years (our system has two sequential tanks), but otherwise I don't even think about it.

Don't use flushable wipes, don't flush cat litter unless your septic guy says it's OK (mine says "no"), don't flush anything but toilet paper (which is a good rule anyway) but don't panic if something non-degradable gets flushed once in a while. Get out of the habit of throwing used facial tissue down the toilet. Don't wash lots of latex paint down the drain (wash brushes, rollers, and trays outside), don't wash mineral spirits or turpentine or any oil paint or gasoline down the drain (washing them off your hands is fine). A dishwasher is fine, a grinder in the sink is not.

Don't worry about laundry. Do what you need, but be reasonable -- in other words, don't do a "load" of two dress shirts and a t shirt. (This is common sense, with how much water and sewer costs in the city, but if you've been in an apartment or rental where these costs are hidden....) Go easy on the bleach (you should anyway as bleach is hard on fabrics), but use it if needed (my new washer gets a bleach wash once a month, and I don't worry about it).

Don't plant trees over the drain field because the roots will eventually clog the field tiles, don't plant anything but grass over the access points or the tanks. The grass over the tanks will probably not be as healthy as the rest of the yard because the tanks generate heat. OTOH, the grass over the field will be lush and green, and may require mowing more often than the rest of the yard.
posted by jlkr at 7:49 AM on April 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think almost everyone on Cape Cod in MA has septic. We have septic in NH and had it in Maine; it's never caused us a problem. In fact, we could switch to town water now for free but we don't because septic is so cheap and we don't want to tear up our yard to install the town piping. We get the tank pumped out about every 5-6 years (as recommended by the pumping service) for $225 and that's it. We don't even think about it except not to plant on the part they have to lift up to pump or the line from the septic into the house, and we don't plant deeply rooted trees or shrubs on the septic field (there are two semi-dwarf peach trees up there, though). Our septic field is actually up a small slope, so gravity is not on our side but it all works fine. We flush only TP, we don't use bleach but do use vinegar, we use the washer and dishwasher as we always have. It's really no big deal as long as it's fine to start with and set up properly, so definitely make sure the seller gets it inspected by a reputable service and you get the report.
posted by mmw at 8:10 AM on April 5, 2018

Get the tank pumped every 3-5 years (depending on many people are in your home).

My guy recommends flushing a packet of yeast (the kind you bake with) once a month. He says flush it right before you go to bed, so it has time to do its thing.

Take it easy on chemicals like bleach that will kill the bacterias that break things down.
posted by slipthought at 8:19 AM on April 5, 2018

Also joining the chorus of the "don't worry too much about it". We bought a vacation home in a rural area with septic and I was totally freaked out about it, as I'd only previously had city sewer. Our system was decades old when we bought, we used it trouble-free for 11 years before rebuilding and installing a new septic system. I now have a HE washing machine and a dishwasher, but no garbage disposal. We don't flush anything except TP and human waste and the system is fine. It did take me a bit of time to get used to not having a garbage disposal, but I found this sink strainer to be a big help in that regard.
posted by sarajane at 9:11 AM on April 5, 2018

I have three tanks (big multigenerational compound), and I have never had a problem. They are cleared every two years by government rules, and we only drain toilet paper. I have a compost mound for kitchen waste. I do all the laundry I want, which is a lot given that we are three generations, and I have a dishwasher. The latest control was a month ago, and it was A-OK, in spite of my annual Christmas issue of my brother's family using too much toilet paper (in spite of them also having a septic tank, go figure).
posted by mumimor at 9:22 AM on April 5, 2018

Another "it's fine" post - had septic growing up, and last two houses. Get it pumped on a regular basis, don't put deep rooted plants over the drain field, don't flush kooky stuff is about it. Last house was on a tidal flat, and if you're near the coast, I would recommend having the new owner run water for 20-30 mins after the tank is pumped just to get some weight back in the tank. FWIW last house had a garbage disposal and while not heavily used, it didn't cause any problems.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:31 AM on April 5, 2018

I live in the boonies of NC and have septic. Was also wary at first. Know where your access is. We had ours located by the house inspector before we bought our house. That way you'll know if and when you need it pumped or to keep from driving over it.(we had roofers come and had to tell them not to drive their big honking trucks in certain spots in our yard) I've had mine pumped twice in 30 years to the tune of $200-250 a pop. The guy that did the pumping also gave me enzyme stuff to put in every so often. Be careful with grease and no cat litter. A friend of mine has a specific garbage disposal for septic tank houses. Just pay attention to if your drains don't seem fast or flushing becomes slow.
posted by PJMoore at 9:40 AM on April 5, 2018

I had a septic for over 15 years, never had it pumped, never needed it pumped. Just remember the three 'P's - poo, pee and paper, NOTHING else goes down there. What causes the problem is the paper, it remains in the tank and slowly builds up. If it gets to the point that the paper residue goes out the other side, and into the soil of the absorption field, it clogs it and prevents the water from being absorbed, rectification of which is very costly and disruptive, mainly it means building a new absorption field. Just check it regularly for how high the residue level is in the tank, and when appropriate call the pump-out service.

Unless required by regulation, pump outs every three years are just lining the contractors' pockets.

Pump outs can be reduced further by consciously limiting the volume of TP used in the house, as far as practicable. If you are buying jumbo packs of TP every few weeks, be aware of where that is going to end up.

I now have an AWWTS, the first stage of which is a traditional septic tank. After 20+ years, my service bloke tells me I may never need a pump-out.
posted by GeeEmm at 3:39 PM on April 5, 2018

The reason you don't put even biodegradable stuff down the pipes is that it will need to be pumped out sooner. No tampons, no flushable wipes, ever. I use cheap single ply tp.

Whatever goes down any pipes - toilet, shower, kitchen sink - goes to the septic tank. It's full of bacteria and it digests everything. A pump takes the liquid and send it to a leach field where it percolates though sand and dirt and drains away. Our pump failed and had to be replaced. You will need to know the location of the access hatch and the pump.

I would test it; surprises are expensive. But septic systems are tested, reliable technology.
posted by theora55 at 6:55 AM on April 6, 2018

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