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Septic Tank System Basics

More information for San Diego County can be found on the county website.

The Septic Tank System
The septic tank system is a small, on-site sewage treatment and disposal system buried in the ground. The septic system had two essential parts: (1) the septic tank and (2) the soil absorption area.
The Septic Tank
The septic tank was patented in London around 1900. Webster's Dictionary defines the septic tank as "a tank in which waste matter is decomposed through bacterial action." The modern septic tank is a watertight box usually made of precast concrete, concrete blocks, or reinforced fiberglass. When household waste enters the septic tank several things occur:
  1. Organic solid material floats to the surface and forms a layer of what is commonly called "scum." Bacteria in the septic tank biologically convert this material to liquid.
  2. Inorganic or inert solid materials and the by-products of bacterial digestion sink to the bottom of the tank and form a layer commonly known as "sludge."
  3. Only clear water should exist between the scum and sludge layers. It is this clear water - and only this clear water - that should overflow into the soil absorption area.
Septic Diagram
Solid material overflowing into the soil absorption area should be avoided at all costs. It is this solids overflow that clogs soil pores and causes systems to fail. Two main factors cause solid material to build up enough to overflow: (1) Bacterial deficiency, and (2) lack of sludge removal.
Bacteria MUST BE PRESENT in the septic tank to break down and digest the organic solids. Normal household waste provides enough bacteria to digest the solids UNLESS harm is done to the bacteria. Bacteria are very sensitive to environmental changes.  Check the labels of products you normally use at home. Products carrying harsh warnings such as "HARMFUL OR FATAL IF SWALLOWED" will harm bacteria.
The following commonly used home-care products can reduce the bacteria population required for proper septic tank operation:
  • Detergents
  • Disinfectants
  • Toilet cleaners
  • Bleaches
  • Acids
  • Polishes
  • Cleaning compounds
  • Sink and tub cleaners
  • Caustic drain openers
People rarely think of the effect of these products on the septic tank system when the products go down the drain. What kind of effect do you think antiseptics have on your septic tank?
The sludge in the septic tank - inorganic and inert material - is not biodegradable and will not decompose. If not removed, the sludge will accumulate until it eventually overflows, again clogging the soil absorption area.
Soil Absorption or Leaching Area
There are many, many soil absorption or leaching systems - too many to discuss them all. There are however, two general types of facilities to carry off the overflow of water from the septic tank: (1) trench systems, and (2) drainage pits.  
Trench systems - also called leaching fields, drain fields, or finger systems - generally consist of a network of perforated pipes laid in a gravel-lined trench. Solids clogging pipe perforations, gravel lining or the soil pores outside the trench will cause drainage to slow or eventually stop.  
Drainage pits - also called drywells or cesspools - are made of precast concrete or concrete block. They are cylinders with closed tops, open bottoms and holes in the sidewalls. Some older systems consist of only a drainage pit or cesspool. Solids accumulating on the interior surfaces of the pit or in the soil will again contribute to sluggish drainage or failure.

Septic System Maintenance
The U.S. Government  Department of Health and Welfare Public Health Service says, "A septic tank system will service a home satisfactorily only if its properly designed, installed and adequately maintained. Even a good system which does not have proper care and attention may become a nuisance and burdensome expense."
Septic system maintenance means two simple things. First, sludge that accumulates in the bottom of the tank must be pumped out periodically. How frequently depends on the size of the tank, the use it gets and the condition of the system. There is no additive that you can put in the tank that will deal with the sludge. IT MUST BE PUMPED OUT. If not pumped out, the sludge will eventually overflow into the soil absorption area. This will clog the system and it will need to be replaced, at enormous expense and inconvenience.
The second part of septic system maintenance involves the bacteria necessary for solids digestion. If bacteria-killing products are used in the home - as they usually are - the bacteria should be replenished. If the bacteria level is too low, the solids may not be digested properly. Then, solids can build up too much and overflow into the soil absorption area. This again can clog the system, requiring major repair or replacement.
Your septic tank could be overflowing solid material RIGHT NOW and you won't know it until it blocks the soil absorption system so badly that no more drainage is possible. This blockage takes varying lengths of time. But this is fact: A neglected system WILL get blocked; it WILL overflow; it WILL have an obnoxious odor; it WILL contaminate and pollute. It may also require repair or even replacement. The first septic system "emergency" - a backup or overflow - often marks the beginning of a failing trend. Replacement costs vary, but they can be very, very expensive, especially if contaminated material needs to be removed.

Do Not Neglect Your Septic System
Your professional septic contractor can inspect the condition of your system. He can tell you which specific type of soil absorption system you have. If the tank needs to be cleaned, he is equipped to clean it. If there is evidence of bacterial deficiency - such as overly thick scum or solids build-up inside the tank - he can supply with CCLS liquid bacteria/enzyme septic system treatment.  CCLS contains enzymes immediately available to break down solids build-up in drains, pipes, septic tank and soil asborption system. CCLS also contains reproductive bacteria for continued aid in solids digestion and settling suspended solids removal and odor control.
Regular septic system maintenance combined with water conservation should give you many years of trouble-free use. If not maintained, your septic system may fail, requiring excavation and repair or replacement. You will have to endure the expense of this work, as well as the aggravation of trucks and equipment on your property and the disruption to your yard. Which makes more sense to you? Would you drive your car 100,000 miles without an oil change?
Your septic system should last a very long time if properly designed, installed and maintained. Neglected systems WILL FAIL. Isn't it time to start your program of regular pumping and CCLS ? The well-being of your family and your property value are at stake. PROTECT THEM, DON'T NEGLECT THEM!

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