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Tue, Oct. 22

Ask the Contractor: Educating yourself on septic systems

A septic system for a typical house. (EPA/Courtesy)

A septic system for a typical house. (EPA/Courtesy)

We recently purchased a lot in unincorporated Yavapai County and will be installing a septic system. To educate ourselves and become more familiar with septic systems, do they cause health or water quality problems?

According to the EPA, septic systems that are properly planned, designed, sited, installed, operated and maintained can provide excellent wastewater treatment. However, systems that exceed the treatment capacity of and are poorly designed, installed, operated or maintained can certainly be the foundation for problems.

Household wastewater contains disease causing bacteria and viruses and high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. If a septic system is well-maintained and working properly, it will remove most of these pollutants. Insufficiently treated sewage from septic systems can cause groundwater contamination, which can spread disease in humans and animals.

More than 4 billion gallons of wastewater are dispersed below the ground’s surface every day. Ground water contaminated by poorly or untreated household wastewater poses dangers to drinking water and to the environment. Malfunctioning septic systems release bacteria, viruses, and chemicals toxic to local waterways. When these pollutants are released into the ground, they eventually enter streams, rivers, lakes, and more, harming local ecosystems by killing native plants, fish, and shellfish. Learn more about how septic systems can help support greener, more sustainable communities.


Septic system maintenance is not complicated, and it does not need to be expensive. Upkeep comes down to four key elements: Inspect and pump frequently; use water efficiently; properly dispose of waste; and maintain your drain field.

When JT’s performs a septic inspection, they inspect for leaks and examine the scum and sludge layers in your septic tank. Your septic tank includes a T-shaped outlet, which prevents sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling to the drain field area. If the bottom of the scum layer is within 6 inches of the bottom of the outlet, or if the top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the outlet, your tank needs to be pumped.


According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension, the average American household generates 55-75 gallons of wastewater per person per day from sources including toilets, showers, sinks, dishwashers and washing machines. Septic systems are designed to collect, treat and dispose of household wastewater without contaminating groundwater. Your septic system consists of three basic parts: a septic tank, a drain field and the soil under the drain field. In a properly working system, the tank receives sewage from the house and traps the solids, allowing effluent to pass to the drain field into the soil where it is discharged for final treatment. As the effluent filters down through the soil, any remaining organic matter, pathogens and suspended solids are treated and removed.

Septic systems are very reliable as long as they are properly designed, constructed and maintained. A properly maintained septic system will have a lifespan of approximately 20 to 30 years.

Maintenance of your system is accomplished by regularly scheduled pump-outs of accumulated solids from the tank. As solids increase and the clear effluent space in between decreases, solids will enter the disposal area and clog soil pores. As a company policy, JT’s Septic always pumps out the entire contents of the septic tank, leaving the homeowner with a completely empty tank at the end of service when pumping is required.

Here are a few of the most frequently asked questions and answers provided by JT’s Septic:

Should I Use Septic Tank Additives?

To date, there is no conclusive evidence that these products [additives] will prevent septic system failure or will improve performance. Adding compounds to a septic tank will not eliminate the need for frequent cleaning. Additives that are marketed as septic tank cleaners, rejuvenators or primers won’t harm your system, but they don’t help either.

Enzymes and yeast products will not harm your system, but there are plenty of bacteria already in the tank that will break down waste products. Other additives however, particularly degreasers, may contain cancer-causing agents that can end up in groundwater or surface water supplies.

Will household cleaning products harm my system?

Most experts agree that the normal use of household cleaning products will not harm the system by stopping the action of bacteria in the tank. Large amounts of certain chemicals, however, may interfere with the breakdown of wastes in the tank or could clog the soil treatment area. Keep in mind that the products you use may eventually find their way into local groundwater systems.

How Often Should I Pump My Septic Tank?

Most tanks need to be pumped every 3-5 years, depending on the size of the tank, daily flow of wastewater into the tank, and the use of a garbage disposal. Currently in the state of Arizona, there are no laws requiring maintenance and inspection (except for the sale of a home); however, the EPA and local health departments highly recommend routine maintenance to help prevent groundwater contamination due to the nitrogen, phosphorus and disease-causing bacteria found in wastewater.

I just had my tank pumped and it already looks full!?

There is a difference between full and overfull! An empty septic tank will fill up as quickly as you use the amount of gallons it holds. The tank is designed to hold a liquid level to the bottom of the outlet pipe (that exits into the disposal area). When you look down in your tank, it should look full. It takes a professional to measure the scum and sludge levels to determine if your tank is ready to be pumped out.

Why can’t my septic tank be pumped out of the sewer cleanouts?

A tank just cannot be pumped effectively through sewer cleanouts. Pumps on the clean-out trucks are too strong to pump through normal sewer cleanout, and there is no way to get all of the scum and sludge out of the tank through a cleanout.

How do you know the size of my tank?

Technicians and inspectors can tell the size of the tank from the style of the tank. Tanks are typically 1,000 or 1,250 gallons for a typical home. I was not aware of this, the JT’s Septic trucks are equipped with clear sight glasses so their technicians can monitor the gallons removed from the tanks.

Why do you recommend routine maintenance and frequent pump-outs when there has not been a problem in the last 10 years and the tank has never been pumped?

While many homeowners can go many years past the recommended maintenance period without a problem, however, damage is slowly being done. The purpose of the tank is to hold the solids that natural bacteria cannot break down. Those solids accumulate over time to a point where the tank no longer has room to contain it all, therefore the solids make their way to the drain field where they plug up the pores in the ground causing poor drainage and eventually septic system and drain field failure.

How long will my septic system last?

All septic systems have a finite life, meaning they will eventually fail. How long a system will last depends on sizing, installation, soil composition, the water table, nearby trees and roots, amount of use and abuse and most importantly, proper routine maintenance and pumping.

If I have a garbage disposal should I use it?

Yes! Light use of the garbage disposal, such as food scraps left after doing the dishes, is OK. However, heavier usage of the disposal will lead to more frequent pump outs.

The use of a garbage disposal can affect your septic system by adding to the amount of suspended solids entering the tank. Suspended solids can enter the soil treatment area and clog soil pores, reducing the soil’s ability to treat wastes.

Can wet wipes and hygiene products be flushed?

No!! This is one of the most common problems to septic tanks. Wipes and/or feminine hygiene products cause clogs in sewer pipes and do not properly break down in the tank.

With a septic tank how often can I do laundry?

It is important to not overload your system. Try to space out wash loads over the course of a week instead of running many loads in one day. It is recommended to do no more than two loads of laundry per day — one in the morning and one in the evening.

Can I have a water softener system with a septic system?

A water softener probably will not harm most septic systems, although it could dictate the need for a slightly larger tank & disposal area.

Can we drive over our leach field?

It is not recommended to drive on the leach field and/or inlet and outlet sewer pipes or the septic tank. Compaction of the soil over the leach lines will slow down or prevent effective evaporation, which is an integral part of the drainage and disposal process.

Driving over the sewer pipes can cause settling and even breakage. Driving over the tank can cause cracks, especially if the tank is fiberglass or plastic.

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