Septic System Types And Benefits: How Do They Work?

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Did you know that a fifth of households across the US are not connected to the main sewage system? That’s right, 20% of the homes across America are using septic systems of some shape of form to collect their waste and responsibly dispose of it in an alternate way. Are you one of these households? Or maybe you are looking at buying a house soon and have had to ask what is a septic system, and how does it work? 

We would like to help you understand these septic systems further and will go through the different types along with how they work so that when it comes to having your own septic system, you can be fully informed and make the right choices. From maintaining to replacing a septic system, we’ve got it all.

Table of Contents

Mains Sewerage vs. Septic System?

If your house is connected to the mains sewerage system then your waste and greywater (this is the term for water that is produced by household appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines) will magically vanish from your home and sail underground to a sewerage plant that will treat the water, clean it and prepare it to go back into the water system. However, with only 20% of the population being connected to the mains sewerage system, the chances are that you are connected to a septic system instead. 

The septic systems vary in size and design, from small household septic tanks to larger septic wastewater treatment systems that serve the entire community. We are going to discuss the different types of sewerage systems and how they work so that you can understand how best to look after your septic system and how to maintain your system. 

Different Types of Septic Systems

Individual septic system

An individual septic system is one that serves only one household. All of your waste and grey-water will drain into this tank, which is usually situated on your property somewhere underground. Individual systems vary slightly in that some need to be manually emptied every 6 months or so while others will have inbuilt sewerage treatment filters that allow the water to be filtered before it heads off to the water treatment plant. These systems can be pricey but are the best option available for people who don’t have mains sewerage nearby. 

Commercial septic system

A commercial septic system is one whereby businesses and commercial premises are responsible for the filling and upkeep of a septic tank. The reason commercial systems are called such, as well as being bigger, is that some companies need more robust systems due to the nature of what is going into their waste. For example, a factory that manufactures cleaning products will have a certain level of chemicals and unsafe compounds going into their septic tank. These chemicals might ordinarily react with a standard septic tank, and therefore a stronger tank is needed. The tank will also have a different filtration system and may not be connected to the water system, unlike some other systems. 

Cluster septic system

A cluster septic system is a septic tank that serves a collection of homes in say a road or on an estate. The houses produce the waste, which is then directed into a tank that is centrally located and is usually the responsibility of the homeowners to maintain or to empty. Cluster septic systems are a great way to save money and spread the cost of maintenance between more households. They are also better at filtration than household systems as they are better equipped.

Benefits of A Septic System

  • Cleaner water for consumption. Using a septic system will help reduce diseases by killing off bacteria and pathogens, which would otherwise head to your drinking water. 
  • Cleaner water for the environment. The high levels of filtration that occurs in a septic system mean that a lot of chemicals avoid the water system. Bleaches, cleaning products, and other substances that you might throw down the sink would be filtered before the water heads off to the water treatment center. 
  • Cheaper for the community. Not only is it cheaper for you to share the cost of your septic system with your neighbors, but it is also cheaper for your local economy that they don’t need to fund a large centralized wastewater system. 

How Your Septic System Is Monitored

In most States, septic systems are covered by State law, and that means that they have to abide by certain standards and comply with specific regulations. This includes the building of them and the design. Your local health department will also be to keep an eye on the septic tanks regulation compliance to ensure there is no risk of nitrogen or phosphorus, making its way into the water system. 

Larger systems are regulated and monitored by the EPA, which has set out its guidance in the Safe Drinking Water Act Underground Injection Well program. There is also an EPA Clean Water Act that households must abide by, and this inhibits what they put down their sinks and into their septic systems. 

How to Look After Your Septic System

Inspect and pump your system frequently

Your septic system is going to be in constant use every single day. It’s no wonder that it will succumb to some wear and tear over time. This is why your system needs to be inspected. The EPA recommends that you have your system inspected every 3 years and that a regulated engineer should do it. However, if you have a larger or more specialized system that includes mechanical components and or electric float switches, then you will need to have your system inspected every year. If in doubt, you can refer to the EPA website, which will guide you on how frequently you need an inspection. 

You will also need to pump your system every so often. How often this needs to be done will depend on how much sludge and scum are in your tank. Keep a record of these levels (you will be informed of these by your engineer), and when the level is within 12 inches of the water outlet, then you need to have your system pumped. 

Don’t waste water

As a society, we really need to be more conservative with our water usage, and that means trying to use as little as possible. There are several ways in which you can do this, including investing in water-saving appliances, installing more water-efficient items in your bathroom, and implementing Water Sense certified faucet. By using less water, your septic tank will not be exposed to so much wear and tear and won’t be overwhelmed by the amount of water flowing through it.  

Responsibly dispose of your waste

You will be amazed by what people throw down their toilets and sinks, assuming that it will be filtered out eventually down the line. In fact, the only thing you should put down the toilet is toilet paper and human waste. Items that should never be flushed are products such as baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, dental floss, paper towels, and household chemicals. 

These products can alter the equilibrium of your tank and can affect the living organisms that are creating an ecosystem within it. Where possible, avoid putting anything other than water and human waste down your sinks, especially kitchen waste. Toxins that have been found in completely unacceptable septic systems include cooking oil, oil-based paints, grease, and chemical cleaners. 

Maintain your drain field properly

Your drain field is the part of your septic system that is used to help remove toxins from your system. So here are a few things that you need to do to ensure that your drain field is properly looked after. The first is to make sure you don’t park or drive over your drain field. This will ensure that the weight of your vehicle doesn’t crack or break it. 

The next thing to avoid is planting trees or long-rooted plants close to your drain field. The roots will interfere with it and cause it to break. 

Thirdly, ensure any rainwater drainage systems, roof drains, or sump pumps are draining away from your drain field area. Try to divert them in another direction. 

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

Q. Where would my septic tank be located?

If you are new to your home or have just moved in, then you might not know the exact location of your septic tank. It is usually located outside your home and near your road, but if you live in an area where there is a cluster system, then it might be that it is located under the road itself. To find out the precise location of your septic system, you should refer to the surveys done when you bought your home. If you are renting, then you should ask your landlord to find out for you. 

Q. What is pumping, and Why do I have to do it?

Pumping is the removal of your sludge and scum from your system. This sludge and scum must not come out of your drain field and, as such, will need to be removed manually. Your engineer will be able to tell you when your system needs pumping, but this is usually when the sludge is 12 inches away from the outlet. Pumping will need to be done by an expert, so make sure you find a qualified engineer. Otherwise, there will be contaminants left in the system or worse. They may leak into your water outlet. 

Q. How often should I have my system pumped?

As we said before, your system will need pumping when the sludge is 12 inches from the top of the water outlet. Depending on how big your tank is and how many people are using it, your system will need pumping every 3-5 years or so. 

Q. What is a leach field, And do I need one? 

A leach field is an area away from your home where the effluent that is removed from the wastewater is dispersed. This area should be avoided as the bacteria that are hidden in the waste can develop over time and create harmful organisms. If left alone, this bacterium will die and become harmless, but it needs to be left undisturbed to do this. Leach fields can only be installed in areas where the soil can accommodate them, so this should only be done by a qualified installer. 

Q. What happens when my tank is full? 

If you ensure that you pump your tank on time, then it will never become “full.” The system’s point is that it filters and sends your water back out to the treatment plant, so your system is never truly full. However, that is not to say that your system won’t fill with sludge and scum. This is where pumping is so important. 

Q. I’m worried my tank is failing, how will I know?

There are two ways you can tell if your tank is failing: one is a strong odor coming from your leach field. This will be where the effluent isn’t being filtered properly and is causing too many bacteria into your leach field. The other is that you will find standing water in your leach field. This standing water is not supposed to be there and should be working its way through your tank instead. If you notice either of these problems occur, then you should ring a qualified engineer immediately. 


Now that you have a better understanding of what is a septic system and how does it work, we hope that you will be able to take more consideration of what you put into your system and how to keep it well maintained. Remember to ensure who has responsibility for the upkeep and the bills associated with community septic systems if you need to find a suitable engineer who will look after your system for you.