Are you considering buying a home with a septic system or need to know how to maintain the septic system in the home you already purchased? Here’s what you need to know.

What’s a Septic System and How Does it Work?

To understand how to take care of your septic system, you need to know how it works. A septic system is a type of drain system that helps to break down organic waste and disperse water under your yard.

When you flush your toilet or send water down other drains, it flows out into your septic tank. The septic tank holds solid waste and uses beneficial bacteria to help break it down.

Water from your septic tank flows out into the drain field. The drain field is a series of pipes buried several feet under your yard. It’s similar to a sprinkler system except entirely underground and it drains out water as it comes through rather than working on a schedule. The drain field allows the water to be spread evenly around your yard rather than creating a swampy area.

How Can You Use Your Septic System?

You can use your septic system almost exactly the same as a city sewer system or any other type of indoor plumbing. The only catch is that irresponsible usage is much more likely to cause problems.

Limit Your Water Usage

While it’s always good for the environment, one key difference about septic systems is that you do need to keep an eye on your water usage to avoid overloading the system. Too much water going through at once could affect how things break down in your septic tank or even allow solid waste to pass through the tank into your drain field.

The main thing you need to do is avoid multiple sources of heavy water usage at once. Spread out your showers, dishwashing, and loads of laundry. Also, try to avoid doing multiple loads of laundry in a row to give the system time to drain.

Other than that, follow EPA WaterSense guidelines for toilets, showers, and other plumbing to conserve water and limit what goes into your septic system.

Don’t Use Your Septic System as a Garbage Dump

Don’t flush solid waste down your drains. This includes grease, coffee grounds, fats, diapers, tampons, and paper towels. These items will not break down in your septic system, and will eventually cause a clog that could lead to a sewage backup into your home.

Use Caution With a Garbage Disposal

The problem with using a garbage disposal for organic waste like meat and vegetables is that it does its job too well. Garbage disposals chop up food so finely that it remains floating in the septic tank and breaks down more slowly than larger pieces of waste.

Only use a garbage disposal if you know your septic system was designed for it (this typically means a larger tank), and then only use it in moderation.

Avoid Chemicals

Don’t use chemical drain cleaners, and limit your use of bleach and other cleaners or use organic substitutes. These chemicals can poison the bacteria the help your septic system break down waste, and they could also harm your yard or nearby groundwater.

What Maintenance Does a Septic System Need?

Your septic system largely works on its own, but it still needs periodic maintenance. Here’s what you need to do.

Keep Good Records

There are two things you need to have records of — where your septic system is and what work you’ve done on it.

You should have a detailed map of your septic system showing where it’s buried and how deep it is. This is to help you locate your septic system in case of any problems and to alert you to use caution if you need to run pipes or wires through your yard. If your septic system isn’t already mapped, this can be included as part of your home inspection.

Schedule an Annual Inspection

Experts recommend that you have your septic system inspected annually. This is to check for any leaks, backups, or other problems so that they can be repaired before they turn into a major issue.

Flush Your System

Even if you use good care about what goes down your pipes, the drain field will still accumulate small bits of solids over time. These come from both your septic system and from the surrounding soil. A high-pressure water jet flush unblocks these clogs, ensures your drain field is working at good capacity, and prevents more serious buildups. Perform this work every five years or when recommended by your inspector.

Pump Your System

Organic solid waste entering your septic system doesn’t entirely dissolve. Some of it turns into sludge. In addition, inorganic materials that shouldn’t go down the drain inevitably will whether by accident or by people or children who don’t know better.

Each septic tank has a capacity and recommended pumping level based on the size of the sludge and scum layer in your tank as well as the clearance to the drain outlet. Under normal usage, you’ll need pumping every three to five years, but this will vary based on the number of people in your home and how careful you are about what goes down your drain. Your inspector can measure the buildup and recommend whether pumping is needed during your annual inspection.

Consider Bacteria Additives

Bacteria additives are a hotly debated topic among researchers. The basic idea is that the bacteria that feed and grow as they dissolve your organic waste are harmed by household chemicals coming down the drain. People that recommend the additives say they help restore the bacteria to healthy levels. Others say the additives provide no benefit or cause other imbalances.

With mixed reviews, you should consider additives on a case-by-case basis as it may vary based on local water, climate, and usage. Ask if they’ve been found to be helpful in your local area. Also, consider if your septic system is breaking things down properly or may need a little extra help.

Maintain the Filter

Most septic systems have an effluent filter between the septic tank and the drain field. This filter collects any solid waste exiting your septic tank and prevents it from entering the drain field. Have this filter cleaned or replaced when you schedule other maintenance.

What Should You Do in Your Yard?

You also need to be smart about how you use your yard when you have a septic system. Even though you can’t see it, you can still hurt it if you forget about it.

Don’t Plant Trees or Gardens Over the Tank or Drainfield

You’ll probably notice that your grass grows greener with less watering in the areas over your septic tank and drain field. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is a good place to grow a garden. Roots from trees, bushes, and other large plants can grow down into the drain field clogging and breaking the pipes.

No Parking, Sheds, or Other Structures

Never park over your drain field or septic tank as it may not be able to support the weight of the vehicle. Even if the ground doesn’t collapse, you can still cause damage to your septic system.

Similarly, don’t place a shed, benches, playground equipment, or any other heavy structures over your septic system. In addition to the potential for damage, you don’t want to have to remove these structures if your septic system needs maintenance.

Guard Against Runoff

You also need to protect your septic system against chemicals and excessive water runoff. Chemicals can harm the bacteria in your septic tank and disrupt the decomposition process, while excessive water can overwhelm your septic system.

As a general rule, rain and normal sprinkler usage are OK. For any other projects where you use large amounts of water or pesticides (pressure washing, car washing, draining a chlorinated pool, etc.), be sure to direct the waste water away from your septic system.


You can’t ignore your septic system, and with preventive action, you’ll have less to worry about. Use care of what goes down your pipes, take care of periodic maintenance, and be careful when working in your yard.

If you’re buying a home with a septic system and want to make sure it’s been properly maintained,  here to find a , and one of our expertly trained home inspectors can assist you. Alternatively, call (800) 309-6753 or email us at and one of our experts will contact you promptly.