How to Properly Maintain your Septic Tank

If you live on a farm or in a rural area, chances are that you rely on a septic tank to dispose of your wastewater. Septic tanks can be just as efficient as a mains sewage system, but they do require a little more maintenance from time to time. The majority of mains drain and sewage systems are maintained by your local water company, but if you have a septic tank it’s usually the owner’s responsibility to keep it clean, emptied and maintained. If you’ve just moved into a property with a septic tank or aren’t sure where to start when it comes to keeping it in tiptop condition, see below for some tips on how to properly maintain your septic tank.

What is a septic tank?

A septic tank is an underground chamber which allows wastewater to flow through for basic treatment. Most commonly found in rural areas without access to a mains sewer system; they can be made from concrete, plastic or fibreglass and some may contain more than one chamber to process the domestic sewage. A septic tank separates the solids present from the wastewater, allowing the solid sludge to decompose while the water flows out onto a drain field.

How does a septic tank work?

Septic tanks are comprised of one or more underground chambers and a drainfield (also called a soil absorption field). Wastewater from your bathroom, kitchen sink or washing machine flows into the tank via a wastewater pipe; organic matter then settles at the bottom as sludge while floatable liquids such as grease or oils are separated on top.

The septic tank holds the organic solids long enough for them to be partially anaerobically digested, and the leftover water (now relatively clear) drains from an outlet pipe onto the septic drain field.

A drain field contains perforated pipes that allows the wastewater to disperse evenly through the soil. Any remaining impurities are trapped and treated by the soil, either through evaporation, uptake through plant roots or by coming into contact with groundwater. This process naturally eliminates any remaining toxins and harmful bacteria by returning the wastewater to the soil.

Why is maintenance important?

Maintaining your septic tank is vital to ensure it can effectively deal with your household wastewater, and to make sure it stays in the best condition for as long as possible. Failure to properly maintain your tank can result in several problems which we will discuss in more detail below.

Slow drainage

If your septic tank becomes too full then you may notice slower drainage of your bath, sink or shower. If your septic tank needs emptying then no amount of plunging or drain cleaner will solve the problem, so if you’ve tried these methods and you’re still noticing water draining slowly then it’s time to call a septic tank emptying service.

Waste overflows

If waste is overflowing or backing up from your septic tank, this is a drastic sign that it needs to be emptied or cleaned. Septic tanks can overflow if the drain field is blocked or collapsed, or if they are not emptied regularly enough. Proper maintenance can prevent overflows from occurring and spreading harmful bacteria outside of the septic tank.

Ground movement

As septic tanks are placed underground, it can sometimes be difficult to spot problems until they’ve become much more serious. It’s possible for the ground around your septic tank to shift, which can put pressure on the tank and lead to cracks in the walls. A cracked septic tank might need emptying much more often, or groundwater might enter the tank which stops the system functioning as effectively.


A blockage in your septic tank pipe is one of the most common issues, and this is often the reason for slow drainage or overflow. Blockages can be caused by a buildup of waste or by tree roots entering the pipes; this will need to be cleared by a professional which is why regular maintenance checks are so important.

How to maintain your septic tank

Regular septic tank maintenance can prevent many of the problems mentioned above, or catch them early before they can escalate. There are several things you should be doing to properly maintain your septic tank which we will run through below.

Locate your tank

It’s important to keep accurate records or a diagram of your tank’s location once you’ve identified it, to make it easier for future reference and so you can show any professional companies quickly and easily.

Septic tanks must be at least 5 feet away from a property, and most lie between 10 and 25 feet away. You can follow sewer lines from your property and use a thin metal probe every two feet until you find the septic tank lid, or in some cases you can request blueprints or property records from your local county.

Get your septic tank emptied

Most domestic septic tanks should be emptied every three to five years, but this will depend on the total amount of wastewater generated, how many people live in your household and the septic tank size. Regular emptying is vital to prevent the problems mentioned above and to keep your tank running properly for as long as possible. Even if you haven’t noticed any drainage or other problems, it’s good practice to stick to regular emptying schedules to prevent any future problems.

Regular inspections

Your septic tank should be inspected more often than it is emptied; this is recommended once every one to three years. Regular inspections from a professional septic tank contractor can advise you how often the tank will need emptying, if there are any drainage problems and keep measurements of how much sludge and scum is produced.

Properly dispose of your waste

Pouring harmful waste materials down your sink is one of the fastest ways to damage your septic system and prevent it from digesting the organic bacteria efficiently. You should never pour materials such as cooking oil or grease down your drains as these can quickly clog up the system. Also try and avoid disposing of things like coffee grounds, paints or large amounts of chemical cleaners down your drains, and only dispose of toilet paper in your lavatory.

Flushing items like tampons, baby wipes, dental floss or other types non-biodegradable materials down your toilet can lead to blockages and affect how well your septic system works. As they can’t be digested like organic waste then it’s likely that your septic tank would need emptying more frequently too.

Conserve water

It’s worth making the effort to be economical with your water, to avoid putting too much strain on your septic tank. Of course you’ll need to use water to shower, wash up and brush your teeth, but small things like a dripping tap can waste as much as a whopping 200 gallons of water per day.

If you’ve noticed a leaky tap or running toilet (where you can hear water continually draining after flushing), get it fixed as soon as possible to avoid overloading your septic system. You could also avoid using the washing machine for small loads unless completely necessary, or invest in a high-efficiency shower head.

Maintain the drainfield

Looking after the drainage field is just as important as maintaining the tank itself, so it needs to be kept clear to allow the water to filter into the soil properly. Don’t park your car on top of the drain field, and plant trees or plants at a relative distance to prevent roots entering and disrupting the septic system.

If you’re looking for professional septic tank cleaning, emptying or drain repair contractors, get in touch with Mitchell & Mayle. Our septic tank management services in Cambridge and the surrounding areas can provide everything you need to keep your tank clean, emptied and ensure the smooth running of your private sewage system. For more information about our septic tank services, call now or visit our website.

Richard Pickul