Roughly 20% of homes rely on septic tanks for the disposal and treatment of solid waste and wastewater. These are homes located primarily in sparsely populated rural regions without access to city sewer systems. When properly maintained and installed, septic tanks offer an effective means of wastewater treatment, benefiting the environment, public health, and your finances. Prospective homeowners often wonder about the uncertainties surrounding life with a septic tank. This article will detail the workings of a septic tank, the necessary maintenance, and essential considerations for homebuyers buying a property with a septic system.

How Does a Septic Tank Actually Work?

In homes with a septic tank, solid waste and wastewater is transferred out of the home through a pipe and deposited into an underground septic tank. Once waste reaches the septic tank, floatable materials like oil and grease stay on top, solids settle on the bottom, and a middle layer of wastewater (commonly known as effluent) exits the septic tank and travels into a drain field in the yard where it’s slowly released into the homeowners soil.

Do Septic Tanks Impact Water Quality?

With regular maintenance, properly designed and installed septic tanks successfully treat wastewater without contaminating drinking water and the local environment. Without regular maintenance, septic systems contribute to problems like groundwater contamination, surface water contamination, phosphorus pollution, and excessive discharge of nitrogen into coastal waters.

Does a Septic Tank Need To Be Serviced Frequently?

Septic tanks need regular maintenance to maintain optimal performance and prevent septic system failure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a septic tank inspection every three to five years. During a septic tank inspection, a professional will usually look at the top and bottom layers of the septic tank, which can indicate if the septic tank needs to be pumped. Having your septic tank pumped is part of maintaining your system. The septic tank inspection will also check for leaks.

The septic tank will also need to be pumped with a similar frequency (about every three to five years), though the amount of time you go between pumping the septic tank will depend on the septic tank size and the amount of solids and wastewater your household generates. Larger households will require more frequent pumping. It’s a good idea to keep notes after your septic tank inspection to have an idea of when the septic tank should be pumped.

To keep a septic tank in good condition, aside from regular maintenance, you’ll also want to seek professional help if you notice any of the following signs, which indicate a potential septic tank problem or system failure:

  • A strong, sewage-like odor around your property
  • Wastewater backup in your home’s drain lines
  • Water accumulation around your septic system or in the basement
  • Muddy soil surrounding the area where your septic system is held
  • Greener grass above the septic tank, which may indicate that water is collecting below

Homeowners with septic systems need to comply with local regulations. To find a local professional to service your septic system, two great resources recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association and the National Association of Wastewater Technicians. Home buyers can also reach out to their realtor for a recommendation.

When Buying a Home With a Septic Tank

As a homebuyer, don’t immediately be scared off from purchasing a new home because it has a septic tank. Research how to care for a septic tank to make sure it’s something you can handle. It’s a good idea to ask current homeowners about maintenance costs of their system. And if you’re considering buying a house with a septic tank, it’s crucial to get the septic tank inspected. As a realtor with over two decades of experience helping homebuyers, I recommend a septic inspection. Most local governments will require a septic inspection when a property is sold. The inspection will make sure the system is in good condition and capable of handling the amount of wastewater you or your family is likely to generate.

Living with a septic tank isn’t that different from living in a single-family home with a city sewer system, but you’ll need to keep a few things in mind.

  • Be mindful of your water use, as all water use in the home will contribute to how quickly your septic tank fills up.
  • Be careful of what you flush, as it will eventually end up in the septic tank. Stick to human waste and toilet paper, and avoid flushing things like medication, dental floss, diapers, feminine hygiene products and flushable wipes.
  • Avoid pouring cooking oil and grease down the kitchen sink drain that could cause clogging.
  • Limit the use of your garbage disposal, as this waste may eventually clog your septic system’s drainfield.
  • Make sure to stay on top of your septic tank maintenance. Regular maintenance will be required for your septic system.
  • Don’t park above your drain field or plant anything too close to the drain field that’s roots may extend into the septic system.

If you are curious about the price of a new septic system, Read our article on septic tank installation pricing for more information.

Should You Buy a Home With a Septic Tank?

Homeowners contemplating a property with a septic tank should be aware of the responsibilities. Regular maintenance and occasional pumping are essential to avoid system failure and potential environmental contamination. Seek professional help if any signs of trouble arise, such as odors or water backups. For prospective buyers, thorough inspections and inquiries about maintenance costs are crucial steps before committing to a purchase. Ultimately, understanding how to live with a septic tank, including mindful water usage and proper waste disposal, ensures a smooth experience. When properly maintained, septic tanks provide efficient wastewater treatment, benefiting both the environment and public health.

If your home has a septic system, you can find a specific home warranty for septic systems from some home warranty companies. Below are in-depth reviews to see which home warranty may be right for you — all of them offer free quotes!

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Reviewed for accuracy, cost data, industry best practices, and expert advice by Laurie Engle
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Alora Bopray

Staff Writer

Alora Bopray is a digital content producer for the home warranty, HVAC, and plumbing categories at Today's Homeowner. She earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of St. Scholastica and her master's degree from the University of Denver. Before becoming a writer for Today's Homeowner, Alora wrote as a freelance writer for dozens of home improvement clients and informed homeowners about the solar industry as a writer for EcoWatch. When she's not writing, Alora can be found planning her next DIY home improvement project or plotting her next novel.

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Laurie Engle

Expert Writer & Reviewer

Laurie Engle is a freelance writer who provides insights to homeowners on topics such as the home warranty industry, relocation issues, and real estate trends. As a licensed Realtor since 2001 Laurie has acquired extensive expertise in dealing with home warranty companies and navigating the intricacies of the real estate market. In addition to her commitment to helping clients with their home buying and selling needs, she maintains a sharp awareness of market dynamics, including property values, interest rates, and local regulations.

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