About 20% of homes use septic tanks to dispose of and treat waste, most often in less populated areas not served by municipal waste systems. Septic tanks can be an effective way of treating wastewater and carry advantages to the environment, public health, and your wallet when properly installed and maintained. But they leave many people turning their heads wondering what living with a septic tank actually involves. Read on to learn everything you need to know about buying a home with a septic tank.

How does a septic tank actually work?

In homes with a septic tank, waste is transferred out of the home through a pipe and deposited into an underground septic tank. Once waste reaches the 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 soil.

Do septic tanks impact water quality?

When designed, installed, and managed properly, septic tanks successfully treat wastewater without contaminating water and the local environment. However, when not installed and managed properly, they can contribute to problems like ground and surface water contamination, phosphorus pollution, excessive discharge of nitrogen into coastal waters, and contamination of water used for swimming.

Does a septic tank need to be serviced frequently?

Septic tanks need to be serviced somewhat regularly to maintain optimal performance. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a septic tank inspection every three to five years. During inspection, a professional will usually look at the top and bottom layers of the tank, which can indicate if the tank needs to be pumped, and inspect for leaks.

The 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 tank will depend on tank size and the amount of wastewater your household generates. It’s a good idea to keep notes after your tank has been inspected to have an idea of when the tank should be pumped.

Aside from your 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:

  • A strong, sewage-like odor around your property
  • Wastewater backup in your home’s drains
  • 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

To find a local professional to service your septic system, two great resources recommended by the EPA are National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association and the National Association of Wastewater Technicians.

When buying a home with a septic tank

Don’t immediately be scared off from purchasing a good home because it has a septic tank. In addition to your own research on how to care for a septic tank and to make sure it’s something you can handle, it’s a good idea to ask the current owners about maintenance of their system. And if you’re considering buying the home, it’s crucial to get the septic tank inspected and make sure it’s in good condition and capable of handling the amount of wastewater you or your family is likely to generate.

Living with a septic tank

Living with a septic tank isn’t that different from living in a home served by a municipal waste 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, and flushable wipes.
  • Avoid pouring cooking oil and grease down the kitchen sink drain.
  • 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.
  • Don’t park above your drain field or plant anything too close that it’s roots may extend into the septic system.

Looking for some help with home repairs and maybe save a little money at the same time? Consider a home warranty. Check out our in-depth reviews to see which one may be right for you — all of them offer free quotes! 

Editorial Contributors
Alora Bopray

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.

Learn More

Roxanne Downer


Roxanne Downer is a commerce editor at Today’s Homeowner, where she tackles everything from foundation repair to solar panel installation. She brings more than 15 years of writing and editing experience to bear in her meticulous approach to ensuring accurate, up-to-date, and engaging content. She’s previously edited for outlets including MSN, Architectural Digest, and Better Homes & Gardens. An alumna of the University of Pennsylvania, Roxanne is now an Oklahoma homeowner, DIY enthusiast, and the proud parent of a playful pug.

Learn More