Septic tank

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Schematic of a septic tank [1]

A septic tank is a key component of the septic system, a small-scale sewage treatment system common in areas with no connection to main sewage pipes provided by local governments or private corporations. Other components, typically controlled by local governments, may include pumps, alarms, sand filters, and clarified liquid effluent disposal methods such as a septic drain field, ponds, natural stone fiber filter plants or peat moss beds.

Septic systems are a type of onsite sewage facility (OSSF). In North America, approximately 25 percent of the population relies on septic tanks, including some suburbs and small towns as well as rural areas. Indianapolis is an example of a large city where many of the city's neighborhoods are still on separate septic systems.[citation needed] In Europe, septic systems are generally limited to rural areas. Since septic systems require large drainfields, they are not suitable for densely built cities.

The term "septic" refers to the anaerobic bacterial environment that develops in the tank which decomposes or mineralizes the waste discharged into the tank. Septic tanks can be coupled with other onsite wastewater treatment units such as biofilters or aerobic systems involving artificially forced aeration.[2]

Periodic preventive maintenance is required to remove solids that remain and gradually fill the tank, reducing its efficiency. Maintenance requires regular pumping to remove these.[3] According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, in the United States it is the home owners' responsibility to maintain their septic systems.[4] Those who disregard this requirement will eventually be faced with costly repairs when solids escape the tank and clog the clarified liquid effluent disposal system. A properly maintained system will likely not need replacement during the homeowner's lifetime.[4]


A septic tank before installation, with manhole cover on top
The same tank partially installed in the ground
Septic tank and septic drain field

A septic tank consists of one or more concrete or plastic tanks of between 4000 and 7500 liters (1,000 and 2,000 gallons); one end is connected to an inlet wastewater pipe and the other to a septic drain field. Generally these pipe connections are made with a T pipe, allowing liquid to enter and exit without disturbing any crust on the surface. Today, the design of the tank usually incorporates two chambers, each equipped with a manhole cover, and separated by a dividing wall with openings located about midway between the floor and roof of the tank.

Wastewater enters the first chamber of the tank, allowing solids to settle and scum to float. The settled solids are anaerobically digested, reducing the volume of solids. The liquid component flows through the dividing wall into the second chamber, where further settlement takes place. The excess liquid, now in a relatively clear condition, then drains from the outlet into the leach field, also referred to as a drain field or seepage field, depending upon locality. A percolation test is required prior to installation to ensure the porosity of the soil is adequate to serve as a drain field.[5][not in citation given]

The remaining impurities are trapped and eliminated in the soil, with the excess water eliminated through percolation into the soil, through evaporation, and by uptake through the root system of plants and eventual transpiration or entering groundwater or surface water. A piping network, often laid in a stone-filled trench (see weeping tile), distributes the wastewater throughout the field with multiple drainage holes in the network. The size of the leach field is proportional to the volume of wastewater and inversely proportional to the porosity of the drainage field. The entire septic system can operate by gravity alone or, where topographic considerations require, with inclusion of a lift pump. Certain septic tank designs include siphons or other devices to increase the volume and velocity of outflow to the drainage field. These help to fill the drainage pipe more evenly and extend the drainage field life by preventing premature clogging.

An Imhoff tank is a two-stage septic system where the sludge is digested in a separate tank. This avoids mixing digested sludge with incoming sewage. Also, some septic tank designs have a second stage where the effluent from the anaerobic first stage is aerated before it drains into the seepage field.

A properly designed and normally operating septic system is odor-free and, besides periodic inspection and emptying of the septic tank, should last for decades with minimal maintenance.

A well designed and maintained concrete, fiberglass, or plastic tank should last about 50 years.[6][dead link]


Waste that is not decomposed by the anaerobic digestion eventually has to be removed from the septic tank. Otherwise the septic tank fills up and wastewater containing undecomposed material discharges directly to the drainage field. Not only is this detrimental for the environment but, if the sludge overflows the septic tank into the leach field, it may clog the leach field piping or decrease the soil porosity itself, requiring expensive repairs.

When a septic tank is emptied, the accumulated fecal sludge (septage) is pumped out of the tank by a vacuum truck. How often the septic tank has to be emptied depends on the volume of the tank relative to the input of solids, the amount of indigestible solids, and the ambient temperature (because anaerobic digestion occurs more efficiently at higher temperatures), as well as usage, system characteristics and the requirements of the relevant authority. Some health authorities require tanks to be emptied at prescribed intervals, while others leave it up to the determination of an inspector. Some systems require pumping every few years or sooner, while others may be able to go 10–20 years between pumpings. An older system with an undersize tank that is being used by a large family will require much more frequent pumping than a new system used by only a few people. Anaerobic decomposition is rapidly restarted when the tank re-fills.

Potential problems[edit]

Like any system, a septic system requires maintenance. Although septic systems generally require less maintenance than communally connected sewage systems, the maintenance of a septic system is often the responsibility of the resident or property owner. For this reason they are sometimes perceived to require higher maintenance than other systems. Neglected or abused systems can pose the following problems:

  • Excessive dumping of cooking oils and grease can cause the inlet drains to block. Oils and grease are often difficult to degrade and can cause odor problems and difficulties with the periodic emptying.
  • Flushing non-biodegradable items such as cigarette butts and hygiene products such as sanitary napkins, tampons, and cotton buds/swabs will rapidly fill or clog a septic tank, so as in other systems, those materials should not be disposed of in that way.
  • As with all drainage systems, the use of garbage disposals for disposal of waste food can cause a rapid overload of the system with solids and contribute to failure.[citation needed][4]
  • Certain chemicals may damage the components of a septic tank, especially pesticides, herbicides, materials with high concentrations of bleach or caustic soda (lye) or any other inorganic materials such as paints or solvents.
  • Certain chemicals can kill the septic bacteria needed for the system to operate. Most notably, even very small quantities of silver nitrate will kill an entire culture.[7]
  • As with communal sewage systems, roots from trees and shrubbery growing above the tank or the drainfield may clog and/or rupture them.
  • Playgrounds and storage buildings may cause damage to a tank and the drainage field. In addition, covering the drainage field with an impermeable surface, such as a driveway or parking area, will seriously affect its efficiency and possibly damage the tank and absorption system.
  • The flushing of salted water into the septic system can lead to sodium binding in the drainfield. The clay and fine silt particles bind together and effectively waterproof the leach field, rendering it ineffective.
  • Like communal sewage systems, excessive water entering the system will overload it and cause it to fail. Checking for plumbing leaks and practising water conservation will help optimize the system's operation.
  • Very high rainfall, rapid snowmelt, and flooding from rivers or the sea can all prevent a drain field from operating, and can cause flow to back up, interfering with the normal operation of the tank. High winter water tables can also result in groundwater flowing back into the septic tank.
  • Over time, biofilms develop on the pipes of the drainage field, which can lead to blockage. Such a failure can be referred to as "biomat failure".
  • Septic tanks by themselves are ineffective at removing nitrogen compounds that have potential to cause algal blooms in waterways into which affected water from a septic system finds its way. This can be remedied by using a nitrogen-reducing technology,[8] or by simply ensuring that the leach field is properly sited to prevent direct entry of effluent into bodies of water.[citation needed]

Septic tank additives[edit]

Septic tank additives have been promoted by some manufacturers with the aim to improve the effluent quality from septic tanks, reduce sludge build-up and to reduce odors. However, these additives - which are commonly based on "effective microorganisms" - are usually costly in the longer term and fail to live up to expectations.[1] It has been estimated that in the U.S. more than 1,200 septic system additives were available on the market in 2011.[9] However, very little peer-reviewed and replicated field research exists regarding the efficacy of these biological septic tank additives.[9]

Environmental issues[edit]

While a properly maintained septic tank poses no more environmental problems than centralised municipal sewage treatment, certain problems could potentially arise from a neglected installation.

Some pollutants, especially sulfates, under the anaerobic conditions of septic tanks, are reduced to hydrogen sulfide, a pungent and toxic gas. Likewise, methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is another by-product.[citation needed] Nitrates and organic nitrogen compounds are reduced to ammonia. Because of the anaerobic conditions, fermentation processes take place, which ultimately generate carbon dioxide and methane.[citation needed]

The fermentation processes cause the contents of a septic tank to be anaerobic with a low redox potential, which keeps phosphates in a soluble and, thus, mobilized form. Phosphates discharged from a septic tank into the environment can trigger prolific plant growth including algal blooms, which can also include blooms of potentially toxic cyanobacteria.

The soil's capacity to retain phosphorus is usually large enough to cope with the load through a normal residential septic tank. An exception occurs when septic drain fields are located in sandy or coarser soils on property adjoining a water body. Because of limited particle surface area, these soils can become saturated with phosphates. Phosphates will progress beyond the treatment area, posing a threat of eutrophication to surface waters.[10]

In areas with high population density, groundwater pollution beyond acceptable limits may occur. Some small towns are facing the costs of building very expensive centralized wastewater treatment systems because of this problem, owing to the high cost of extended collection systems. To slow residential development which might increase the need to construct an expensive centralised sewerage system, building moratoriums and limits on the subdivision of property are often imposed. Ensuring existing septic tanks are functioning properly can also be helpful for a limited time, but becomes less effective as a primary remediation strategy as population density increases.

In areas adjacent to water bodies with fish or shellfish intended for human consumption, improperly maintained and failing septic systems contribute to pollution levels that can force harvest restrictions and/or commercial or recreational harvest closures. In Washington State, USA, a "shellfish protection district" or "clean water district" is a geographic service area designated by a county to protect water quality and tideland resources. The district provides a mechanism to generate local funds for water quality services to control non-point sources of pollution, such as septic system maintenance. The district also serves as an educational resource, calling attention to the pollution sources that threaten shellfish growing waters.[11]

Trees in the vicinity of a concrete septic tank have the potential to penetrate the tank as the system ages and the concrete begins to develop cracks and small leaks. Tree roots can cause serious flow problems due to plugging and blockage of drain pipes, added to which the trees themselves tend to grow extremely vigorously due to the ready supply of nutrients from the septic system.

Regulations (England and Wales)[edit]

In May 2012 the Environment Agency in England and Wales invited property owners with small scale septic tanks to register them with the organisation so that an exemption certificate might be granted. However, it was likely that a number of users of such systems might find that their system fell outside the tolerances applied in order to claim exemption and so a bespoke permit might be required. It was likely that the requirement to register septic tanks to gain an exemption certificate would be implemented from 1 January 2013.[citation needed]

All package sewage treatment plants must have the EN 12566-3 2005 Certificate to qualify for an Exemption Certificate.[citation needed]

In-tank conversion systems would require a permit from the environment agency for discharge direct to a watercourse as these systems are not covered by any of the EN12566 Certifications.[citation needed]


  1. ^ a b Tilley, E., Ulrich, L., Lüthi, C., Reymond, Ph., Zurbrügg, C. Compendium of Sanitation Systems and Technologies - (2nd Revised Edition). Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), Duebendorf, Switzerland. ISBN 978-3-906484-57-0. 
  2. ^ "Septic Systems for Waste Water Disposal". American Ground Water Trust. Retrieved 2008-05-20. 
  3. ^ "What is a septic system? How do I maintain one?". National Environmental Services Center. nesc. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  4. ^ a b c "A Homeowner's Guide to Septic Systems" (PDF). United States Environmental Protection Agency. EPA. Retrieved 4 March 2015. 
  5. ^ Section H2 Building Regulations
  6. ^ "Septic Tanks: The Real Poop". University of California Extension. Retrieved 2006-07-11. [dead link]
  7. ^ "Silver nitrate toxicity". Retrieved 2013-08-27. 
  8. ^ Residential nutrient reduction at the Wayback Machine (archived June 2, 2011)
  9. ^ a b S. Pradhan, Michael T. Hoover, G.H. Clark, M. Gumpertz, C. Cobb, J. Strock (2011) Impacts of biological additives; Part 2 Septic Tank Effluent Quality and Overall Additive Efficacy, Journal of Environmental Health, Volume 74, Number 5, p. 22-28
  10. ^ Craig G. Cogger. "eb1475 Septic System Waste Treatment in Soil". College of Agriculture and Home Economics, Pullman, Washington. Retrieved 2006-07-11. 
  11. ^

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