System Operation and Maintenance

In all cases the frequency and level of monitoring recommended within this document should be superseded by any manufacturer requirements and recommendations or by recommendations made by the Health Department having jurisdiction.  While in some instances monitoring can be accomplished by a knowledgeable homeowner, it should be performed by a licensed professional.  The Health Department having jurisdiction maintains a list of professional Operation and Maintenance specialist, if not consult your design professional for recommendations.  Summarized reports, including future maintenance needs, should be provided to the system owner.

Septic Tank:

Each septic tank should be examined annually for the first three to five years to determine the amount of sludge and scum accumulation.  Once this rate is known, monitoring frequency can be adjusted per recommendation of the licensed maintenance professional. The inspection shall be conducted by a licensed maintenance professional and include; levels of sludge and scum accumulation integrity of the tank, liquid level, performance of the effluent filter, integrity of risers and lids, and level of use.  When sludge and scum accumulations have collected to the point where organic matter can be expected to enter the collection lines or plug the effluent filter, the tank shall be pumped by a pumper licensed by the Health Department having jurisdiction.

Pump Tank:

The pump tank shall be thoroughly inspected for proper operation after six months of use and then annually, when problems occur, or when warning lights or alarms activate.  Any time changes are made to the system or its configuration, these changes should be noted and discussed with the owner of the system.  An operational check should include: examining all accesses for soundness and signs of wear; checking for accumulation of sludge within the tank; recording all meter information; running the time through its sequence to determine functionality, off and on times; and checking the function of the all floats.

Panel:

If an alarm sounds, the system should be checked by a licensed maintenance professional.  An OSI Panel has a red alarm on the front and a toggle switch on the side of the box.  Under normal conditions, there is no audible alarm and the light is off.  If the liquid level in the pump tank indicates a high-water condition, the red light will be lit, and the alarm will sound.  The audible alarm can be silenced by pushing the red-light in.

Drainfield:

The drainfield site should be mowed prior to the maintenance inspection.  The drainfield should be inspected after a year of use with the frequency adjusted per recommendation of the licensed maintenance professional.  The discharge in each lateral should be checked during the drainfield inspection.  These findings can be compared to the original and last test results for the same lateral.  Changes in height or lack of flow could be a sign of clogging.  The total drainfield area, including top and perimeter, should be examined for signs of surfacing sewage, damage, or change.

For additional information regarding system maintenance or inspection, contact your local Environmental Health District or Harborstone Consulting, LLC.


Caring for Your Septic System

Inspect Your System

If your system is only a septic tank and drainfield, commonly called a gravity system, you need to inspect it at least once every three years.  All other types of systems are required to be inspected at least once every year.  Your local health agency may have a more stringent inspection requirement.  You can hire a septic professional to do the inspection or, if your local health department allows it, you can do the inspection yourself.

Septic tanks are settling chambers that allow time for solids and scum to separate out from wastewater, so clear liquid can safely filter into the drainfield.  It is important to keep the solids, called sludge, from building up and coming near the outlet baffles of the system – if this happens, solids could plug the pipe to the drainfield, or even worse, clog the drainfield.

Septic Tank Lid Safety

Prevent a Tragedy

People do accidentally fall into septic tanks.  In most cases, the person who falls in gets out without serious injury.  But a child’s tragic death is a reminder to inspect your septic system for damaged or missing lids.

Take the following precautions to make sure no one accidentally falls into your septic tank.

  • Know where your septic system lids or covers are located.
  • Routinely inspect the condition of the lids for hazards or problems.
  • Keep the lids secure by repairing or replacing all damaged or missing parts.
  • Use bolts, screws, or other locks to secure the lids and prevent easy access.
  • Never drive or park vehicles on top of septic systems – it can damage or dislodge the cover.
  • Never leave an open lid unattended when inspecting or having your septic system pumped.  Make sure the lids are secure after working on your septic system.
  • Teach children that the septic tank lids are not to be played on or opened.


Owners of septic systems are responsible for ensuring the systems are safe and function properly, including having a secure lid on the tanks.

Finding Your Septic System

If you can’t find the opening to your septic tank, contact your local health department.  They’ve likely issued permits for the system which may include a site plan showing the septic tank location.  If the local health department doesn’t have a record on file, contact a professional septic system company – they have experience finding difficult-to-spot tanks.  Also, many systems are completely buried, so your system may not have lids at the surface.

Pump Your Tank

Pump out your septic tank when needed.  Don’t wait until you have a problem.  For a typical household, septic tanks should be pumped at least every three (3) to five (5) years.  Routine pumping can prevent expensive failures such as a clogged drainfield or sewage backing up into the home.  Using a garbage disposal will increase the amount of solid entering the septic tank, requiring more frequent pumping.  Four major factors influence how often you need to pump your septic tank.

Household Size
Total wastewater generated.  If you put a lot of water down the drain (from inefficient or leaky toilets, washers, shower heads, and sink faucets), the tank can’t settle completely, and you may need to pump more often.
Volume of solids in wastewater.  Garbage disposal and food waste going down the drain, and RV and boat waste dumped into your system, will fill the tank up quicker with solids.
Septic tank size.  The bigger the tank, the more capacity it must handle solids and water, which could allow for more time between pumping.  Old septic tanks might not be sized appropriately for your home, especially if your home has been remodeled and is now larger.

Take Care at the Drain

Your septic system contains a collection of living organisms that digest and treat household waste.  Pouring toxins down your drain can kill these organisms and harm your septic system.  Whether you’re at the kitchen sink, bathtub, or utility sink:

  • Avoid chemical drain openers for a clogged drain.  Instead, use boiling water or a drain snake.
  • Never pour cooking oil or grease down the drain.  Let it cool, harden, and then throw it away in the trash.
  • Never pour oil-based paints, solvents, or large volumes of toxic cleaners down the drain.  Even latex paint waste should be minimized.
  • Eliminate or limit the use of a garbage disposal.  Food waste from garbage disposals fill the septic tank and can clog the drainfield.


Septic tank additives sold in stores aren’t necessary to keep your septic tank working properly and they don’t reduce or eliminate the need for routine pumping.

Maintain the Area Around Your System

Keep water runoff away from your system.  Water from roof drains, driveways, patios, or sump pumps should be diverted away from the septic tank and drainfield area.  Soil over your system should be slightly mounded to help surface water runoff.  If heavy rains cause water to sit around your septic system, avoid putting water down your drains.

Protect your system from damage.  Keep vehicles, heavy equipment, and livestock off your septic tank, drainfield, and drainfield replacement area.  The pressure can compact the soil and damage pipes.  Before you plant a garden, landscape your yard, construct a building, or install a pool, check on the location of your septic system and replacement area.

Landscape your system properly.  Grass is the best cover.  Don’t put concrete or plastic over your septic system.  Plant trees and shrubs away from your septic tank and drainfield to keep roofs from growing into your septic system.  A septic service professional can provide you landscaping options around your septic system.

Use Water Efficiently

Practice water conservation.  The more wastewater you produce, the more wastewater the soil must treat and dispose.  By reducing and balancing your use, you can extend the life of your drainfield, decrease the possibility of system failure, and avoid costly repairs.

To reduce your water use

  • Use water – saving devices such as faucet aerators and high-efficiency toilets, shower heads, dishwashers, and washing machines.
  • Repair leaky faucets and plumbing fixtures.  A leaky toilet can waste hundreds of gallons of water a day.
  • Take shorter showers.
  • Take baths with a partially- filled tub.
  • Wash only full loads of dishes and laundry.  If your washing machine has load settings, make sure you select the proper load size.  Don’t select the large-load cycle if you’re washing a small amount of laundry.


Toilets Aren’t Trash Cans

Your septic system is not a trash can.  Besides human poop and pee, toilet paper, and soap used for washing, not much else should be going down your drain.

Never flush

  • Baby wipe, cleaning wipes, or any moist towelettes.
  • Feminine hygiene products such as tampons or pads.
  • Condoms.
  • Paper towels, rags, or newspaper.
  • Dental floss.
  • Cotton balls and swabs.
  • Diapers.
  • Hair.
  • Cigarette butts.
  • Band-aids.
  • Coffee grounds.
  • Cat litter.
  • Grease and cooking oils.
  • Household chemicals like gasoline, oil, pesticides, antifreeze, and paint.
  • Prescription medication.