Septic Systems

A septic system is made up of different components that hold, treat, filters, and disperses the waste water that leaves your home, and eventually reintroduces it into the ground water that you drink. Wait a minute.....What!? (Yes, you and your neighbors will eventually be drinking what you flush, so mind what you send down your pipes. )  Septic systems include a septic tank where all of your waste is held and treated and some variation of a drainage area where the water is filtered and dispersed back into the ground. There are a lot of Web sites out there that have general schematics of septic systems. I will be explaining what I typically find in residential septic cleaning in the West Michigan area.

Every time that you flush your toilet, do laundry, take a shower, run the garbage disposal, etc. water is leaving your home. If you have a septic system the first stop that the septic waste makes is the septic tank. Septic tanks are usually large concrete tanks, buried in your yard and they hold roughly 1,000 gallons of water and waste. Once the waste enters the first septic tank, friendly little guys known as bacteria begin to break down the waste into a sludge that collects on the bottom of the septic tank. There should be three distinct layers in your septic tank if everything is functioning correctly. There should be a scum layer that floats, a clear water layer in the middle , and a sludge layer as indicated in the diagram below.

how a septic tank works

Most schematics of septic tanks on the internet show an inlet baffle or tee, but this is fairly atypical in our area. Every tank should absolutely, however have an outlet baffle. There are different variations of these, but they all serve the same purpose. That is to keep solids from entering the drain field.  Every time you use water, the relatively clean water in the middle of your tank should be forced up the baffle and into the pipe that exits to the drainage area or into the second tank if you have one. (Second tank? I'll explain later.)If your baffle has fallen off, as they sometimes do, have it replaced ASAP, or you will have solids flowing directly into your drainage area. Your sludge layer should never be allowed to reach the bottom of your baffle, as this will also cause excessive solids to enter your drainage area.

Now the water (effluent) has moved into the drainage area to be further filtered and dispersed into the ground. Most drainage areas that I find are called drain fields and consist of a series of pipes with small holes in them that are surrounded by stones. Drain fields vary in size depending on the size of your house and how many bed rooms and bathrooms you have. When the effluent enters the drainage pipes, it exits by way of the holes in the pipe, then it filters through the stones,  and then drains through the soil. In West Michigan, we have mostly sand here, so the effluent has an easier time of filtering  and dispersing through the ground to return to the ground water as clean and drinkable water. Now you have  the basic information on how a septic system works.  To keep the system working properly, it is important to clean it by regularly pumping out the tank.

In terms of septic system maintenance, what should I be putting down my drains?

I hear this question a lot and I will try to answer with what I most commonly encounter. Some may seem obvious, but if I mention them, I have found them. Basically anything that can break down and that is biodegradable is fine. Most toilet papers break down easily, but baby wipes do not. Not even the so called flushable wipes. No feminine products, diapers, condoms, or cigarette butts. No kitty litter. If you have a garbage disposal, use it sparingly. Grease is horrible for septic systems and will clog your drain field. Try to clean your plates into the garbage or compost before you put them in your dishwasher. Don't flush your old medication. No motor oil, gas, paint, or chemicals. Try not to flush cleaners or soaps that will kill the bacteria in your septic tank. Any kind of bleach, sanitizer, or antibacterial soap will kill the bacteria in your septic system and the solids in your septic system will no longer be able to break down. Solids that make their way to your drain field are still being worked on and broken down by bacteria, so these will also be effected. You may use additives like Rid Ex to help boost the bacteria level in your septic system, but most septic tanks maintain a healthy population of bacteria all on their own if you maintain them correctly. If you have a water softener, it could be killing your bacteria as well. If you have a sump pump that pumps ground water out of your basement, make sure that it doesn't flow into your septic system. This can saturate your drain field. Try not to do all of your laundry on the same day. Space it out through the week. This will help keep the solid waste in your septic from getting too churned up, making the clean water level  in your tank dirty. I will be able to tell when I look in your tank how your bacteria is doing and can give you further recommendations. 

Septic Maintenance: How do I find my septic tank?

All houses are set up differently, but a good start is to look where your plumbing leaves the house. Generally the tank is 15'-20' away from your house straight out from where the pipe exits your home. I use a prod to probe the ground to locate the tanks. I mark the corners of the tank to give me an outline of the septic tank. There is usually a lid located on each end of the septic tank. You can dig the lids up yourself for a discount off your total price, or I can dig them up for you.

What are signs that my drainfield is failing?

There are several clues to help you figure out if your drain field is failing. One may be standing water over your septic tank or drain field. Also, you may have a dry yard, but notice gurgling in your lines when toilets are flushed, or laundry is done. Drains may be running slow.  All of these symptoms may have other causes, so give me a call and explain what is going on and I will be able to determine exactly what is causing you problems.

Service Areas

Miller Pumping is based in West Michigan and services Grand Haven, MI, Holland, MI, Saugatuck, MI, Douglas, MI, and West Olive, MI, as well as Ottawa county, Northern Allegan county, the southern half of Muskegon county, and parts of Kent county.