Septic system pumping and cleaning

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Proper septic system maintenance is vital to its proper functioning, the surrounding environment, and the overall household condition. However, as a part of maintenance, people often use the terms “septic system pumping” and “septic system cleaning” interchangeably, leading to misunderstandings and even improper maintenance.

Pumping refers to the action of pumping out (removing) all liquids and floating solids. On the other hand, cleaning is a more thorough and complicated process that occurs less frequently but must be done throughout the recommended time frame. 

It involves sucking out the liquids and floating solids and accumulating sludge from the bottom of the septic tank.

Today’s article aims to help homeowners with septic systems understand the difference between septic cleaning and pumping and improve their system maintenance. Consequently, this knowledge will help them prevent potential damage to their systems and environmental hazards due to septic failure.

How does a septic tank work? 

Although we cover the different types of septic systems and how they work in separate blog posts, let’s summarize their primary function. 

Main components

A typical septic system has three main components – the septic tank, the drain field and the surrounding soil. The septic tank is a chamber under the ground surface where all the household’s wastewater enters through the piping. 

The wastewater includes everything flushed down the toilet or going down the sink’s and the shower’s drains, together with what comes from home appliances such as washing machines and dryers.

Waste layers

Once inside the tank, the water forms into three distinct layers – the scum, the effluent and the sludge. 

This happens due to the density of the different particles. So the heaviest and most solid layer, the sludge, stays at the bottom of the tank, the effluent is mostly clarified wastewater that floats above the sludge, and the scum is formed by oils and fats that stay as the top layer of the septic tank’s contents. 

The effluent is periodically released into the drain field, where soil purifies it and lets it soak back into the groundwater supply.

Anaerobic bacteria

You’ve probably heard about the “good” bacteria that does some magic inside the septic tank. But do you know what exactly it does? 

Anaerobic bacteria don’t require oxygen to function, and it consumes the organic material from the bottom layer (the sludge) to turn it into gases and soluble compounds. In other words, they help decompose the sludge and gradually reduce its amount. 

However, they cannot act as fast as the sludge accumulates, so regular pumping and cleaning are necessary.

Septic system pumping process description

It’s time to define what precisely a septic system pumping is. Your septic tank has a specific capacity of waste that it can hold that accounts for all three layers of the contents (scum, effluent and sludge). The capacity is directly related to the household’s number of living rooms and gallons of water per person.

The pumping process in a septic system refers to sucking out the liquid effluent layer of the septic tank with leftover floating particles and residual waste left on the top (scum), mostly grease, fats and oils. 

It requires regular maintenance in terms of a professional septic service provider visiting your property every 3 to 5 years, depending on the septic tank’s capacity. The provider uses a truck and a hose to extract the content.

When do we need it?

As mentioned above, regular maintenance, including septic tank pumping, must be performed typically every 3 to 5 years, depending on your tank’s capacity and household water usage. 

However, certain situations are not always in the owner’s control where he might need a septic service provider for their pumping services. But what situations might those be?

Heavy rain and unexpected weather conditions

As you already know, the effluent in the septic tank flows into the drain field through an outlet. Since the drain field consists primarily of soil, its function becomes limited if it’s absorbing more liquids than it can take. 

Homeowners should consider weather conditions when their septic tank hasn’t been pumped out for a while. If heavy rain falls, it will keep the drain field wet, meaning the soil won’t be able to absorb any effluent coming out of the septic tank. Thus, the septic system may malfunction. 

Water overuse and guests

Another situation when your septic system might need pumping out before the recommended period is if you use more water than your tank’s capacity. This may happen for various reasons, including too many people living in the house, lack of knowledge about septic maintenance or having guests over during the holiday season. 

Homeowners need to follow the guidelines related to septic system exploitation and don’t exceed recommended water usage levels. Find out what the capacity of your septic tank is and calculate the allowed daily water usage. 

If you’re having guests over, educate them about the proper exploitation of such systems and, if necessary, create schedules for laundry, showers or dishwashing.

Septic system cleaning process description

Ok, we already know what pumping of your septic tank is, but how is septic tank cleaning different from it? As opposed to pumping, septic system cleaning involves thoroughly cleaning all waste, including scum, effluent and sludge. 

A septic service provider sends trained professionals with proper equipment to your residence who clean out all the tank’s contents using a high-power hose, a vacuum truck and sometimes hydro-jetting.

In addition to sucking out all layers, including the sludge from the inside of the tank, the company will clean all additional components such as filters and outlets. You can expect the operator to clear the drain field lines from any residual waste and ensure your filters are clean and functioning correctly.

Why is it important to clean out the sludge?

The sludge is the solid waste layer at the bottom of your septic tank. Most septic tanks have an outlet pipe that lets the effluent go through it and enter the drain field for further purification. 

However, this outlet pipe is located at a specific height, and if sludge accumulates so much that it reaches it, it can cause a septic system failure. Every homeowner should avoid this highly unpleasant situation at all costs.

Another reason to clean out the sludge from your septic system regularly is that the more it accumulates, the less space for other waste there is. Thus, throwing away solids down your drains and toilets can directly affect the amount of water you’d eventually be able to use daily.

Failure of proper septic system cleaning will eventually result in inefficient wastewater processing, environmental contamination and damage to the septic and piping systems.

Do we need an expert?

Septic pumping and cleaning are not simple, and homeowners must call a professional septic company when they need to perform those tasks. The processes present many health hazards and risks of damaging the septic system. Thus they require specialized equipment and experience in the field of work. 

When to call an expert?

Homeowners should contact experts every time when they need to have their septic tank pumped or cleaned out, including regular maintenance every 3 to 5 years. But other disturbing signs tell you it’s time to call a professional service provider. 

The water drains slowly

If you are taking a shower or washing your dishes and notice that the water is taking too long to drain, that might indicate it’s time to clean your septic tank. 

However, it may be a pipe problem, so it’s worth trying to unclog the drain first. If the issue persists, call a septic system service specialist.

Foul odors around the house and backyard

An unpleasant smell around your residence is a definite sign you need to take immediate action and call a septic professional. You can notice these odors inside the house, the drain field, and the rest of your property.

Water pooling or suspiciously healthy grass

If you notice any water pooling around your drain field area, it’s almost sure your tank is overflowing. You can see small or large puddles of water or notice that the grass around your septic tank is suspiciously healthy and way greener than other parts of your backyard.

Sewage backup

A sewage backup is extremely dangerous and a sign of long-term negligence of your septic system. If you see sewage backing up back to your house, immediately call a septic service provider in your area.

What tools and accessories are needed if we do it on our own?

To perform complicated and hazardous operations such as septic system pumping and cleaning, you first need to acquire professional and costly equipment. You will need a long hose to pump out the contents and a large enough tank to transfer it to. 

In addition, you will have to find a designated place to throw away the waste from the tank and have it approved by your local government.

FreshNCleanSeptic’s team highly recommends always using professional services for your septic system to protect your health, septic system and surrounding environment.