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In our rural community, many people rely on septic systems to process sewage, and just about everyone has seen the television commercial promising easy maintenance of these systems. Some products even go as far as claiming that they can immediately repair clogged septic systems and completely restore clogged drainfields.

In order to understand if a product can truly maintain or repair a septic system, it is important to understand how a septic system operates.

Solid and liquid household wastes are discharged to the septic tank via the plumbing in your home. Solid waste settles to the bottom of the septic tank, where biological processes work to break it down and convert it into liquid effluent, which is then discharged to the drainfield to percolate through the soil. Percolation through the soil allows for final treatment of the effluent. A bio-mat forms, composed of biological organisms that remove viruses, bacteria and protozoa that may cause illness.

To keep the soil performing at its fullest potential, the voids in the soil must be kept unclogged, because they act as the sponge to absorb effluent and provide the right conditions for pathogen removal.

The recommended operation and maintenance of a septic system includes:

Having the tank pumped every three to five years by a licensed septic tank pumper and cleaning the effluent filter twice a year.

Watching what goes down the drain and avoiding hazardous chemicals, oils and grease, plastic cloth and any unnecessary paper products.

Controlling water use and spreading it evenly throughout the day, as too much at once can overload septic systems.

Repairing any leaking fixtures immediately.

Keeping a record of maintenance on your system including who maintained the system, what was done, date of work and the current status of the system.

Additives are not an effective alternative to regular cleaning and maintenance, and some may actually be harmful to your septic system. Some products may cause solid particles, known as total suspended solids, to be carried over into the drainfield where they can potentially clog the voids in the soil, causing it to become overloaded.

One study showed an almost 15-fold increase in total suspended solids entering the drainfield from the septic tank one day after a septic tank additive had been introduced. This might reduce the amount of sludge present in the septic tank, but it puts the drainfield at higher risk for failure.

Increased total suspended solids in the drainfield also increases the chance of contamination of groundwater and water supplies such as wells. Additionally, some septic additives use acids or bases such as sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide, which only temporarily unclog drainfields.

Special bacteria and enzymes added to septic tanks have been of debatable effectiveness, and the need for frequent use could easily exceed the cost of having the septic tank pumped by a professional every year.

Since it is recommended that the septic tank be pumped only every three to five years, a consumer could end up spending more money on additives than on the preferred method of maintenance — pumping the tank.

Remember, a septic system should be considered your own private wastewater treatment facility and treated as such.

With proper operation and maintenance, an appropriately sized septic system and drainfield should operate without incident for years.

Josh Juarez is a lead sanitarian for RiverStone Health Environmental Health Services. He can be reached at 256-2770 or joshua.jua@riverstonehealth.org.

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