February 8, 2024

Understanding Septic Systems: From Approval to Annual Inspections

Septic systems play a vital role in the proper disposal of wastewater for millions of homes and businesses. As underground sewage treatment systems, they efficiently and environmentally handle various household wastewater without relying on centralized sewer networks. Understanding how septic systems work, their maintenance requirements, and potential issues can help ensure their long-term functionality and protect the environment.


At its core, a septic system is an underground wastewater treatment structure consisting of three primary components: a septic tank, a drainfield, and the soil surrounding it. This decentralized system allows properties in rural areas or locations without access to municipal sewer services to effectively process and manage their wastewater. Septic systems are designed to separate solid and liquid waste, eventually breaking down the organic matter through bacterial action.

How Septic Systems Work

Overview of septic system components

A septic tank serves as a primary holding unit where all the wastewater from toilets, sinks, showers, and laundry facilities is collected. As wastewater enters the tank, the heavier solid particles settle to the bottom, forming sludge, while lighter materials like oils and fats float to the top as scum. The liquid wastewater remains in the middle section, allowing further treatment and eventual drainage into the drainfield through an outlet pipe.

The role of bacteria in septic tanks

Bacteria are crucial in the degradation process within septic tanks. As anaerobic organisms, they thrive in an oxygen-limited environment and contribute to the decomposition of organic matter. These bacteria break down solids, converting them into liquids and gases, which can then exit the tank. Maintaining a healthy bacterial population is essential for the proper functioning of the septic system.

Separation of solids and liquids

As wastewater leaves the septic tank, it enters the drainfield, also known as the leach field or absorption field. This area contains a network of perforated pipes buried in gravel-filled trenches or chambers. The effluent from the septic tank percolates through the pipes into the surrounding soil, where further biological treatment and purification occur. The soil acts as a natural filter, removing harmful bacteria, viruses, and other contaminants before groundwater recharge.

Types of Septic Systems

Septic systems come in various types, each suited for different situations and environmental conditions. Understanding these options can help homeowners choose the most appropriate system for their needs.

Conventional septic systems

Conventional septic systems, also known as gravity systems, utilize gravity to transport the liquid effluent from the septic tank to the drainfield. They are the most common type of septic system and typically consist of a septic tank and a drainfield.

Alternative septic systems

Alternative septic systems may be necessary in locations with challenging soil conditions or limited space. These systems rely on additional technology or alternative techniques to enhance treatment or discharge capabilities. Some examples include mound systems, sand filter systems, and peat filter systems.

Aerobic systems

Aerobic septic systems introduce oxygen into the treatment process, promoting the growth of aerobic bacteria that are more efficient at breaking down organic matter compared to anaerobic bacteria. These systems often use an additional chamber called an aeration tank or aerobic treatment unit to facilitate oxygenation.

Septic Tank Maintenance

Proper septic tank maintenance is crucial for the longevity and functionality of the entire septic system. Regular inspections and timely pumping are essential to prevent issues, avoid costly repairs, and protect the environment.

Regular pumping and inspections

Pumping the septic tank at regular intervals is necessary to remove accumulated solids and prevent them from reaching the drainfield. On average, septic tanks should be pumped every three to five years, but the frequency depends on various factors such as tank size, household size, and water usage. Additionally, regular inspections by a professional can identify potential problems before they escalate.

Proper use of household items

Certain household items can harm the septic system and disrupt its delicate balance. Flushing non-biodegradable materials, excessive use of harmful chemicals, and disposing of substances like grease or paint down the drain can lead to clogs, damage to the bacterial ecosystem, or even the failure of the system. Educating household members about proper waste disposal practices is vital.

Avoiding chemical overload

The use of antibacterial soaps, bleach, and strong cleaning agents in large quantities can impair septic system functionality. These chemicals can destroy the beneficial bacteria that break down waste. Opting for natural or biodegradable cleaning products can help maintain a healthy bacterial population and a well-functioning septic system.

Common Septic System Problems

Despite proper maintenance, septic systems can encounter issues over time. Recognizing common problems and addressing them promptly can prevent significant damage and costly repairs.

Drainfield issues and remedies

Drainfield problems often manifest as slow draining fixtures, sewage odors, or standing water in the yard. Excessive water usage, compaction of soil, or the intrusion of tree roots can lead to drainfield failure. Implementing water conservation measures, diverting surface water, or consulting a professional for remedial measures like soil aeration can restore proper drainfield function.

Clogged pipes and backups

Clogged pipes can cause backups within the system, leading to wastewater surfacing in sinks, showers, or even the yard. Tree roots, accumulated debris, or non-biodegradable items flushed into the system are common culprits. Regular inspections and prompt removal of clogs can prevent backups and protect the system’s integrity.

Signs of a failing septic system

Unpleasant odors, gurgling sounds in plumbing fixtures, slow drains, or unusually green or spongy areas in the drainfield can indicate a failing septic system. Recognizing these signs early allows homeowners to take immediate action and avoid serious damage. Consulting a professional to assess the situation is crucial for proper diagnosis and repair recommendations.

Septic System Installation

The installation of a septic system requires planning, professional expertise, and adherence to local regulations. Proper installation ensures the system’s optimal performance and minimizes the risk of failures.

Planning for a new septic system

When planning a new septic system, several factors need consideration, such as property size, soil type, local regulations, and the number of residents. A site evaluation by a septic system professional can determine the most suitable system type and location while considering potential challenges.

Hiring a professional installer

Installing a septic system requires specific knowledge and expertise. Engaging a professional installer familiar with local regulations and best practices is essential for a successful installation. Professionals can handle tasks such as soil testing, system design, construction, and obtaining the necessary permits.

Obtaining necessary permits

Installing a septic system without the required permits can result in legal consequences and future complications. Local health departments or environmental agencies typically oversee septic system permits. Compliance with their regulations ensures the system meets safety standards and function optimally.

Septic Systems and the Environment

Septic systems, when properly maintained, provide efficient and eco-friendly wastewater treatment for households. However, neglect or failure to follow best practices can harm the environment and communities.

Protecting groundwater quality

Unmaintained or failed septic systems can contaminate groundwater, affecting drinking water supplies and nearby water bodies. Ensuring regular maintenance, proper waste disposal, and avoiding chemical overload safeguards groundwater quality and protects public health.

Effects on nearby ecosystems

Septic systems can impact nearby ecosystems when not functioning correctly. Nutrient-rich effluent reaching surface waters can lead to algal blooms, deplete oxygen levels, and harm aquatic life. Regular maintenance and adherence to environmental regulations minimize these impacts and maintain ecological balance.

Environmental regulations and compliance

Local, state, and national regulations govern septic system installation and operation. Compliance with these regulations and obtaining the necessary permits safeguard the environment and prevent legal issues. Staying informed about current guidelines is important to ensure the ongoing compliance of septic systems.

Benefits of Regular Maintenance

Regular maintenance of septic systems offers several benefits beyond preventing failures and protecting the environment. Proactive care can save homeowners from costly repairs and maintain their property’s value.

Longevity of the septic system

Through regular inspection, pumping, and maintenance, septic systems can function effectively for decades. Preventing solids from reaching the drainfield and maintaining the bacterial balance in the tank extends the system’s lifespan, minimizing the need for premature replacements.

Cost-effective compared to repairs

Investing in regular maintenance is more cost-effective than dealing with major system failures. Repairing or replacing a failed system can result in significant financial burdens, especially when factoring in excavation, installation, and landscaping requirements. Regular maintenance and prompt intervention help avoid these expenses.

Protecting property value

A well-maintained septic system is an asset that enhances property value. A failing or neglected septic system can lead to property devaluation, hinder real estate transactions, or even deter potential buyers. By ensuring regular maintenance, homeowners protect their investment and maintain a positive selling point.

DIY Septic System Care Tips

While regular professional maintenance is crucial, homeowners can also take proactive steps to care for their septic systems and maximize their longevity.

Water conservation measures

Conserving water reduces the strain on the septic system. Simple measures such as fixing leaks, installing low-flow fixtures, and spreading out water-intensive activities throughout the day can make a significant difference. Reducing unnecessary water use helps prevent system overload and allows for optimal treatment.

Proper disposal of waste

Flushing only biodegradable waste and human waste down the toilet prevents clogs and ensures efficient decomposition. Non-biodegradable items, such as wipes, cotton balls, or plastics, should be disposed of in the trash instead of the toilet. Additionally, avoiding excessive food waste disposal in the kitchen sink reduces strain on the septic system.

Regular use of additives

Enzyme and bacteria-based additives can enhance the septic system’s biological activity and help maintain a healthy bacterial population. These additives can be used periodically as recommended, following the manufacturer’s instructions. While they are not a substitute for proper maintenance, they can provide additional support.


Septic systems are vital for millions of properties worldwide, allowing proper wastewater management in areas without centralized sewer networks. Understanding how septic systems work, the importance of regular maintenance, and the potential problems they can encounter is essential for homeowners. By ensuring proper care, homeowners not only protect their septic systems but also safeguard the environment and maximize their property investment.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How often should I have my septic tank pumped? Septic tanks should be pumped every three to five years on average, depending on factors such as household size, tank size, and water usage. Consulting a professional can provide a personalized pumping schedule.

2. Can I use additives to replace regular maintenance of my septic system? No, additives alone cannot replace regular maintenance. While they can provide additional support, professional inspections, pumping, and adherence to best practices are essential for a well-functioning septic system.

3. What are the signs of a failing septic system? Signs of a failing septic system include slow draining fixtures, sewage odors, standing water in the yard, gurgling sounds in plumbing fixtures, or unusually green or spongy areas in the drainfield. Prompt action is necessary when these signs appear.

4. How can I improve the performance of my septic system? Improving septic system performance can be done by conserving water, avoiding excessive use of harmful chemicals, disposing of waste properly, and ensuring regular professional maintenance. Following these practices can maximize system longevity and efficiency.

5. Do I need a permit to install a septic system? Yes, obtaining the necessary permits for septic system installation is crucial. These permits ensure compliance with local regulations, environmental standards, and safety measures. Local health departments or environmental agencies oversee septic system permits.


Understanding these intricacies empowers buyers, sellers, and agents in navigating real estate transactions involving septic systems.

Our expert is Stephen White with a degree from Virginia Tech in Soil Science. He is a licensed soil scientist and licensed onsite soil evaluator.
He has been with Greenway Engineering for over 19 years and is currently the Director of Environmental Services.
Over the past 19 years, he has evaluated thousands of properties for new onsite septic systems and existing system inspections for both residential and commercial uses.

You can find the next Septic Systems class at https://www.cindybishopworldwide.com to upcoming events. Virginia licensed agents can get one of 3 categories of credit offered in Virginia for Real Estate Licensees.


V. Common Septic System Problems (contd.)

Even with regular maintenance, septic systems can sometimes face problems that require further attention. It’s important to recognize these issues and address them promptly to avoid more significant damage and potential health risks.

Malfunctioning septic pumps

Some septic systems use pumps to move effluent from the septic tank to the drainfield. Occasionally, these pumps can malfunction due to electrical issues, clogged pipes, or motor failures. Signs of a faulty septic pump include wet spots or standing water around the drainfield, alarms going off, or backups in the plumbing system. A professional should be contacted to assess and repair the pump.

Damaged drainfield

The drainfield is a critical component of the septic system, allowing the wastewater to be safely absorbed into the surrounding soil. However, various factors can damage the drainfield, such as heavy vehicle traffic, improper landscaping, or the growth of trees with invasive root systems. If the drainfield becomes compacted or obstructed, it can lead to slow drainage, odors, or even sewage backups. Restoring a damaged drainfield often requires professional assistance, which may involve excavation and repairs.

Flooding or high groundwater levels

Excessive rainfall, flooding, or high groundwater levels can overload a septic system, potentially causing backups or even complete failure. When the drainfield becomes saturated, it cannot effectively process the wastewater. Taking preventive measures such as redirecting surface water away from the drainfield or installing diversion systems can help mitigate these issues. In some cases, adding drainage pipes or applying specific products to improve soil percolation may be necessary.

VI. Septic System Installation (contd.)

Proper installation of a septic system is crucial to ensure its longevity, optimum functionality, and compliance with regulations. Attention to detail and professional expertise play significant roles in the success of the installation process.

Percolation tests and soil assessment

Before installing a septic system, it’s essential to conduct a percolation test, also known as a soil test. This test determines the soil’s ability to percolate and filter wastewater effectively. Percolation rates vary depending on factors such as soil composition, texture, and saturation levels. A professional installer can conduct this test and assess the soil conditions to determine the most appropriate septic system for the property.

Choosing the right septic system

Based on the results of the soil assessment and other site-specific factors, a professional installer can recommend the most suitable septic system. Factors such as property size, soil type, topography, and local regulations all play a role in determining the appropriate system type. It’s important to consult with an expert to ensure the chosen system meets the property’s needs and complies with local regulations.

System design and layout

Once the septic system type is determined, a professional installer designs the system based on the property’s layout. The location of the septic tank, drainfield, and other components is carefully planned to ensure proper functioning and accessibility. The installer may also create an as-built plan, documenting the final installation for future reference.

Professional installation and inspections

Septic system installation should always be performed by a licensed professional with experience in the field. Professionals understand the local regulations, installation techniques, and safety requirements. They have the necessary equipment to perform the installation efficiently and accurately. Throughout the installation process, inspections are conducted to ensure compliance and catch any potential issues early.

VII. Septic Systems and the Environment (contd.)

The impact of septic systems on the environment extends beyond the immediate property boundaries. Proper maintenance and compliance with environmental regulations are crucial to prevent contamination and safeguard ecosystems.

Environmental regulations for septic systems

Governments at various levels have implemented regulations to govern the installation and operation of septic systems. These regulations aim to protect groundwater, surface water, and public health. Compliance with these regulations is essential to prevent pollution, contamination, and potential legal issues. Staying informed about local regulations and working with licensed professionals ensures compliance and environmental responsibility.

Protecting sensitive ecosystems

Properties with septic systems located near environmentally-sensitive areas should take additional precautions to prevent contamination. These areas may include wetlands, lakes, rivers, or coastal zones. Special considerations and practices are often required to safeguard the fragile ecosystems present in these areas. It is recommended to consult with environmental experts to ensure proper protection and compliance.

Pumping and disposal of septic waste

When pumping septic tanks, it is vital to ensure that the waste is disposed of responsibly. Septic waste contains various contaminants that can harm the environment if not properly treated or disposed of. Licensed septic waste haulers have approved disposal methods that adhere to environmental regulations. Choosing a reliable and reputable waste hauler is crucial to prevent pollution and protect ecosystems.

VIII. Benefits of Regular Maintenance (contd.)

Regular maintenance of septic systems goes beyond preventing issues and environmental harm. It offers several benefits to

Related Posts

Understanding Septic Systems: From Approval to Annual Inspections

Understanding Septic Systems: From Approval to Annual Inspections