34 most common questions about septic systems

1. How often should I pump out my septic tank?

On average, septic tanks should be pumped out every 2-3 years. However, this number varies based on the number of occupants a home has, the volume of water being used every day, and the size of the system.

It must be said that there are many myths circulating regarding septic system maintenance. Some folks believe that septic tanks don’t need to be pumped out. Others think that pumping them out more than once a decade is detrimental to the bacteria that are naturally present in a septic tank. Others are of the mindset that it needs to be done every year no matter what.

When it comes down to it, just remember that each household has different water usage habits and each system is made to handle a certain amount of waste and water. Your best bet is to learn about your system, make note of your household’s water and waste habits, and then get on a regular maintenance schedule based on that information- whether that means getting your tank pumped every two years or every five years.

Septic system installation

2. My septic tank is ten years old and has never been pumped. It’s working just fine! Why do I need to pump it out?

Septic tanks are built to act as a holding tank for solid waste and a treatment tank for liquid waste. They are an enclosed environment with a limited amount of volume. Over time, solid wastes will begin to build up in the bottom of the tank. As the level of solids increases, the available volume for waste that is entering the tank begins to decrease

3. I can’t find my septic tank. What do I do?

Our professional technicians can locate a buried tank using a couple of techniques. As long as the tank isn’t buried too deeply, the process of locating it is fairly straightforward. If you are wanting to find it yourself, your best bet will be to start with getting an As-Built for your property from the appropriate county’s sanitation department.

Generally speaking, most homes built after 1976 will have an As-Built on file with the county. An As-Built is a layout and description of a septic system that is filed with the county upon that property being permitted for a septic system installation. This document will help you see where your septic tank is relative to your home and other features on your property such as wells, driveways, ditches, etc.

4. How do I know how big my tank is?

If there is an As-Built available for your property, it should indicate the size of your tank. Otherwise, you can speculate the size based on when your home was built and how big the home is. Most tanks installed in the 1980s or earlier were 1000 gallons. Also, most homes with 3 or fewer original bedrooms will have a 1000-gallon tank.

5. How do I know what type of septic system I have?

Most older homes have a gravity system, and that type of system is still the most common for newer homes. However, as the population in the Billings area grows, we are seeing more and more of the advanced systems installed in order to prevent too many nitrates from accumulating in the soil and groundwater.

If you don’t readily find any control panels near your system, see wiring in the tank, or note any electrical components then your system is most likely a gravity system.

6. Why is there a sewer smell around my tank?

A sewer smell around your septic tank could mean problems or it could be an easy fix. The easy fix would be if one of your riser lids are not tightened all the way or the seal on one of those lids is broken. Replacing or repairing the lid should do the trick.

Another cause for a sewer smell could be a damaged or deteriorating septic tank, or effluent coming up to the surface of the soil due to leaks or cracks in the pipes or septic tank.

7. How long does it take to pump out a septic tank?

As long as there are risers or the lids on the tank are exposed, it usually takes about 45 minutes to one hour to completely agitate and pump out a septic tank.

8. My septic tank isn’t draining. Does that mean I need to get it pumped out?

More than likely, yes! However, it could just be that there is an obstruction between the drain field and the tank that needs to be cleared out. The best plan of attack would be to have the outlet line hydro-jetted. If the problem is an obstructed line, the septic tank will quickly drain into the drain field. If jetting fails to fix the problem, then it could be that the drain field is oversaturated.

9. The drains in my house are backing up. Do I need to have my tank pumped?

Possibly, or it could be that there is something obstructing the transfer line between the house and the tank. We would recommend that the line be jetted to clear any solids that might be plugging up the line, and if the tank hasn’t been pumped in a few years it might be time to get that cleaned out as well.

10. Why is my septic alarm going off?

Alarms go off for various reasons. It could be that the tank is full and needs to be pumped out; it could be that the pump is not working; or it could be that the floats are malfunctioning.

11. Why do I need to have risers on my tank?

Risers provide a convenient access point to your septic tank when the need for maintenance and/or repairs arise. If a tank does not have risers, then anyone needing access to the tank will need to dig down until they reach the lid. This can be very inconvenient for the homeowner if they are digging it themselves, or it can add to the maintenance or repair costs if the homeowner hires someone else to do it.

12. What is an effluent filter and why does my tank need one?

An effluent filter is essentially the last line of defense your drain field has to keep solids from flowing into it. As effluent moves from the tank to the drain field, there is a chance that some solid particles could move along with it. The filter catches those particles and holds them until it is cleaned off. Septic systems that do not have an effluent filter have a much higher chance of drain field failure.

Filters should be cleaned off on an annual or semi-annual basis. Regular filter maintenance can give homeowners a pretty good idea of the overall condition of their septic system and whether or not there has been hydraulic overload of their system.

13. My tank smells so bad! Is there anything I can do to change that?

All septage smells, but our focus is usually pinpointing the source of that smell. Tanks are (or should be) sealed off, and to have a noticeable sewer smell near or around a tank or drain field is indicative of some other issues.

That being said, installing one of our SludgeHammer treatment systems inside of your tank will eliminate the sewer smell altogether and address a number of other issues that may be causing that noticeable smell.

14. Why is there water pooling around my tank?

Water around the tank indicates either a broken or cracked tank or pipe or a full tank. If the water seems to be coming from the top of the tank or from a riser, then the tank is full. If the water is surfacing around the outside of the tank, then a crack or break is likely.

15. How long do septic systems typically last?

Septic systems have an average lifespan of about 25 years. There are multiple factors that can cause this number to go up or down, including soil condition, installation procedures, components used, maintenance history, and household use habits.

16. What are some ways I can help my septic system last longer?

Proper maintenance (pumping, jetting, inspections, etc) and proper usage habits are the two best ways to prevent system failure.

17. I bought some flushable wipes. Are those okay to use?

Despite what the packaging says, flushable wipes (though they will flush down a toilet) do not break down like toilet paper does. They can cause big issues if used regularly and will increase the disposal cost when it comes time to pump your tank.

We always tell our customers that flushable wipes were named by someone who does not empty septic tanks for a living. That old adage, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” is pertinent in this case. They most definitely will flush, but that’s about it.

18. My grandma told me to put a whole chicken carcass in the septic tank to help feed the bacteria and keep the system working. Is that true?

There are many “old wives tales” that circulate regarding septic maintenance. This is one of them. Remember that our bodies are teeming with bacteria, and it is this bacteria that populates a septic tank. As long as harsh chemicals, medications, and antibiotics are not regularly used by a household, the bacteria inside of the septic tank should be able to thrive- no chicken carcasses needed.

19. How do I look into the septic tank?

If your septic tank has risers, then removing the lid(s) on those risers will provide access. Please be sure to never leave a lid off of a riser if you need to leave the area. Septic tanks have been known to be fatal to unsuspecting pets and children who get too close and don’t notice the opening.

Also, NEVER enter a tank. Toxic fumes build up inside of septic tanks and can quickly be fatal if one is not properly equipped. It is best to call a professional who has the right training and equipment if the tank requires someone to enter it in order to make a repair.

20. The last guy who came and pumped my tank said there was lots of gravel in the bottom. What does that mean?

Gravel in a tank indicates that the interior of the tank is beginning to deteriorate. This only happens with concrete and is a natural process that occurs due to the gases that convert to acid inside of a tank. Once the seal on the surface of the concrete has been deteriorated, the concrete starts to crumble, and gravel will fall off the top and sides of the tank down to the bottom.

21. What yearly maintenance should be done on a septic system?

At a minimum, a septic system should have its effluent filter cleaned and inspected at least once per year- twice is even better. Pumping does not need to be yearly unless the septic system is too small for the number of regular occupants in the home.

22. How much does a typical inspection cost?

A Visual Inspection starts around $475 and a Comprehensive Inspection starts around $900. Location, size of system, and accessibility can all affect the price.

23. Inspections seem like a waste of money. Why should I get one?

Septic systems are one of the most expensive parts of a home. Buyers rarely purchase without having the roof, HVAC, electrical, plumbing, etc, inspected because the cost and inconvenience to have those repaired or replaced is something no one wants to deal with after they buy a home. Many buyers don’t understand that a septic system that is failing or failed will cost even more to repair than most of the other things inspected in a “typical” home inspection. Knowledge is power, and it is always our goal to help a buyer gain that knowledge so they can make informed decisions.

24. What time of year should I be pumping out my septic tank?

Septic tanks can be pumped at any time of the year. If you do not have risers on your tank, it would be best to pump it when the ground is not frozen or covered in snow since digging is required to expose the tank lid.

Another thing to keep in mind is if you have any events on the calendar that would cause your septic system to get substantially more use (such as a reunion, grad party, wedding, etc. on your property), then you could have the tank pumped out beforehand to free up more space in your septic tank.

25. My drain field is right where I want to build a shop on my property. Can I move it?

It is possible to move a drain field as long as you are not prohibited by:

  1. Cost
  2. Space
  3. Water Boundaries

For most people, one of these things makes it either impractical or impossible to move a drain field. It never hurts to ask though.

26. I am planning on adding more bedrooms on to my home. Will that affect my septic system?

Yes and no. Septic systems are built for a specific number of occupants. Adding more bedrooms could mean the septic system is suddenly too small based on Montana DEQ standards. If a system is undersized for a home, but the number of occupants is only a couple of people, then the system function won’t be affected. If, however, the home goes up for sale later on and an inspection is done revealing the undersized system, this could affect the seller’s negotiating power in the transaction.

27. My septic system has backed up into my home. What do I do?

Try not to panic and give us a call! We are available 24/7! While you wait for us to get there, try to contain the mess as much as possible- you can use a shop vac or old towels. Don’t use any water or flush any toilets.

If you are feeling up to the task, you can locate the tank/risers and see if there is an effluent filter on your system. When you open up a riser you will see a plastic handle within reach. Grab the handle and pull the filter out. It is plastic so just rinse it off with a garden hose in an inconspicuous spot on your property and slide it back in place. Sometimes a filter can get plugged up and not let any effluent pass through it. If this is the problem, you should almost immediately see the water level in your tank start dropping. This is a good sign!

If the level doesn’t drop, then your septic system is having other issues that we will be able to address once we arrive.

28. There are large trees near my septic system. Is that a problem?

Trees aren’t always problematic. The biggest concern has to do with the roots systems. Certain species of trees have extremely shallow root systems, and these tend to be more concerning than those with deeper roots. If roots seem to be a problem inside of your drain field or if they are breaking lines, it is possible to remove those roots. This can be done by dissolving them, jetting them out, or digging them out. 

29. What is biomat?

Biomat is a thick, black sludge that builds up inside of unhealthy septic systems. It is impermeable and can be extremely problematic if it accumulates in a drain field. Proper maintenance is the best biomat prevention.

30. How does a septic system work?

Most septic systems utilize gravity to move household waste from the home to the drain field.

Think of a septic system as a giant digestive system. Just as substances that we consume go into our mouths, broken down inside of our bodies, and are eliminated, household waste and water go into a septic system, are broken down, and are eliminated as well.

A septic tank is like a stomach. It is the first point of contact for what enters the pipes and the place where everything gets broken into its constituent parts. Fluid that enters the septic tank flows into the drain field where it is eliminated into the soil. The more solid substances stay in the tank longer and bacteria slowly break down these substances into tiny particles that eventually make their way to the drain field where they are eliminated as well. Inorganic things (socks, toys, kitty litter, etc.) don’t break down at all and remain inside the tank until they are pumped out.

Just as our bodies can have digestive problems from us eating too much or eating the wrong things, septic systems can also have problems if they are overloaded with too much household waste all at once or the wrong kind of waste.

It’s important to note that a septic system contains trillions of bacteria that rely on healthy conditions to properly break down the contents of the tank and ensure the effluent going into the drain field is not hazardous to the environment. Homes that use too many harsh cleaners, potent medications, antibiotics, and too much water in general will often have septic issues because the bacteria aren’t able to do their job.

31. How does an Advanced Treatment System work?

There are many types of Advanced Treatment Systems out there. Some are better than others, but they all are meant to accomplish one thing, and that is to treat the septage to such a degree that it does not burden the soil with further nitrates. They are literally an in-ground wastewater treatment plant. Some systems are able to treat the septage to such an extent that what exits the septic tank is basically pure water!

32. How does an ET/ETA septic system work?

An ET/ETA system is sometimes required when there is a nearby water source or when the soil can no longer handle anymore nitrates. These types of systems have drain fields that rely on evaporation to eliminate the effluent instead of gravity. During installation, the top soil is excavated away from the drain field and then a heavy-duty plastic liner is laid down followed by tons of gravel and sand. The liner separates the drain field from the soil beneath it. This ensures that the effluent cannot go “down”, but only “up.”

33. How does a mound septic system work?

When soil surrounding a home is not suitable for standard gravity systems, mound systems are required. Mounds are made up of layers of sand and act as a filtering medium (drain field) for the effluent to pass through before entering the ground water below. These mound systems will require “dosing” of the effluent using electric pumps to achieve even distribution throughout the mound, and special attention must be paid to the components of the system to ensure proper function. Poor maintenance is extremely bad news for a mound system.

34. Are septic systems expensive to maintain?

Septic systems are not any more expensive to maintain than being on city sewer. The nice thing about septic systems is that there is no monthly fee to maintain them. As long as the homeowner practices good water/waste habits and regular pumping is done, homeowners can go years without spending anything on upkeep.

We look forward to serving you!