Septic systems operation and maintenance overview

Septic systems operation and maintenance overview

Here's an overview of what you need to do to operate and maintain your system for maximum efficiency and long life.

Pump tank regularly


  • Scum and sludge can build up and may be carried into the drainfield. They will clog the drainfield, causing it to fail and require replacement.
  • Scum and sludge in the tank reduces the amount of room available to hold wastewater.

How Often?

  • Many experts recommend pumping a tank every 2-3 years, however, it depends on wastewater quantity and quality.
  • Another method is to establish your own pumping interval.
  • After having your tank pumped, have a septic professional inspect the scum and sludge layers annually until they build up to a level that requires pumping.
  • Use that time period as your pumping interval, until your waste generation rates change (decrease due to someone leaving, or increase due to adding a garbage disposal, more people in the home or children becoming teens).
  • If / when your waste generation rates change, you will have to determine the new pumping interval. 

Have a professional inspect and pump the tank

As a knowledgeable consumer, ask that the professional follow Nebraska state required procedures which include:

  • Pump the tank through the manhole. Never pump through the inspection ports as baffles or tees may be damaged, and it is difficult to completely empty the tank. Pump the tank, and flush back materials under pressure to loosen remaining scum and sludge, then pump again to empty the tank.
  • Inspect the tank for cracks, and check that baffles or tees are in place.
  • Dispose of the septage (materials from the tank, including liquids, scum and sludge) in a safe and legal manner, typically at a municipal wastewater treatment plant.

Conserve water and spread usage over a period of time.

Why? Except immediately after pumping, the tank is always full.

  • For every gallon of wastewater that enters the tank, a gallon of effluent leaves, entering the drain field. In the tank, approximately 24 hours of retention time is needed for the solids to separate.
  • Heavy water use over a short period of time may not allow settling to occur. Solids may move out of the tank with the effluent.
  • Rapid water movement in the tank may start a wave motion, scouring the bottom and resuspending sludge, which can then move out of the tank with effluent.


  • Spread out laundry use, washing 1-2 loads per day rather than 6 loads in one day. Use low-flow aerators on shower heads, and low volume flush toilets (approximately 1.5 gallons per flush as opposed to older styles which used 6 to 7 gallons per flush).
  • Repair leaks.
  • Take short showers.
  • Turn off faucets while shaving, brushing teeth, etc.
  • Make sure to use appropriate load and water level setting (low, med, high) on the washing machine.

Manage Solids


  • Solids in the wastewater become scum or sludge. Therefore more solids in the wastewater result in more frequent pumping due to scum and sludge buildup.


  • Use your garbage disposal sparingly if at all. Heavy use of a garbage disposal generates more solids. Professionals estimate that a tank may need pumping twice as often as one in a household with light or no use of a garbage disposal.
    Compost materials instead.
  • Have a professional install an effluent filter on your septic tank. It filters effluent leaving the tank, capturing suspended solids. The effluent filter is cheaper and easier to clean than a clogged drainfield.
  • Don't put grease and oil down the drain. It may clog the plumbing, and will increase scum formation.
  • Dispose of cigarette butts, facial tissue, diapers, paper toweling, and feminine products with other solid waste in the trash.
  • Install a lint filter on the washing machine. Consider that lint comes off your clothes in the washer just as it does in the dryer. Lint may become scum, sludge, or stay suspended in the septic tank and flow out with effluent to the drain field. 
  • Use liquid detergents when possible. Powdered materials have fillers that become sludge.
  • Use toilet tissue that breaks down rapidly. Test your toilet paper by shaking in a covered jar with water. Paper should show signs of breakdown after less than 1-minute of shaking.

Keep Hazardous Materials Out


  • Septic systems are not designed to treat products like pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides), medication, paints, paint thinners, solvents, and excess cleaning products. These materials may cause system failure by slowing down or killing beneficial soil bacteria, and/or traveling to and polluting groundwater.


  • Don't overuse or dispose of excess materials such as pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, fungicides), medication, paints, paint thinners, solvents, and cleaning products down the drain.
  • A system can handle normal amounts of household cleaning products, including antibacterial soaps. Excessive use may be harmful to the system. Dispose of excess amounts at a household hazardous waste collection.
  • Avoid using automatic toilet cleaning dispensers containing bleach. These introduce a constant antibacterial agent that can inhibit initial treatment in the tank.

Let the system work naturally


  • Beneficial bacteria, necessary for initial treatment, are naturally introduced into the septic tank from toilet use and other wastewater generation.
  • Pumping does not eliminate beneficial bacteria from the tank. After pumping, more bacteria are reintroduced with the first flush.


  • Don't use septic starters, additives or feeders. Some do nothing and are therefore a waste of money. Others may actually damage your system.

Avoid Drainfield Compaction


  • Aerobic bacteria are an important requirement for treatment that occurs in the soil. Pores in the soil hold air. Compaction will reduce porosity, and therefore reduce the amount of air available in the soil.


  • Do not drive or park vehicles, farm machinery on drainfield.
  • Do not site dog kennels or animal confinement facilities over the drainfield.
  • Do not construct patios, decks, driveways, garages, etc. over the drainfield.

Avoid Introducing Excess Water to the Drainfield


  • Excess water in the drainfield will fill soil pore spaces with water that doesn't need treatment, taking up space needed for oygen and / or wastewater.


  • Divert roof drains, downspouts and basement drainage
  • Tile water outside the septic system and away from the drainfield.
  • Irrigate sparingly in the drainfield area.
  • Never apply large amounts of water to the drainfield area.

Maintain structural integrity of the drainfield.

  • Do not add soil except to fill slight depressions to prevent water from ponding.
  • Keep rodents and burrowing animals out.
  • Establish and maintain grass over the drainfield.
  • Do not plant trees on or near the drainfield. Roots will damage it.

For NEW systems, maintain a replacement drainfield area.

  • Regulations require that newly constructed systems have a reserve area for a replacement if and when the first drainfield fails.
  • It must be managed the same as the first drainfield.

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