Managing waste: Household septic systems - Part 2

Use and maintenance of septic systems will extend their ensure their success, protect individuals and protect the environment.

Approximately 1.4 million households in Michigan use a septic system to handle their home’s waste water. Proper use and regular maintenance are essential to extend these system’s lives, to protect your family and to protect the environment.

Many people think that because a septic system filters and cleans waste water just as if you were on a municipal sewer system that a septic system can be abused in the same way. This is not true. Septic systems can operate correctly for 15 to 40 years if they are used appropriately, maintained regularly and designed correctly for the site. Remember that even “brand new” systems can fail prematurely if any of the above precautions are not taken.

Locating Your Septic System

  • Do you know where your septic system is located on your property? If you don’t and there are no records or drawings indicating the location, contact your county health department. They may have records containing this information.
  • To locate your system, follow the sewage pipe that leaves the basement through the wall. The tank is usually ten to twenty feet from the house in the same direction as the pipe.
  • Once you locate your system, draw a diagram and store it with other septic system documents. Michigan State University (MSU) bulletin “Managing Your Septic System” (WQ51), has been designed as a file folder. It has information about use and maintenance of septic systems, a graph area to draw the location of your system in relation to the house and a table to record all maintenance. The folder stores all documents and receipts in one handy location.
  • If you need to install a new system, contact your local health department for permit requirements.
  • Make sure the system – both the tank and absorption field – is the required 50-feet minimum from your drinking water well. The farther apart the well and septic system, the better. Also, make sure the septic system is downhill from the well. If you find that your well and septic system are closer than the 50-feet minimum, have your well tested more frequently to insure your water’s quality. In any case, well water should be tested annually as a precaution.

Using Your Septic System

  • Conserve water in and around the home. Use low flow faucets and toilets, do laundry one load daily instead of all loads in one day. Fix leaky faucets and toilets to reduce the amount of water going into the system. Do not connect sump pumps to the septic system.
  • Protect the system by marking the drain field boundaries. Do not drive cars or other heavy equipment over the absorption field. Do not plant deep-rooted trees or shrubs on the drain field. Keep the soil over the drain field slightly mounded to encourage precipitation to run off rather than soak into the system.
  • Avoid irrigating of grass covering the drain field.
  • Avoid putting chemicals in and around the system. Do not add chemicals to clean or increase bacteria in the system. They aren’t needed and usually don't work. Avoid fertilizing the grass on the drain field.
  • Limit use of your kitchen garbage disposal. Garbage disposals increase the amount of solids entering the system and could result in more frequent cleaning or system failure.
  • Avoid putting these items in your system: fats, grease, oils, paint, poisons, pesticides, solvents and coffee grounds. These can cause your system to work improperly and may shorten the life of the system.

Maintaining Your System

The most important maintenance action for the efficient use and longevity of a septic system is regular inspection and pumping. A system operates more effectively when the tank is no more than one-third full of scum and sludge. As these solids build up, it’s more likely that some will drain out with the liquid waste into the drain field. This can result in premature clogging of the drain field and requires costly clean up or installation of a completely new field. Pumping out a septic tank can average from $150 to $300 while replacing a failed absorption field can cost thousands. Remember, it’s not usually the tank that has a problem. When the system fails, it’s the drain field that needs replacing.

  • Inspection and pumping should be done by a licensed contractor.
  • Keep clear, detailed records each time the tank is pumped or inspected. This information could be valuable if you sell your home. Some counties require proof of pumping prior to sale.
  • Be on site when the tank is pumped. Make sure as much of the solids and liquid are pumped out of the tank as possible. The following table gives an estimate of how many years you can expect between pumpings based on the number in the household. 

Years Between Pumping Based on Number in Household*

Tank size (Gallons)

Number of people in the household



































*Estimate only - other factors may impact the recommended amount of time between the pumping of the tank. 

"Managing Your Septic System" (WQ39) is available from the MSU Bookstore.

For more information, contact: Terry Gibb, or reach him by phone at 586-469-6440.

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