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How Often Should a Septic Tank be Cleaned?

Septic Tank Pumping by Man Holding Hose

Septic systems are designed to disperse wastewater effectively, and when used properly, can function well for years. However, regular pumping and cleaning of the tank itself is necessary to maintain the septic system. How often should a septic tank be cleaned? The answer is based on a variety of factors.

How Long Should You Go Between Septic Cleanings?

Most septic contractors recommend having the tank pumped every 2 to 5 years, but more should go into the decision than these arbitrary guidelines. A septic tank should always be pumped when needed, regardless of the date it was last cleaned. For some households, 5 years is a reasonable timeframe, but for others, more frequency may be needed.

Your system naturally separates household wastewater into three layers. The first is the sludge layer, made up of solids, that settles at the bottom of the tank. Above that is the effluent layer, which has a watery consistency. This is the layer that should freely flow into the leach field. The top layer consists of grease and scum. When the sludge layer gets within 6 inches of the outlet drain or the scum layer falls within 12 inches, your tank should be pumped, regardless of when the last pumping occurred.

Factors that Affect the Frequency of Septic Cleanings

  • Number of People in the Household: The more people that live in a home, the more waste is produced, from flushing toilets to washing dishes. On average, a retired couple could probably go longer between pumpings than a family of five.
  • Size of the Home: The number of bedrooms a home has determines the size of the septic tank that is installed. A 2-bedroom house, for example, may have a 1,000 gallon tank, while a 5-bedroom house would need a 1,500 gallon tank.
  • Size of the Tank: Septic tanks have a limited capacity by design. As the effluent layer rises, it is forced through the drainpipes into the leach field, where it is dispersed through the yard. It could be assumed that a smaller tank would need to be pumped more frequently, but the factors above still play a big role in determining how often a tank should be pumped.
  • Amount of Wastewater Created: The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimates that the average person uses about 70 gallons of water per day. In households where most members work or attend school outside the home, the amount of wastewater entering the septic tank could be lower, but families that work from home, wash more laundry, or take more frequent showers could use more water than average.

Important Tips on Septic Maintenance

No one wants to pay for a septic pumping when it isn’t needed, but waiting too long between pumpings could lead to more costly and unpleasant issues. For this reason, consider keeping detailed records of your septic system maintenance, including uses you may have with the system and the dates it was pumped. You may begin to notice patterns, like odors appearing every four years, and use that information to schedule pumpings at the three-year mark instead. You should also record the levels of scum and sludge in the tank, and take action when those layers get too close to the outlet drain.

When less water makes its way into the septic tank, it could likely reduce the frequency of septic tank pumpings. Consider ways to bring down your water usage on a daily basis. While you may not be able to reduce the number of times family members flush the toilet, you can swap the toilet for a high-efficiency model. Doing so could reduce your water waste from 5 gallons per flush to 1.6 gallons. You may also want to consider switching to high-efficiency showerheads and faucet aerators to reduce water waste in your home. While washing clothes, adjust the load size to match the amount of clothing you are washing. Try spreading washing machine usage throughout the week as well, to allow the tank to process waste efficiently.

To reduce the frequency of septic tank pumping and repairs, it is also important to be mindful of what goes down the drains and toilets in your home. As a rule, nothing but wastewater and septic-safe toilet paper should make its way into your septic tank. Things like food scraps and paper towels could clog your pipes, while harsh chemicals could throw off the natural balance of the tank. Instead, consider using a bacteria-based product, which will introduce healthy bacteria into the tank. The bacteria then work to completely digest the waste, including fats, oils, and greases, or FOG. When the sludge and the scum are fully digested, your tank will need to be pumped less frequently.

Cleaning and Maintaining Your Septic Tank

If you own a home with a septic system, pumping the tank is a necessary service. On average, it will need to be pumped every 2-5 years, but factors including the size of the tank, number of people in the house, and wastewater usage could shorten that window. Rather than waiting until you begin to smell sewage or see waste backing up into your home, consider getting ahead of the game by recording sludge levels. You can also reduce water usage with high-efficiency toilets and showerheads. Consider using a bacteria-based product, as well, that will help to reduce the sludge in the tank, and the frequency of pumpings.

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