Knowing just a little bit about how septic systems work can save you a costly septic bill repair sometime in the future.  There are lots of styles and variations, but this photo/diagram shows a set up that is commonly seen in Northern Michigan.


Everything your sinks, toilets, dishwashers, garbage disposals and washing machines get rid of goes into your septic system.  That's a lot of "stuff" everyday.  Once it goes into your tank, it settles and divides into three main divisions.  The solids sink to the bottom and begin to build up over time; we'll call that "sludge." (That will need pumped out someday.) The greases, oils,  and fats are lighter than water, and float to the top, which create a "scum" layer.  The middle layer will be the waste-water section as the picture above clearly shows.  The water, and the water only, is designed to flow out into the drain field and settle and be filtered in the soils.

 This is obviously an over-simplified explanation, but basically, the septic tank's job is to allow those three main things to divide.  We want the sludge to sink and stay there until the next pumping.  We want the scum to stay where it is, and hopefully the good bacteria will work on it.  We want the water, and ONLY THE WATER, to exit the tank into the drain field where the microbes in the soil will digest and remove most of the contaminates from the wastewater before it eventually reaches the ground water. 


If you flush household chemicals and poisons into your tank, you can kill the "good bacteria" that is helping your tank do its job properly.  Those chemicals can also go through your drain field and work its way into nearby lakes, streams, ponds or into your family's or pet's drinking water.  If you dump diapers, cat litter, cigarette butts, floss, or anythings that doesn't break down easily or that could clog your system somewhere between your house and the end of the drain field, well, let's just tactfully say you'll have "a mess" on your hands. And if that's not what gets your attention, then maybe a costly repair bill will.


*Cooking Grease and Oil


*Cat Litter
*Cotton Swabs and Cigarette Butts
*Feminine Products
*Coffee Grounds

*Paper Towels and Flushable Wipes 

  (Yes, "Flushable" Wipes should not be flushed!  They were a horrible invention.)


Although this isn't an exhaustive list, there are few other factors that can affect how healthy your septic system is:

*Design or installation.  Being buried in the ground, defects can be hidden or go undiscovered even to a real Expert Professional like a Septic Tank Contractor.  Compaction and soil conditions can also effect how well your drain field performs over time.

*The amount of water the Occupants use.  For example, an elderly widow who does two loads of laundry a week sells her home to a Couple with three teenagers who love to take 20 minute hot showers twice a day.  A system that was working great before is now being taxed beyond limits. 

*A system not maintained.  Septic tanks should be regularly checked, and solids and scums need removed before they can make their way into the drain field.  They should be pumped every few years depending on the size of the tank and the amount of usage by the occupants.  When the Septic Company comes to pump your tank, ask questions and get any input you can.  They will suck out all the contents, and that is really the only time the real condition of the tank can be discovered.


For a Full Functional Maintenance Inspection, a licensed Septic Contractor will give you the most thorough comprehensive Inspection which will often include having the tank pumped at the time of inspection to best inspect the inside of the tank and other components hidden by the tank's contents. 

Home Inspectors are Generalists.  "A FRESH LOOK" Home Inspection Services, Inc, will perform a Routine Maintenance Inspection with the goal of determining if the septic system was working properly-at the time of inspection.  After collecting any available data from county sources, we will find and locate your tank, lid, and drain field before performing a Functional Water Flow stress test into the leach field to determine if there is any blockage or saturation.  We will provide you with a written report that includes digital photo documentation of our findings,  which will in most cases satisfy the requirements set forth by lenders as related to financing.  Different lenders have different requirements, so check with yours.  


In addition, at your request, we will make arrangements for the tank to be pumped at the time of inspection. Call for further details and pricing for that option.   


Unfortunately, there is no absolute way to determine or predict how much longer an existing system will continue to function properly and handle adequately a home's water disposal needs.  Many factors come into play; for example,  what is put into the system and how much is put into the system.  Additional factors include seasonal and soil conditions, present water table levels,  and how often the tank is pumped and/or inspected to catch functional problems early.