In the business we have two different terms that just mean the same thing; Septic Tank Pump out and Septic Tank Clean out. There isn’t really a difference. When we clean out a septic tank, there should be no water or solids left and the bottom should be visible. Our goal is to be able to enter the tank and not get dirty.
“But I have an aerobic system; I don’t need to pump it”
Many of you have been fed this line by installers desperate for work. A lot of customers will agree to an installation under the impression that they won’t need to clean it. You’ve been lied to and should no longer do work with that installer. He is either just lying to you for the fun of it, or is not confident enough in his work to sell you on what’s actually going on.
I hear people talk all the time about how they haven’t cleaned out their tank in 20 years and it works fine blah blah. I guarantee you most of these people are going to have issues that can’t be fixed down the road. I have definitely been to homes where the system is pretty clean and didn’t need us to do any work, but that’s really infrequent. One such customer is an airline pilot and is only home for 2 days out of the week. Needless to say, his septic system doesn’t experience daily use. For everyone that has a family and uses their system daily, you should really get your system pumped regularly.
In a conventional system, the bacteria don’t break waste down as quickly as in an aerobic system. The bacteria are slower and less aggressive. All systems are different and different regions have different tank sized. In our area, 500 gallon tanks are the standard size. In other states, it may be as much as 1000 or 1500 gallons. Here’s a handy graph to show you how often you need to pump based on members of the household vs tank size. It’s always better to pump more often than less often though. Waiting too long can actually just ruin your field lines and require a replacement. Playing it safe can save you a lot of money.
Zones in a Septic System
There are three zones in a septic system trash tank and conventional system. They all tell you what is happening in the system and when it should be pumped. Most of the time we will address this.
The first layer is the scum layer where paper, food, and grease settle. This layer is visible, stiff, and stable compared to other layers. Sometimes this layer is not present, though, and can lead people to thinking that everything is fine. This happens when too much water is used or there isn’t much of the aforementioned waste in the tank. A good rule of thumb for aerobic septic systems and conventional septic systems is that when this tank has a scum layer that you can stick a shovel in and not break through to water with the head of the shovel, the system needs to be pumped out. When you pipes are clogged and won’t drain a lot of times it’s due to the scum layer being so thick that it blocks the inlet baffle on the top.
The second layer Is the clear zone where most of the particles and solids have either settled to the bottom or the top. The water in this area is pretty clear and free of solids. This is the area where the baffles take in water and why having them on is so important. The graphic below shows a good example of what it looks like if you did a side view and could see what it looks like. The picture below it is a tank that needs to be pumped. The bottom one there is probably damage to the field lines.
This is why baffles are so necessary; they don’t allow scum to enter the field lines. If there is no baffle, nothing is stopping the solids from just running into the field lines and plugging up the holes water discharges through.
Why Waiting Will Cost You In The Long Run
Your system gets rid of water through pipes or chambers that have small holes in them. These tiny holes are where the water drains out before being absorbed through the ground where most of the treatment happens. If you wait too long, like in the pictures, solids will enter the field lines. Grease takes an enormous amount of time to break down, and if it gets into the field lines there is a good chance you’ll need to have them redone. You may also need to flat out install a new system. Both projects will be very expensive to do. 3,000 to 10,000, maybe even more. The bottom layer is also a concern. It can get thick enough that water may not be able to leave the system. When we pull up and look at a tank that has no scum layer, yet is full, the scum layer probably went into the field lines because the water level rose too high. This is pretty dangerous because when the sludge layer makes it out of the tank, homeowners may look in a tank and see it as clear and not needing cleaning.
On an aerobic septic system, it is imperative to do a good cleanout. In states that use pumps to discharge water through sprinklers, the pumps are designed for water wells. This means the water needs to be clean to operate at optimal pressure and get the 10-15 year life expectancy you deserve. This is even more essential for systems with drain fields because you really don’t want solids going into your chambers. Unfortunately, some states(Ohio and Illinois come to mind) don’t require a trash tank to be installed on all aerobic septic systems. This increases how many clean outs you need and how frequently you’ll need to do it. We believe this is simply short-sightedness on the part of installers and legislators. This results in your one-tank systems needing pumping every couple of years; entirely too often, in our opinion.
This effluent pump(pictured below) is from a family of five that went 8 years without cleaning their tank. As you can see, the pump screen that takes in water is covered with sludge. The float needing replacement 6 months later, but the pump still works to this day, 10 years in the tank.
It is vital to take out and clean high head effluent pumps like this. Many pumpers will charge extra for this service. Be sure to ask and clarify what all you’re paying for. It’s easy to clean the screens on the pumps. They simply snap off and can be washed with a water hose before popping back on.
Whoever is pumping your tank should use the built-in pressure washers to clean the tank. Simply sticking the hose in the tank and letting it suck out the water and some sludge is not enough. It should only take about 15-25 minutes to completely clean it once the water level is down.
Most people wait too long to get a septic pump/clean out and it has a negative effect on the components of the septic system. When you want this done, you want a reputable company to do it and you want to be there when they do. We have been to many jobs where nothing was done and the customer paid, thinking the system was pumped out. We will go over scam pumpers in another article.
We’re working on a list of reputable pumpers by state. They are not the cheapest, but we know they do a good job and you always get what you pay for. These are the pumpers you can hire without needing to be home to watch. All we want is the proper job to be done.
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I thought it was interesting that the bacteria in a conventional septic system aren't as aggressive, so they don't break waste down as quickly. I live in an older home, so I've been wondering how often I need to get my tank pumped. It sounds like I should actually get it pumped now, as my family is larger and it has been a few years. Do you have any tips for hiring a septic pump service in my state?
If you have two lights on the system one amber and one red the amber is for the aerator and the red is for the pump in 99 percent of cases. If you only have one light it is either the pump or the aerator. It could be to many chemical are going down the sink that will kill the bacteria very fast bleach, pine o pine, mop water are all bad things to put down the drain this will make the system smell because the bacteria have been killed and the system is not working properly. The red light… Read more »
I didn't know the details of a septic tank cleaning. I didn't realize how important it is to do it often so you avoid build up. I think that I should call someone to check mine out asap considering I don't remember the last time I had mine clean.
Very interesting article, thank you for sharing!
I like how you mentioned that waiting to get your septic ump fixed will cost you in the long run. My husband and I just moved into a house with a septic pump that doesn't work properly. I will definitely keep your tips in mind when fixing my septic pump.
It's good to know that you should get your septic tank pumped regularly if you used your system on a daily basis. My wife and I go out of town a lot, but we're still home most of the time. We'll be sure to get our system pumped since we aren't gone enough to justify not pumping it.
I thought it was interesting that you said people who haven't cleaned out their septic tank in 20 years and claim it will work fine will most often have issues that can't be fixed in the long run. I recently just bought a house and I don't think that they really did anything with the septic tank. I'd love to have septic tank cleaning services come and make sure it's not at risk of any damages.
The damage is already done pumping it doesn’t damage it everything is already damaged if anything it will help it. Sorry about that!
My septic system is in need of some work. I'll do as you said and get someone to come and take a look at it. If I wait, the problem will probably get much worse.
Great idea! Problems with septic systems to tend to compound, so prevention is definitely the most cost effective choice!
Thank you for reminding me that waiting too long to clean my tank and pumps can have a negative effect on the entire system. My husband and I don't remember if we had it cleaned when we first moved into this property and we're worried that there are some problems that we might not just be aware of. It might be better to just hire professionals who can check and see if it needs to be cleaned or pumped out immediately.