Septic Systems: Getting the Right One Matters!

Around here, a fair number of properties are nowhere near a sewer hookup, and must therefore depend on a septic system to process human waste and wastewater from laundry rooms, kitchen dishwater, and showers. All this stuff goes down the drain and ends up in a septic tank—and that’s where the magic happens.

Microscopic bugs eat the stuff from the drains, changing solids to liquids in the process. Septic tanks typically have a division or two call baffles, allowing liquid to be siphoned off and ultimately routed to the leach field where some effluent goes into the ground to be further filtered and cleansed by nature and some rises to the surface through roots of plants and evaporates into the atmosphere. This is how a standard septic system works and these systems, if well designed, will function problem-free for years.

One of the keys to a well-functioning system is the leach lines, a series of pipes leading away from the septic tank with holes in the bottom. Below the pipes are sand, gravel, and eventually dirt. Leach lines spread out into the leach field, and as long as your field isn’t full of clay, you’re in good shape.

Another key to a well-functioning system is to size it properly. As you can imagine, an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath cabin requires a much smaller system than a 60-seat burger joint. Restaurants typically install grease traps, both because building codes require it and because they know their septic system will last a lot longer if they do. Grease takes a long time to break down and can clog a leach field, an expensive problem to solve.

Before a septic system can be installed, a soil test is required. The soil test requires the digging of a 12- to 15-foot hole to assess the soil all the way down. If your soil analysis indicates non-porous soil, you’ll need a non-standard system (an active aerobic system). This type of septic tank requires an additional division, and as the name implies, air is pumped into the water, changing the environment to encourage the growth of larger bugs. Bigger bugs have bigger appetites, so the effluent that runs through the leach lines has fewer and smaller particles suspended in it, extending the life of the leach field (and running more easily through dense soil).

Regardless of whether you have a standard or non-standard system, be careful what you put in the tank; too much or too many harsh chemicals can retard the growth of those essential microscopic bugs.

Another type of septic system is a gray water system. It takes the relatively clean wastewater from baths, sinks, washing machines, and processes it so you can use it to irrigate your vegetable garden (above ground crops only) landscaping, rather than having it go through the leach field.

Septic systems, like every other component of your home, require periodic monitoring and maintenance. For the most part, monitoring means looking for a green patch where there shouldn’t be one or paying attention to an unpleasant smell. A well-functioning septic system will not cause wet patches and should not smell. According to Silva Septic, maintenance usually boils down to having the tank pumped on a semi-regular basis (every three to ten years depending on the number of people contributing) and an occasional inspection to make sure the walls, lid, and baffles are in good condition.

According to Dave Ford at Redwood Valley Gravel, installation of a standard septic system will cost $11,000 – $15,000, while a non-standard system is more like $25,000 – $45,000. Incidentally, new systems also require a backup leach field in case the first one eventually fails.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, feel free to contact me at or visit our website at If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you’re a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 35 years.

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