Protect your home’s value, your family’s health and our freshwater resources by caring for your septic system. 

Your septic system is an important part of your home. It treats the water you use everyday. A failed septic system is very expensive to fix and can be a significant source of bacterial contamination in ground and surface water. Periodic inspections and routine maintenance will prevent a properly constructed system from failing.

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Learn how . . .

Inspect it and pump it out.

Septic systems should be inspected every 2 to 3 years by a qualified professional.

Have your tank pumped out every 3-5 years (or as recommended) by a reputable septic tank service contractor who is required to have a state permit to handle and dispose of the materials.

Find service contractors in the Michigan Septage Haulers Directory, a database of waste businesses, vehicles and land application sites that are currently licensed by the Michigan’s septage waste program.

Conserve water.

To keep your septic system functioning properly, avoid flooding the drainfield with excess water. Conserve water inside your home with efficient fixtures and spread out water-intensive activities like showers, dishwashing and laundry. Using water efficiently also saves energy and money.

Avoid harsh chemicals.

Drain cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners and “miracle system cleaners” will kill the bacteria that are necessary to break down sludge in your septic system. Check product labels to see if they are safe for use in septic systems. Check out alternatives to toxic cleaners.

Use a trash can.

Septic systems are designed for the limited disposal of human and pet waste, toilet paper, and soapy waste water from bathing, laundry and dishwashing. Flushing other items down your toilet or sink can cause your septic system to clog and fail since it can’t break down the material. Dispose of solids such as “disposable” wipes, cigarette butts, diapers, coffee grounds, tampons, condoms and fats, oil and grease from cooking in your household trash.

Tame the toxins.

Toxic household cleaners and chemicals, used motor oil, pain and other hazardous substances should never be poured down a sink or flushed down the toilet, dumped into a storm drain or on the ground. To keep them out of your septic system always dispose of home toxics and household hazardous waste at a county collection site or take-back program.

Avoid field compaction.

Be sure you know the location of your septic tank and drainfield. Never park, drive or build on your tank or drainfield. Soil compaction and paving breaks pipes and prevents oxygen from getting into the soil (beneficial microorganisms in the system need oxygen to break down and treat sewage).

These are signs that your septic system may be failing:

  • Gurgling sounds in the pipes when water is used or the toilet is flushed
  • Slow running or backing up drains may indicate a clog in the house pipes, the sewer pipe leading to the septic tank, the tank itself, the drain field or roof vent
  • Sewer-type odors in the house or yard
  • The ground over the drain field is mushy when you walk on it
  • The grass over the drain field is greener, more lush and/or growing more quickly than the grass around the drain field
  • Frequent intestinal illness of family members. A failed septic system can contaminate the well water if they are in close proximity to each other
  • Excessive weed growth or algae blooms in nearby ponds or drainage ditches may be the result of increased phosphorus or nitrogen from a failed septic getting into surface water
  • If you live near a creek, river or lake, check for excessive plant and algae growth along the shoreline

If you observe any of these signs of trouble, contact your County Health Department immediately and have your septic tank pumped out as soon as possible. That will give you some time to determine what the problem is and what steps need to be taken to correct it. Review your options. Do not base your decision solely on price. What may be the least expensive option can have negative impacts in the long run on your family’s health and the environment.

If you see signs of failure, schedule an inspection and necessary repairs immediately!

*From MSU Extension, Managing waste: Household septic systems – Part 3.

Wastewater from your bathrooms, kitchen and washing machine all go into the septic tank where solids settle out. Most of these solids are digested by beneficial bacteria. The liquid then flows into a drainfield where it slowly filters through the soil. Microorganisms in the soil consume the remaining waste.

A typical septic system consists of three main processes:

1—Waste exits the house and is piped to the septic tank where solids settle out and grease and scum floats to the top. This is the first stage of treatment.

The solids that settle to the bottom of the tank slowly partially decompose. Gas bubbles given off during this process rise to the top of the tank, carrying with them fats, oils, and greases. The tank outlet is located between these two layers, where the clearest liquid is found.

(NOTE:  Some septic tanks have a second compartment for additional effluent clarification.)

2—Liquid effluent flows through the distribution box. A hydraulic pump is sometimes needed if the absorption site (sometimes called a leach field  or drainfield) is higher than the septic tank, or if an elevated mound is used.

3—Finally, the effluent is evenly distributed through perforated pipes to the drainfield where it is absorbed by the soil for treatment.

Under ideal conditions microorganisms on the surface of the soil particles consume the organic pollutants in the effluent.

The drainfield consists of several lateral pipes that allow the effluent to slowly flow out through holes positioned along the length of the pipe. These lateral pipes are located in soil absorption trenches. The trenches provide surface area needed for the effluent to be in maximum contact with the soil. Gravel supports the pipe and forms a protective envelope around it, keeping roots and critters away.

The effluent flows though the gravel and seeps into the soil both below and to the side of the trench. Effluent moves downward with the force of gravity in a process called percolation. As it percolates through the soil, minute solids, bacteria, and nutrients are removed from the effluent.

Environmental Protection Agency, Septic Systems and SepticSmart Homeowners Program.

State of Michigan Onsite Wastewater Program.

County Health Departments Contacts. County environmental health divisions have the responsibility of enforcing state and local ordinances regarding onsite sewage treatment systems as defined by the Michigan Public Health Code. The county environmental health departments in the Huron River watershed offer expertise and information on septic systems including local regulations and guidelines, care and maintenance recommendations, a list of certified sewage system installation and repair contractors, time of sale program requirements, public records on permits issued and inspections performed, and more.

Michigan State University Extension, homeowners resource page.

This information is provided with support from the Middle Huron Partners and the Livingston Watershed Advisory Group, working together to reduce stormwater pollution in the Huron River watershed.