8 Essential Tasks to Do Regularly for Septic Tank Maintenance

A septic tank is an essential part of any home that is not connected to a main sewer line. When properly maintained, a septic system can provide decades of reliable service. However, neglecting routine septic tank maintenance will lead to expensive repairs or even complete system failure. By performing a few key tasks on a regular basis, homeowners can keep their septic systems operating optimally. Here are 8 essential tasks to do regularly for septic tank maintenance:

Inspect and Pump the Septic Tank

The septic tank is the large container where wastewater from the home collects. Here, solid materials settle out as sludge while oils and grease float to the top as scum. It is critical to have the septic tank inspected annually and pumped as needed every 3-5 years.

During an inspection, the levels of sludge and scum are checked. If the sludge is within 12 inches of the outlet or the scum layer is thicker than 3 inches, it’s time to have the tank pumped. A professional will pump out all the waste, inspect the tank and components for any damage, and check that everything is functioning correctly.

Regular septic pumping extends the life of the entire system. When too much sludge accumulates, it can get flushed out into the drain field and clog the system.

How Often to Pump a Septic Tank

  • Households of 1-3 people – every 3-5 years
  • Households of 4-6 people – every 2-3 years
  • Large households & systems under heavy use – yearly

Pumping frequency also depends on tank size and household habits like garbage disposal use. Be sure to keep a written record of septic maintenance to track when pumping is due.

Inspect and Clean Filters

Many septic tanks have an outlet filter or screened device to prevent solid material from exiting the tank. Outlet filters and screens must be inspected along with the tank. Clean off any debris and ensure the filter is not clogged or damaged.

Similarly, the septic pump may have a filter cage or screen where wastewater enters the pump. This intake filter prevents solids from entering and damaging the pump. Routinely check and clean the pump filter according to the manufacturer’s instructions or at least every 3 years.

Check the Drain Field

The drain field, also called a leach field or soil absorption field, is where liquid waste seeps out of perforated pipes and percolates down through the soil. To ensure proper functioning, a visual inspection of the drain field is recommended at least once a year.

Look for any signs of standing water, mushy ground, or surfacing sewage – these indicate a blocked field. Grass over the field should be mowed regularly but not fertilized. Roots from nearby trees and shrubs may need to be trimmed back to prevent clogging.

Poor drainage downslope of the field can lead to wastewater surfacing. Downspouts, sump pumps, and runoff should be diverted away from the drain field area.

Prevent Additives From Entering System

Many additives like yeasts, bacteria, enzymes and chemical cleaners claim to improve septic system function. However, there is little scientific evidence that these products provide any significant benefits.

In fact, additives can potentially disrupt the natural processes in a septic tank and harm essential bacteria. They may keep solids suspended in the tank rather than letting them separate out.

It is best to avoid pouring any additives directly into drains or toilets. The nitrogen in yeast and bacteria products can potentially contaminate groundwater. Any needed bacterial cultures will enter the tank through regular usage.

Conserve Water to Avoid Overloading the System

Using excess water in the home can overload and potentially flood a septic system. The field size and soil permeability limit how much liquid the system can effectively process.

Practicing water conservation and fixing any leaky faucets and toilets helps avoid hydraulic overloading. Be mindful of activities that use large volumes of water, like laundry, and spread usage out over the week. Newer high-efficiency plumbing fixtures can also help reduce wastewater volumes.

During wet seasons or major storm events, try to limit water use until saturated field conditions improve. An overloaded septic system is more likely to have wastewater back up or surface in the yard.

Divert Rainwater From the Septic Drain Field

Excess stormwater entering the septic system can overload the drain field and lead to flooded, muddy conditions. Try to divert rainwater and runoff away from the field area:

  • Make sure roof gutters and downspouts direct water away from the drain field. Splash blocks or extended downspouts can carry rainwater 10 ft or more from the field.
  • For sloped sites, construct a swale or shallow ditch to move surface runoff around and downhill of the field.
  • Consider using buried solid pipe to collect water from hillsides and carry it away from the septic drainage.
  • Use landscaping and vegetated buffers to help filter and disperse runoff before it reaches the field.

Keeping the field drier between rain events allows wastewater to percolate and prevents oversaturation.

Avoid Damage to the Drain Field Area

Any activities that overly compact soil or alter drainage around the drain field can cause system failures. Avoid:

  • Driving vehicles, heavy equipment or livestock over the field to prevent soil compaction.
  • Building structures like sheds or concrete patios over the field area.
  • Installing swimming pools near or over the drainage area.
  • Paving over the dirt field with impermeable materials.
  • Planting trees and shrubs too close to the field, as roots can damage and clog pipes.

Also refrain from any digging or soil disturbance near the buried piping. Call 811 before any projects to have underground utilities marked.

Keep Hazardous Materials Out of Drains

What goes down the drain can have major impacts on how well a septic system functions. Excess fats, oils and grease should not be poured down drains. Food scraps and solids strain the septic tank and field.

Harmful chemicals like paints, solvents, fuels, pesticides and other contaminants can kill the essential bacteria that treat waste. They can also pollute groundwater or remain in the system for years.

Use strainers on sinks and tubs to catch hair and food debris. Never dump oil, chemicals, cigarette butts or other hazardous materials into toilets or drains.

Frequently Asked Questions About Septic Tank Maintenance

Proper maintenance is key for getting the longest lifespan out of a septic system. Here are answers to some common questions homeowners have about septic tank care.

How can I locate my septic tank?

If the access lid is not visible, track plumbing lines back from the home to find the general tank location. Use a septic tank riser if the lid is buried. In a pinch, insert a thin rod like a broom handle into the toilet to gauge direction – it will sink once past the tank. An inspector can use pipe locators to find the buried tank and pipes.

Why is my septic tank overflowing?

A flooded septic tank often means the drain field is fully saturated and unable to absorb more effluent. This can happen during prolonged wet weather or if the field is clogged. Stop using water immediately and have a professional inspect the tank and field. If the field is overloaded with sludge, pumping the tank may help.

How do I know if my drain field is clogged?

Signs of a clogged field include sewage surfacing in the yard, soggy soil over the pipes, slow draining fixtures, or sewage backup in the home. A professional can check for blockages and saturation using pipe cameras and conductivity testing. Partial clogs may require flushing pipes to clear. Complete failure may mean replacing the drain field.

What should and should not go in a septic system?

DO put all sewage from toilets, sinks, tubs, washing machines and other drains into the septic system. DON’T put in solids, grease, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, tampons, diapers, paper towels and other trash that may clog pipes. Limit use of a garbage disposal.

How can I prevent septic system freeze damage?

In cold climates, soil over tanks and pipes needs adequate snow cover for insulation. Severe freezing can damage components. Adding a layer of mulch or insulation boards helps protect the system. Routinely pumping the tank to lower liquid levels also helps prevent freezing issues.

Can I use additives to improve my septic system?

There is little evidence that biological additives are needed or helpful for septic systems. In fact, they may disturb the natural treatment processes in tanks and fields. Avoid poured additives and commercial septic system “rejuvenators.” There is no quick fix for a clogged field other than repairing or replacing it.


With routine inspections and maintenance, a well-designed septic system can effectively treat household wastewater for decades. By having the septic tank pumped regularly, keeping filters clear, protecting the drain field, and conserving water, homeowners can prevent premature system failures. Limiting additives and keeping hazardous chemicals out of drains also keeps a system operating optimally. If you see any signs of trouble, contact a professional septic contractor immediately to have your system assessed. Proper maintenance saves money over the long run by helping maximize a septic system’s service life.