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Septic Tanks Buying Guide

How to buy a home septic tank, with information on maintenance costs and residential septic tank codes.

Although most city and suburban homes are hooked up to sewers, many homes in small towns and remote areas rely on septic tanks for on-site treatment of waste water. In fact, according to the National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association (NOWRA), nearly one-third of the U.S. population is served by septic tanks.

Polyethylene septic tank features two manholes and comes piped, ready for hookup. It’s light enough to be picked up by two men. Photo: Norwesco

If you are among these homeowners, you probably know that when a septic tank isn’t working properly, it usually lets you know.

A septic system is a self-contained water-recycling system. Located underground in the yard, a watertight tank receives and stores wastes from the house. Bacteria in the tank decompose the waste, sludge settles in the tank, and effluent flows into the ground through a drain system. The effluent eventually filters back down to groundwater sources.

More than 1 trillion gallons of waste flow through septic systems each year. Considering that volume, it’s critical to the environment and public health that tanks operate correctly.

Malfunctioning tanks can pollute ground and surface water with dangerous bacteria. In developing countries, this type of contamination is responsible for outbreaks of disease, including hepatitis A, typhoid, and gastrointestinal illness.

A septic system consists of a waste pipe that is connected to the house’s drain-waste-vent system, a watertight septic tank, and a drainfield (or ‘leachfield’) or other subsurface infiltration field such as a seepage pit or a leaching chamber.

Codes dictate the minimum distance a tank and drainfield may be located from the house or a well and the size and makeup of the tank and drainfield.

To prevent overloading the septic tank and drainfield, runoff from the roof and foundation drains and other ‘clear’ water is usually routed to a separate drain or seepage pit. Where codes permit, it’s a good idea to route water from washing machines to such a pit, too.

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About Don Vandervort
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Don Vandervort developed his expertise more than 30 years ago as Building Editor for both Sunset Books and Home Magazine. He has written more than 30 home improvement books and countless magazine articles. He appeared regularly on HGTV’s “The Fix,” and served as MSN’s home expert. Don founded HomeTips in 1996.

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