Most of us don’t care to pay much mind to what happens after you flush the toilet or where all the dishwater goes, but if you are on a septic tank you should be paying closer attention, because unlike being on city sewer it may come back to haunt you.
To help you protect your home I’ve put together a list of the most common mistakes homeowners make when it comes to abusing their septic tank. Avoid these like the plague or be prepared to pay (literally) the consequences.
1. Flushing Paper Products
Not everything made of paper is OK to flush down the toilet. Any paper products like tissues, paper towels, tampons, or sanitary products, even some heavier toilet paper, will clog your system if you flush enough of it.
Wet wipes are another product that you should never flush into a septic system. Even the “flushable” wipes have shown to not break down like they should and cause big problems. So with any wet wipe it’s probably a better idea to just throw it in the garbage instead.
Keep the paper products you flush down your toilet simple. Toilet paper is really the only thing that should go down the drain. Everything else should go in the trash.
2. Pouring Grease Down the Drain
You might think that if grease is still hot, it’s perfectly fine to pour it down the kitchen sink or flush it down the toilet. This is false, folks. Grease is one of the worst things for your septic system.
Once it cools, it congeals and instantly clogs the pipes. It’s like the arteries to your heart—if you eat greasy foods, they become clogged. Clogged drains equal flooding, which equals lots and lots of money.
The best way to deal with grease is to let it cool and solidify then scrape it into a container or sealable bag that can be thrown away. Dispose of cooking oil by pouring it into a sealable bag and bringing it to a restaurant if possible or tossing the bag in the trash as well.
3. Using Too Much Drain Cleaner
Drain cleaner is supposed to go down drains, so if you pour some extra down the sink, it’ll work even better. That’s sound logical, right? Wrong. Pouring copious amounts of harsh chemicals or drain cleaner down your sink or toilet is terrible for your pipes and your plumbing system.
First, hazardous chemicals will corrode your plumbing. Second, they kill the good bacteria in your tank that digest and break down waste to keep your system functioning correctly.
Only use drain cleaner as needed and as directed to clear clogs. Like my grandmother used to say, “Too much of anything is no good.”
4. Introducing Additives to Your System
Ever seen those commercials for an enzyme additive for your septic tank? It claims that natural enzymes help break down waste, making your system more efficient and improving its function. Don’t fall for that baloney—septic tank additives can actually do more harm than good.
The enzymes break down solids too much, and the smaller particles float up and then leach out into your drain field, clogging it. It’s not recommended to introduce any additive or chemical into your septic system.
The solution? Do nothing. Let your tank work naturally the way it was designed.
5. Flushing Cat Litter
You may think that because cat litter contains waste, it’s safe to flush. That’s not true, and many people still flush it down anyway and ruin their septic system.
Cat litter can be very damaging to plumbing, and when it’s flushed, it can result in a nasty clog. Cat litter is usually clay based and putting that through your pipes or more importantly in your septic tank can cause problems because unlike waste, clay doesn’t breakdown. It just piles up in your tank and causes issues.
The best solution is to keep the litter away from your plumbing and dispose of it in the trash.
6. Neglecting to Pump Your Tank Regularly
Another surefire way you’re destroying your septic tank is if you never have it pumped. This is one disadvantage of a septic system vs. a city water hookup. Tanks only hold so much waste and need to be emptied every 3 or 5 years, even more often if you use your system heavily.
If you don’t eventually drain your tank, it will back up and overflow into your house via your plumbing fixtures. Nobody wants to deal with that mess!
The solution is regularly having your tank emptied and looking for things like slow or backing up drains, a soggy drain field in your yard, or a bad odor indoors.
7. Planting Trees and Shrubs on Your Drain Field
Many homeowners love the look of trees in their yards. It offers some privacy, and having a picturesque lawn with manicured trees and shrubs adds curb appeal, especially to an older or historic home. However, if you plant them directly on top of your septic system (also called the drain field), it can cause significant and expensive problems down the road.
Once those stately trees and shrubs start to sink their roots deeper and deeper into the soil, they can invade a drain field with their constricting roots. Tree roots are surprisingly tough and even have the strength to break clean through the piping. When this happens, they can grow right in the way of your drain pipes, which blocks wastewater flow.
Morale of the story is to know where your drain field and septic tank are located precisely and avoid large plantings in that area.
8. Washer Lint Overload
You may think that washing your clothes doesn’t cause a strain on your septic system; however, when you wash a lot of synthetic clothing, the lint and fibers in the dirty wash water get into your septic system.
The good bacteria and enzymes that work so hard to break down solids cannot digest the synthetic fibers, and they eventually overload the system, causing expensive repairs.
One solution is to install a lint filter on your washer drain. Family Handyman has a great tutorial on installing one for yourself.
9. Installing a Garbage Disposal
If you have a septic system with a tank, it’s not recommended to install a garbage disposal in your home. Though they grind up the food into small particles, all that food in your tank settles on the bottom, causing solids to build up faster than the bacteria can break them down.
If you do have a disposal, be extra careful about what goes down it. Even if you’re careful, there’s a chance non-food items could end up in there anyway, which is why it’s better to dispose of food waste somewhere other than down your drain.
One solution for food waste would be to compost it which you can use in your garden later. It’s a win-win.
Septic systems require particular upkeep and maintenance to keep them functioning correctly. It’s essential to take care of your septic system so your home runs smoothly.
Take good care of your septic tank and it will last for year with minimal maintenance. Abuse it and it will be an expensive headache over the years.
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.