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How to identify septic tank problems

When septic systems are working properly, homeowners seldom give them any thought. However, if there is a problem with a septic system, things can get messy and expensive very quickly. The key to keeping septic systems running smoothly is prevention.

Septic systems are installed in homes that do not have direct access to municipal sewer lines. Septic systems are typically found in rural homes or in towns that may not have the resources for extensive sewer piping.

While a properly designed septic system can be trouble-free, maintenance is still essential. Because septic systems tend to be out of sight and out of mind, homeowners can forget about them. But ignoring your septic system can cause problems in the future.

How does a septic system work?

Most septic systems have two main components: where the waste enters from the house and breaks down and a filtering system where the waste water exits into the ground. Waste travels from toilets and sinks to the septic tank, where natural bacteria help break down the waste. Then the remaining water flows out through a filter into the surrounding ground.

Identifying problems

Septic system problems occur when waste doesn't properly break down, leading to system backups.

At the least, you may notice odors coming from the drains or toilets in your home. Or you may realize that sinks aren't draining properly or toilets are not flushing with the right amount of power. At the worst, toilets and the septic tank itself may overflow.

Outdoors you could may notice soggy grass around the septic drain. Grass in one part of the leach field area may even be greener than in other areas. Each of these signs could indicate a septic system problem.

What causes problems?

The main culprits in septic system problems are blockages that cause the system to overflow or back-up into the home. Septic tanks need to be pumped out at regular intervals. A professional inspection is also necessary. Flushing or putting difficult-to-degrade items into the system also can cause problems. Be sure to heed the following:

* Do not flush non-biodegradable items down the toilet or sink drains. Cotton balls or plastic can clog the system.

* Do not pour cooking oil or grease down the sink drain.

* Limit the amount of food particles that enter the system.

* Set up a regular maintenance schedule to keep the system working.

* Advise guests as to what is and is not allowed to go down the drain. Those without septic systems may be unaware.