When it comes to gross trivia, your septic tank does not disappoint. Just for fun (yes, this is what we do for fun), we asked septic service pros to share their most fascinating insights about how this system works and the craziest things discovered inside.
We’ll tell you this much: You will never use toilet paper the same way again.
1. Your septic tank contains a grotesquely fascinating stew
We’ll break it down for you. Inside your septic tank are three layers: Heavy solids such as human waste and food scraps drop to the bottom and become “sludge”; lighter waste such as hair and grease form a floating layer of “scum”; and the liquid left in the middle is known as “effluent.” After a few days in the tank, that effluent is treated by naturally present “good” bacteria found in our waste. Eventually, the broken-down effluent will find its way out into a drain field, where it’s absorbed into the soil.
“Sludge typically looks like thick, black gooey stuff,” explains Kim Seipp, educational coordinator of the National Association of Wastewater Technicians, who also runs High Plains Sanitation Service, in Strasburg, CO, with her husband. “The longer it sits, the thicker it will be. Sometimes we find chunks in it.”
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In tanks that haven’t been pumped in 20 years, sludge can resemble crude oil.
As for scum, “that depends on what’s been put into your system,” Seipp says. “If you put in a lot of cooking oil or bacon grease, it’s typically white. A lot of animal fat makes it look yellow.”
2. The toilet paper inside your tank gives away secrets about you
In addition to sludge, scum, and effluent, your septic tank contains a floating island of toilet paper.
“The heavier the toilet paper, the less likely it is to dissolve in the tank,” Seipp says. “When you open up the tank of a family of four daughters, you’re going to see a lot of TP.”
You can even identify the brand by what it looks like inside the tank. For instance, Cottonelle looks “just like cotton,” Seipp says, while Quilted Northern and Charmin are dense and clumpy.
Also, fun fact: If you eat a lot of fatty food, your septic pro will know it. Leftover oils and grease also float, which can make that TP “frothy.”
3. Your septic system’s a den of disease
Wastewater contains bacteria that can cause diseases and viruses ranging from eye infections to hepatitis. The fortunate news: If your system’s working like it should, much of that bacteria will be removed by the time the effluent leaves your septic tank and trickles out to the ground.
“Problems with septic systems usually come down to the negligence of property owners,” says Glenn Gallas, vice president of operations for Mr. Rooter Plumbing. “When a tank isn’t adequately maintained, the outflow can be detrimental to lake water purity and hazardous to the surrounding environment.”
If you put off regular inspections and pumpings, your health—and possibly that of neighbors, fish, and plants around you—could suffer.
4. Gases from your septic tank can literally kill you
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers a septic tank a “confined space” where conditions can be “immediately dangerous.” And, unfortunately, it’s surprisingly easy for an average homeowner to access them. Newer tanks have risers—lids at ground level so the tank can be more easily inspected and pumped out.
“You want to stay out of it,” says Seipp, who recalls one homeowner who came home to find a deceased septic inspector slumped over an open riser. The cause of death? Asphyxiation.
“The materials that go in there make methane gas, as well as a form of hydrogen sulfide,” Seipp explains.
In small amounts, hydrogen sulfide causes a rotten egg odor. In larger quantities, it can cause paralysis, collapse after five minutes, or nearly instant death. Yes, your waste can kill.
5. Chemicals can kill off the ‘good’ bacteria in your system
A typical septic tank can contain more than 100 chemical pollutants. That doesn’t mean you can’t clean your sink or scrub your toilets, but make sure you’re using “septic-safe” cleaning products, says Audrey Monell, president of Forrest Anderson Plumbing and AC, in Glendale, AZ.
“Products that contain bleach are great for cleaning and killing ‘bad’ bacteria, but they also kill the ‘good’ bacteria a septic system requires to break down everything in the tank,” she says.
Just 2 gallons of bleach will wipe out all of the bacteria in a 1,000-gallon septic tank, and it can take up to 60 hours for it to recover. Drain cleaner’s another big no-no. Just 1.3 ounces of the stuff poured directly into a septic tank will kill off its entire microbe community—and it won’t come back for two days. And that’s a bad thing.
6. You’d be surprised by what people put into their septic tanks
Brewer’s yeast. Sour cream. Seipp even used to have a client who put a full chicken directly into his septic tank every month. (By the time the system malfunctioned, it was unclear whether the chicken had been sacrificed alive or was dead.) Someone else Seipp knows regularly flushes 5 pounds of yeast and 5 pounds of baking soda into her toilet between septic pumpings.
“She says she does it because and has never had a problem. I say, ‘You haven’t had a problem that you’re aware of,’” says Seipp. “There’s a lot of old wives’ tales and products that people try to sell you.”
The best thing you can do to care for your septic system? “Don’t put things down it that don’t belong there,” Seipp cautions.
And get it pumped out regularly.
“If you have a family of four, that could mean every two to four years,” Seipp says. “Depending, of course, on what you put in it.”
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