At the risk of potentially asking an off-topic question, I'd like to better understand the maintenance of a septic tank. I've never had one before and am unfamiliar with how to manage one.

My primary question is: how often do septic tanks need to be pumped? We're looking to buy a 4/2 house with a concrete septic tank "supposedly" with a capacity of 2250.

My secondary question is: how should septic tanks monitored? Just an annual scheduled service check-up? I don't want to spend money needlessly but also don't want to neglect something that needs regular attention.

3 Answers 3


The pumping question depends on your local codes. In our area, a brand new tank is good for 5 years before it needs to be pumped. A non-new tank must be pumped every 3 years. This is pretty typical.

I would say that tank monitoring will vary depending on your system. A septic tank is a pretty simple system. You have a primary tank (some call it a settling tank) that settles any solids out of the wastewater, and where most of your breakdown occurs (a well operating system will have natural occurring bacteria that do a good job of breaking down "solid" waste). As an aside, this settled goo is the majority of what is pumped out when the pump guy comes.

Usually, there is a second tank that is gravity fed, where the now "grey water" flows. From here, the grey water sits for a while (more breakdown occurs here) and it either feeds by gravity to a drain field, where it filters through the ground, or, it is pumped to a mound/elevated drain field.

In a simple non-pump system, you want to watch out for clogging in the outlets to the secondary tank and to the drain field. This can be done pretty easily- when you have the manhole covers replaced, ask the guy doing the work for you to tell you how for down from the top of the manhole, the drain is. Now, as often as you want, put a stick down the manhole, and see how deep the water is. If the water is above the drain, you have a blockage, and it should be serviced.

If you have a system with a pump, I'd highly recommend getting an alarm if one isn't installed already. The alarms will alert you if the level of the water goes above a specified height, which indicates a clogged pump or filter.

My recommendation would be to do your own monitoring (checking water level) as often as makes you comfortable, and have a scheduled service every 2-3 years.

More important than monitoring however, is making sure you are diligent with prevention. Use as little toilet paper as is practical, and stay away from quilted TP. Additionally, nothing but toilet waste, water, and TP should EVER go down your drains (the exception to this is if you have a food disposer, but even then, I'd use the disposal sparingly). Also, try not to use too harsh of chemicals when doing cleaning of your sinks/toilets/showers, and NEVER use draino.. there are cleaning products that are septic friendly, and septic friendly drain de-cloggers. Use them. This keeps the bacterial ecosystem breaking down your waste, nice and happy, which is a good thing.

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    Another BRILLIANT response. Thanks Mark. REALLY appreciate your time and patience with the newbie questions. =)
    – Mike B
    Sep 10, 2010 at 19:13
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    No problem Mikey. Septic systems seem like a big icky mystery, but they are pretty simple systems, and understanding how they work goes a long way to proper care. Glad this was helpful!
    – MarkD
    Sep 10, 2010 at 19:15
  • While I'm at it -- what are your thoughts on Rid-x? Worth it?
    – Mike B
    Sep 10, 2010 at 19:19
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    Our installer (whom I trust) has said to me that if you take care of the system properly, by using system friendly TP and cleaning products, that nothing should need to be added. We're very careful about what we flush here, and I've had few problems letting the system just do its thing. Like many things, this may be dependent on a host of factors, so I'd recommend talking to your local septic guy.
    – MarkD
    Sep 10, 2010 at 20:04
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    One nitpick in an otherwise excellent answer: "grey water" has a very specific meaning in septic systems, and loosely translated it's defined as waste water that doesn't contain human waste. Sep 11, 2010 at 0:51

MarkD already gave a really good by the book answer, but let me answer from the side of a homeowner who has had septic tanks for around the last 20 years.

The only time I had any maintenance/inspection was one time when my yard was getting really swampy. I had a septic guy come out and he pumped it rather cheaply, no permanent damage, no big whoop. Those Rid-X commercials with the bathroom full of backed up waste seem like an exaggeration to me.

We try to go easy on the chemicals, but we aren't that diligent about it. Definitely no drain cleaners, but chlorox goes in the toilets regularly.

One thing we do about 2-3 times a year is flush either some baker's yeast. It is effectively the same thing as Rid-X and much cheaper. I've also heard flushing raw hamburger (small quantities) is another way to get the bacteria going, but I'm a little nervous about that idea. I figure my septic tank gets enough hamburger the "regular" way if you know what I mean.

  • LOL!!! Thanks John. I appreciate the feedback and tips. Yea, if everything goes through, I'll be a first-time home buyer and a first-time owner of a septic system so it's great to hear various perspectives from "veterans".
    – Mike B
    Sep 13, 2010 at 6:47
  • I admit, I've never lived in a house with septic, but I'd be concerned with Chlorox, or any item with chlorine -- we add it to water to kill bacteria, but we specifically want bacteria in the system for the proper 'digestion' of the waste. How much / how often are you using it?
    – Joe
    Sep 13, 2010 at 13:59
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    Great call on the baker's yeast. That is one thing our septic guy said can be helpful. I really should start using it. I also agree regarding the backed up system. The one time we had backup into the basement (ICK) was a tree root issue, blocking the pipe before entering the primary tank. But that is a whole other brand of headache. Around here we are required by the city to have the system pumped every 3 years on a existing system, and the pumpers usually stick their head in and just make sure everything looks OK. I figured this was the type of "inspection" Mike was referring to.
    – MarkD
    Sep 13, 2010 at 14:01
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    We don't go crazy with the Chlorox, as we are aware that its purpose in life is to kill bacteria, which you want in a septic tank. However, we use it fairly sparingly and haven't had any issues.
    – JohnFx
    Sep 13, 2010 at 14:29

If the tank and drain-field are correctly sized for the home and occupants, it is designed to be pumped about once every 5 years. If you have more than 2 people per bedroom living there, you may want to pump it more frequently. Fewer people than bedrooms and you may not need to pump it as much.

You should have it pumped and inspected when you move in. If the septic system is more than 10 years old though, you probably won't be able to depend on the guidelines above. In this case I'd recommend you pump it 5 years after you move in (or sooner if you have more people), and have them give you an idea of what the sludge level was. You can then decide how often to pump it based on the actual functioning of the field and system, and your own habits.

The sludge layer should be less than 30% of your tank volume. You can measure this yourself with a pole and some cheesecloth attached along the bottom length - place it in the tank, and move it back and forth and side to side gently, then pull it up and you'll see the depth of the sludge layer. If it's 30% of the total height of the tank, have the tank pumped.

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