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What is a Septic Tank?

In simple terms, a septic tank is the system within the home that is responsible for filtering and “cleaning” wastewater before returning it into nature. Want to know how a septic tank works? Read on! 

Whether it’s an above ground septic tank or a concrete septic tank buried in the ground, the function is the same. But how does a septic tank work?

Wastewater enters the tank through the home’s pipes. As soon as it’s inside the tank’s chambers, the filtration process begins. With the help of bacteria colonies within the septic tank, solids are broken down over time. The heaviest solids sink to the bottom, turning into sludge, but the majority of them don’t do this – leading to much of the substance introduced into the system exiting through the filter and into the septic tank drainfield. 

This process sounds simple, but it takes time to complete properly.

If your septic tank location is less than ideal, or the structure becomes compromised, you may have issues. 

For new homeowners, knowing as much as possible about your septic system is recommended. The first thing to know is what types of septic tanks exist – so that you can determine which one you have.

Types of Septic Tanks

There are two main types of septic tank systems. Anaerobic septic tanks do not use oxygen to break down the solids introduced into the system. They rely solely on bacteria and time. This is what a typical RV septic tank consists of. This is one version of a portable septic tank used by people that may or may not have concrete or fiberglass septic tanks on their home property. 

What does a septic tank look like?


septic tank - cross section
An example of a simple residential septic tank

This depends wholly on the type of tank you choose. Each of the following types of septic tanks has a different septic tank cleaning cost as well as a specific septic tank price list, too. The more you know about the systems available (search ‘septic tanks for sale near me’ to get a better idea of this), the better prepared you are to make a decision for your property.

An aerobic septic system relies on injecting extra air into the water to speed up the filtration process. 

septic system - aerobic
A typical aerobic septic system’s components

An anaerobic septic system often uses a multi-chamber method to treat water, and features more moving parts than a conventional septic tank. 

While septic tank companies will be able to give you more information about the types of tanks available as well as septic tank cost, and a current septic tank diagram to show you different options, the following is a list of the different types of septic systems people may choose to install. 

Conventional Septic System

septic tank - conventional septic system
Your home may have a conventional septic system

This system features a tank and an underground drainfield filled with gravel. It’s used for small businesses and on home properties. Due to the large size of this septic tank drain field layout and the care that goes into constructing them, the septic tank isn’t the ideal choice for all situations. 

Chamber System

septic system - chamber
This style of septic system is called a “chamber system”

A chamber system septic tank does not use gravel, but it’s set up much the same way as a conventional system. The septic tank price for this system is often much less than a conventional system, since it’s easier to deliver and install. These aren’t plastic septic tanks, but some of the components are made of the material. 

Drip Distribution System

septic tank - drip distribution system
Another style of septic system is the drip distribution system

Instead of relying on large pipes of gravel to release the treated wastewater back into the ground, this type is one of the septic tanks for sale that isn’t deeply buried. It utilizes electricity and may require more frequent septic tank inspection or septic tank repair, since it’s more intricate than a traditional system. 

Mound System

septic tank - mound septic system
This is an example of the mound septic system

Much like the other options for home septic tanks, the mound system relies on a timed release of the treated water back into the ground. This septic system type utilizes a mound of sand, which is the final stage of filtration for the treated water. This type of septic tank requires a great deal of room on your property, whether it’s a 500 gallon septic tank or a 1500 gallon septic tank.

Recirculating Sand Filter Septic System 

septic system - recirculating sand filter
The recirculation sand filter septic system uses sand and stones to filter wastewater

This type of septic tank may be above or below the ground. It requires the use of a pump as well as a sand filter chamber to treat the water before releasing it into the drainfield. Septic tank installation cost for this type of system is often high, because additional resources (a pump, sand) are necessary. 

Evapotranspiration System

septic system - evapotranspiration
An evapotranspiration doesn’t drain into the ground

This system’s unique property is that instead of draining into the ground, the tank’s water is released into the air. Instead of a buried drainfield, this uses an open-air tank as the final step in the process. It requires hot, dry conditions to function properly. 

Constructed Wetland System

septic system - constructed wetland
A constructed wetland septic system is ideal for large, open properties

Exactly as it sounds, this type of septic tank utilizes an exposed but contained section of plants, water, gravel and sand to treat it. The wastewater is treated within the contained underground tank to remove large solids, and then flows into the simulated wetland. While not all of the water is treated here (some continues to flow into an adjacent drainfield), the majority is. A septic tank pump out for this type of system is a different endeavor than usual, because when it “flushes” the system, it impacts the plants, too. 

Community/ Cluster System

septic system - community septic system
A community (or cluster) septic system links nearby properties together

This type of septic system may utilize any of the above options for septic services, but instead of only serving one building at a time, this larger system is responsible for treating water from multiple dwellings at once. Each home may have their own individual septic tank, but the septic tank field lines are connected, meaning that everything drains to one area and through one final septic tank distribution box. 

After learning about the types of septic tanks available, you’ll likely want to ask “how much is a septic tank?” 

This is a normal question, and there are a few things that will help to determine the cost of your septic tank. 

  • Concrete septic tank cost is often much higher than other types, since it involves more work for septic tank installation. 
  • Septic tank replacement cost is less than digging out the area necessary for an entirely new septic tank. This is because the space for the system already exists – it just needs to be updated.
  • A Home Depot septic tank or a Lowe’s septic tank may sound like a great idea, but there are other options for septic tank installation near me,too. They may be more expensive, but a company specializing in ‘septic tank service near me’ instead of all home improvement projects is a good call. 
  • The “extras” included with your septic tank will increase or decrease the cost too. Septic tank lids, decorative septic tank covers, a septic tank alarm, or even adding concrete septic tank risers contribute to additional costs. 

FAQ Section

How to locate septic tank?

You can look for your home’s septic tank via a few methods. First, check your home’s building plans. It will show you exact locations of all on-property structures. Knowing how to find septic tanks on property is sometimes as simple as looking for concrete septic tank lids or vents.

If neither of these methods work, search for ‘septic tank companies near me’, and schedule an at-home visit.

Do you need to empty and clean septic tanks after a septic tank installation?

Yes. Every few years, you need to have a septic tank cleaning service come to your property and clean out the system. This service is necessary to prevent septic tank backup whether you have a 1000 gallon concrete septic tank or a smaller 300 gallon septic tank.

How often should a septic tank be pumped?

This depends on a few factors, but the general rule for most septic tank pump out schedules is every 3-5 years. Larger households with a small septic tank may need to be pumped more often. Alternatively, a smaller household with larger septic tank size won’t need to do it as often. 

How much does it cost to pump a septic tank?

When you look up “septic tank pumping services near me” in your favorite search engine, the results may surprise you. Costs fluctuate based on 

  • The size of your septic tank
  • The location of the tank
  • The age of the tank
  • Whether or not the tank needs parts repaired or replaced

Asking how much to pump a septic tank will always have a base cost as the answer – but it may not remain that basic cost once the professionals are on site and ready to perform the service. To find a reputable local company, try searching for terms like “septic tank pumping near me” or “septic tank cleaning near me”. 

What are the symptoms of a full septic tank?

If you’re unsure about whether or not your septic tank is full, the following list may help answer your septic tank treatment questions.

  1. A full septic tank commonly results in pooling water and sewer backup.
  2. Slow drains, gurgling pipes and trouble flushing usually indicate the need for septic tank service.
  3. Septic tank cleanout is often necessary when you smell an odor (inside or out) and your lawn seems unnaturally healthy.

Knowing where to search for septic tank repair near me is necessary for emergencies – but also for routine maintenance.

What happens to poop in a septic tank?

Poop – and all other organic solids – that enter into a septic holding tank go through a process that breaks them down over time. After being introduced into the system, the bacteria within the septic tank immediately begins this process. 

With a septic tank aerator, the process speeds up with added oxygen and agitation. Otherwise, the waste is naturally broken down, moving through the different parts of the tank – and finally, to the septic tank drain field. 

What is best to put in my septic tank?

Natural products are best for the septic tank. This means only putting “approved” additives and chemicals into it, and following the recommendations from employees of septic tank pumping companies. This doesn’t only apply to additives, either. Be mindful of the waste that you introduce, too. 

Can I use bleach if I have a septic tank?

If you have a septic tank, using chlorine bleach in large amounts is not recommended. Septic tank maintenance professionals will tell you that it’s best to use natural chemicals or ones labeled “septic safe” when your home relies on a septic tank. 

Try to stick with biodegradable chemicals, and if this isn’t possible, use only small amounts of cleaning products. 

Does hair dissolve in a septic tank?

No. Hair does not dissolve in a septic tank. Other items that also do not dissolve and may lead to the need for septic tank pumping include: 

  • Grease
  • Medicine
  • Pet waste
  • Kitchen waste
  • Chemicals
  • Bathroom or other trash 

What is the best toilet paper for septic tanks?

You can use regular toilet paper within your septic system, but there are three options for septic tank toilet paper that septic tank service professionals recommend to keep your system functioning smoothly. 

Biodegradable toilet paper requires less water and time before breaking down. This means less strain on your septic tank and septic tank filter. 

Recycled toilet paper features shorter fibers that break apart more easily. It contains fewer chemicals and dissolves quickly in water.

Septic-safe toilet paper dissolves rapidly, no matter the septic tank design. Look for a toilet paper that has been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation for best results within your septic tank system.

How do I clean my septic tank naturally?

Your septic tank is designed to clean itself over time. This happens when the system breaks down the waste introduced into it, but there are also septic tank additives available for homeowners between septic tank pumping services appointments. 

The best way to clean your septic tank naturally is to be mindful of how you use it – and what you put into it daily. 

Does septic tank treatment work?

In theory, septic tank cleaning additives are meant to reduce the amount of sludge within the system. The septic tank pumping cost is much higher than the price of these additives, which are used between scheduled septic tank maintenance appointments. 

The best septic tank treatments improve the health of bacterial colonies within the septic tank, and that’s why some of them introduce yeast in septic tanks. 

What is the best septic tank treatment?

Experts differ on this answer, but the best septic tank treatment is one that promotes the health of your septic tank without disrupting it. Be sure that the additives used don’t damage the interior parts of the tank like the septic tank filter or the septic tank baffle. Proper septic tank drainage depends on the contents of the system just as much as the condition of the tank itself. 

How long do septic tanks last?

Most septic tanks are designed to last for many years. The better you maintain your tank, the longer it lasts. Knowing how to install a septic tank and having it done properly also contribute to the longevity of your system. 

How much does a septic tank cost?

Septic tank purchase and installation costs vary depending on different factors. As mentioned above, the type of septic tank is the first variable. The size is the second. The 1000 gallon septic tank dimensions are very different from those of a smaller tank. This means that the space needed to house it – and the work that goes into installing it – is not the same. 

The cost to install a septic tank and leach field or the cost to replace a septic tank and drain field are things you need to discuss with the pros. They’ll provide you with exact numbers and product recommendations.

How deep is a septic tank buried?

Again, this depends on the type of septic system you install and own. Some of them are closer to the surface so that their components can utilize the air and sunlight. Some are completely buried. Some even feature totally above ground tanks.

A septic tank riser kit allows you to create easy access to your septic tank for inspections. One of the most commonly installed systems that use risers are infiltrator septic tanks – made of durable, watertight plastic.