Question: F. Howdy, Tim. I found on askthebuilder.com that you have been a master plumber for 40 years. I recently moved from a townhouse on an urban sewer to a rural retirement home with a septic tank. What can you tell me about septic tanks? In my last home, I had clogging issues in my main drain pipe and the drain cleaner said the problem was grease. What are some best practices when it comes to draining pipes in a home, and how do you keep them flowing well all the time? – Frank T., Johnston, RI
ON. Ha! I was in Frank’s shoes 12 years ago when I moved from a town on a municipal sewer to rural New Hampshire with a septic tank. Fortunately, I’ve had a pretty strong background in septic tanks, though I’ve only installed a few of these on the outskirts of Cincinnati during my plumbing career.
First, let’s talk about the drainage lines in every home, be it connected to an urban sewer or septic tank. Provided your drain lines have been installed properly and at the correct slope, water and solid waste should normally flow smoothly into the sewer or septic tank.
The ideal slope of a drainpipe, in my opinion, is 3/16 inch fall per foot of barrel. You may think the more incline is better, but if you go too much, the liquids can escape the solids as they move down the drain lines. You don’t want this to happen as solid material sitting in a drain pipe can cause clogging.
Talk to a community sewer worker or septic tank pump and they will tell you that grease and newer flushable wipes are big nightmares. You would do really well to soak up all of the fat from your saucepans and pans with used paper towels. Throw these greasy towels in the trash. This even means wiping greasy plates with used paper towels before washing. You want to minimize the ingress of grease down the sewer system.
You can use flushable wipes if you want, but don’t rinse them. Put them in a sanitary trash can in your bathroom. (Check out my video on flushable cloths on askthebuilder.com to see why you should never flush these fabrics.)
You can buy products online that contain active bacteria that eat fat that may be covering the insides of your pipes. It’s a great product that also prevents septic tank leach fields from becoming clogged with grease.
Here are some things I do in my home to keep my drain lines running. I pour about 15 gallons of very hot water into my sink about once a month. Hot water dissolves fat pretty well, and this is an alternative to buying the bacteria product that eats fat.
Every week I pour 10 gallons of water into the tallest toilet in my house as quickly as possible. As I learned in high school physics, this water creates a violent flash flood in the pipes, and particularly in the horizontal drainpipe of the building below my basement.
Not to be gross, but the best analogy I can give is imagining blowing your nose. You get almost everything out and the pipes are wide open.
Septic tanks are magic boxes as long as you use them properly. In an ideal situation, the only thing that would end up in a septic tank is what was leaking out of your body and any tiny scraps of food that could make it past a kitchen sink. That’s all you should ever put in a sewage treatment plant.
Mother nature then takes over in the tank. Natural bacteria begin to eat the waste. When a tank is working properly, every time you flush a toilet and 1.6 gallons of water get into the tank, the same amount of partially treated sewage will leave the tank towards the leach field.
A leaching field is almost always a network of pipes in which the wastewater is distributed over a very well-drained soil that is very sandy. The water seeps from holes in the pipes and enters the sandy bottom. Here other bacteria and oxygen work hand in hand to purify the wastewater.
Understand that the water that leaves the leach field becomes groundwater. Once cleaned by the good bacteria and oxygen in the soil, it can be almost as pure as rainwater. I know this sounds hard to believe, but I understand that in many rural areas, a neighbor’s leach field is at a higher level than the neighbor below. The water naturally flows downhill on the way to the sea.
You never want to put chlorine bleach or products containing it in a septic tank. This bleach is so powerful it can kill the bacteria that are eating the waste. All other chemicals are bad too. Same goes for color. Never clean brushes in a house and let the water get into the septic tank.
It is very important that the septic tank is pumped every two or three years. Know where the manhole is that gives the technician access to the tank. As crazy as that sounds, my neighbour’s manhole is buried three feet below his driveway. I saw his house being built and the builder and plumber never installed risers to bring the manhole closer to the surface. This is a huge mistake!
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