What is a septic system in North Georgia real estate

What is a Septic System?

If you’ve always lived in a home that is connected to a city or county sewage line, chances are you may not have heard of a septic tank or know what a septic system is.

A septic tank system has a relatively simple design. It is an underground watertight container (usually rectangular or round) made of fiberglass, plastic or concrete. They are most commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. In North Georgia, most unincorporated areas do not have sewer and each home has its own septic system.

Septic systems use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry. A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.

How Does a Septic System Work?

Septic System design layout

Main Drain Pipe
Like a sewer system, homes with a septic system have a main drain pipe underground that all the drains in the house are connected to. All wastewater runs out of your house from the main drainage pipe into a septic tank.

Septic Tank
The septic tank is a watertight container usually made of concrete, fiberglass, or plastic and is buried and hidden underground. Tanks are typically several feet underground. Newer septic tanks may have a manhole cover or clean-out accessible at ground level. The tank’s job is to hold the wastewater. Wastewater will generally form three layers in the tank that biology and science (natural bacteria) work to separate and break down the materials into more natural elements. From the top down they are scum, wastewater and sludge.

The scum layer is composed of oils, fats, and other materials that float and do not break down.. The wastewater layer is the middle layer that often contains microbes, bacteria, and substances that are not heavy enough to sink. On the bottom are the solids that settle out to form the sludge layer. (When you hear about a septic tank being pumped, the technician is removing all three layers but the focus is on removing the sludge and scum layers specifically.)

Compartments and a T-shaped outlet prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drainfield area. The liquid wastewater (effluent) exits the tank into the drainfield.

Drainfield or Leachfield
The third part of a septic system is the drainfield (drain field) or leachfield (leach field). Every time wastewater enters the tank, a somewhat equal amount of wastewater flows out of the tank through another pipe leading to a drainfield. The drainfield is a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

In most septic systems, several trenches are dug approximately 3 feet wide, 2 to 3 feet deep, and 8 feet apart. In each trench, a 1-foot thick layer of washed gravel is placed around a 4-inch-diameter perforated distribution pipe. The effluent drains from these pipes into the soil.

The real treatment of the wastewater occurs in the soil beneath the drainfield. The drainfield and the soil beneath it are often called the nitrification field or the soil absorption field. This field purifies the wastewater by removing the germs and chemicals before they reach the groundwater or any adjacent surface waters such as rivers, lakes, and estuaries. When the effluent flows into the perforated pipe in the trenches, it passes through the holes in the pipe, and then trickles down through the gravel to the soil. As effluent enters and flows through the gravel and soil, many of the bacteria that can cause diseases are filtered out. Some of the smaller germs, such as viruses, are absorbed by the soil until they are destroyed.

How Big Is a Septic Tank?

Septic tanks vary in size from 750 to 1250 gallons. As a general rule, the septic system capacity and tank capacity needed are determined by the number of bedrooms and bathrooms when the home is built. For homes that have been renovated and additional bathrooms, kitchens or laundry rooms added, best practice is to consult with the city or county to confirm that a larger septic system is not needed.

How Do I Know If My Site Is Suitable for a Septic System?

When building a new home in a location without sewer access, the city or county will oversee the septic system installation. There are more than 100 kinds of soils found in North Georgia. Because many of these soils are unsuitable for septic systems, most municipalities require a level 3 soils study performed on the property. These tests along with perc tests help determine if the soil will be able to support a septic system and properly absorb all effluent. We have access to North Georgia vendors who provide perc test services and can recommend someone for your location.

What Maintenance Is Needed for a Septic System?

Like other systems in your home, proper care and maintenance go a long way to preventing expensive repairs in the future. Both the septic tank and the drainfield must be properly maintained. With consistent maintenance, the system should work correctly for many years. Proper maintenance begins with water use and waste disposal habits.

How Will I Know When to Pump the Tank?
The frequency with which you will need to pump depends on three variables: the size of your tank, the volume of your wastewater, and the solids content of your wastewater. The average owner should have their septic system serviced every 3-5 years.

If the tank is not pumped and serviced consistently, solids will eventually overflow, accumulate in the drainfield, and clog the pores (openings) in the soil. This blockage severely damages the drainfield. While some clogging of soil pores slowly occurs even in a properly functioning system, excess solids from a poorly maintained tank can completely close all soil pores so that no wastewater can flow into the soil. The effluent can then either back up into the house or flow across the ground surface over the drainfield.

If your system is needing more attention, or you are seeing and smelling signs something is wrong, consult with your local septic professional for help even if it has not been 3-5 years since the last septic service.

Keep good records of all inspections, repairs, pumpings, and other services performed on your system. And always have your system regularly inspected and pumped by a licensed professional. If you sell your house, the buyer may ask for records as a sign the system was maintained.

If you are purchasing a home with a septic system, we highly recommend that you have the septic tank inspected by a professional during your due diligence or inspection period. Many times, you can request the sellers have the tank pumped before closing. Contact us for recommended septic inspection companies in North Georgia.

What Should Not Be Put into the Septic System?
Make sure you are aware of the types and amounts of extra waste materials that are poured
down the drain. Many things that are typically poured or flushed into a sewer should not be put into a septic system.

  • Garbage Disposal: Limit the use of a garbage disposal if one is already installed. Ask a professional septic company before installing a garbage disposal if one is not already installed. Garbage disposals break solid food waste into smaller particles. However, it can be hard for the bacteria in the septic system to break down the undigested food particles. Garbage disposals usually double the amount of solids added to the tank.
  • Grease, Oils and Fats: Do not pour cooking greases, oils, and fats down the drain. Grease hardens in the septic tank and accumulates until it clogs the inlet or outlet. Grease poured down the drain with hot water may flow through the septic tank and clog soil pores completely. Best practice is to let the oils cool to room temperature and then dispose of in the trash.
  • Household Chemicals: Pesticides, paints, paint thinners, solvents, disinfectants, poisons, and other household chemicals should not be dumped down the drain into a septic system because they may kill soil microorganisms that help purify the sewage. Also, some organic chemicals will flow untreated through the septic tank and the soil, thus contaminating the underlying groundwater.
  • Conserve Water: Water conservation practices can help reduce the amount of wastewater generated in the home. Periodically check your plumbing for leaky faucets and toilets. Uncorrected leaks can double the amount of water you use. Do not put too much water into the septic system; typical water use is about 50 gallons per day for each person in the family. Too much water that cannot be efficiently drained and absorbed may cause the tank to back-up.
  • Other Items: Do not put materials (paper towels, feminine hygiene products, toys, trash) other than domestic wastewater down a drain or flush down the toilet.

Is Special Care Needed for the Drainfield?
One of the first things to do is acquire a diagram from your county Environmental Health Department showing the location of your tank drainfield and repair area. This will help you know where to keep an eye out for any faults in the drainfield.

  • Plants and Trees: Maintain adequate vegetative cover over the drainfield (grass or plants with shallow roots). Trees with large roots or lots of deep roots can block the drain field and cause the system to back-up.
  • Surface Water: Keep surface waters away from the tank and drainfield. Be sure that foundation drains, roof waters, gutter waters, and surface waters from driveways and other paved areas do not flow over the septic tank or the drainfield. Careful landscaping can help direct excess surface waters away from the system. Water that flows over the drainfield can saturate the soil and leave little room for effluent to be absorbed.
  • Keep it Clear: Keep automobiles and heavy equipment off the drain field. Heavy equipment and crush the pipes to where effluent cannot drain into the soil.
  • Give it Space: Do not plan any building additions, pools, driveways, or other construction work near the septic system or the repair area. The city or county will have code regulations to determine how close structures can be from the drainfield and septic tank to help prevent damage to the system.

Septic System Review

A septic system can be an efficient, inexpensive, and convenient method for treating and disposing of household wastewater. Because not all soils are suited for conventional systems, a comprehensive soil and site investigation should be performed before building on raw land. If you’re purchasing a home with a septic system, be sure to have it inspected by a licensed professional before closing. And remember that proper and consistent maintenance on your septic system will allow it to work as intended for many years.

Your Northwest Georgia Real Estate Professionals

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