Like your own gut, a healthy septic system requires bacteria in order to function optimally. Bacteria helps to break down the solids in your tank. In fact, up to 50% of the solids in your tank are transformed into liquids and gases. Bacteria also helps to break down organic matter in the effluent (the wastewater that is discharged from the tank) before it gets released into your soil. The bacteria living in your soil helps to complete the decomposition process.
So, how can you ensure your system maintains a healthy bacteria colony?
Avoid the Septic System Dirty Dozen
Follow these guidelines to help your septic system’s bacteria and microbes to flourish.
Why it’s bad
Use this instead
|1. Liquid fabric softener||Adds salts to the water and causes emulsification instead of separation and the natural breakdown of organics||Add ½ cup of baking soda or a cup of vinegar to your wash or use dryer balls|
|2. Bath and body oils||Excessive oils and grease can be harmful; if levels get high enough, they can create a toxic environment for microbes||Minimize oils or use products after bathing|
|3. Drain cleaners||Toxic drain cleaners kill bacteria and negatively impact their ability to treat wastewater||Use a plunger or metal snake or remove and clean the trap|
|4. Toilet cleaners||Again, these are toxic and can cause long-term issues (these strong toxic chemicals move through your system and into the ground water)||Use baking soda or Bon Ami, which is non-scouring, biodegradable and nontoxic|
|5. Daily spray shower cleaners||A daily dose of a sanitizer and emulsifier is toxic to bacteria||Add 4 T of baking soda to 1 qt. warm water or use Bon Ami|
|6. Degreasers||Break down grease so it passes into your drain field and will eventually clog it while both grease and degreaser enter the soil.||Scrape & throw out congealed grease; cut the residual grease with distilled vinegar or baking soda|
|7. Quats (not kumquats)||Quaternary ammonia (quats) is present in disinfectants, surfactants, fabric softeners, antistatic agents, and wood preservation – toxic to bacteria and hard to break down||Use Borax, chlorine or high temperatures to disinfect|
|8. Prescription drugs||Drugs kill microbes||Dispose of properly in trash or (better) with the National Drug Take Back Day – never flush|
|9. Antibacterial soap||Kills microbes and bacteria while having no greater effectiveness at deactivating viruses than soap||Use plain soap|
|10. Powdered laundry detergent||Fillers and extenders can clog the drain field||Use eco-friendly liquid detergent|
|11. Surfactants||Found in many laundry soaps and cleansers to help separate stains from fabrics by changing the natural properties of water||Choose natural soaps and detergents with zero phosphate content|
|12. Paint/remodeling debris||Household chemicals, pesticides, paints and other debris are toxic to the environment, not to mention your septic system||Drop off unused products at a hazardous waste disposal center|
The “Septic System Dirty Dozen” provides a general guideline around what to put into your septic system. Does it mean if you put these chemicals down the drain accidentally or on occasion that you will ruin your septic system? No. But regular use of these items will diminish your septic system’s life. Besides, do you really want these chemicals to end up in your groundwater?
Remember: A good rule of thumb is if you are comfortable using the chemical on your skin, it is probably OK for your septic system.
A quick note about septic system additives
Worried about reversing damage? In general, most septic system additives are a waste of money. Not only that, some septic system additives can actually damage your system by interfering with the treatment of wastewater and even contaminating your groundwater. We’ll go into additives in a future blog post, but if you would like to learn more, view this handy PDF from Washington State University.
Special thanks goes to Sara Hager at the University of Minnesota who granted ASTech Professionals Inc. permission to include information from her presentation, “Dirty Bakers-Dozen Harmful Contributions to Septic Systems.”