• septic systems functionality

    How Septic Systems Function (And What Causes Them To Fail)

    Contrary to what most people believe, septic systems are one of the best choices for treating household wastewater.

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  • products and services

    Products And Services

    Certain products and services can help you to protect your septic system from failing and may even get your failing system going again.

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In many rural areas of our country people depend on septic systems to manage their wastewater disposal. But it also happens that in the same areas tap water quality is particularly bad and people are trying to remove some of the nasty contaminants that can be found in their public water supply system by the use of different types of water filters.

An example for such a filter that has gained in popularity over the last decade or so, as the technology is known to be very effective at purifying water, are reverse osmosis filter systems.

Since I know for a fact that many people wonder whether or not a reverse osmosis water filter might cause any harm to a septic system, I decided to address this issues in a new blog post.

Last week Susan P. reached out to me with the following question:

“Hey Chris. My name is Susan and I’m from Pittsboro, NC where a lot of houses have their own septic system (so do we). My husband and I recently found out that the pipes that run through the house we live in add lead to the water that comes out of the kitchen faucet and also one of the bathrooms. My husband assumes that this probably has something to do with the fact that the house is pretty old and years back they used pipes containing lead for the construction.

Anyway here is my question: We would like to install a water filter (probably reverse osmosis) in our house to have all the lead removed. And we already know that those filters waste a lot of water. Do you think that there will be a chance that this could damage the drainfield or tank of our septic system or the system as a whole? Also I have heard that some filters add more filtered material to the waste stream. Is that true? Thank you! Susan”


For usability reasons, I’m going to break up my answer into multiple sections.

1) Does a reverse osmosis filter system waste a lot of water?

Yes, it does. Reverse osmosis filter systems produce a lot of wastewater – about five to six gallons for one gallon of purified water give or take. Therefore it makes sense to conclude that such a system might be releasing an unwanted amount of additional wastewater into the tank of your septic system and the drainfield.

2) Can a reverse osmosis filter system have a negative impact on a septic system?

We have to consider two influencing factors at this point to answer this question correctly:

  1. Are you planning to install a point-of-use (POU) filter system in your house, which provides water for a single tap only, or do you want to install a point-of-entry (POE) system that filters the entire water supply before it gets distributed to the kitchen, the bathroom and so on?
  2. How much filtered water do you require on a day to day basis?

Here is why this distinction is important. A POU filter system is used to produce water for drinking purposes and possibly cooking. So it will need to provide just a few gallons of water per day, depending on the size of your family. The impact that the wastewater production will have on your septic system is therefore negligible, I guess.

However, if you require lots of water on a day to day basis, even a POU system might soon exceed the capacity of your septic tank and especially the drainfield. And this particularly applies to POE filter systems. They might be more efficient than POU reverse osmosis filters, but the sheer amount of water they treat and waste is simply too high and cannot be compensated. So if you plan to install a POE system in your house, make sure to talk with both the manufacturer of your septic system and the manufacturer of the filter system first.

3) Can a filter system add more filtered material to the waste stream?

This is just nonsense. A water filter prevents contaminants from passing through by using a membrane or a filter resin, but it doesn’t add more substances to the water. The concentration of contaminants in the waste stream must increase obviously. But these contaminants were going to end up in your septic tank anyway regardless of you using a water filter or not.

There are water treatment systems (water softeners) that do add chemicals to the water they process, but these are not used to filter water, but to condition it and reduce water hardness. In this case a mini-septic system can be installed which receives the discharge from the water softener, which contains high concentrations of sodium or potassium. The salt can cause clay particles to bond forming a water proof barrier. In case this happens, you can use calcium-polysulfide to correct the damaged soils.


In case of a POU reverse osmosis systems, some manufacturers suggest that the best solution would be to route the produced waste water back into the plumbing system and use this so called ‘gray water’ for washing clothes, toilet flushing, bathing, and watering the garden. To me this makes a lot of sense. However, it’s important to make sure that a system that recycles wastewater meets the local plumbing codes, which is not always the case especially for systems that don’t filter the wastewater any further prior to recycling.

E-Mail it to me by clicking here and I will answer it as soon as I can. If don’t get back to you within 5 days I may have missed it so try resending it.

fail sign

Investing in infrastructure, a country can develop and grow. But there is more to it than just building streets and bridges, railway tracks or sewage systems. Infrastructure also has to be properly maintained. In the US, we are great at building out our infrastructure, but we lack the skills, money and willingness for the maintenance part.

This is especially true for residential septic systems, as they are embedded in the ground, so we can’t see them (other than a bridge) and inspections are unregulated for the most part. People tell me that their septic system hasn’t been inspected for over 10 or 20 years or that their system doesn’t need any maintenance at all – but nothing could be further from the truth!

‘But why do I have to pay for an inspection? I’ve never had a problem.’ Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. A failing septic system can appear to be fully functional for years to come before you start to notice that there actually is something wrong. And this is what makes them so dangerous for us and our environment…

Failing Septic Systems Damage Our Environment

What impact do failing septic systems have on our environment? A failing septic system can cause:

  • the build-up of sludge that reduces the tank’s capacity and prevents wastewater from getting treated properly before it enters the drain field,
  • the build-up of sludge to an extent that it starts entering the drain field itself and causes a complete system failure.

In both scenarios too many bacteria and viruses that can cause dysentery, hepatitis and typhoid fever accumulate in the soil and, due to rain and other water movement, end up in our surface and groundwater resources leading to environmental pollution and public health problems.


For the sake of completeness: Septic systems (even the ones that don’t fail) cause the transport of nitrates into our soil and ultimately into our water (because soil absorbs only small amounts of nitrate). Nitrate is toxic to the human organism in relevant quantities and can render a water source unfit for human use. Furthermore, nitrogen, which is a component of nitrate, causes algae blooming. Once the algae dies, microorganisms that feed on them reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. If oxygen saturation falls below 30%, water is referred to as hypoxic and is incompatible with maritime life.

How To Know If A Septic System Is Failing

Here are the most common indicators that can be a sign for septic system failure:

  1. Slow drainage or sewage backup in drains and toilets,
  2. unpleasant and pungent odors around your house,
  3. excessive grass growth in the drain field area, even during dry months,
  4. excessive growth of aquatic weeds or algae in lakes or ponds adjacent to your home.

Source: http://longislandsoundstudy.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/fact13.pdf

How To Prevent System Failure

Whoever has not yet understood, a failing septic system is really bad news. That’s why it is crucial to take care of it the right way, because your system doesn’t have to fail. All you need to do is maintain and use it correctly. After all, prevention is still better than repair, isn’t it? So what do you have to do?

First of all, you have to understand how the specific septic system in your home works. You have to know how big your tank is and its current filling level of sludge. You have to know approximately how much sewage your family produces and you have to find out, when your tank was pumped out last. All that information is needed in order for you to know, when it’s time to empty your septic tank next.

It’s important that your septic system is emptied on a routinely basis – I can’t stress that enough. How often? That varies from system to system and depends on tank size, intense of use, system age, etc. As a rule of thumb, have your system inspected at least every 4 years and pumped out, if needed.

Secondly, make sure that every member of your family has understood what they are and aren’t allowed to flush down the drain. Because, as many of you apparently don’t know, a septic system is NOT a magic machine that swallows everything you throw into its throat and make it vanish.

For example, the improper use of a septic system has been shown to contribute to groundwater contamination by toxic chemicals (heavy metals, toxic household products) and organic chemicals (septic tank cleaning products).

meerkat paying attentionBe On The Lookout

Keep in mind that the first one who suffers from a failing septic system is you and your family. So pay attention to how you use it and ensure that your system is well maintained and inspected at least once in a 4-year period.

If you notice 1 of the indicators that occur, when a septic system is failing, act immediately and seek professional support.

E-Mail it to me by clicking here and I will answer it as soon as I can. If don’t get back to you within 5 days I may have missed it so try resending it.

phone receiving emails

Over the last few years I have received hundreds of emails from people that like the way I deal with the pinheads and I just got a fresh one that I think you will like! So here are a few for your reading pleasure:

Mom, Dad, We’ve got problems!


I have a very important question…My 3 year old flushed $700.00 down the toilet…Is there any way to get it back..? Please respond soon..Thank You!!

My Answer:

Yes, I can help you…for a finder’s fee.

Follow-Up Email:

HOW MUCH…..smile???????

My Answer:

Just kidding. I would remove the toilet and see if it is in the trap. Also open any traps further down the line. If not then start by opening up the inspection cover in the septic tank. There is a good chance it will be floating, then hook it with a coat hanger. If you don’t find it floating then maybe it is still some where in the waste pipe. I would put a strainer over the end of the inlet pipe (in the tank) and start flushing water down the drain. If that doesn’t do it try a snake or have your pumper jet the line. If it doesn’t come out then ask your pumper to try pumping the tank carefully.

I would probably cut down your 3 year old’s allowance. Today’s kids are not very good with money anyhow. Let me know how it comes out…

toilet sign


Why would it not be acceptable to route the washing machine effluent away from the septic tank – say to a hole in the ground?

My Answer:

Could you drink it? No…because it is contaminated with soaps and even parasites and viruses and it needs to go through the treatment process.


Do you know the difference between ignorant and stupid? Explain why a soap is a ‘contaminate’. Where do the parasites come from? Do you think the “treatment process’ kills viruses? You could drink it.
Thanks pal

My Answer:

Ignorance is absence of facts…stupid is lacking the intellectual capacity to comprehend the facts.

Contaminates are items that create an adverse reaction to a host.

Soaps are a “contaminate” to humans because:

  1. They will act as a surfactant.  In other words, it moves things through the human host so fast you won’t have time to make it to the bathroom (more on these effects in a minute).
  2. The more aggressive soaps, like those containing bleach, can chemically damage your body and yes, even kill you.

Soaps are a “contaminate” to the environment because:

  1. They have nutrient value and if these nutrients make it into a body of surface water (as they inevitably will) they will encourage plant and algae growth (a major problem in our coastal areas).

Soaps, because they generally act as a surfactant, will move parasites and viruses out of the washing machine to the point of discharge and if you are simply discharging to a hole those parasites and viruses have the potential to be spread through direct contact (children playing in it) or indirect contact (dogs rolling in it and transferring it to you when you pet them) or mosquitoes breeding in it (transfer occurring when the females feed on a mammalian host…by the way, mosquitoes have killed more people than all of the wars put together).

As far as the source of parasites in washwater; babies/children/pets have been known to occasionally to have accidents that soil clothing and blankets with vomit and feces…even adults have had bouts of illness (or excess alcohol) that generate soiled items that require laundering.  But these parasites and viruses can also come from people blowing their noses on their sleeves or even the act of robust flatus can transfer these little items.  And for those people that are stupid enough to consume soap, well, you get the picture.

However these critters are no match for the hostile environment in a proper soil treatment system.  Why by the time that effluent travels two feet through proper soil they are killed either through electro-chemical processes, mechanical means or they are consumed by bacteria and amoebas that naturally exist in soils.  And guess what happens to that soap…it is converted to inert organic elements.  Bonus round.

Oh, and there is also the fact that without the dilution factor soaps will damage the soil, but I won’t go into that.

And that is why you don’t want to simply discharge washwater to a hole in the ground.

So what are you…ignorant or just plain stupid?

bundle of letters

And here is a classic:


I wrote you last week about my septic tank problems. You told me to do this tune-up. Having my tank and leechfield cleaned is going run $175. The filters are going to cost me $300 and that septic seep stuff is another $50 and you don’t even guarantee this will work. Then I would be out $500 and still need a new system. What kind of advice is that.

My Answer:

Oh yes, I remember your email. In fact I still have a copy. You are the pinhead that boasted, “I gotta real good deal on my septic system when i build my house 8 years ago because the contractor misunderstood me and put in a bigger system than the law required and i didn’t approve it.” You also stated, “I saved a lotta money by not having my tank pumped because I use XXXXX that I flush down toilet once a month.”

In fact, the entire gist of your correspondence was about what a cheap clod you were and how you took actual glee in chiseling people and taking shortcuts. Per your assessment of my advice: It was just that, advice. And free advice I might add. No one is saying you need to follow it. And since avoidance of capital expenditures is paramount to you, I would think you would have appreciated the method of which I suggested you proceed. I suggested you start with the CHEAPER processes first rather than, god forbid, you should have to pay for a total replacement. Even if the tune up doesn’t work and you do need to replace part or all of your system, you will still be able to use the filters so all you would be out is $200. I would much rather put up $200 to see if I could save $5,000. But I guess you are too stupid to see that. Would it make you feel better if I paid for this? I think you can guess where I would suggest you put that proposal. And to be totally frank, I hope your system is shot and the next contractor gets even with you for skinning the first contractor. By the way, you should start using spell and grammar check.

Here is a more normal email:


I saw you on a TV program about 3 years ago talking about septic systems. What really caught my attention was when you were talking about the damages washing machines do to a system. I have 4 children (5 if you count my husband) and do lots of laundry. I got one of the filters for the washing machine but my husband made me send it back saying it was a gimmick. Last year our 5 year old septic failed. We had brown, stinky water in the yard and basement. I did a search on the net and found your webpage. You gave me several suggestions to try but my husband would not even listen. Instead he went to the home center and started buying chemicals. For months he kept buying and pouring this stuff into the toilets. It did not work.

Eventually the environmental officer learned of our failing system (I think the neighbors complained) and told us to have a new one put in right away. Because we have a small yard we have been forced to put in an elevated sand mound system. The cost about $13,000. When I asked the septic man what caused our system to fail he said because we do too much laundry and the lint plugged it up. He even showed us how this stuff was coating everything. I gave my husband a big “I told you so!” but he still won’t allow me to put on a filter. This really set us back and I don’t want to replace another septic system. What can I do to protect this system?

My Answer:

divorce your husband…or take him out to the backyard and rub his face in the old system (like a puppy that just had an accident on the carpet). maybe he will get the picture because you are right, lint from the washing machine is one of the big reasons systems fail. i hate to say this but your situation is not unique. a husband or wife will want to take care of their system but the spouse opposes many of the steps they want to implement. men seem to be entrenched in the old days and ways…if the toilet flushes it must be working and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. and anytime someone suggests something like pumping the tank or putting filters on the system they figure, “You are just trying to get me to spend money so it has to be a scam” and say no dice. women don’t want a filter in their laundry room because it doesn’t match the decor or don’t want to talk about septic systems in the first place, “That’s my husband’s area…talk to him about it.”

Americans in particular are an innovative lot and are known for looking for short cuts. go back a few generations…in the 20’s and 30’s people didn’t have a lot of extra income and you had to make do with what you had…sometimes just putting one meal a day on the table was a major accomplishment so you didn’t waste money on frivolous items and you fixed what you had yourself. with the prosperity of the 50’s and 60’s, we got to the convenience stage…automatic washers, toasters, microwaves, dishwashers, etc. and we expect things to be easy…and when it came to the septic systems, no one wanted to be bothered. But this is why there are so many problems with failing septic systems, very few people have bothered to learn about them.

however the news is not all bad. more people are starting to realize that a septic system is part of the home and needs to be taken care of. this is why many of the systems going in over the last 10-20 years have the potential to last indefinitely…we have learned how to design systems better and many people are getting smart, they are learning and willing to take care of their systems. the fact is, if you want your system to last, you don’t overload it with water and chemicals, you don’t put things down the drain that are non-biodegradable, you have the tank pumped and inspected on a regular schedule and you protect the soil from getting plugged-up with solids by using filters to keep these solids out of the drainfield. these things are so obvious that most people slap their foreheads and say they should have thought of this themselves…but there will always be the obstinate, contumacious, stubborn, implacable, inexorable, intractable, reckless, pinheads that think they have all the answers and will not listen to anybody. of course these are the same people that smoke 3 packs of Lucky Strikes a day for 30 years then say the doctors are full of it when they tell them they have lung cancer.

Per your problem/solution: start taking your laundry to a laundromat, or get ready to tell your husband “I told you so” again, or put a filter on the washing machine and tell him “tough”…you are going to be needing it more than ever because you are going to be washing more bedding because one of you is going to be sleeping on the couch until he starts treating you as an equal partner (capable of making rational decisions that affect the household) instead of a domestic servant that needs his permission to make a purchase.

If you are building, buying, or have a home with a septic tank system, do yourself a favor and take the time to learn about your septic tank system. It won’t cost you anything, but it could save you thousands of dollars, protect your environment and prevent serious health problems! A properly designed septic tank system can treat waste water better than most sewage treatment plants, at a fraction of the cost to you, and can last indefinitely. But you have to learn how to use them properly and take steps to protect them. The biggest problem with septic systems is, no one has bothered to teach people how to use them. A septic tank system is no different than your car or VCR, use it wrong, it will break. There are things you should be aware of when it comes to septic tank systems…Like when and how to pump a tank, types of cleaners you should avoid, what never to flush down the drain, etc. And as for the magic elixir everybody tries to sell you…forget about it. There are no short cuts. The only thing that will prevent a system failure is, knowing how your system operates, common sense, maintenance, and taking preventative steps to protect your system.

E-Mail it to me by clicking here and I will answer it as soon as I can. If don’t get back to you within 5 days I may have missed it so try resending it.



Septic tank systems are usually found in rural areas. The reason being that, even today, not all households in the country are connected to a sewerage system. ‘Septic’ means that bacteria develop in the tank of each system, which decompose the waste in an environment that lacks oxygen. If you want to learn more about the functioning of septic systems, you can do so here.

Because sludge accumulates faster than it decomposes, it must be removed regularly, otherwise your system might fail. In order to protect your septic system from failing, there are a number of services and products that I recommend. You can find a list of them here.


E-Mail it to me by clicking here and I will answer it as soon as I can.


  1. Groundwater Pollution – Wikipedia
  2. Septic System Financing For Homeowners – United States Environmental Protection Agency
  3. More Common Problems with Septic Systems And How To Solve Them – Carlow Concrete Tanks