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Terra-Tips & Information

      Alaskan Homeowner's Guide For Operation and Maintenance



     An on-site wastewater disposal system typically consists of a septic tank and a subsurface disposal field.  The septic tank is a watertight receptacle designed to receive domestic wastes.  The heavy solids settle to the bottom, where bacterial action partially converts them to digestible sludge.  The lighter solids float to the surface of the liquid to form a scum layer.  The liquid portion, carrying some suspended solids, flows out of the tank through pipes to the absorption field.  Here remaining suspended solids are further decomposed and the liquid is absorbed by the soil.

Three general types of absorption systems are used in the Anchorage area:


1.     Deep trench; a deep trench that is two to three feet wide and may have four to twelve feet of gravel below a lateral perforated distribution pipe.  Its effectiveness depends on absorption through the sidewalls of the trench.


2.     Drainfield; a drainfield is similar though generally wider (up to five feet) and shallower than a deep trench.  The depth of the gravel below the perforated pipe in a drainfield ranges from six inches to four feet.  Absorption occurs both through the sidewalls, and through the bottom.

3.     Bed or Mound; a bed is a rectangular shallow excavation with a series of lateral perforated pipes underlain with six inches of gravel.  In a bed, absorption occurs only through the bottom.  A mound is simply an elevated bed.


Operation and Maintenance


     The on-site wastewater system is designed to receive all domestic wastewater from the dwelling including laundry and kitchen wastes. With proper care and maintenance of the on-site wastewater disposal system, the homeowner can expect to receive satisfactory service from it for many years to come. Consider the following factors which affect operation of a system:



1.     Toilet paper substitutes, paper towels, newspaper, wrapping paper, cigarettes, sanitary napkins, rags, sticks, etc., are not likely to decompose, and should not be flushed into the septic tank.


2.     Wastes from garbage disposal units are not easily digested by bacteria in the septic tank.  These wastes only add to the volume of solids in the tank and must be removed by pumping the tank.  The use of garbage disposals is therefore not recommended.


3.     Footing, surface or roof drainage water, machinery cooling water, or hazardous substances may not be discharged into any on-site sewer system.



4.     The efficient operation of septic tanks can be harmed by the disposal or addition of disinfectants or other chemicals into the septic tank.  Also, the life of the leachfield may be appreciably shortened by adding “enzymes” or other manufactured septic tank “activators” or cleaning solutions.  It is strongly recommended that nothing other than normal day-to-day waste be discharged into a septic tank and leachfield.  Soaps, detergents, bleach, drain cleaners or other materials normally used in the household will have no appreciable adverse effect on the system.  Moderation should be the rule.



5.     Since excessive water use is one of the prime factors in premature failure of a system, it is recommended that whenever possible, steps be taken to reduce water usage.  This can be accomplished in several ways, such as using the washer only when it is full, taking showers instead of baths, and using flow reduction devices on shower and sink taps.  Any leaking fixture or appliance should be immediately repaired.


6.     The emptying of a spa or hot tub into the septic tank will temporarily overload the tank and drainfield which could adversely affect the performance and life of the system.


7.     Do not allow heavy equipment to travel over the system, nor should structures, driveways, or parking areas be built over it.


8.     Waste brines from household water softener units appear to have no adverse effect on the action of the septic tanks but may cause a shortening of the life of a disposal field installed in clay type soil.


9.     Airtight caps should be kept on the riser pipes of the septic tank and absorption field.  The sewer system will then vent properly. Caps prevent unpleasant odors and plugged lines, resulting from the entrance of foreign objects.



     Under current code provisions, all septic tanks are required to be pumped and cleaned at least once every two years.   Some tanks may require more frequent pumping, depending on the type of use they receive.  The omission of this important step in preventative maintenance has been implicated in numerous wastewater system failures.  Therefore it is definitely in a homeowner’s best interest to have the septic tank pumped on a regular basis. 


System Repairs


     In theory, systems which have been properly installed, operated and maintained should continue to function for many years.  If a system begins to show symptoms of impending failure such as sewage backing up in the house, or overflowing from a cleanout pipe, the following self checks are recommended before calling an engineer or excavator:


1.     Verify that the sewage backup is not localized inside the building.  Snaking lines may be appropriate. 


2.     In winter, check the tank to make sure the contents are not frozen.  It is possible that a system may freeze if improperly insulated and/or left unused for long periods in frigid temperatures.


3.     Snake the line from the house to the tank.  Frequently a sewage plug occurs here due to solids in the line.


4.     After the tank has been pumped, and with all water sources shut off, listen for water entering the septic tank.  Water may be coming from a leak inside the building or from groundwater infiltrating the tank.  Check inside plumbing fixtures for possible malfunction.


5.     Observe the level of water in the absorption area through a cleanout pipe.  Water at the level of the lateral pipes may signal system saturation or ground water encroachment.


6.     Compare the original design specifications with the present number of bedrooms.  Systems which are utilized at greater than design specifications tend to fail sooner.


     If the problem is indeed a failing or damaged system, consult an engineer who can evaluate the situation and recommend a course of action.


     In the meantime, the homeowner is responsible for ensuring that there is no discharge of sewage onto the ground surface.  The septic tank and absorption area should be pumped as soon as possible and the amount of wastewater from the building reduced.  Pumping must be repeated as needed until repairs can be accomplished.  Sewage overflows already on the ground should be cleaned up as much as possible and the contaminated area disinfected. 


     Following repair or upgrading of the system, all abandoned septic tanks, seepage pits and cesspools must be excavated and backfilled with sand or an impervious material.  This will inhibit continued contamination in the area and prevent future unexpected cave-ins of old systems. 


Protect your investment


      If you own a home in Alaska, chances are that you own a septic system.  A septic system is an effective method of household wastewater treatment.  In addition, it is cost effective and easy to maintain.  While one in four homes in the United States is on a septic system, the number is much higher in Alaska.  Well-built systems can last twenty years or more when properly maintained.  Septic system failures are a major source of groundwater pollution, cause waterborne illnesses, such as dysentery and hepatitis, and are expensive for a homeowner to replace or repair.

What to look for when buying a home with a septic system 

     Unlike other aspects of your home, it’s easy to forget about the septic system.  But septic maintenance is like automobile maintenance; a little effort on a regular basis can save you a lot of money and significantly prolong the life of the system.  We at Alaska Statewide have put this guide together to introduce you to simple steps that will save you the surprise and cost of having to replace or repair your system before its time.


Knowing what not to put down your toilet is important. 

     The following items can overtax and/or destroy the natural processes within your septic system:

·        Coffee grounds

·        Dental floss

·        Disposable diapers

·        Kitty litter

·        Sanitary napkins

·        Tampons

·        Cigarette butts

·        Condoms

·        Fat, grease, and oil

·        Paper towels

·        Paints

·        Varnishes

·        Thinners

·        Waste oils

·        Photographic solutions

·        Pesticides

Use Water Wisely


     The more wastewater you produce, the more your tank and drain field must treat.  Continuous saturation can affect the quality of the soil and its ability to naturally remove toxins, bacteria, and viruses from the water.  Use water-saving devices, repair leaky fixtures, reduce toilet reservoir volume, take shorter showers and shallower baths, and wash only full loads of dishes and laundry. 

Pump Regularly


     Don’t wait until you have a problem!  If the buildup of solids in the tank becomes too high, solids move to the drain field and can clog and strain the system to the point where a new drain field will be needed.  How often your tank needs to be pumped depends on the size of your household.  Modern conveniences, such as garbage disposals, hot tubs, and whirlpools increase pumping frequency.


Inspect Annually


     Inspecting your system annually is a good way to reveal problems before they become serious.  By measuring the levels of sludge and scum in your tank, you can get a more accurate idea of how often the tank should be pumped.  WARNING: Never allow anyone, including you, to inspect a tank alone or to go down into a septic tank.  The toxic gases, which are produced by the natural processes in septic tanks, can be fatal even in a few minutes.

Protect Your System


     Grass is the most appropriate coverage for your septic system.  Roots from shrubs and trees can cause damage, and asphalt can interfere with the natural drainage.  Grass coverage will reduce the chance of erosion also.  Don’t let anyone drive heavy equipment over your system, as that can compact the soil or damage the pipes.  Keep in mind your drain field replacement area too, and keep it clear of construction.

Should I add chemical or biological additives to my septic tank?


     Because of the cold soil temperatures typically found in Alaska, adding performance enhancing additives like yeast or bacteria to your septic tank is of little value.  In fact, in some cases, these additives could be detrimental to your system.  Because of this, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) recommends against using additives and instead recommends that you have your septic tank pumped regularly, or monitor your tank and have it pumped when the floating scum layer or the sludge layer on the bottom reaches six inches in thickness. 

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