Septic tank pumping is an important part of maintenance if you’re one of the 33% of households with a septic system. Without regularly having your septic tank pumped, you can run into a slew of problems like bad odors, slow drains, and the dreaded sewage backup.
It’s a maintenance task that may seem optional or easy to forget, but ask any professional or homeowner who’s dealt with a full septic tank – it’s no picnic.
What Is Septic Tank Pumping?
Regular pumping is a simple way to clean your tank out and avoid these issues. Maybe you’re moving into a home with a septic tank for the first time.
Maybe you just want to start taking better care of your waste. Either way, you should understand septic tank pumping. You also need to know how it works, when you need to have it done, and how much it costs.
In this guide, we’ll cover the ins and outs of septic tank pumping and share a few tips from professionals to extend your system’s life. To understand why and how a septic tank should be pumped, let’s start by looking at what a septic tank is and how it works.
How Does a Septic Tank Work?
Septic tanks are used in homes not connected to city sewers or sewage treatment facilities. Instead of sewer lines that move a household’s waste to a central sewage treatment facility for treatment, septic tanks collect water and waste and treat it naturally.
A septic system is made up of more than just the septic tank. When water and waste leave the house through the home’s primary drain system, it travels through a sewer pipe and into the septic tank.
Depending on your system’s setup, the water may flow due to gravity or with the help of an electric pump. Once the waste is in the septic tank, it naturally separates into three distinct layers: scum (top), effluent (middle), and solids (bottom).
Separates Liquids from Scum
Scum is a lighter portion than water and includes any grease or oil that makes its way into the tank. The effluent layer is made up of liquids that flow into the tank.
The solid layer is what falls to the bottom of the tank and is slowly decomposed and reduced in volume by anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that don’t need oxygen to survive). The middle liquid layer flows through perforated pipes into a drain field.
This usually filled with gravel or stones that keep the liquid waste from pooling or flooding out too quickly. As the liquids filter down through the gravel layer and into the soil, they are broken down by natural bacteria.
How Septic Tanks Are Pumped
Septic tank pumping is a process typically handled by professionals. Most homeowners don’t have the equipment required to pump out a septic tank. Here’s how it works.
A professional with a pumper truck, vacuum pump, and special tool called a muckrake will arrive and determine the placement of the septic tank. If necessary, they will remove the heavy septic tank lid to access the tank.
Once the opening is accessible, they will use the muckrake (a long tool used to break up and stir the tank’s contents) to move the contents of the tank around and mix the three different layers within the tank.
This part of the process takes a few minutes, but the muckrake will be used continuously throughout the pumping process. The operator will then connect all the vacuum hose lines to the pumper truck and insert the open end into the tank to begin pumping the tank out.
Everything Pumped Out
With the powerful pump on, the tank’s contents will be pulled up into the vacuum hose and out of the tank. During this process, continuously moving the muckrake around ensures everything mixes.
After all, liquids should be combined with solids and there should be sludge or solids left behind on the bottom of the tank. When the operator is finished pumping the tank, it should appear empty.
Drain Fields Checked
If it doesn’t, or if you can hear water rushing back in, this can mean the drain field is failing (and in need of replacement). The operator will be able to give you specific recommendations if this is the case. Pumping the tank again won’t solve the problem.
A common question is, “How can my septic tank work if it’s empty?” Your septic tank will refill to the normal level again within a day or two of being pumped with normal household water usage.
The bacteria inside will continue to do its job, breaking down waste in the three layers of matter within the tank. And your septic tank will operate normally.
Why Septic Tank Pumping Matters
With an understanding of how a septic system works and the process of septic tank pumping, let’s talk about the importance of septic tank pumping. Why is it necessary, and how often should it be done?
Septic tank pumping serves a few purposes. First, it empties the tank and keeps it working as it should. When a septic tank gets too full, the matter inside can’t naturally fall into the three layers and break down with the help of bacteria.
The tank’s contents can clog the lines and backup into the house or flow into the drain field. Odorous gases can leak from drains inside the home, causing a characteristic foul smell.
Second, it allows a professional to examine and diagnose other problems with the septic system. For example, if liquid begins flowing back into a newly pumped tank, the operator knows that the drain field is saturated and must be replaced.
If the tank plug is discovered to be missing during the pump out process, the operator can replace it and stop the tank from draining into the soil around the tank.
Third, it extends the life of a septic tank by ensuring the lines don’t get clogged and allowing early diagnosis of any problems that need to be addressed.
How Often to Pump Septic Tanks
With this in mind, how often should a septic tank be pumped to maintain the health of a septic system? On average, your septic tank will need to be pumped every 1 to 3 years, but this is just a guideline.
Professionals recommend adjusting the septic tank pumping frequency according to the size of the septic tank in gallons and the number of people in a household.
Households with more people will need to have the tank pumped more often, as will smaller tanks. Other things that increase the frequency of septic tank pumping include:
- The use of garbage disposals, which fill the tank faster
- Regular houseguests
- Large or frequent laundry loads
- Certain in-home businesses with excess water usage
For example, a 1,000-gallon septic tank in a household of 4 people would need to be pumped about every 2-3 years. A small 500-gallon tank in the same household would need to be pumped much more often, about once every year.
Septic Tank Pumping Cost
You know that septic tank pumping is an essential way to keep your septic system running well, but how much does it cost to have done? Prices vary across the nation. But let’s look at the national averages for septic tank pumping prices.
Nationwide, septic tank pumping costs between $295 and $610 on average. On the low end (if you have a small, 750-gallon septic tank), you may pay as little as $250.
On the high end (if you have a large, 1,250-gallon tank), you may pay as much as $895. Sounds pretty expensive, right?
Consider this: It will cost you around $10,000 if you end up having to replace your whole septic system, so comparatively, the cost of septic tank pumping is low.
When Not to Pump a Septic Tank
Septic tank pumping is usually a good idea, but it’s not always warranted. There are a few situations when pumping a septic tank can cause damage. Keep reading to see when you should not pump your septic tank.
During Heavy Flooding
If you’ve experienced flooding, you might think it’s a good idea to have your septic tank pumped as soon as possible. Make sure you don’t have it pumped too soon!
If floodwaters haven’t receded yet, two problems can occur. The first and most serious problem is the possibility of your septic tank actually floating up and out of the ground.
If you have a fiberglass or plastic septic tank, this can happen when groundwater is still high all around the septic tank underground, and the weight of water inside the tank is no longer there to anchor it in place.
If your tank does float up and out of the ground, you’re in for some expensive repairs. The second problem that can occur with any septic tank, regardless of its construction, is mud and silt carried by floodwaters flowing into the tank.
If you have your septic tank pumped too soon after a storm, or while flooding is still occurring, this can happen and require you to have a professional come and remove the debris later.
Unsafe Septic Tank Conditions
Because septic tanks are underground, we don’t always know what the conditions are and whether or not the tank is safe to work around.
It might not even be a septic tank that’s buried there – older homes may have simple cesspools, or concrete tanks with holes, instead of septic tanks. These have caused multiple fatalities from people falling in when they collapse over time.
When older tanks or cesspools are pumped, they are at the highest risk of collapsing and potentially injuring or killing anyone working over the tank.
Before an Inspection or Test
Another time it’s not a good idea to have your septic tank pumped is right before you’re scheduled to have it inspected or tested.
Inspections often involve septic dye tests where professionals use dye to determine if the tank and drain field are working correctly.
In an emptied, just-pumped tank, real problems can be hidden because the dye won’t be able to be carried by water to indicate an issue.
Find a Septic Tank Pumping Service Near You
A septic system is the wastewater management system for a third of the homes in America, so it’s essential to understand how they work and what kinds of maintenance actions should be taken to keep them in good condition.
Septic tank pumping is one of the most crucial maintenance actions to maintain a septic system in good working order. It also gives professionals a chance to inspect and test the tank to check for problems.
The septic tank pumping process is one that requires specialized equipment, so hiring a professional is necessary. They will use a powerful vacuum pump and a muckrake tool to mix the contents of the tank together and pump them out of the tank until it’s empty.
Septic Tank Pumping Services Near Me
The empty tank will refill from normal household water use within a day or two. Professionals recommend having your septic tank pumped every 1 to 3 years, or more often if several people living in the home or the tank are small.
You can expect to pay about $250 to $610 for a septic tank pump-out. If you invest the money in having your septic tank regularly pumped, you can extend your septic tank’s life and avoid spending thousands to replace the entire system.
Septic tank pumping isn’t the most pleasant thing to think about, but it’s necessary to keep waste safely contained and out of sight. If you haven’t yet, schedule a professional to pump your septic tank and get on a regular septic tank maintenance schedule.