Septic 101

  • This overview will provide answers to the most frequently asked questions regarding your aerobic septic system.We at JMA Wastewater Services want to provide our customers all the knowledge we can offer you about your aerobic septic system. We certainly enjoy visiting with our customers whether it is conversing with you on our routine inspection visits or over the phone.

    If we can provide insight to your questions and perhaps give you a better understanding about the system it could potentially save you money and keep your system in optimum operating condition.

    Listed below are the most frequently asked questions we have been asked by our customers.

    Question #1: What waste or products should I avoid introducing to my aerobic septic system?

    1. A: Synthetic Materials:  Avoid introducing the little white produce labels found on produce (these usually fall off the produce when washed in the sink) and enough of them will destroy your sprinkler water pump. Dental floss, cigarette butts, condoms, and kitty litter will not process in the system and will have the same effects. Under any circumstances do not empty a wet and dry vacuum or any vacuum into the sinks that lead to the aerobic septic system. Disaster!
    2. B: So called “disposable paper products” and other paper products:   Avoid introducing disposable diapers, baby wipes, female sanitary napkins or tampons, cotton balls, Q – Tips, paper towels, and facial tissues. We would not want to put these products into a toilette on city sewer and especially not into an aerobic septic system.
    3. C: Food Wastes:  Avoid introducing fats (fatty meat trimmings) and all greases (oil from frying chicken and fish etc….), bones, coffee grinds, citrus and melon rinds, especially squash and melon seeds, corn cobs, egg shells, expired medicines, regardless if they are ground up in a garbage disposal. If the seeds are consumed it is okay, otherwise dispose of them in the trash.
    4. D: Chemicals & Toxins:  Avoid introducing latex or oil based paints, paint thinner, solvents, automotive fluids, fuels, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, excessive amounts of disinfectants, sanitizers, bleach, and especially drain cleaners.


    Question #2: Will over the counter medications effect the operation of my aerobic septic system?

    Answer #2: No. However, extensive prolonged use of antibiotics can kill off aerobic bacteria and affect the systems overall processing ability.


    Question #3A: If a family member is on chemotherapy can it affect my aerobic septic system?

    Answer #3A: Yes. Oral or intravenous chemotherapy can and most likely will cause a biological disruption to the aerobic bacteria and may have a severe impact on the system.


    Question #3B: How can I help the system when my family member is on chemotherapy? Is there any thing I can add or do?

    Answer #3B: Yes. You can add a microbial product to help increase the over all number of microbes and bacteria in the system, thus making it more effective. This is best added a month ahead of the treatment or at the end of the treatment. You may call our office and we would be happy to recommend one to you.


    Question #4: How should I regulate my laundry loads?

    Answer #4: Excellent question! This is where most of us get in trouble. Laundry should be spread out throughout the week. Two loads a day would be best if you have a conventional washing machine that utilizes 35- 50 gallons of water per wash. If there is enough time to separate the two loads in the same day even this is even better. For large families this may be impossible. If you must do four loads, not advisable, two in the A.M. two in the P.M.

    Too many loads of laundry in a short period of time will push the wastewater through the system without ample time for it to effectively process.


    Question #5: Why does my alarm go off and what should I do?

    Answer #5: The alarm will go off for two reasons. Either lack of air output from the air compressor or the water level is reaching a higher level than normal in the sprinkler water tank. Please put the system on mute and call our office.


    Question #6: How often does my system need to be pumped?

    Answer #6: Typically every 2 to 3 years. There are exceptions in both scenarios. We check the second and third tank (they have above ground access) and can advise you accordingly. We can recommend a terrific pumping service when the system requires pumping.


    Question #7: If my system has a bad odor around the aerobic septic system or from the sprinkler water what does this indicate? What should I do?

    Answer #7: This is an indication the system is not processing the water to its full potential. Please call our office.


    Question #8(a): Is there a difference between wastewater chlorine tablets and pool chlorine tablets? Which one should I add to my system?

    Answer #8A: Yes. There is a difference between wastewater chlorine and pool chlorine. Pool chlorine should not be used. Wastewater approved chlorine (Calcium Hypochlorite) is formulated to target pathogens (disease causing organisms) and is currently the only tablet form of chlorine approved for wastewater use. Wastewater chlorine is formulated to be less corrosive on components in the system, such as, the effluent pump and floats. In order to maximize the longevity from these components, it is imperative to use the approved chlorine.

    Calcium Hypochlorite tablets can be purchased from Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, McCoy’s or usually any local hardware store or home improvement center.


    Question #8B: My system is equipped with a (LBC) (Liquid Bleach Chlorinator). Do I only add bleach?

    Answer #8B: Yes. ONLY add liquid beach which is sodium hypochlorite.


    Question #9: Once the water is processed and sprays from the sprinklers, is it safe to play in the water or can I use it to water my garden?

    Answer #9: No. Even though the water is processed to 98% reclaimed standards we rely on Mother Nature to complete the process by allowing the suns U.V. rays, soil, and vegetation in the designated spray field to aid in further processing and nitrate removal.


    Question #10: Can plant and tree roots infiltrate and damage the aerobic septic system? What type of plants should I plant on top of or next to my aerobic septic system?

    Answer #10: Yes. Avoid planting any thing other than grass on top of the septic system. Trees and plants should not be planted on or near the aerobic septic system. The roots will eventually infiltrate the tank and will cause damage. We have seen Oak and Cedar tree roots from 25 feet away grow into tanks.


    Question #11: If I landscape my yard or install rain gutters, should I divert the flow of surface water runoff and rain water away from the aerobic septic system?

    Answer #11: Yes! When most aerobic septic systems are designed and installed, the homeowner’s yard is a blank canvas. It is critical when the landscaping or rain gutter installation is done that the water is diverted away from the septic system. This ensures ground water issues will not develop around the system and the surface water runoff which carries debris will not infiltrate the tank. Also, this will help eliminate soil settling around the tank.


    Question #12: Is it critical the above ground access covers on my aerobic septic system remain accessible at all times?

    Answer #12: Yes. The above grade access covers must remain accessible at all times. The lids are removed during routine inspections and service calls. When your local health department performs a random inspection on the system, they will definitely require access to the lids.


    Question #13: If the lids are below grade, can they be elevated to make them accessible?

    Answer #13: Any lid can be elevated if it is buried or below grade. It is just a matter of adapting additional risers to achieve the desired height of the lid.


    Question #14: Why do ants gravitate to my air compressor?

    Answer #14: Ants gravitate to the air compressor because it operates at the electrical frequency of 60 hertz. This is the magical frequency that all insects and animals “relate” to and enjoy being around.


    Question #15: Is there an easier way to treat for ants as opposed to conventional methods such as spray and granules?

    Answer #15: Yes. Spray and granules give instant results especially for major infestations. For prolonged results, insert a pet flea collar (don’t forget to stretch the collar to activate it) at the base of the air compressor. This will keep the ants away typically for 3 to 4 months. Also, if you have a feed store nearby, purchase pyrethrin treated live stock ear tags (cost approx $2.00 each and all you need is two). Place one at each end of the air compressor and it will keep ants away for months at a time.


    Question #16: Is it critical the sewer gas vents on the roof of my house stay unobstructed?

    Answer #16: Yes. These are the pipes that stick above the roof on the house. Typically they are made of 2 inch diameter pipe and they are located above a bathroom. If the vents become obstructed, the aerobic septic system will not vent correctly and will have an odor and processing issues. These are the vent pipes where birds build nests or where squirrels store food. They are easily inspected by stepping far enough away from the house to see the tops of the pipe. A good time to inspect them is when you’re hanging the Christmas lights or cleaning the rain gutters.


    Question #17: What does it mean when I have a sewer gas odor from a sink, bath, or shower that is rarely used?

    Answer #17: The moisture has dried up in the moisture trap under the drain. The moisture creates a barrier that does not allow the sewer gas to pass through the trap. Simply turn on the water at the affected drain and allow it to run a couple of seconds to form a new moisture barrier in the trap. The odor will then diminish. If the affected drain is rarely used you can pour a little vegetable oil (1 teaspoon full) down the drain. The oil will not evaporate like the water.


    Question #18: If I have a toilet that flushes on its own or has an internal water leak introducing unnecessary water in the system, what should I do?

    Answer #18: Please turn the toilet off immediately! Then repair or replace the toilet. This is a common problem and will hydraulically surge and flood your system.

    A leaking toilet can leak large amounts of water in a very short amount of time. This is a surge (a shock) to the system. With a large amount of water introduced to the system in a small amount of time, it will push the wastewater from the first compartment in the tank to the last compartment, whether it has had ample time to allow the solids to process and settle out. This is exactly what we don’t want. Then we have a bunch of unprocessed solids in our sprinkler water tank. This will then clog the intake screen on the sprinkler water pump and the sprinkler filters not allowing the water to spray out and can damage and/or burn up the pump. Also, the system will spray the unprocessed water which is a health risk.

    The bottom line is to turn the toilet off until it can be repaired. If you are not sure, there are a few ways to determine if the toilet is leaking. Listen to see if you hear the toilet filling up as if you had just flushed. When the toilet is not in use there shouldn’t be any noise indicating it is filling up. Lift the toilet bowl lid and see if there is any water cascading down the inside the bowl. This is an indicator the flapper valve in the tank is stuck open and leaking. If you are really not sure, you can lift the lid off the tank (located on top of the toilet) and put a few drops of food coloring in the water and see if appears in the bowl. If the food coloring appears in the bowl, the toilet has a leak.


    Question #19: Is it ok to have my soft water regeneration pump into the aerobic septic system? Is it better to use salt or potassium? If it malfunctions, will it have an impact on my septic system and what should I do?

    Answer #19: Yes, providing it does not push the system over its engineered daily flow rate. If the soft water system is installed when the house is built it is factored into the design. In most cases it is fine.

    In my personal system, I use potassium. It costs a little bit more than salt. The best price I found is at TSC (Tractor Supply Company) in Dripping Springs. There is no salt water strain of aerobic bacteria. My septic system seems to operate best with the potassium and my soft water manufacturer recommended the potassium.

    If the regeneration feature on your soft water system ever malfunctions, call your soft water service provider and have it repaired immediately or by pass the softener. This is usually done with a by pass valve located at the softener.

    A malfunctioning softener can surge the septic system especially if the regeneration feature sticks on. It will flood the septic system just like a malfunctioning toilet. Also, the excessive salt consumption in the regeneration can kill off the aerobic bacteria causing odors issues with the septic system.


    Question #20: Are all aerobic septic systems similar/the same?

    Answer #20: There are a multitude of manufactures that offer these systems. They are all similar in one respect, which is they all utilize aerobic digestion and activated sludge to effectively process the wastewater. Each manufacturer has their own take on tank design and lay out but the end result is the same. All tanks have to meet or exceed the three major standards in which tanks are evaluated and they are BOD (organic strength of the final treated effluent), TSS (Total Suspended Solids), and FC (Fecal Coliform). The majority of the systems fall in the 98% reduction of these components.


    Question #21: Does toilet paper ever dissolve in my system? Is one brand of paper better than another?

    Answer #21: Yes and no. This answer is not as definitive as we think. The four strains of bacteria that reside in our intestines which kick this whole digestion process off prefer to digest organic soluble (food) instead of paper fiber. Can you blame them? What we do know is systems that have lower water use, for example, in a family of two or three individuals the paper tends to process more readily due to longer settling and detention times in the pre treatment tank and overall less paper use. On systems with higher flow rates and more contributors, the paper tends to collect in the pre treatment tank and accumulate quicker than it can break down and process. This leads to frequent pump out intervals.

    I honestly have to say, of the systems we have pumped in the past, overall there is one common denominator. The toilet paper brand that seems to process the best is Marathon. When we open up and expose the pre -treatment tank and the paper content is minimal, I always ask the homeowner which paper they use. The most common answer is Marathon two-ply or Scott’s 1000 toilet paper.

    This is the one we recommend!
    This is the one we recommend!

    We hope this news letter answers the basic and most commonly asked questions for your aerobic septic system.


    If any questions come to mind at any time, please call 512-801-8594.

    Thank you for your time and the opportunity to continue earning your business.