A septic system receives wastewater from homes and removes pollutants and other harmful substances before returning the water to the environment. Typical septic systems contain a "leach field." This is an area of soil that receives partially-treated wastewater from a septic tank through a series of perforated pipes. The function of a leach field is to remove viruses and bacteria from wastewater so that it is safe when it returns to groundwater supplies. There are a number of situations that can cause leach fields to malfunction.
Symptoms of Leach Field Failure
Signs that a leach field has failed include the emission of unpleasant odors from the area of the field, and the leakage of untreated or partially-treated sewage. Leaks from leach fields can become so bad that they are more accurately described as flooding. These problems can occur because a leach field has been improperly constructed, or because it has been placed in an area where the soil does not have enough capacity to absorb large volumes of water. However, even when a leach field has been constructed properly, poor practices and maintenance can still lead to failure.
There is only so much water that a leach field can process at any one time before it will flood. In order to avoid flooding the leach field, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners not use their septic system to process very large volumes of water, such as water from a hot tub. Homeowners should also minimize the flow of wastewater from their homes by fixing leaky faucets and, if possible, by installing high-efficiency showerheads and toilets. It is also recommended that homeowners divert any runoff on their property, such as that from rain gutters, away from their leach field.
Septic systems are designed to effectively handle a certain amount of solid waste from homes, but too many solids can clog both a septic tank and a leach field, and potentially lead to failure of the system. For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that homeowners minimize the amount of food waste that flows into their septic system from the sink, garbage disposal or toilet. The EPA also recommends that homeowners not use the toilet or other drains to dispose of inorganic solids such as dental floss, condoms, diapers or feminine hygiene products.
If the structure of a leach field is damaged, it can cease working properly and lead to flooding and septic failure. For this reason, homeowners should not drive vehicles over their leach fields, because it can disturb the layout of the pipes or compact the soil and reduce its ability to properly absorb wastewater. Roots can also clog or damage pipes, so you should never plant trees on or close to leach fields.
Repair vs. Prevention
In many cases, a failed leach field is already beyond repair. A homeowner may not have any indication that there is a problem until it is too late. Repairing a leach field can be both time-consuming and costly. For this reason, prevention and good practices are the key to septic system maintenance. Many states also require a homeowner to designate an area of property as a "reserve leach field" in case the current one fails.
- Environmental Protection Agency: A Homeowner's Guide to Septic Systems
- El Dorado County Department of Environmental Management: Homeowner Manual for Septic Tanks and Leach Fields
- Thurston County Washington Department of Public Health and Social Services: The Drainfield
- University of Georgia: Septic Tank Maintenance and Care
- Photo Credit Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images
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