Replacement Septic System
When a person buys a house, car, computer or almost anything of any complexity, there are always upgrades available. These upgrades usually do not cost near as much as the item itself, but give features that can bring significant benefit to the consumer.
A septic system is no different. It’s an appliance whose proper functioning is so much taken for granted that most people don’t give it much thought. In fact, it seems to receive a minimum amount of attention from many prospective homeowners.
As a result, most of the time when we designers get an order to design such a system, the mentality of the person wanting the septic system is that of a minimalist, i.e., a person desiring to “get away” with the least damage to their property, the least amount of space used up by the system, the least care and maintenance and the least cost possible.
An effective way of reaching a happy medium is to include a few septic system UPGRADES when it is first designed and installed. (Many can be added to existing systems, as well.) While these upgrades DO take extra space, time, money, etc., they can pay big dividends to the variety of property owners over the life of the system. In other words, over time, these upgrades can more than pay for themselves in time and attention that the homeowner would have to give to a failing system, in money and in personal consternation.
Here are just a few examples of common upgrades that can be added onto almost any Conventional (gravel trench) system. (But any type of septic system can be upgraded and improved so as to improve its performance.)
Upgrade – larger tank than what is required by the minimum standards:
Septic tank volume that is added onto what the law already requires is relatively cheap. Installing a 1250 or 1500 gal. tank instead of a minimally required 1000 gal. tank, for example, usually costs very little more. (Assuming additional excavation costs are not significant.) But doing so, gives a significant decrease in the frequency that the tank has to be pumped/cleaned. (Recall that ALL TANKS have to be pumped every few years in order to function properly. Each cleaning can easily cost $200 to $400 – or more, if access is difficult, or if the distance from the truck to the tank(s) is more than normal.)
Upgrade – larger drainfield than what is required by the minimum standards:
While the larger tanks need pumping less frequently, they have nothing to do with actually getting rid of the wastewater. Returning the water to the environment only takes place in the drainfield. Therefore, increasing the size of a proposed drainfield or an existing drainfield is always a good idea. Again, if a contractor already has his equipment and crews there, such increases in the drainfield’s size are relatively cheap. Installing 250’ of line where the law requires only 200’, gives the property owner than much more insurance that his system will accept and return to the environment all the wastewater from his home or business.
Upgrade – effluent filters at the outlet of the tank
Recalling that the purpose of the tank is to collect the solids, allowing the liquids to go to the drainfield for disposal. If any solids accidentally escape the tank, they will clog and ruin the drainfield. These solids plug the holes in the pipes in the drainfield, clog up the gravel or other media in the field and stop the soils from absorbing water. The simple effluent filter consists of a screen that can be placed at the outlet pipe of the tank. It disallows solids from escaping the tank and thus can save thousands of dollars in drainfield repair or replacement. (Note: The downside is that these filters do their job very well and thus must be regularly cleaned.)
Upgrade – A pressurized drainfield in lieu of a gravity drainfield:
Many drainfields are designed to receive their effluent from the septic tank simply by gravity flow into a drainfield at a single entry point. The problem is that the slow incoming flow through a 4” diameter pipe gathers at one spot in the drainfield and saturates that spot before finally moving to the adjacent spot, all the while the rest of the drainfield sitting dormant. The pressurizing of the effluent and forcing it through small diameter pipes forces it to come into contact with the ENTIRE drainfield at one time. This method avoids the saturation of any one spot and gives the soils time to rest properly between doses. Thus the entire drainfield is greatly enhanced in efficiency and longevity.
Upgrade – Observation ports in the drainfield
An observation port is simply a pipe built into the drainfield that a person can use to peer down and see what the liquid levels are at any given moment. That may not seem like a very pleasant thing to do, but it does give the property owner or any septic system evaluator an idea of how well the drainfield is working. Ideally, liquid levels are always low because the drainfield is doing its job of absorbing the waters into the soils. But having such observation ports makes it easy to make that assessment and saves a system evaluator from having to excavate into an existing drainfield, possible damaging it in the process, to get that information.
Upgrade –Flow equalization :
Recall that all septic tanks need time to do their job. Ideally, holding the sewage in a quiet state for at least 24 hours gives the septic bacteria time to break solids down into liquids. The problem that many (most?) septic systems face is that erratic sewage flows, i.e., sewage flows that vary during the day from zero to many gallons at one time, both upset the quiet state in the tank and can cause “short circuiting.” Short-circuiting is when previous sewage is pushed out of the tank by fresher, incoming sewage before it has had its 24 hours of digestion/stabilization. Therefore, in order to meet the ideal “retention” time in a tank, one can install a flow equalization tank (with a pump in it) in front of the septic tank. This unit will catch the variable flows from the house or business and dose them in small, equally spaced, equally sized portions to the tank. All septic systems work much better and last must longer if the sewage is applied to them in this manner. The downside? Extra cost of a tank and pump, plus the space needed for this extra appliance.
Upgrade – Septic tank risers or markers:
All septic tanks have to be pumped out every few years, or solids will fill it up and spill over into the drainfield and ruin it. In order to pump the tank, your pumper must first locate it. That’s where some type of marker, indicating the location of the tank’s lid, comes in very handy. He saves time (and you money) by being able to go directly to the tank without having to search for it. Additionally, having a riser (a pipe that comes to the surface from the tank’s lid) keeps him from having to dig to remove the tank’s lid for pumping. Most pumpers charge extra for this, of course, and thus the riser saves him time and saves you money.
Upgrade – Sampling/chemical introduction ports
A “cleanout” like that placed within 3’ of the wall of your home can also be placed at the outlet of the septic tank. This is a good place for a system evaluator to see if there is any back-up occurring from your drainfield. Most systems, if they’re going to fail, will have back-up from the drainfield to the tank some time before it backs up from the tank into the house. Therefore, viewing down that port can give a hint of how the drainfield is doing. Additionally, it provides a professional system evaluator a place to pull a sample for chemical or biological analysis. Finally, if a drainfield is suffering from root intrusion, this port gives the ideal avenue of introducing remediation chemicals to your drainfield.
Upgrade – Turn ups at the end of the drainfield lines
A turn up is a plastic pipe that extends your drainfield perforated piping to the surface. It simply provides a ready-made access to those perforated pipes for chemical or physical repair and/or remediation of the drainfield.
Upgrade – Distribution boxes
A distribution box can be placed at the outlet of your septic tank which simply splits the liquid flow from that tank into two or more portions which can then be piped to various portions of the drainfield. This dividing of the flow spreads the load out over the drainfield and thus allows it to work better and last longer. (Sometimes the flow to the drainfield can be split simply by using plastic “T’s” and “X’s” and multiple connections to the same drainfield.)
Upgrade – Dual pumps
Anytime a system is installed that utilizes any type of pump, always consider having dual pumps put in. Of course, this costs more, but it gives much more assurance that you’ll have continual/uninterrupted service because of a burned out pump. When a pump dies, and they all do eventually, the other pump functions until the first one can be replaced.
Conclusion: There are other upgrades that your designer or installer might suggest. It is my recommendation that all designers, installers, and septic system owners weigh the costs of any and all upgrades carefully against the advantages of long range homeowner satisfaction, effects on the home’s resale value, as well as the efficiency and life of the system.
By Frank Aguirre, Owner, SEPTIC SYSTEMS EXPRESS, 210.490.9780
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