Ohio State University Extension Factsheet

Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

590 Woody Hayes Drive, Columbus, Ohio 43210

Septic System Maintenance


Karen Mancl,
Professor and Water Quality Specialist,
Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering

Brian Slater,
Assistant Professor and Extension Soil Scientist,
School of Natural Resources

About 1 million households in Ohio are located beyond the city sewer and must treat and dispose of wastewater on the lot. Like all of the appliances and structures in your home, sewage treatment systems require care and will eventually have to be upgraded or even replaced. Cities hire professional operators to take care of their sewage treatment systems. For homes with individual sewage treatment systems, the homeowner is responsible for providing care and maintenance.

Diagram of a septic system.

Diagram of a septic system.

Septic systems consist of two basic parts; a septic tank and a soil absorption system. The septic tank provides a small portion of the treatment by creating a large quiet compartment to allow solid material to settle out of the wastewater and collect in the tank. Once the large solid material is settled out, the sewage follows into a deep layer of unsaturated soil where the soil and microorganisms growing in the soil remove the pollutants before the wastewater enters ground or surface water.

Septic systems are simple to operate and when properly designed, constructed, and maintained, they do an excellent job of removing pollutants from wastewater to protect Ohio’s water resources. Property owners must do a few important things to keep their system operating for 20 to 30 years.

Conserve Water

Since the soil must accept all of the water used in your home, using less water is the best thing a resident can do to maintain their septic system. Water conservation includes:
  • Repair water leaks, such as toilet valves that don’t seal and dripping faucets.
  • Space out water use throughout the day and week. For example, avoid washing all of your laundry on one day.
  • Install water conserving fixtures like low flow shower heads, low flow toilets, and even purchase a front-loading washing machine.

Careful Landscaping

The soil absorption system (or leach field) is the most important part of a septic system, so it is important to protect the area. Careful landscaping includes:

Pump Septic Tank

Septic tanks are installed to allow solids to settle out of sewage and hold these solids in the tank. Over the years of operating, accumulated solids begin taking up too much room in the tank, reducing the volume available for settling. When this happens, solids start escaping the tank and can clog the soil in the soil absorption field. Before this happens, the septic tank should be pumped to remove the solids.

  • Do not wait for the system to back-up before you pump your septic tank. Backs-ups can be caused by clogging of the soil from sewage solids carried out of an unmaintained septic tank. Once the sewage backs-up, the damage is already done.
  • Do not use biological or chemical additive in place of septic tank pumping.
  • Pump the tank based on the size of the tank and the number of people using it. The table is a guide for routine septic tank pumping. More frequent pumping is necessary if garbage disposals are used.
  • When the tank is pumped, have the baffles inspected. If they are missing or deteriorated, the tank will short circuit and not work properly. Have the baffles replaced with sanitary tees.
  • Never enter a septic tank. Any work or repairs should be made from the outside. The septic tank produces toxic gases that can kill a person in a matter of minutes. When working on a tank, make sure it is well ventilated and someone is standing nearby. Never enter a tank to retrieve someone who fell in. Call emergency services and put a fan at the top of the tank to blow in fresh air.
  • To facilitate future cleaning, install risers to the surface of the ground before burying the tank.

Cross section of a septic tank.

Cross section of a septic tank.

Table 1. Estimate Septic Tank Pumping Frequencies in Years (For Year-Round Residence)

Tank Size (gal)
Household Size (Number of People)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
500 5.8 2.6 1.5 1.0 0.7 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.1
750 9.1 4.2 2.6 1.8 1.3 1.0 0.7 0.6 0.4 0.3
1000 12.4 5.9 3.7 2.6 2.0 1.5 1.2 1.0 0.8 0.7
1250 15.6 7.5 4.8 3.4 2.6 2.0 1.7 1.4 1.2 1.0
1500 18.9 9.1 5.9 4.2 3.3 2.6 2.1 1.8 1.5 1.3
1750 22.1 10.7 6.9 5.0 3.9 3.1 2.6 2.2 1.9 1.6
2000 25.4 12.4 8.0 5.9 4.5 3.7 3.1 2.6 2.2 2.0
2250 28.6 14.0 9.1 6.7 5.2 4.2 3.5 3.0 2.6 2.3
2500 31.9 15.6 10.2 7.5 5.9 4.8 4.0 4.0 3.0 2.6
Note: More frequent pumping needed if garbage disposal is used.

Upgrade System

Just like the house roof, driveway, and furnace, septic systems require upgrades and possibly replacement. Expect to have to upgrade a properly designed and installed septic system every 20 to 30 years.

Standards have changed and research has developed new and better approaches to treating sewage onsite to protect the health of the residents, the community, and the environment. While some older systems may have met standards when they were installed, upgrades and replacements will take advantage of the tremendous advances scientists and engineers have developed to improve wastewater treatment. Be prepared for new or upgraded systems to be different from the system that may have been installed decades ago.

Professional Management

Few homeowners are prepared to operate and maintain a wastewater treatment system. Communities have always hired professional operators to run wastewater treatment plants. Some communities are now hiring operators to inspect and manage septic systems. Professional management offers many advantages for Ohio communities.

Talk to your community leaders about establishing a septic system management program, so that all of the systems in your area receive proper and regular inspection and management. To learn more about onsite wastewater management consult the OSU Extension series on Onsite Wastewater Management AEX-750 through 754. These and other wastewater treatment publications can be found at www.ag.ohio-state.edu/~setll.

This publication was financed in part through a grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, under the provisions of Section 319(h) of the Clean Water Act.

Click here for the PDF version of this fact sheet.

All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-6181

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