Be Septic Safe

Septic systems are used to treat household wastewater through a series of natural and technological processes. These systems are also known as onsite wastewater treatment systems, cluster systems, or private sewage systems, to name a few. Whatever name you know it by, it is important you maintain and use your system properly. Septic systems are sited for areas based on existing soil type, household size, site slope, lot size, and proximity to water bodies. When systems are not installed in proper locations or not properly used or maintained, issues can arise. By having routine inspections and maintenance done, you will save money in the long run compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a failing system. “Regular maintenance fees of $250 to $500 every three to five years is a bargain compared to the cost of repairing or replacing a malfunctioning system, which can cost between $3,000 and $7,000 for a conventional system.” ( https://www.epa.gov/septic/why-maintain-your-septic-system). By maintaining your system you are ultimately saving money, protecting your property value, keeping your family and neighbors safe, and protecting the environment.

This website provides information to owners and users of septic tank systems; follow links to learn more about system design, use and maintenance to ensure septic systems function as intended.

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SEPTIC SYSTEM OWNERS/USERS

    • How does a septic system work?
      Septic systems vary in types and material, but their main job is to treat and dispose of used water also known as wastewater from your house, a business, or a facility. Septic systems do this by holding wastewater in the septic tank long enough for solids to settle down to the bottom, fats, oils and greases to float to the top, and then allowing the liquid waste (effluent) to flow to a drainfield. This drainfield is an area of land where pipes are buried, allowing septic effluent to slowly flow into the soil. Check out EPA’s SepticSmart website HERE for more information on how septic systems work.
    • What should I know before I buy land?
      When purchasing land, research your wastewater system options before you commit. Ask the seller, previous owner, or real estate agent about the wastewater system options on the property. Look into other wastewater system option on adjacent properties to help identify what system you have or need. If there isn’t a septic system or sanitary sewer connection currently on the lot, contact SCDHEC to see if your lot is suitable for a septic system as well as discuss what types of sewage systems are available to you.

      Property located in high population density areas are more likely served by a sanitary sewer system. Property located outside of city limits or in a rural area are more likely to depend on existing septic system or in need of installing a new one. Refer to “Regulations and Permits” for more information.
    • I just moved in, what do I need to know about septic systems?
      When moving into a new home take the time to review the history of your septic system. Find the location of your septic tank and explore the size of your drainfield. Learn what type of system you have and the type of material from which the drainfield is made. Also, contact a licensed local septic system service provider to schedule an inspection if previous homeowners have not done so. The EPA has developed a great resource page for homeowners HERE.
    • What products are safe to use in a septic system?
      When choosing a household cleaning product for your septic system, reading the label is key. Many household cleaning products have key words or phrases that will help you determine whether they are an appropriate choice. Look for the words “Non-toxic”, “Biodegradable” or “Septic Safe” to make sure the product is safe to use in your septic system.
    • What should I NOT flush down the drain?
      Your septic system is more sensitive than you think! There are microorganisms that live in your septic system to help break down waste. Flushing items or products that are not intended for septic systems will cause issues for you in the long haul, as well as more money in repairs and maintenance. Human waste and septic safe toilet paper should be the only items flushed down your drain.
    • Should I avoid using my garbage disposal out of fear of damaging my septic system?
      The use of garbage disposal should be limited. Most of the kitchen scraps that are ground up do not break down over time, which will cause clogs. Removal of such material will require pumping. Make sure to discard the majority of food scraps into a trash can. Do not pour fats, oils, and greases (FOGs) down the garbage disposal drain or any other drain that leads to your septic tank. They should be properly disposed of with the household garbage or recycled.
    • Can I fix it myself?
      If you are planning to repair your own septic system, check with SCDHEC to see if you are allowed to do so. Many repairs will need the help of a licensed contractor. It is not recommended for residents and property owners to repair a septic system themselves. SCDHEC typically requires a licensed contractor to inspect, repair, and pump out septic systems. Septic systems contain noxious fumes, small spaces, and hazardous conditions. Septic system contractors have the training, equipment, and personal protective gear needed to do the job safely.

      Keep a record of all septic system maintenance performed by contractors. Note the date, the activity performed, the contractor's name and contact info, and any comments regarding the septic system's health.

TYPES

      • What are the different types of septic tanks?
        While there are many different types of septic tanks and septic systems, the most common tanks are constructed of concrete, fiberglass, or plastic. In general, concrete tanks offer long life and durability but can crack. Fiberglass and plastic tanks, due to their light weight, are easier to install but may be more likely to float if seasonal high water tables are present and can suffer structural damage compared to other types. Proper installation and maintenance will help avoid costly repairs in the future.
        Types of septic systems include but are not limited to the following:
        • conventional systems
        • chamber systems
        • drip distribution systems
        • aerobic treatment units
        • mound systems
        • recirculating sand filter systems
        • evapotranspiration systems
        • constructed wetland systems
        • cluster/community systems

        Details on each of these can be found HERE on the EPA website. Please note: not all of these types of systems are approved for use in South Carolina. In addition, alternative septic systems, which may incorporate some of the systems mentioned above, are considered on a case-by-case basis by SCDHEC. More details on alternative septic systems can be found at this LINK.
    • What is an Aerobic Treatment Unit?
      An Aerobic Treatment Unit uses oxygen to help in the treatment process of the effluent. An advantage of these units is that they clean up the effluent to a greater degree than just using a septic tank and may prolong the lifespan of your drainfield. However, aerobic treatment units are usually more expensive to install and maintain than other traditional systems.
    • Above ground vs. below ground systems?
      The most common type of septic system involves a buried or underground tank; however, above ground tanks are possible but rare in most instances. An above ground system may be a good option when conditions are not optimal for a buried system. An above ground system can be the solution where there are “slow or fast permeable soils, shallow soil cover over creviced or porous bedrock, or a high-water table”, per the National Small Flows Clearinghouse, a publication from West Virginia University. The advantages of an above ground system include:
      • making good use of available land
      • generally, has a natural permeable top soil layer
      • it does not discharge to a water body
      • minimal construction disruption
      • suitable in most climates

      Above ground systems do have disadvantages: they need to be combined with a leach field or pumped regularly, the solids can get into the effluent and block pipes, and their exposure to the elements results in wear. In comparison buried/underground systems also have advantages and disadvantages: concrete tanks offer long life and durability but can crack; and fiberglass and plastic tanks, due to their light weight, are easier to install but may be more likely to float if seasonal high water tables are present and can suffer structural damage compared to other types.

LOCATING YOUR SYSTEM

      • How do I located my septic tank and drainfield?
        It can be challenging to locate a home’s septic tank and drainfield. Useful resources include the local SCDHEC or county records office for property records to determine the location. However, these entities do not maintain septic records in perpetuity. Another great source of information is the neighbors of the property. They may know where your tank is located or can tell you where their tank can be found. Neighboring septic tanks are often placed in similar locations. Other options to obtain location information include looking through documents from when the home was purchased, contacting the previous owner of the property, and contacting local septic contractors in the area to see if they have previously serviced the unit. A licensed installer can locate the tank, use a probe rod to find the lines and do some excavation if necessary. Local septic contractors may also be able to determine the size of the system that is located on your property. If these methods do not locate the tank and drainfield, look for a sewer pipe in your basement or crawl space (4-inch pipe) and follow it to where it exits the home into the yard. The septic tank and drainfield usually lie parallel to the sewer pipe and are at least 5 feet from the house but can farther; and are usually located from a few inches to a few feet below ground. Be on the lookout for an area that is a little higher or lower than its surroundings as a possible indication of a buried system and look for a lid. A soil probe can also be used about every two feet as you are walking and determine if you “hit” anything.
      • Can I put landscaping above my septic tank/drainfield?
        Only grass should be planted above the septic tank and drainfield. According to Clemson HGIC factsheet 1726, grass used as landscaping helps the system optimize oxygen exchange, promotes transpiration, and minimizes soil erosion. It is recommended that you do not drive, dig, build or plant (other than grass) above the tank and drainfield, as you could break the tank lid and pipes and compact the soil causing the system to fail. Per Clemson HGIC, this failure is a result of the soil microbes inability to function as well in the compacted soils. Plant selection is critical to maintain optimal soil oxygen exchange, reduce the need for fertilizers and water, and avoid unwanted issues. Shallow-rooted herbaceous plants, including turfgrass and other grasses, are best; and care should be taken during planting to:
        • not add additional soil or thick mulch over the drainfield
        • not over till the soil, as parts of the septic system may lie just a few inches from the surface
        • wear gloves to minimize exposure to any harmful organisms
        • choose plants that are well adapted to the soils and average rainfall of your area
        • choose plants that do not require dividing nor will create a thick canopy
        • select plants that based on your conditions are pH adaptable and tolerate high salinity
        • minimize vehicular traffic and heavy equipment over the drainfield
        A list of appropriate grasses and groundcover from Clemson HGIC can be found HERE and from the EPA can be found HERE, and maintenance suggestions from the SCDHEC can be found HERE.
      • Can I store/build any cars, equipment, buildings on my drainfield?
        It is not recommended that you drive, dig, build or plant (other than grass) above the tank and drainfield, as you could break the tank lid and pipes and compact the soil causing the system to fail.
    • Is a vegetable garden ok on top of the drainfield?
      No, it is not safe for the vegetables nor the septic system. What goes down the drain can be in the soil of your drainfield. While the septic system filters out contaminants such as chemicals and bacteria some can be in the effluent which could pose a health risk in edible plants. Also, a drainfield should require minimal maintenance for the protection of the septic system. Watering, fertilization, and frequent vehicular traffic and heavy equipment compacting the soil make the system less efficient.

REGULATIONS AND PERMITS

      • Where can I report a failing septic system?
        Report failing septic systems to the local SCDHEC Environmental Affairs Regional Office. To contact the local SCDHEC Environmental Affairs Regional Office, visit their website HERE.
      • What happens when I report a failing septic system?
        After receiving a complaint or tracking pollution to a failing septic system, SCDHEC may notify the property owner that they violated state regulations. The property owner will then be required to fix the system. The property owner's local government may also take action if they are made aware of the issue.
      • Am I required to have my septic system inspected?
        South Carolina state law does not require septic system inspections after their construction. However, local ordinances may vary. Check local ordinances for regulations concerning septic systems.

        While regular inspections are not legally required at a state level, they are important to a septic system's overall health. Regular inspections can save time and money by catching problems early. A broken or failing septic system can damage the environment and the health of one’s family; many problems are easier to fix if they are caught early.
      • Who regulates and issues permits for septic systems?
        In South Carolina, SCDHEC, is the state agency responsible for enforcing regulations and issuing permits concerning septic systems.
      • Do I need a permit to inspect or repair my septic system?
        A permit isn’t required to inspect or repair a septic system. However, a licensed septic system professional is required to do so. Property owners should not attempt to inspect their septic systems themselves. SCDHEC’s website has a database of licensed contractors on their website HERE.
      • Do I need a permit to replace my septic system?
        SCDHEC requires a permit to replace your septic system. The permit application, a description of the process, and information on the fees involved are all on SCDHEC’s website.
      • Do I need a permit to install a new septic system?
        SCDHEC requires a permit to install a new septic system. This permit is needed to receive a building permit. The permit application, a description of the process, and information on the fees involved are all on SCDHEC’s website.
      • Do I need a permit to work on septic systems?
        SCDHEC requires a license to perform septic system installations, cleaning, and repairs. The same license is needed to haul and dispose of septic tank waste. This license must be renewed annually. To apply for the license and more information about license fees, exams, regulations, and requirements, visit the SCDHEC’s website.
      • Where can I find septic system regulations?
        Current septic system regulations and permit applications for South Carolina are on the SCDHEC’s website HERE.
      • How can I contact septic system regulators?
        To reach out to SCDHEC with questions about septic system regulations and permits, contact their Onsite Wastewater staff or the local SCDHEC Environmental Affairs Regional Office.
        To contact SCDHEC Onsite Wastewater:
        • Call: (803) 896-0640
        • Fax: (803)896-0645
        • Mail: SCDHEC, Bureau of Environmental Health Services, Onsite Wastewater Management Section, 2600 Bull Street, Columbia, SC, 29201
        • Visit: SCDHEC, Onsite Wastewater Management Section, State Park Heath Center, 8500 Farrow Road, Building 5, Columbia, SC 29203
        To contact the local SCDHEC Environmental Affairs Regional Office:
        • Visit SCDHEC's website HERE.

MAINTENANCE

      • What kind of maintenance does a septic system need?
        A well-designed and well-maintained septic system can last 20-30 years. To reach that life span,
        • regularly inspect and pump out your system.
        • protect the tank and the drainfield from damage.
        • follow septic system best practices every day and be aware of materials entering the system.
      • Why is it important to maintain my septic system?
        There are many reasons to maintain a septic system. For example, performing regular septic system maintenance saves money! The average cost to pump out a septic system (a major part of septic system maintenance that can prevent many issues) is $250 - $500 every three to five years. Without maintenance, septic system replacement or repair can cost between $3,000 and $10,000. These costs do not take into account the effects of septic systems on property values. A poorly maintained or failing septic system can negatively impact property values, while a well-functioning system can maintain property values.

        Regular maintenance can also help keep the resident, their neighbors, and their community healthy! When a septic system fails, it can spread disease. Sewage can back up into homes or contaminate nearby water resources. Improperly treated sewage carries harmful bacteria, viruses, and pollutants. This can make the water used for swimming, drinking, or bathing unsafe or even deadly to humans and wildlife.
      • How often do I need to have my septic system inspected?
        SCDHEC recommends that you inspect your system every one to two years. Alternative septic tank systems with mechanical parts should be inspected annually. During an inspection, a septic tank professional will locate the system, check its condition, and make recommendations for future maintenance. Often, inspection and pump out will occur on the same service call.
      • How often do I need to have my septic system pumped?
        The frequency of pump outs depends upon the size of the septic tank and the number of people using the system. The size of the septic tank determines how much solid material can be stored over time. A contractor will recommend a pump out once the tank is one-third to one-half full of solid waste. Solid waste will accumulate faster in the septic tank if many people are using the system. In general, an average household septic tank will need to be pumped every three to five years.
      • Can I inspect and maintain a septic system myself?
        It is not recommended for residents and property owners to inspect and maintain a septic system themselves. Residents and property owners can and are encouraged to perform visual inspections of the drainfield for signs of failure and the cleanout for signs of a blockage or water leak. SCDHEC requires a licensed contractor to inspect, repair, and pump out septic systems. Septic systems contain noxious fumes, small spaces, and hazardous conditions. Septic system contractors have the training, equipment, and personal protective gear needed to do the job safely.

        Keep a record of all septic system maintenance performed by contractors. Note the date, the activity performed, the contractor's name and contact info, and any comments regarding the septic system's health.
      • How can I find a licensed septic system contractor?
        SC DHEC has an interactive map to search for septic system contractors on their website HERE.
      • What can I do to keep my septic system healthy?
        Best practices help to keep a septic system healthy. Four main categories include:
        1. Proper maintenance
        2. Efficient water use
        3. Proper waste disposal
        4. Drainfield protection

        Proper maintenance includes visually inspecting the drainfield and cleanout annually for signs of failure. If you notice signs of failure, have your system inspected by a licensed professional as soon as possible. Septic systems should be inspected and pumped out every three to five years by a licensed professional. Keep records of the times, dates, and descriptions of all maintenance activities as well as any recommended actions. Keep a copy of the septic system permit with these records, if it is available. You may need to have your system inspected and/or pumped more frequently if it is older, an engineered system, in one of the situations mentioned in the “Unique Situations” section, or if recommended to do so by a professional.

        Efficient Water Use: Using water efficiently is another important aspect of septic system health. The less water entering the system, the less likely the system will fail. Conserving water extends beyond installing high-efficiency appliances and low-flow fixtures. Save water without a trip to the store by:
        1. Completely load dishwashers and washing machines before running them
        2. Use one water-based appliance at a time
        3. Reduce the number of times each appliance is used daily
        4. Fix plumbing leaks
        5. Take faster showers
        6. Turn the faucet off while brushing your teeth
        7. Use a basin to wash dishes

        Proper waste disposal depends on awareness of what goes down the sink and what is flushed down the toilet. Avoid the use of garbage disposals, as they can add up to an additional 50% of solid matter going to the septic system. This can result in more frequent pump outs. Similarly, do not let hot tubs drain into the septic system; they can overload the drain field. Water softener systems should also be kept from backflowing into the septic system as they can disrupt the biological community needed for wastewater treatment.

        Protecting the drainfield is the key to preventing the septic system from clogging, backing up, and becoming a source of pollution. Know and mark the location of the drainfield. Use the markings to ensure that no one parks or drives any large equipment over the area. Similarly, do not plant trees or install structures over the drainfield. Turfgrass is the most recommended plant for landscaping over a drainfield, but other shallow-rooted herbaceous plants would also be a safe choice. Finally, drainfields do not work efficiently when saturated with rainwater. Avoid using appliances like dishwashers and washing machines during storms. Also, try to divert stormwater runoff from the drainfield with gutters, ditches, rain barrels, or rain gardens.
      • Will using less water help keep my septic system healthy?
        Water conservation is an excellent strategy for keeping the septic system functioning as intended! Avoid having large amounts of water drain into the septic system at one given time. This will cause solids to push their way to the drainfield and form a clog. Reducing personal water usage each day helps decrease the chance of a clog occurring. Spreading chores that require the use of water throughout the day or week is beneficial.
      • Should I avoid using my garbage disposal out of fear of damaging my septic system?
        The use of garbage disposal should be limited. Most of the kitchen scraps that are ground up do not break down over time, which will cause clogs. Removal of such material will require pumping. Make sure to discard the majority of food scraps into a trash can. Do not pour fats, oils, and greases (FOGs) down the garbage disposal drain or any other drain that leads to your septic tank. They should be properly disposed of with the household garbage or recycled.
      • What should I keep out of my septic system?
        Keep biological additive products and other materials such as yeast, sugar, and raw meat away from the septic system. Similarly, avoid additives that advertise to reduce or eliminate regular pumping in septic systems. The bacteria needed for decomposition are already present in human waste and do not need to be added to the system.
      • What should I not flush down the drain or pour down the sink?
        Ideally, only wastewater and toilet paper should enter the septic system. Even if something is advertised as "flushable" it can still clog pipes and the septic system. Examples of items to keep from going down the drain include:
        • Paper towels
        • Wipes (flushable or otherwise)
        • Fats/oil/grease from cooking
        • Diapers
        • Liquid/chemical drain openers for clogged drains
        • Tampons/pads
        • Cat litter
        • Condoms
        • Coffee grounds
        • Dental floss
        • Medicine
        • Non-septic-safe household cleaners
        • Cigarette butts
        • Other household chemicals such as paint, thinners, oils, etc.
      • What should I do if my drains are clogged?
        If the sink, toilet, or other plumbing fixture is having trouble draining and the cause is a clogged drain, do NOT use a liquid, chemical, or otherwise caustic drain opener. These products can kill the bacteria in the septic system needed for its function. Instead, pour boiling water down the drain or use a drain snake. If that doesn’t work, call a licensed plumber for their professional assistance.

SEPTIC SYSTEM FAILURE

      • What are the signs that my system is failing?
        One of the major signs for septic system failure is sewage appearing outside your home and/or backing up into your home. Some indicators of failure before the major issues can be slow draining sinks and toilets, bad odors in your home or around your drainfield, and noticeably greener grass around the drainfield in comparison to the rest of the lawn.
      • What do I do if my system fails?
        A septic system has many factors that may cause its failure. They can range from inadequate maintenance to poor drainfield location to issues with your septic system design. That is why it is best to immediately contact a local septic service provider or seek help from a septic system contractor in your area. This will save you time and money when resolving your septic system issues.
      • Can I fix it myself?
        If you are planning to repair your own septic system, check with SCDHEC to see if you are allowed to do so. Many repairs will need the help of a licensed contractor. It is not recommended for residents and property owners to repair a septic system themselves. SCDHEC typically requires a licensed contractor to inspect, repair, and pump out septic systems. Septic systems contain noxious fumes, small spaces, and hazardous conditions. Septic system contractors have the training, equipment, and personal protective gear needed to do the job safely.
      • What are the consequences for not addressing septic system failure?
        Septic system failure can cost you money and affect your health and your community’s health. A failing septic system can allow untreated sewage to backup into your home as well as contaminate surface water and groundwater with harmful bacteria. Untreated sewage can also affect marine life in coastal areas. These contaminates are dangerous and a major health risk for both the community and our surrounding environment. Please free to contact your local SC DHEC Regional Office if you have concerns of a failing septic system.

UNIQUE SITUATIONS

      • What do I do if my area floods?
        There are steps to take to help protect your septic system before, during, and after a flood. By keeping your septic system properly maintained, you are ultimately better protecting your system from the stresses of a flood. If you are currently experiencing a flood and there is standing water on your drainfield, make sure to limit all non-essential water use. Once floodwaters have receded, contact a septic system professional to help assess any damage and establish next steps.
      • How do I prepare my septic for winter weather?
        Depending on where you live, you may experience winter weather that brings frequent snowstorms and freezing temperatures. Septic system owners/users can take proactive measures, such as installing additional insulation to a system to help protect plumbing from freezing. It is also a good idea to contact a septic system professional to help assess any damage that your system may have obtained due to harsh winters.
      • Why am I having issues with my septic system when it rains?
        When it rains, an overly saturated drainfield can cause your septic system to malfunction. It can cause your system to slow down or even stop the treatment process, which could result in your system backing up into your home. As a preventative measure, make sure that stormwater runoff from rain events or lawn irrigation is diverted away from your drainfield. Reduce the use of water-based appliances and reduce shower time during periods of heavy rain. Also, make sure to not have your system pumped during or just after heavy rain events; as pumping out an underground tank submerged in saturated soil can cause it to float.
      • Will my septic go out during a power outage?
        Depending on the type of system you have, it may or may not continue to work if the power goes out. If your system depends on electricity to operate, it will not be able to function properly if you experience an outage. On the other hand, gravity-based systems should operate normally. If your system is designed with electrical components, it is important to limit your water use during a power outage and you may wish to purchase a backup generator.
      • What should I do with my system AFTER a natural disaster?
        Whether you’ve recently experienced a hurricane, wildfire, earthquake or some other type of natural disaster, make sure to have your system inspected by a professional to ensure it is functioning properly. Visit this link from NEHA for helpful steps you can take as a septic system owner/user.
      • What if I live in a tribal community or reservation?
        Resources are available for tribal communities related to septic system management. One common practice observed is the use of a Responsible Management Entity (RME) to manage onsite wastewater for tribal communities. For more information on Responsible Management Entities, visit this website from the United States EPA.
      • What if I have a private well for a drinking water source?
        If your septic system is not functioning properly or is located too close to your private well, pollutants from your wastewater could end up in your drinking water. Make sure to follow state distancing guidelines to help prevent this from happening. For South Carolina, that distance is a minimum of 75ft between the septic system and well.

RESOURCES

ACRONYMS

    • Click to expand.
      • EPA - Environmental Protection Agency
      • SCDHEC - South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control
      • NSFC - National Small Flows Clearinghouse
      • WVU - West Virginia University
      • Clemson HGIC - Clemson Cooperative Home & Garden Information Center
      • NEHA - National Environmental Health Association
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Sources