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Septic Tanks & Leach Fields:
A septic system should last for decades - but only if it receives more attention than it normally gets.
Construction, Operation, Maintenance
The following information comes from several sources, primarily Clear Creek County Environmental Health and Columbia Sanitary Services™. The article's fairly long: here are links to the internal topics:
Bold-faced terms (below) are defined in the "Glossary".
A septic system consists of the following items:
- septic tank, which is primarily a settling tank for solids, allowing grey water and organic scum to float to the top, begin decomposing, and eventually drain off to the leach field.
- leach field, which filters the effluent and introduces it into the soil.
- associated piping (normally PVC).
The following basic requirements should be understood by the homeowner:
Clear Creek County requires a permit, a soil percolation test, construction only by licensed contractors, and several onsite inspections to assure that these and all technical requirements are met. (Most requirements are actually state law; see citation to Colorado Revised Statutes under "Resources".)
- Size of tank and leach field determined by number of bedrooms. [The county checks leach field capacity before issuing building/remodling permits.]
- Tank must be located below the outlet pipe from the house; leach field must be below the septic tank.
- The septic tank must be at least 200 feet from any well.
- No heavy equipment should pass over the leach field or the pipe from the septic tank to the field. (Strict constructionists say don't even allow horses.)
- Leach field soil must be porous (but not too porous).
There are only three basic maintenance requirements, all important:
Some sources recommend monthly treatment with bacterial agents such as SepticTreat. "Household Operations" (below) contains guidelines that require daily attention.
- Pump regularly (every 1-4 years, depending on use.
- Keep heavy objects off the leach field.
- Don't introduce items directly into septic tank (including antifreeze and the legendary pig's head).
There are several items here, most of them common sense:
A trash compactor is a real plus: it helps keep disposal use to a minimum.
- Don't put bulky or non degradable items (grease, hazardous chemicals, napkins, cigarette butts, coffee grounds, eggshells, bones, etc.) down the garbage disposal or toilet. (Note: Standard household cleaners are OK, but biodegradable ones are better.)
- Limit disposal use, even if items are "acceptable".
- Don't overuse water.
Proper septic design, use, and maintenance will cut your costs considerably and eliminate the possibility of contaminating the neighborhood water supply - two things you should value highly.
An important warning: septic problems don't show up immediately; by the time you know you have a problem, easy and inexpensive solutions are normally in the past.
Q: How often should I pump the septic tank?
A: Every 1-4 years, depending on use. (Small families pump less often.)
Q: What happens if I don't?
A: Sludge builds up, overflows into the leach field piping, and causes serious damage.
Q: What are the worst things to allow into the septic system?
A: Items that won't biodegrade: grease, hazardous chemicals, and cigarette butts are probably the worst; but there are many, many other items: coffee grounds, eggshells, bones. Over a couple years, the buildup can be tremendous. Two aspects you might overlook: standard household cleaners (they kill the bacteria), and non-degradable toilet paper. Anything inorganic will have to be pumped.
Q: Will extra water will help flush the system?
A: No! The more water that's used, the more that must be treated by the system. In fact place the leach field where spring runoff is limited, and where storm drains won't discharge water onto the field.
Q: How important are bacterial treatments?
A: Very important. They decompose (eat) the solids, clean clogged openings, and coat the pipes so buildup doesn't recur.
Q: What causes leach field failure?
A: The two main causes are (1) sludge from the septic tank spilling over into the leach field pipes and clogging them, and (2) heavy equipment on top of the leach field compacting the soil or breaking the PVC pipes.
Q: How do I prevent those?
A: Prevent the sludge by limiting what goes down the toilet, by regular use of bacterial treatments, and by regular septic pumping. Prevent the compaction by placing the leach field out of expected traffic and then keeping heavy items off it.
Q: What are the first signs that something's wrong?
A: Odor and backup. If either occurs, take immediate action: the problem is already much too far advanced.
Q: Where can I obtain biodegradable cleaners and septic treatments?
A: Many hardware stores have them, and most septic tank maintainers also sell them.
Q: How do I find septic maintenance?
A: The Yellow Pages has them listed under "Septic".
absorption field. Another name for leach field.
bacteria. The organisms that break down septic solids. You want the "good" kind, that don't cause disease.
grey water. Household waste water, excluding the toilet (bath, dish water, laundry, etc.).
organic/inorganic. Organic material is derived from living things and will normally decompose; inorganic never will. Material that doesn't decompose builds up, requiring more frequent septic tank pumping.
percolation test. A required test of the leach field soil to determine that it is porous enough (but not too porous) to filter the grey water.
PVC. Polyvinyl chloride, the component of most septic piping. It has many advantages, but is brittle, making it susceptible to damage from heavy weight.
- Clear Creek County Environmental Health (303/679-2335)
- Columbia Sanitation Services (303/526-5370) mails information free of charge.
- Colorado Revised Statutes (CRS 1973, 25-10-111(2).
- Septic Information Website (www.inspect-ny.com/septbook.htm)