How Septic Systems Work
A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield (or soil absorption field).
The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. In conventional, or soil-based systems, the liquid (known as effluent) is discharged from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil. This area is known as the drainfield.
Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.
How a typical conventional septic system works:
- All water runs out of your house from one main drainage pipe into a septic tank.
- The septic tank is a buried, water-tight container usually made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. Its job is to hold the wastewater long enough to allow solids to settle down to the bottom forming sludge, while the oil and grease floats to the top as scum. Compartments and a T-shaped outlet prevent the sludge and scum from leaving the tank and traveling into the drainfield area.
- The liquid wastewater (effluent) then exits the tank into the drainfield.
- The drainfield is a shallow, covered, excavation made in unsaturated soil. Pretreated wastewater is discharged through piping onto porous surfaces that allow wastewater to filter through the soil. The soil accepts, treats, and disperses wastewater as it percolates through the soil, ultimately discharging to groundwater. If the drainfield is overloaded with too much liquid, it can flood, causing sewage to flow to the ground surface or create backups in toilets and sinks.
- Finally, the wastewater percolates into the soil, naturally removing harmful coliform bacteria, viruses and nutrients. Coliform bacteria predominantly inhabits the intestines of humans or other warm-blooded animals. It is an indicator of human fecal contamination.
View an animated, interactive model of how a household septic system works created by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority.