Septic systems

In the flats one doesn’t need to think too much about were the stuff that goes down the toilet goes. Just flush it and thats pretty much it. Things are a little more complicated in The Canyon. Everyone has an on site septic system and before you buy you need to have it inspected to make sure its functioning. A faulty system can be a big issue in cost and time. It’s good to have some idea of how they work and what happens in during an inspection. 

I’m just going to give a basic introduction, for more information there are plenty of sites out there and I’ll recommend a few at the end of this article. 

Grey Water
In Topanga most toilets and kitchen sinks drain into a septic tank. Some homes have their grey water from bathroom sinks and showers and tubs go out to the garden. (My grey water article here). First of all it is good to know if the property you are interested in has a grey water system or if all the drains go to the septic tank. The less going into the tank the less stress on the system. 

Tank Size
Generally the larger the tank the better. It means that it can hold more and needs to be pumped less often. Sizes generally run from 750 gallons to 2000 gallons. Usually related to the size of the house and number of bathrooms. 

Kinds of Tanks
There are good old single compartment concrete tanks that are doing just fine. But the newer 2 chamber plastic tanks are very common. Some people will say the 2 chamber are better but from my research and ownership I have not found any particular benefit.

What does the tank do?
Everything goes into the tank and the solids settle down and the liquid rises and flows to the leach field or to pits. The tanks are sealed so there is very little to no air or oxygen, this causes what is called an anaerobic environment where micro-biotic breakdown occurs. Breaking down the solids into sludge. The sludge is pumped out every 5 years or so. 

Leach Fields and Pits
From the tank the liquids flow through a pipe that leads to either a leach field or to long deep pits usually about 2’ wide. Leach fields are usually just pipes with holes in it in a gravel bed below the ground a foot or 2. As the effluent (liquid in the tank) flows through the holes and leaches into the gravel field, microbes set to work to clean it all up. This is called the bio mat. Seepage Pits form bio mats along the walls of the vertical gravel filled column. Bio mats can get stressed by too much water caused by a leaky sink or toilet or over use. Also, since this is an organic life (microbial life) filled system, use of anything toxic like bleach or harsh cleaners is prohibited. There are many detergents and cleaners that have a “safe for septic systems” on their label. And those are the only ones you should use for laundry, dishwashers, and house hold cleaners. 

Inspection Time
First of all your inspector will take the lid or lids off of the tank and look. It’s a little smelly but worth taking a peek yourself. You want to make sure that there is nothing in there that isn’t organic matter. For example no baby wipes or plastic or anything. This would show that the system has not been properly used and indicate possible issues. Secondly, you want to look for little bubbles on the surface. The bubbles are our microbial friends doing their job.

Next the inspector will put a hose into the tank and down the outlet pipe to the drain/leach field, turn it on and see how well it drains. This is important and will show how well the leach line is working. It is not necessary to pump the tank to test this.
Be aware that pumping the tank before it needs it, disturbs the anaerobic process that breaks every thing down. Your inspector may want to pump the tank so he or she can take a look at the walls and make sure there are no cracks or any other structural issues. 

Filters
Some tanks have plastic washable filters that are an extra measure before the effluent goes to the leach line to keep any solids out and keep anything from clogging up the system. If there are filters, this is a good sign. Your inspector will look at the filters to see if they have been properly maintained. Generally they need to be cleaned every 6 months to a year.

Some basic terms 
Your local real estate agent should be well versed in septic inspection terms and procedures but it’s good just to have the basic turms and concepts so you can ask questions understand what’s going on.

Grey water-water from drains other than the toilet or kitchen sink

Septic tank- a holding tank buried in the ground either made of concrete or plastic.
Effluent- the liquid in the septic tank
Sludge-the solids in the bottom of the septic tank.
Anaerobic system- the use of bacteria that don’t require oxygen to live to break down organic matter.

Leach line- a perforated pipe system in a grave bed designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

Seepage Pits- are dug vertically into the ground to collect the effluent from the septic tank
Filter- a plastic device installed inside the septic tank before the outlet to the leach field to prevent small solids from clogging the the leach line.

For more in-depth information check out the links below:

https://www.epa.gov/septic/how-your-septic-system-works

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