Septic System Basics

Many homeowners rely on a buried and poorly understood on-site septic system to treat and discharge hundreds of gallons of wastewater and solids leaving their homes each day. Because the system is out of sight this often equates to out of mind. However, like it or not, if your home is not connected to a public sewer system, you are the manager of a wastewater treatment plant.

If you think your septic system simply takes care of itself, think again.

For both health and economic reasons, it is important to understand the basics of how your septic system operates. By learning how to properly use and maintain your septic system, you can keep it operating at peak performance and maximize the useful life of this important and expensive home system.

A few minutes exploring the resources below could save you thousands of dollars. A basic understanding of the design, operation, and maintenance requirements of a typical home septic system can help a home owner to protect this sizable homeowner investment. At the same time, how you use and maintain your septic system can help protect the health of your family, the health of your broader community, and the quality of surface and groundwater in your watershed.

Septic systems can fail due to improper design and installation, mechanical failure, inadequate capacity, and a lack of required maintenance, which includes the need for periodic pumping. Please do yourself and your neighbors a favor by taking a few minutes to explore what is happening underground in your yard. With some basic knowledge and by taking a few simple actions, a knowledgeable homeowner can keep their waste water treatment plant operating at peak efficiency, protect a sizable investment, and help to protect the health of their family and the environment.

Basic Information

A great place to start is a well written and concise 15 page EPA brochure. It is a good idea to print the brochure and ask all family members to learn about basic septic system operation and maintenance.
A Homeowner’s Guide to Septic Systems

Additional Information Resources

Alternative Systems

Some older systems would not meet current capacity and location requirements. Fortunately, many new approaches to waste treatment continue to be developed in response to lot limitations including proximity to water bodies, overall lot size, unusual slopes, and other home lot and soil challenges. Below are a few links to explore, if you believe that you have a challenging situation for a new or replacement system. Many innovative/alternative systems are available, and many have been approved for use in the State of New Hampshire. For more information, visit

The bottom of the left hand menu at the following commercial site provides some concise descriptions of major types of alternative septic systems.
Septic Alternatives

General Notes of Interest

If You Believe Your System is Failing or Has Issues – It is most often the case that a quick response to a problem will be the least costly response. Therefore, if you think you may have a problem, you are probably better off dealing with it quickly by hiring a professional to assess your system needs and options. Septic system issues are much like toothaches. They are unlikely to get better or go away without the help of a professional.

Drinking Water Considerations – Often, homeowners with on-site wastewater treatment also have private wells. Poorly designed, located, or operating septic systems will impact the quality of both surface and groundwater. Therefore, doing all that you can to treat wastewater properly can be important to the quality of your drinking water over time.

Locating Your Septic Tank – If you do not have a detailed installation drawing, professionals can find your septic tank for inspection based on their knowledge of where and how systems are typically sited. Alternatively, a homeowner can usually locate the septic tank by observing where the main drain passes through a home foundation. Another way to easily locate the septic tank is to be on the lookout for the first area where snow cover has melted in the spring. Heat from septic tank biologic processes will likely melt snow from below as the sun and air have melted the snow from above. Be sure to mark the location with a stake to provide a septic professional with a head start when they come to inspect and/or pump the tank.

Frequency of Inspection and Pumping – Septic system literature varies in the frequency of recommended inspections and pumping. Relative to inspections, you need to understand that some things of a mechanical and biological nature can go wrong with your septic system, and that only an inspection may detect some of these problems while they are still correctable. For example, a broken baffle that keeps top floating scum from flowing freely into a leach field may not be a big problem when detected and repaired quickly. Alternatively, scum flowing freely into the leach field will ultimately clog the field and cause the system to fail. Therefore, most literature recommends inspections every couple of years to make sure that the septic system is operating properly and efficiently. The need for pumping can be determined during a routine inspection. The need for pumping is related to several factors such as system age and design, usage patterns, the types of materials being put into the system, and the level of solids that has accumulated. A professional inspection and assessment will provide a homeowner with a recommendation as to the appropriate frequency of both inspection and pumping.

If You Believe Your Neighbor’s System is Failing – Due to both health and environmental issues, it is appropriate to discuss such a concern with your neighbor. Perhaps the neighbor is unaware of the need for routine maintenance and you will be doing them a great service by pointing them to some of the above links. Experience with education and outreach programs across the country has shown that most homeowners will begin to properly maintain and upgrade their systems to remedy a problem when provided with the right information. If neighborly conversation fails and action appears necessary, a formal complaint may be filed with the Town or State DES.

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