A septic tank, the key component of a septic system, is a small scale sewage treatment system common in areas with no connection to main sewage pipes provided by private corporations or local governments. (Other components, typically mandated and/or restricted by local governments, optionally include pumps, alarms, sand filters, and clarified liquid effluent disposal means such as a septic drain field, ponds, or peat moss beds.) Septic systems are a type of On-Site Sewage Facility (OSSF). In North America approximately 25% of the population relies on septic tanks; this can include suburbs and small towns as well as rural areas. (Indianapolis is an example of large city where much of the city's neighborhoods are still on separate septic systems) In Europe they are generally limited to rural areas only.
The term "septic" refers to the anaerobic bacterial environment that develops in the tank and which decomposes or mineralizes the waste discharged into the tank. Adding a supplemental bacterial agent to the tank may accelerate the digestion of solids in the tank. Septic tanks can be coupled with other on-site wastewater treatment units such as biofilters or aerobic systems involving artificial forced aeration.
Periodic preventive maintenance is required to remove the irreducible solids which settle and gradually fill the tank, reducing its efficiency. In most jurisdictions this maintenance is required by law, yet often not enforced. Those who ignore the requirement will eventually be faced with extremely costly repairs when solids escape the tank and destroy the clarified liquid effluent disposal means. A properly cared-for system, on the other hand, can last for decades and possibly a lifetime.
Wastewater enters the first chamber of the tank, allowing solids to settle and scum to float. The settled solids are anaerobically digested reducing the volume of solids. The liquid component flows through the dividing wall into the second chamber where further settlement takes place with the excess liquid then draining in a relatively clear condition from the outlet into the leach field, also referred to as a drain field, or seepage field, depending upon locality.
The remaining impurities decompose in the soil, and the water is eliminated through percolation into the soil, and eventually taken up through the root system of plants or added to the groundwater. A piping network, often constructed in a stone filled trench (see weeping tile), distributes the wastewater throughout the field with multiple drainage holes in the network. The size of the leach field is proportional to the volume of wastewater and inversely proportional to the porosity of the drainage field. The entire septic system can operate by gravity alone, or where topographic considerations require, with inclusion of a lift pump.
An Imhoff tank is a two-stage septic system where the sludge is digested in a separate tank. This avoids mixing digested sludge with incoming sewage. Also, some septic tank designs have a second stage where the effluent from the anaerobic first stage is aerated before it drains into the seepage field.
Waste that is not decomposed by the anaerobic digestion eventually has to be removed from the septic tank, or else the septic tank fills up and undecomposed wastewater discharges directly to the drainage field. Not only is this bad for the environment, but if the sludge overflows the septic tank into the leach field, it may clog the leach field piping or the soil porosity itself, requiring expensive repairs.
How often the septic tank has to be emptied depends on the volume of the tank relative to the input of solids, the amount of indigestible solids and the ambient temperature (as anaerobic digestion occurs more efficiently at higher temperatures). The required frequency varies greatly depending on jurisdiction, usage, and system characteristics. Some health authorities require tanks to be emptied at prescribed intervals, while others leave it up to the determination of the inspector. Some systems require pumping every few years or sooner, while others may be able to go 10-20 years between pumpings. Contrary to what many believe, there is no "rule of thumb" for how often tanks should be emptied. An older system with an undersized tank that is being used by a large family will require much more frequent pumping than a new system used by only a few people. Anaerobic decomposition is rapidly re-started when the tank re-fills.
A properly designed and normally operating septic system is odour free and, besides periodic inspection and pumping of the septic tank, should last for decades with no maintenance.
A well designed and maintained concrete, fibreglass or plastic tank should last about 50 years.
Some pollutants, especially sulfates, under the anaerobic conditions of septic tanks, are reduced to hydrogen sulfide, a pungent and toxic gas. Likewise, nitrates and organic nitrogen compounds are reduced to ammonia. Because of the anaerobic conditions, fermentation processes take place, which ultimately generate carbon dioxide and methane.
The fermentation processes cause the contents of a septic tank to be anoxic with a low redox potential, which keeps phosphate in a soluble and thus mobilized form. Because phosphate can be the limiting nutrient for plant growth in many ecosystems, the discharge from a septic tank into the environment can trigger prolific plant growth including algal blooms which can also include blooms of potentially toxic cyanobacteria.
Soil capacity to retain phosphorus is large compared with the load through a normal residential septic tank. An exception occurs when septic drain fields are located in sandy or coarser soils on property adjoining a water body. Because of limited particle surface area, these soils can become saturated with phosphate. Phosphate will progress beyond the treatment area, posing a threat of eutrophication to surface waters.
In areas with high population density, groundwater pollution levels often exceed acceptable limits. Some small towns are facing the costs of building very expensive centralized wastewater treatment systems because of this problem, owing to the high cost of extended collection systems. Too often, the efficient and economical alternative of a properly-designed decentralized wastewater treatment system is not considered.
To slow development, building moratoriums and limits on the subdivision of property are often imposed. Ensuring existing septic tanks are functioning properly can also be helpful for a limited time, but becomes less effective as a primary remediation strategy as population density increases.
The common expression the grass is always greener over the septic tank (which is also the title of an Erma Bombeck book) is technically incorrect. The grass is greener over the leach field, which is better watered and has more nutrients than the surrounding land. However, it is not unusual to find better growth over the septic tank itself as well, particularly the end nearer the leach field.
Trees in the vicinity of a concrete septic tank have the potential to penetrate the tank as the system ages and the concrete begins to develop cracks and small leaks. Tree roots can cause serious flow problems due to plugging and blockage of drain pipes, but the trees themselves tend to grow extremely vigorously due to the continuous influx of nutrients into the septic system.
In an episode of the British panel show "Q.I.", Stephen Fry mentioned the neologism "listerine", from a mouthwash whose antiseptic properties made it suitable for rhyming slang use to refer to anti-Americans.
The term Honey wagon is a euphemism originally referring to a horse drawn wagon carrying a tank of liquid manure or sewage. Today a tanker truck equipped with a sludge pump to empty septic and conservancy tanks is also euphemistically known as a "honey sucker" or "honey dipper."
The term "stink pipe" is a euphemism originally referring to a vent pipe used to remove odour from the septic tank piping system.