Maintain Septic Systems

Whether it’s a septic system or a sewer system, everything that goes down our drains eventually makes its way into our environment.

Our wastewater (water that has been used for washing, flushing, manufacturing, etc.) directly affects the cleanliness and quality of groundwater and surface water in local waterways, the Neponset River, and Boston Harbor, impacting drinking water sources and environmental habitats.

Take steps to reduce wastewater pollution

  1. Replace harsh chemical cleaners with non-toxic, more environmentally-friendly products. Follow the directions on cleaners and use only the recommended amounts.
  2. Never pour medicine down the sink or flush it down the toilet!  To dispose of medication in your household trash:
    • Remove labels from containers.
    • Mix medicine (do not crush tablets or capsules) with dirt, kitty litter or used coffee grounds, and place in a sealed plastic bag before throwing away.
  3. Dispose of old medicine at a medication collection kiosk in your community. Call your pharmacy, fire or police department to learn where they accept old medicine.

Learn how your septic systems works – and maintain it!

Leaking and poorly maintained septic systems release nutrients, bacteria and viruses, which cause public health problems and environmental concerns. They are also very expensive to repair if you ignore them!

Click here to learn how septic systems work.

You probably never thought of it this way, but by cleaning and recycling our water, septic systems keep water local, and help to make our communities a beautiful place to live.

How to Maintain Your Septic System

Using a properly maintained septic system costs considerably less than paying annual sewer usage fees. However, when septic systems are not properly maintained, they can cost a bundle.

A septic system ignored for years is more or less guaranteed to cause water pollution and create big repair bills. You wouldn’t try to drive your car for 100,000 miles without an oil change. Yet without thinking about it, many people routinely dump ten years worth of waste into their septic system, and expect it to disappear. Septic systems are extraordinary devices, but they’re not magic.

This is why we advise you to follow these simple rules of septic system maintenance. Together, we can save money and keep the Neponset Watershed’s waterways clean and flowing!

Pump it out!

Keeping your system clean with regular pump-outs is the most important step in septic maintenance.

  • Most people should have a septic system contractor pump-out their system every other year.
  • People using garbage disposals and those with very large households will probably need to pump every year.
  • Very small households may be able to go 3 years between pumping.

Pumping is cheap insurance, so when in doubt, pump it out! Regular pumping will keep solids from spilling out of the holding tank and ruining the leaching field. It will also help you find and fix small problems before they become big headaches. Also, remember that chemical additives or septic system cleaners (despite advertisements) are no substitute for pump-outs; they don’t make solids disappear! The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection does not recommend using septic system additives.

Reduce Water Use

Household water conservation will make your septic system last longer, and reduce your water and energy bills. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Repair leaking fixtures.
  • Replace that 5-gallon toilet with a modern low-flow model (the new ones get the job done and are surprisingly cheap).
  • Install a stylish low-flow showerhead (you won’t run out of hot water in the shower, anymore).
  • When you buy a new washing machine or dishwasher, insist on a model with the Energy Star Label.
  • Don’t let the water run during teeth-brushing, shaving or dishwashing.

Hold the Garbage!

You can help your septic system get in shape by putting it on a low-solids diet. Here’s how you can send fewer solids down your drains:

  • Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket.
  • Avoid using a a garbage disposal, or better yet, don’t install one at all.
  • Watch out for certain foods, like cooking grease, that are sure to cause your system heartburn. Since grease is difficult to break-down in a septic system, collect it in a can and keep it in the fridge instead of pouring it down the drain.

Don’t Sterilize It

Beneficial bacteria are one of the keys to a healthy septic system; anything you put down the drain that kills bacteria also harms your septic system.

  • Try to limit your use of harsh chemicals and antibacterial products such as bleach, ammonia and drain cleaners. For example, spot-clean mildew in the shower with bleach instead of cleaning the whole shower using a cleanser containing bleach.
  • Clear clogged drains with a plunger, boiling water, or a drain snake rather than with chemicals. In one study, less than 12 grams of drain cleaner killed the bacteria in a septic system!
  • Finally, never put paint, motor oil, pesticides or other household hazardous wastes down the drain. Bring them to your Town’s Hazardous Waste Collection Day.

Map It

Map the location of your holding tank and leaching field to prevent damage to your system. Knowing where your system is can help you avoid partaking in activities that can block, crush, or crack system components. Knowing where your system is will also save you money on pump-outs and inspections!

  • Don’t drive across your septic system.
  • Don’t pave or brick over it.
  • Don’t plant shrubs or trees above it.
  • Don’t dig into it (for things like swimming pools).
  • Don’t block access to the holding tank.

Why Maintain Your Septic System?

Save Money

Maintaining your septic system is much cheaper than replacing it or installing a sewer. Proper septic system maintenance – generally consisting of a pump-out every other year – works out to about $130 per year, or $260 every other year, for a typical 1,500-gallon tank, including pump-out and disposal.

Protect Water Quality

Sewage from failing septic systems pollutes ponds, streams and wetlands, choking them with mats of algae and aquatic vegetation, causing fish kills and making swimmers and fishermen sick.

  • Failing septic systems can also pollute drinking water wells that you and your neighbors depend on for tap water.

Be in compliance

Under Massachusetts law, your septic system must pass state inspection guidelines before you sell your home. Consider that with proper maintenance, your septic system could last up to 30 years. Without maintenance, it can fail in 5-10 years. While minor repairs on a well maintained system are often inexpensive, the cost of completely replacing your system can reach from $12,000 to as high as $55,000.

A common reason that septic systems fail:

  • A system hasn’t been pumped in a while
    • Excessive solids will build up in a holding tank and spill over into the leaching field and plug up the soil
  • When we dump solids or liquids faster than they can be treated
  • When the water table is too high because of flooding or heavy rains
  • When tree roots start growing into the leaching field pipes
  • When bacteria die-off due to chemicals
  • When there is a crack or obstruction in the system

You might have a septic system problem if you notice:

  • Sewage or wet spots on the ground above the leaching field
  • Gurgling or slow-draining indoor drains
  • Plumping or septic tank back-ups
  • Sewage odors in the house or yard
  • Persistent problems despite pump-outs
  • Test indicating bacteria in nearby well water, streams or ponds
  • Build-up of algae and other aquatic vegetation in local waterbodies

Please schedule an inspection if any of the above occurs!

Learn how septic systems work.


The Sewer:  Where Your Waste Goes (MWRA)

All About Septic Systems (EPA)

Homebuyers Guide to Septic Systems (HIC)

Septic Systems, Explained (Suburban Property Inspections)

About Title 5 (MA Dept. of Environmental Protection)

Re-consider Your Chemical Use at Home (MWRA)