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Pencross Estates Phase III
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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Septic Systems, But Were Afraid to Ask...
Pencross Estates is in a unique situation as far as sewers are concerned, as we have no municipal sewer system and instead must rely on our own private septic tanks and drain-fields for waste disposal. Etowah has its own sewer system but it is smaller and not available to the whole township - just the closer, more populated areas. 

As such, our development has a separate septic and drain-field system for each building, meaning that Phase III has 4 buildings, thus 4 septic systems. It's important to know a little about septic systems, how they operate, and how to maintain them properly. The alternative could result in a nasty, smelly, emergency situation. I've seen this happen a number of times in the past due to the typical "out of sight, out of mind" mentality...

I've included some pictures and diagrams to help explain "everything you ever wanted to know" (yeah, right), or at least, everything you "should" know...

First, some preventative measures you should take to avoid a back-up:

  • Have your septic tank pumped out about every 5 years. Arrange this with the others in your building and split the cost which can average around $300 or so.
  • Be aware of what goes down your drains - avoid anything that is not biodegradable such as feminine products, coffee grounds, paper towels, facial tissues, etc. 
  • Use your garbage disposal wisely, keeping in mind that food waste does not biodegrade as quickly as human waste.
  • Feed and add bacteria to your tank by flushing down a product such as Rid-X each month - it's the bacterial action which breaks down the solid wastes.
A septic system, or "private waste disposal system" consists of 3 parts: the septic tank, distribution box, and drain-field.

The purpose of your tank is to separate the liquids from the solids and decompose the solids. As you can see in the drawing, your waste water enters the tank via your main sewer pipe, which is typically 4" in diameter and carries everything from all of your house plumbing fixtures out to the tank.

This waste water then flows through the tank via the baffle pipes shown, thus separating the liquids from the solids. The solids either float to the top or sink to the bottom. What flows out of the rear outlet of the tank is then just liquid, or "gray water waste."

This is where the bacterial action kicks in to "eat up" all the trapped solids. As shown in the drawing, the sludge can build up on the bottom over time, as well as the scum floating on top of the water in the tank. 

As such, the septic tank can become clogged and choked up over the years and end up causing a major back-up into your condo. This usually shows up first in the lowest fixtures to the ground, such as toilets, tubs and showers. Yuck! This is why it's such a good idea to have your tank pumped out on a regular basis for preventative maintenance.
Next in the line up is your distribution box. Its purpose is simply to accept all the gray water waste (without the solids) and distribute it to the various legs of the drain-field (see picture). 

Here's another reason to maintain your tank: if any of the sludge or scum builds up to a point where it is forced out into the drain-field, you'll have an awful mess on your hands. Now, along with having the tank pumped, you'll likely need a whole new drain-field system - a huge and expensive mess!

The purpose of the drain-field is to give all that water you're running and flushing a place to go. A common system will have about 3 perforated-pipe legs, with each one extending about 75 feet in length. How much pipe/drain-field depends on the size of the dwelling and how well the soil percolates, along with how much it absorbs and  how porous it is.

The method of size calculation is based on the number of bedrooms in a building (not bathrooms), figuring 2 persons per bedroom potential occupancy.
The next 2 pictures show a typical drain-field installation. Now you can visualize just how big they can be - and how much a job it would be to replace one! Costs will vary depending on size, soil conditions, accessibility, etc. An average cost could be between $4,000 - $6,000+ for buildings our size (2-3 units each). 

Another name for a drain-field is a leach-field. The pipes used are generally 4" in diameter and are perforated all along the bottom in several rows so the water can drain out. 

To help the water to drain/leach out of all the hundreds of holes, the pipes are laid in a leach bed filled with gravel. Then they are covered with a porous material to keep the dirt out and then the trenches are back-filled with dirt. Newer methods use pipes which already have their own "leach-bed" in the form of being surrounded with styrofoam pellets held together with a mesh material.  The idea is for the water to soak into the ground and be evaporated by the sun.

There are a couple of other ways in which drain-fields can fail over time. One is that the soil can simply become saturated and less porous. Think of it as like a huge sponge - once the sponge is full of water, it simply cannot absorb any more.

Another way is by root infestation. Naturally, tree roots are drawn to water for nourishment. If there are a lot of trees around, especially growing too close or even on top of a drain-field, failure is inevitable.
So there you have it - All the plumbing waste from your home flows outside through your sewer into the septic tank. The tank then separates the liquids from the solids and the solids are retained in the tank to be eaten (decomposed) by bacterial action. The remaining, treated gray water waste then flows out of the rear of the tank, into a distribution box, and on out into the drain-field to be soaked up and evaporated.

As a reminder, although all septic tank and drain-field systems are located buried in the common areas, they are the sole responsibility of the homeowners. As such, any maintenance, repairs, or replacements are to be paid for by you and your immediate building neighbor(s). 

Our development was built in the early 80's! Our systems are old. Therefore, treat them like an old car, with tender-loving care - so they don't break down....

Happy flushing,

~ Gary Phillips