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The Damage Done by a Poorly-Maintained Septic Tank

It's all too easy to take a fully-functioning, operational septic tank for granted. Until your on-site sewage treatment system runs into difficulty, you might not appreciate the extent of the problems you'll face. Failing to keep your septic tank properly maintained - and emptied at regular intervals - not only risks problems for the environment, it can create significant additional expenditure. Should you be required to upgrade your sewage system, or repair damage to your soak-away, it may involve a sizeable investment.

Image of sewage waste

Problems with your septic tank

In many cases, the first sign there is a problem with your septic tank will be the appearance of a noxious sewage smell. You won't be able to miss it. Soon enough, your drains may slow down, toilets will back up, and drinking water tests may reveal contamination. It is possible that the grass around or over the system will become unusually green, or effluent will pool on the surface above the tank.

If you spot these symptoms of a damaged or overflowing septic tank, you've possibly left it too late to prevent major sewage problems. Preventative maintenance - including the regular pumping of solids from the tank - is essential in order to keep the system in proper working order. This isn't necessarily a pleasant task, but it's one that cannot afford to be overlooked.

Of course, septic tanks do not have an unlimited lifespan, although we would expect a good quality septic tank to last between 25 – 35 years. Raw sewage has the potential to corrode some of the divisions over a long period of time, which can cause leakage. This is because, as sewage decomposes, it can turn into hydrogen sulphide and then sulphuric acid, which can attack the interior of the tank. If a septic tank is not emptied annually, then solids will cling to the inside walls, over time this will build up adding additional stress which may cause the divisions and walls of the septic tank to fracture and ultimately fail.

Can I discharge rainwater into the septic tank?

Most certainly not. Septic tanks have only been designed to deal with incoming raw sewage and grey water from domestic or commercial properties. If you combine your sewage and rainwater drainage then you will simply overload the tanks handling capacity, meaning that it will have no other option but to discharge untreated sewage into your soak-away system.

What are the environmental risks?

Contamination of the ground surface is a key environmental risk if you fail to keep your septic tank properly maintained and in full working order. If the tank overflows and effluent escapes onto the ground, there are all manner of health dangers. As well as adding nitrates and phosphates to the soil, overflow from the sewage system can contaminate the ground and water supplies with dangerous viruses and pathogens. Anybody who comes into contact with the effluent is then at an increased risk of picking up diseases and falling ill.

As the operator of a septic tank, you are required to comply with the Environment Agency's general binding rules regarding registration and maintenance of the system. One of the key responsibilities is to ensure regular inspections are carried out and the tank is properly maintained. Tanks should be emptied at least once a year. Operators who fail to meet their obligations could face enforcement action, including fines.

What are the costs of poor maintenance?

Even without considering the risk of financial penalties, failing to invest in septic tank maintenance is a false economy. The money saved by allowing solids to build up inside the tank and overlooking the need for repairs - where applicable - can pale into insignificance when compared to the cost of decontaminating land and returning a damaged tank to a fully operational state. The worse condition the septic tank is in, the greater the investment needed to bring it up to standard.

If your septic tank does overflow, this can lead to indirect financial losses. If the sewage system is on commercial premises, it may be necessary to close up until maintenance has been carried out, which can lead to loss of revenue and also customer goodwill. If people are on-site when problems arise, the smell from the tank may be enough to dissuade them from visiting your premises again in the future.

Keeping your septic tank fully maintained

To avoid potential problems with your septic tank, there are a number of best practice guidelines to follow. As well as pumping effluent from the system at regular intervals, you should take several steps to protect the drainage field. It is important to avoid driving over the septic tank or building on the ground above it, while trees should not be allowed to take root in the immediate vicinity. Additionally, rainwater should be diverted from the field where possible, to reduce the risks of flooding, which may bring liquids which originated in the system to the surface.

Items flushed down toilets and drains will go straight into the septic tank, so it's important to keep these to a minimum. The more nappies, paper towels, tampons, tissues and cigarette ends that enter the septic tank, the quicker it will fill up and the greater the risks of environmental damage and increased maintenance costs.

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