How Does Your Septic Work?

Many people are familiar with the concept of a septic system but are unsure what it means or how it works. A septic system is a self-containing waste treatment system.  The main tank can be made of plastic, fiberglass, or concrete. Instead of being connected to sewers, the waste enters the system and moves through a series of piping. Throughout the process, it is treated by microorganisms and filtered to the point where it is safe to release back into nature.

How the Septic Tank Works

First Compartment

A septic tank is typically made up of 2 compartments and a drain field. The first compartment is also known as the ‘solids’ compartment. When the waste enters, it naturally separates into 3 sections: sludge, wastewater, and scum. The sludge, aka the solids, settle to the bottom. Microorganisms then begin to decompose the waste. These bacteria and enzymes also help remove pollutants and other contaminants.


The scum layer is made up of materials that don’t belong in the system. This includes things like grease, oils, solids, anything that is lighter than water. They float to the top of the tank and form a thick layer of ‘scum’. It is best if the scum remains 3 inches below the outlet baffle. Once this layer becomes too thick it can be forced through the system and create clogs. This is why scum levels can be a good indicator of the health of your tank.

Second Compartment

As the first compartment fills up, the liquid is pushed into the second compartment. Once again, the bacteria and the enzymes work at breaking down any solids that have transferred from the first compartment. Here, the microorganisms have more time to fight the contaminants and there is more time for the layers to separate. As the second compartment fills up, the wastewater is then forced through the effluent filter and out to the drain field.

Effluent Filter

The effluent filter is the last defense before the drain field. It is placed on the output baffle and is meant to catch any remaining solids that have made their way through the system. This will occasionally cause clogs. If you experience slow drainage, be sure to check your filter. During maintenance, it is also a good practice to remove and rinse the filter. Not all tanks have an effluent filter. The older the system, the less likely there will be one.  

Drain Field

The drain field is the final section of the waste treatment. It is also known as a tile bed or a leach field. Once the wastewater has made its way through the system, it is dispersed through a series of pipes. These pipes are spread out over a large area and are perforated in order to evenly spread the waste. It is then filtered through layers of sand and soil. This will remove most of the harmful viruses and bacteria. This filtration works for natural waste; however, it cannot remove chemicals. This is why it is important to be careful what goes down the drain and keep your septic in good health.

Pump Chamber

Pump chambers will be a part of your septic system when a gravity fed layout doesn’t work. They are there to push the waste upwards and can be placed between the home and the tank or the tank and the drain field. A pump chamber does require power. Once the waste reaches a certain point it activates the pump which begins pushing the matter up through the system. It is important to check your pump annually to ensure that there are no broken parts, and everything is working smoothly. This chamber will have its own access point and should be pumped during regular maintenance.

What About Septic Pumping?

Even though microorganisms are working at decomposing the waste, it is still important to get your tank pumped. This will keep the sludge and the scum at a reasonable level, allowing your tank to continue functioning properly. It is recommended that the septic tank is pumped once every 3-5 years, depending on usage and size of the tank. Even if the tank is only being used seasonally, it is best to pump within those guidelines. If the tank is not pumped regularly, the sludge begins to harden. This will lower your overall tank capacity and its effectiveness.


A septic system has many components that work together to treat the waste. Decomposition and filtration work hand in hand to remove harmful bacteria and viruses. Once the waste has been through the system, it is safely returned to the ground.

In light of this, it is important to keep chemicals out of your drains. It is also important to pump out your septic system every few years. This, along with many other good practices, will keep your septic system thriving for years and your environment safe from contamination.

To learn more about your septic system or portable toilet rentals, visit our website or other blog posts! Remember, keeping your septic healthy includes regular pump outs. Call today to book your appointment!

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Call of the Wild Sanitation

May 6, 2024

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