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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Pump Septic Tanks Regularly For Effective Operation

LAS CRUCES -- "Out of sight, out of mind" may describe some homeowners' attitudes about their septic systems. Unless something goes wrong, they usually don't think about the importance of pumping the septic tank to keep it working properly.


A septic system has two components: the tank and the drain field. "The tank receives waste water from the home, allows solids to settle out and treats the water before sending it on to the drain field," said Marsha Wright, water quality specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "It acts like the strainer in a kitchen sink, keeping solids from plugging the pipes of the drain field."

When the tank accumulates too much sludge, it may not have enough room to treat the water and remove all solids before draining to the drain field. "This can cause unpleasant odors and puddles of untreated water on the surface of the drain field," Wright said. Once the drain field becomes clogged, it may never recover. A full tank also could cause sewage to back up through the system into the home.

Untreated waste water exposes people and pets to organisms that cause a variety of diseases including cholera, typhoid and hepatitis.

To avoid these problems, Wright recommends that homeowners have their septic systems professionally pumped every three years. "If there are a number of people living in the home, the volume of waste water is increased and the tank may need pumping more frequently," she said. Using a garbage disposal also adds to the amount of solids that enter the tank.

Often when homeowners see the signs of septic problems -- waste water puddling on the drain field surface -- their first reaction is to add some sort of enzyme to the septic tank to help clean out the clogged areas. "However, most additives have been found to be ineffective and can even be harmful to the bacteria that break down wastes in septic tanks," Wright said. "Regular pumping is the best way to keep septic systems working properly."

New Mexico homeowners can expect to pay about $100 to have a 1,200-gallon septic tank pumped and the waste disposed. "In some areas, disposal costs may be higher," Wright said. "To replace a clogged drain field would cost several hundred dollars, so it's best to prevent future problems by having the septic tank pumped regularly."

To find a reputable pumping service, homeowners should check their local yellow pages or talk with neighbors who have septic systems. Wright cautions that homeowners should not try inspecting the system themselves. "Septic tanks do accumulate toxic gases and can be very dangerous," she said.

If waste management problems are caused by a septic system that malfunctions or is too small, homeowners may need to contact a septic maintenance service to diagnose the problem.

For more information, see Guide M-113 "Septic Tank Maintenance" available at your local county Extension office.