Frequently Asked Questions

The answer to this question depends directly on how the household uses the system. Variables such as the number of people residing in the home, garbage disposal use, age of the system, how often additional people are in the home (i.e., having company or hosting frequent events), etc. affects how much solid waste accumulates in the septic tank.

On the average, the septic tank should be cleaned every two to three years. The service provider onsite should be able to give you a more customized recommendation once they have cleaned the tank.

However, if you have a garbage disposal, then the septic tank should be cleaned annually.

Per the law, all cleaning must be done through the maintenance opening, typically a 28-inch in diameter manhole-type cover. Most are concrete and may be difficult to move, though many modern maintenance openings are plastic.

Cleaning through this opening allows the service provider to move the pumping hose over the entire bottom of the tank, removing all the solid waste accumulation. This is opposed to cleaning through the raised, white ventilation stacks common in septic covers, which are purposed mainly for inspections. Pumping through these stacks will not result in a completely clean tank.

The service provider can also inspect the inside of the tank for any cracks or infiltration problems, such as roots, as well as checking to be sure that the baffles are in place.

The location of the maintenance hole cover will vary by tank manufacturer. However, the cover typically will be located either in the center of the tank or there will be a cover at each end of the tank. Your Installer may have a location map or your local unit of government may have a location map, often called an “as-built.”

Septic tanks are not designed to be empty. When a tank is pumped, the main goal is the removal of sludge and solids. Any water typically stays in the tank and slowly makes its way into the process of local treatment.

As wastewater (sinks, showers, flushing) is discharged from the house, the tank will fill back up in a short amount of time and then begin to trickle-flow into the next tank or to the treatment area, depending on what type of system you have.

The rate at which the tank fills up depends on the gallons-per-day that are discharged to the tank. When onsite sewage systems are sized, one of the factors that is included in the calculation is projected gallons-per-day of water used. The standard applied is 150 gallons per day per bedroom, or 75 gallons per day per person. This daily use takes into consideration water use for entertaining, food preparation, personal hygiene, laundry, dishwashing, etc.

Contrary to popular belief, the alarm on your lift station is not a signal to have your septic tanks cleaned. The alarm is alerting you that the lift station pump is not pumping effluent up to the treatment area, meaning the water level in your tank is rising to undesirable levels.

This can be caused by a failed float switch that is not turning the pump on, a pump that has directly failed, or a loss of electrical power to the lift station. If your circuit breaker is in the “on” position and the pump does not work, your septic service provider can repair the problem or direct you to another ISTS professional who offers this service.

 Minimize your water use until the repair can be made. 

Usually, a system in consistent use each day will not freeze unless there is a mechanical problem, such as a sagged drain line.

Another common problem is leaky water fixtures like a dripping faucet or a high-efficient furnace that drips condensation into the system. This very small volume of water cools and freezes before it reaches the septic tank.

The easy solution is consistent use of hot water, either from the kitchen sink or a shower.

Still, some Minnesota winters can freeze tanks and drain lines even under steady use. Typically, this is because the tanks and lines in question are inside the frost layer, only a few feet under the ground. 

If your building is inhabited year-round and your system is seeing constant use, plenty of hot water each day can keep ice from beginning to form. For example, run the dishwasher each night, even if it’s not full.

If you’re only there on weekends, make sure your septic system is covered with hay, leaves, or a cement-blanket. This will insulate your system and keep the frost to a minimum. If you are only here a few weekends in the winter, you could have your tank emptied late in the fall and use your system like a holding tank during the winter.

There are now several types of heating systems that can be used in septic systems depending on your needs. Ask your service provider for their recommendation next you have your tank cleaned.

Here’s the Northland Septic Top Ten list:

1. Have your tank cleaned and inspected every one to three years. 
2. If you can’t eat it, it shouldn’t go into the septic system. 
3. Use water consistently throughout the week, spread out laundry, showers etc.  
4. Keep brush and trees from growing in the drain field area. 
5. Have a filter installed in your septic tank. 
6. Do not use additives in your septic tank. 
7. Keep vehicles and heavy traffic off of the septic system. 
8. Check all water appliances, make sure nothing is dripping. 
9. Keep manholes above grade to prevent water runoff into the system and allow 
access for inspection & maintenance. 
10. Rotate and rest gravity trenches & flush out/clean pressure laterals.

Most research studies have shown that the products do not help your system and in many cases actually add mass to your septic tank.

Most toilet paper is ok. However, wet wipes, flush wipes, and paper towels should not be flushed.

It’s important to remember that the flushing process doesn’t stop at the toilet. The question isn’t whether an object will make it through the pipes without getting stuck, but whether the object can be broken down by your septic tank’s bacteria. In many ways, a septic tank is like a digestive system, so a good rule of thumb is “could my own stomach handle this?” 

Antibacterial soaps and cleaners are very popular. However, they diminish or kill the “bugs” in your tank, weakening the biological treatment that is supposed to take place there. When a septic tank’s organic balance is severely upset, waste can be transferred out into the drainfield, causing clogs.

In short, occasional harsh substances are fine but consistent use is not recommended. 

We often find people have “hidden” their septic tank and drainfield with trees and deep-root shrubs. While this may improve the visual appeal of the lawn, it can prove catastrophic for the system.

Trees and plants love water, especially such nutrient-rich stuffs as can be found in septic. Because of this, roots find even the tiniest voids, cracks and leaking joints to invade your system, putting septic tanks, drainfield laterals, drop boxes, and pipes all at risk of becoming plugged.

This is why it is important to cutback brush and trees off of the drainfield and tank area. If allowed to become overgrown, merciless vegetation will create a need for repairs to fix areas of the system that have been damaged by root intrusion, ranging from minor rootering to full-scale system replacement. 

Garbage disposals are not bad for systems, so long as they are accounted for in the original design and management of the system. Many homeowners will install garbage disposals on an existing kitchen without updating their septic to handle the added load. Garbage disposals add organic mass to the tank, so the design process calls for a 50% increase in the volume of tanks, as well as a filter or divided tank.

From a management perspective the filter should be cleaned annually and the tank cleaning will be needed usually twice as often as a system without a disposal.

Here’s Northland Septic’s top three:

1. Lack of maintenance. Many people believe that if a septic system isn’t backing up, it must be fine. 
2. Using more water than the system is designed to handle.  
3. Using your septic system as a garbage can. Paint, grease, left over medication, oil, and other nonorganic waste should never end up in a septic system.

We use a high pressure, hot water system called “jetting” to open frozen septic and water lines. Most systems can be opened in 1-2 hours.

Living in Minnesota means even well-cared for systems are at risk of freezing, making it especially important to have an outside access to the septic lines through a cleanout or septic tank inlet baffle. Without these, a service provider may be forced to enter the line through the tank or by removing a toilet.