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Homeowners in a rural setting typically pump their water from wells and remove their household waste with a septic system. While pumping water is an easy concept to grasp, many potential home buyers have little knowledge about septic systems, how they work and what it takes to maintain one. Here’s a primer.

Waste water.  In rural areas, it’s up to homeowners to dispose of their household waste through a septic system. Usually gravity fed, the system drains from the house through a pipe at some degree of downhill slope toward a large tank buried underground near the house. The tank is a water tight box with a capacity of 1,000 gallons or more.  The drainage coming from the house goes in one side and water flows out the other. Inside the tank, oils and grease will float to the top, solid wastes settle to the bottom and water called effluent drains into a system of buried perforated pipes that make up a drain or “leach field,” where the soil absorbs it and microbes eat the waste content.

The drain field must be capable of adequate drainage of the effluent water, and bedrock cannot be too close to the surface. Before buying  a piece of property, have the soil examined by the county health inspector to make sure it will support a standard septic system.  The inspector will conduct what is known as a percolation or “perc” test to determine the absorption rate of the soil for a leach field.

In most areas of the country, the system must be installed by a government-approved company and during construction the system must be inspected by the county health department.

A basic gravity fed drainfield system will cost $5,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live. If you must have an alternative system due to poor soil conditions, the cost can be as much as $15,000.

Maintaining your system. On a day-to-day basis, homeowners living with a septic system must use precautions to keep drain fields from clogging. Grease and household chemicals should not be poured down the drain. Sanitary napkins and tampons should not be flushed down the toilets. “Septic safe” easily degradable toilet paper should be used. On some systems, a “grinder pump” may be needed to turn solids into a slurry capable of flowing from the house to the tank. Homeowners must still take precautions, however, because a motor burn-out can be a $3,000 repair.

The size of a tank will depend on the number of bedrooms in your house, using a two-person per bedroom formula. Maintenance of the septic system is an ongoing cost. Typically, a septic system disposal company should be hired every two to three years to clean out the solid waste build-up.