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How to Keep Your Off Grid Septic System Running Like New

Updated: Jan 3

An old outhouse in a field. An old-fashioned off grid waste system.

Photo credit: Robert Linder on Unsplash

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Waste is one of the things you need to manage on your own when living an off grid lifestyle. Without access to a city sewer line, you’ll need to decide how you plan to dispose of those bathroom unmentionables no one likes to talk about.

Whether your off grid septic tank system uses a solar powered pump or is a gravity fed system, you’ll need to care for it to keep it healthy and functioning properly.

Types of off grid waste disposal

When you’re disposing of waste off the grid, you need to consider the number of people in your household, weather conditions (it’s harder to compost in freezing weather), and your local regulations.

When I was little, we had an old-fashioned outhouse back behind our cabin in the woods. It was bad enough having to use it during the daytime, but using it at night with only a flashlight to light my way was absolutely terrifying!

Spiders took up residence in every corner of the foul-smelling little wooden shed, and I used to imagine what kinds of monsters lurked in the bottom of the hole.

Back then, everyone had an outhouse in remote locations. At least, all of our remote neighbors did.

It’s not as simple to build an outhouse on your property nowadays—composting toilets, outhouses, pit privies, and other types of off grid toilets are highly regulated and usually require a permit.

If you’re like me, you’d rather use a combination of methods to dispose of different types of waste and save water at the same time.

I prefer to reuse gray water for our plants (this may also require a permit depending on your state or county regulations), compost our biodegradable leftovers to rebuild the soil in our garden, and save our septic system for black water only.

Gray water (or greywater) is from laundry, showers, and sinks and can be used to provide water to your landscape or to flush toilets.

Black water is from the toilet (ew!) and cannot be reused.

Reducing the amount of water that collects in your septic system can help keep your septic tank healthy. But did you know that the types of cleaners and chemicals you flush into your septic can either support or destroy the bacteria that break down waste inside the system?

Here are some do’s and don’ts for keeping your septic system running like new.

Do this ...

Conserve water

Wastewater that goes into your septic tank separates into three layers: greasy stuff floats to the top (scum layer), heavier solids sink to the bottom (sludge layer), and water runs in between these layers and goes out into the leach field (aka, drain field).

Bacteria in the septic tank gradually break down the scum and sludge layers over time.

But if too much water is continually flushing through the system, some of the scum or sludge can also get pushed out into the leach field before it’s broken down, clogging the field and backing up the system.

You can reduce the amount of water that goes into your septic system by turning off the water when you brush your teeth, taking shorter showers, installing a water-efficient toilet, and using a gray water system to redirect and reuse shower and laundry water.

Use your garbage disposal sparingly

Remember those layers we just discussed? Excessive use of your garbage disposal can add too many solids (and too much grease) to your septic tank. Try composting kitchen scraps instead of using the garbage disposal in your sink.

Keep your septic lid closed

Open septic lids are a safety hazard. Keep them tightly closed to prevent people, animals, or objects from falling in.

Direct rainwater (and water from your roof) away from the drain field

Water can saturate the leach field, whether it comes from household use or natural rainfall. Use gutters to direct rainwater away from the drain field, and make sure your landscaping encourages water to flow away from it, too.

Plant trees away from the septic system

Tree roots can wreak havoc on a septic system. Large roots can puncture a septic tank, crack the pipes, and clog the drain field. To avoid this, plant trees at least 100 feet away from your septic system.

Pump the tank when needed

If your scum and sludge levels get too high between maintenance, you may need to have the tank pumped more frequently. If you notice an unusual odor, see new pools of water outside, or if multiple household drains become slow, it might be time to call your local septic service provider.

Maintain and inspect your system regularly

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that most households should have their septic system serviced every three years. But it’s a good idea to perform septic tank maintenance yearly.

The septic inspector should give you a copy of the maintenance notes so you can keep a record of how high your scum and sludge levels are. The inspector will also check for leaks, determine how well your leach field is draining, and recommend any needed repairs.

Don’t do this …

Don’t use bleach, drain opener, or harsh chemicals

Millions of tiny little microbes break down solid waste and keep your septic system running smoothly. The health of these tiny bacteria determines how quickly and efficiently solids can be broken down and flushed out into the drain field.

Harsh chemicals like drain cleaners, bleach, and chemical disinfectants can kill these healthy bacteria and put the brakes on your waste disposal.

Instead, choose septic-safe products or cleaners with environmentally friendly, natural ingredients.

Don’t flush toxic chemicals

Hazardous waste, like paint thinner, gasoline, nail polish remover, and motor oil can pollute groundwater. Dispose of these liquids in a safe and environmentally friendly way instead of flushing them down the toilet or pouring them down the sink.

Don’t park vehicles over the septic system

Just because your septic system is underground doesn’t mean it’s strong enough to handle tons of weight on top of it. Driving heavy vehicles over your septic system or parking on top of it can crack the tank, break lines, and compress the layers in your drain field.

Don’t flush hygiene products or other non-dissolving materials down the toilet

Have you ever had to unclog a plugged toilet because someone flushed something that wasn’t flushable? Just like toilets, septic systems can get clogged, too.

Don’t flush feminine hygiene products into your septic system, and use lightweight toilet paper (it dissolves easier). Don’t use your septic system as a garbage can, either—this not only wastes water but can put undue stress on the balance of your septic system.

Throw those squished spiders away instead of flushing them!

One final note

Part of living a sustainable lifestyle means being a steward of the land. You are responsible for what you produce and the waste products you create—and how you dispose of them.

If you have a healthy septic system, you can effectively dispose of organic (bodily) waste. By utilizing a variety of systems to eliminate household waste and wastewater—such as installing a gray water system, composting kitchen scraps, and conserving water—you can keep your septic tank healthy for years to come.

Want more off-grid ideas and essential skills? Check out all our posts in Unplug!

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