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About one-third of Americans have a septic system treating the waste in their homes [source: American Ground Water Trust]. By design, these systems are fairly simple. All drains in the home converge to a single pipe that leads to the septic tank buried outside. When the waste water from your toilet, shower, sinks and washing machine leave your house, it’s combined. When it hits the septic tank, however, it begins to separate. The heaviest particulate matter in the waste, called sludge, sinks to the bottom. At the top of the tank, fats, oils and proteins form the floating scum layer. In the middle is the comparatively clear liquid layer called effluent or gray water. Combined, these components are called septage.
Septic systems are designed so that only the effluent is discharged from the tank into the drain field (also called the leach field). This is simply a set of pipes with holes drilled into them that release the effluent below ground (but above the water table). The effluent is degraded enough to be well-filtered by good soil. There’s plenty of organic material left in the effluent, though, which acts as fertilizer. This is why the drain field usually boasts the healthiest segment of the yard above it.
Simple as their design may be, septic systems require the homeowner to monitor them before problems arise. Usually, once a problem becomes obvious, it’s too late for any simple solution . Fixing big septic problems often requires thousands of dollars worth of parts and labor. Fortunately, a little maintenance can go a long way in avoiding problems.
Generally, commercial septic pumping involves a pump truck removing the sludge, effluent and scum in the tank and leaving the tank empty and ready to be filled again. Once the waste is removed, there are only so many things that can be done with it. Prior to federal laws that restrict septic sludge dumping, waste companies could simply bury it in dump sites. As it became clear that sites like these were a health hazard, they were outlawed. These sites remain, though many are in the process of remediation (clean-up).
These days, federal and state laws govern the final destination of the contents of your septic tank. In some cases, the septic contents are taken to waste treatment plants and added to the stew piped in from a municipal sewer system or delivered to independent, for-profit companies specializing in the treatment of septage. Septage may be treated in cesspools, which hold the waste while chemical or biological materials break it down into effluent [source: National Small Flows Clearinghouse]. Septage may also be dumped in approved landfills. The guidelines concerning septage dumping are strict and sites can be few and far between, however.