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Septic systems

J. Brad Grieve

For the average new homebuyer, there is nothing more horrifying than the thought of buying a home with a septic system. This hidden, underground system seems to conjure up thoughts of backyards flooded with human waste or worse; backed up toilets.

A septic system is typically comprised of a tank that collects all the “black water” from the home. Black water is the common term for wastewater from the toilets that needs to be treated in the septic tank. The other wastewater from sinks, laundry and showers (tubs), is referred to as “gray water," which, in general, will not contain waste material (you know what I mean) that needs to be treated in the septic tank. In some homes, the gray water is separated and bypasses the septic tank to drain separately.

The septic tank itself is typically a two-stage tank that has a baffle wall between the two sides that allows transfer between the two sides via an opening near the base of the subdividing baffle wall. By making the tank a two-stage tank, it minimizes the amount of scum, solids or sludge that could drain out of the septic tank, prolonging the lifespan of the entire system. The effluent in the first stage of the tank usually has three distinct layers; at the top is the scum layer, at the bottom is the sludge layer and in-between is the layer of liquid effluent. The bacteria activity occurs in all three layers however, primarily in the liquid layer where natural anaerobic bacteria break down, degrade and decompose the waste products and convert many of the solids into liquid. This natural process converts the nasty aspects of the black water into more benign liquid that is drained from the septic tank.

In general, septic systems are similar to the rest of North America however; they do not use a drain field but rather an absorption pit. The absorption pit, which is also called a seepage pit or drywell, is an underground cavity, that is typically has an open bottom, walls with courses of staggered bricks (with openings between the bricks) and a top made of boveda (steel beams with the bricks arched between the beams, like ceilings of many homes here at Lake Chapala). The treated effluent leaves the septic tank to be absorbed into the ground surrounding the absorption pit.

Most areas here at Lake Chapala have soils with very good percolation (the ability of the soil to absorb liquid) and the systems remain active (bacteria and enzyme activity which breaks down the waste materials) year round because the underground soils layers remain relatively warm. However, there are areas with soils that have little ability to absorb or the natural water table is high, and limits the amount of treated effluent to be absorbed into the soil. Typically homes in these areas will have larger or various, absorption pits to provide more area of absorption, which will compensate for the low absorption rate of the soil.

The normal passive North American septic system will slow down through the winter months due to cooler temperatures and there is a greater potential for sludge to build up in the system. Also, the absorption pit is able to absorb liquid year round, whereas depending on the depth of the drain field, the soil temperatures in the rest of North America can affect the soil’s ability to absorb the wastewater.

Typically, the septic system here at Lake Chapala does not have an access panel since there is little or no need to clean the system. This is because they do not build up sludge quickly and have a long life cycle.

The best maintenance for septic systems is to add a product like “RidX,” which will add to and reinforce the bacteria colonies and enzyme activity to keep the septic system active, and hence “cleaner.” Avoid putting harsh chemicals such as chlorine bleach, drain cleaning products or meat by-products (i.e. fats, bones, etc) into the drains. These materials can kill the bacteria colonies or cannot easily be broken down by the bacteria.

Published or Updated on: February 14, 2008 by J. Brad Grieve © 2008
Contact J. Brad Grieve

J. Brad Grieve is a professional civil engineer who has lived and worked in the Lake Chapala area since 1994. He is the owner of Ajijic Home Inspections and you can be reach him by phone: (376) 766-2836 or e-mail.

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