How does a conventional septic system work?

Conventional septic systems are the most common type of septic system (the others are innovative/alternative (I/A) systems and cesspools). A conventional system includes a septic tank, distribution box, and soil absorption system (SAS). The septic tank separates the solid and liquid wastes and the SAS provides additional treatment before distributing the wastewater to the ground. Additional details on septic system maintenance are also available.

Why are failing septic systems harmful?

Inadequately treated wastewater can transfer diseases such as dysentery, hepatitis, and typhoid fever to animals and humans. Failing systems also leak excessive nutrients and bacteria to rivers, lakes, and the ocean, destroying plant and animal habitat, closing beaches, and hurting the fishing industry.

How do I know if my system is having problems?

Some clues:

  • Muddy soil or pools of wastewater around your septic tank or soil absorption system.
  • Sewage smells around your system or inside your house.
  • Backups when you do laundry, take showers, or flush the toilet.

Call your local Board of Health if you notice any of these symptoms. 

Do I really save money by maintaining my system?

Yes. Pumping your system costs between $150 and $250, and an inspection could cost $200-$400. Replacing a system could cost up to $40,000.

What are the most important things to do to take care of my system?

Pump your system at least every 3 years (annually if you have a garbage disposal). Conserve water. Don't dump non-biodegradables or trash down your toilet or sink. See this list of dos and donts .

How often should I pump?

Every 3 years, and annually if you have a garbage disposal. To find septage pumpers licensed in your community, contact your local Board of Health.

Will additives help my system?

There isn't one on the market that can make a failing system pass inspection. MassDEP issues permits for septic system additives, but only to ensure that they will not harm your system or the environment. We do not evaluate the accuracy of claims manufacturers make about the effects their products will have on system performance. A complete list of additives allowed in Massachusetts is available.

What are the regulations governing the disposal of paint and paint wastes into a septic system?

Only sanitary sewage is allowed to be discharged to Title 5 septic systems. Paint and paint wastes should not be put into Title 5 systems because they can adversely affect their operation and may cause groundwater contamination.

Certain paint wastes may be hazardous and require special handling and disposal. Other paint wastes may be disposed of at local refuse disposal facilities. For additional information contact your local Board of Health.