Flush It and Forget It: A Recipe for Disaster

By Leslie Corcelli

I grew up in a house with a septic system. It was a wonderful home, built by both of my grandfathers. Although that was some years ago, I vividly remember that we, like most folks, flushed it and forgot about it – until it backed up into our basement, which served as our playroom.

Back then, my father’s approach to plumbing and building maintenance issues was to bring a hammer. He is a brilliant attorney and CPA, but not so well versed in plumbing and mechanical systems. My mother was even less versed, but perhaps a bit more practical about hammers. Suffice it to say, had either of them known that septic systems require regular maintenance, the basement would never have backed up with what we kids called “the nasties.”

Even these days, none of us likes to think about what happens to our “stuff” when we flush. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to flush it and forget it. It’s gross to think about and awkward to talk about. You can’t make friends at parties talking about wastewater – believe me, I’ve tried.

It’s more complicated now, too, than when I was a child. There are myriad cleaning supplies, hygiene products and flushable wipes that are detrimental to both septic and sewer systems. But, we can’t ignore it. We need to take action to prevent “the nasties” from entering our homes and yards, and from affecting the environment. It’s a health risk.

Our septic program has several tools and some simple “dos and don’ts” to help us wade through the murky waters of septic maintenance. These tools and tips can save us money and protect our health.

  • Toilets aren’t trash cans: Don’t flush anything besides human waste and toilet paper.
  • Inspect and pump frequently: Have your septic tank professionally inspected at least every three years and pumped every three to five years.
  • Use water efficiently: All the water a household sends down its pipes winds up in its septic system. The more water a household conserves, the less enters the septic system. Water conservation improves the system’s operation and decreases the risk of failure.
  • Maintain your drainfield: Your septic tank has a drainfield to remove contaminants from the liquid in the tank. Never park, drive or plant trees on it, and keep roof drains and other drainage systems away from it.

Please, don’t flush it and forget it! Visit our Proper Care page to learn more about septic maintenance. You’ll be glad you did.

About the author: Leslie Corcelli is an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) research participant in the Sustainable Communities Branch of EPA’s Office of Wastewater Management. Leslie has a graduate degree in environmental science and policy, and lives in northern Virginia with her partner and a menagerie of rescue animals.