Image Source: Produced by Agricultural Communications, The Texas A&M University System, EPA
There are two main parts to the basic septic system: the septic tank and the drain field.
Household waste water first flows into the septic tank where it should stay for at least a day. In the tank, heavy solids in the waste water settle to the bottom forming a layer of sludge, and grease and light solids float to the top forming a layer of scum.
The sludge and scum remain in the tank where naturally occurring bacteria work to break them down. The bacteria cannot completely break down all of the sludge and scum, however, and this is why septic tanks need to be pumped periodically.
The separated waste water in the middle layer of the tank is pushed out into the drain field as more waste water enters the septic tank from the house. If too much water is flushed into the septic tank in a short period of time,the waste water flows out of the tank before it has had time to separate. This can happen on days when water use is unusually high, or more often if the septic tank is too small for the needs of the household. Homeowners should stagger their laundry throughout the week and try to do no more than two wash loads per day.
When waste water leaves a septic tank too soon, solids can be carried with it to the drain field. Drain fields provide additional treatment for the waste water by allowing it to trickle from a series of perforated pipes, through a layer of gravel, and down through the soil. The soil acts as a natural filter and contains organisms that help treat the waste. Solids damage the drain field by clogging the small holes in the drain field pipes, and excess water strains the system unnecessarily.
Conventional septic systems are a very simple way to treat household waste water. They contain no moving parts and are easy to operate and maintain. Although homeowners must take a more active role in maintaining septic systems, once they learn how their systems work, it is easy for them to appreciate the importance of a few sound operation and maintenance practices.