On-site wastewater systems: Tips to avoid system failure

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Last week, the eUpdate featured an article on the two main on-site wastewater treatment systems – septic systems and lagoon ponds. While wastewater systems can last many years with proper maintenance, on occasion those systems will fail. Failure can mean wastewater backing up into the house and it can also be water standing in the lateral field. These failures can happen for a variety of reasons, such as abuse, overuse, or when tree roots get into the pipes or from heaving as the result of settling over time.

Tips for good system function

  • Install risers to the surface from the inspection ports and access manholes to facilitate inspection and maintenance.
  • Inspect and pump the septic tank as needed, typically every 3 to 5 years.
  • Remove trees and shrubs within 50 feet of the dispersal field or install a structural root barrier.
  • Before and after field construction, avoid animal pens, traffic, or heavy equipment on and downslope from the dispersal field area. Soil compaction from frequent use and heavy equipment reduces permeability and causes premature field failure.
  • Do not install the dispersal system in wet soil. Compaction and smearing often result from working wet soil. This reduces permeability and causes early system failure.
  • Assure that dispersal laterals are level and allow wastewater to reach all parts of the field. Settling, frost action, or trees can cause shifting that may overload a part of the field while another part remains part dry.
  • Install an inspection port for each lateral to enable easy checking of dispersal.
  • Measure and mark on a permanent map the location of the tank and dispersal laterals for future reference.
  • Prevent runoff onto the dispersal field from impervious surfaces (buildings, pavement, etc.) and adjacent areas. The extra water on the field increases the wetness and may contribute to system malfunction or failure. Downspouts from gutters are good to route into a lagoon, but for a septic system with a soil dispersal field (lateral lines), it would be best to divert that water elsewhere (away from the dispersal field).
  • Maintain healthy, perennial, cool-season grass over the dispersal field.
  • Use water-saving fixtures and habits. Low-flow toilets, showers, dishwashers, clothes washers, and water-conserving habits can substantially reduce wastewater flow and extend the life of underground systems.
  • Examine current and past water bills to evaluate usage. The average maximum water use is about 75 gallons per day per person. If water use increases drastically for no obvious reason, it may indicate a leaky faucet or toilet. This wastes water while increasing costs and hydraulically overloads the system.
  • A septic tank ahead of a lagoon reduces solids accumulation and delays required solids removal; however, the tank should be pumped periodically (See Septic Tank Maintenance, MF947).
  • Maintain a non-climb secure fence around the lagoon for the safety of people and animals.
  • Remove tall vegetation at the lagoon edge and inside the fence, and trees within 50 feet of the lagoon.


More information about on-site wastewater systems is available in publications from K-State Research and Extension, including:

Onsite Wastewater Systems — Overview

Site and Soil Evaluation for Onsite Wastewater Systems

Selecting an Onsite Wastewater or Septic System

Septic Tank Maintenance – A key to longer system life

Why Do Onsite Wastewater (Septic) Systems Fail?



DeAnn Presley, Soil Management Specialist

Tags:  wastewater septic systems soil management