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Septic tank maintenance: This article discusses the need, choices, and use of septic chemicals or bacterial or other septic tank additives, septic system restorers, and septic tank treatments for septic systems.
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Should you add septic treatment chemicals, nutrients, cleaners, bacteria, yeast, root killers, septic drainfield decloggers to septic systems? Generally, no. Why not? What causes septic system failures?
What do experts say about septic chemicals and septic treatments? Why do people use them? These questions are addressed here. Our page top photograph shows a collection of septic system additives, chemicals, cleaners, root killers, etc. for sale at a building supply store.
We make no specific representation about the efficacy of any of the particular products shown in the page top photo, but expert sources quoted in this article should be read carefully by any property owner considering adding a chemical, enzyme, or other product claimed to treat their septic tank or drainfield.
Comments and suggestions for content and citations of unbiased expert authority are welcome. Citation of this article by reference to this website and brief quotation for the sole purpose of review are permitted. Use of this information at other websites, in books or pamphlets for sale is reserved to the author. Technical review by industry experts has been performed and is ongoing - reviewers are listed at "References."
ARE Septic Tank ADDITIVES USEFUL? - Septic System Additives and Chemicals - are they needed?
Many septic treatment producers and distributors contact us with suggested products. We ask for independent, peer-reviewed, professional research supporting each suggested product. Such support is particularly needed for two reasons:
Septic tank additives or "rejuvenators" are not needed in your septic tank, whether the additives are chemically-based (organic or inorganic compounds that claim to break up sludge or scum or to unclog drainfields), or biologically-based septic additives (septic tank yeast cultures, septic tank bacteria, starter bacteria, or septic tank enzymes).
Watch out: While many septic and drainfield or soakaway bed treatments are relatively harmless combinations of bacteria and enzymes, some septic tank or septic drainfield additives such as yeast or harsh chemicals can actually damage the septic system and may also be environmental contaminants.
Even yeast, which one might think is harmless, can cause frothing and excessive activity in the septic tank, preventing normal settling of solids and coagulation of greases. This agitation forces solid waste into the drainfield and by clogging the soil, shortens its life. Other septic chemicals intended to kill tree roots or unclog clogged leachfield soils can contaminate the environment.
Can Some Conditions Kill Off Needed Septic Tank Bacteria? Do we need a septic tank "starter bacteria"?
If other conditions at a property have resulted in killing-off the (needed) septic tank bacteria (such as adding unusually large amounts of bleach, disinfectants, or antibiotics to a septic tank) some folks sell bacterial "starters" to "rejuvenate" the septic tank. This makes little sense for the following reasons:
Septic Tank PUMPING PREVENTS FAILURES - Authoritative Citations on Septic Tank Pumping, Failure Prevention, Additives
Pumping the septic tank regularly is the main thing that can and should be done to extend the life of your septic system. See SEPTIC TANK PUMPING SCHEDULE for details on deciding how often the septic tank should be cleaned. Details of a thorough septic tank pumpout, cleaning, and inspection are found beginning at SEPTIC TANK PUMPING PROCEDURE.
In general, septic system chemicals are not needed and are not recommended: Chemicals and other additives promoted to keep a septic system "healthy" or "free-flowing" or "nourished" are generally not required nor recommended by expert sources. The following references support this statement:
The view that chemical and other additives are not necessary, and in some jurisdictions are illegal, was held by information we collected from every U.S. state as well as Canadian sources.
See "Manual of Policy, Procedures, and Guidelines for Onsite Sewage Systems," Referring to Ontario Regulation 374/81 under part VII of the Environmental Protection Act, ISBN 0-7743-7303-2.
ONTARIO MINISTRY - Ontario, Canada, Ministry of the Environment, "9.4.1 Class 4 Sewage Systems, Construction, Operation, and Maintenance," May 1982.
Biological and chemical additives are not needed to aid or accelerate decomposition in conventional residential septic systems. In some jurisdictions such septic tank products, cleaners, root killers, grease dissolvers, etc. are prohibited by building codes, as the municipality is concerned for chemical pollution of groundwater and aquifers. Other products may actually harm the septic system. Some of my clients who added yeast to their septic tank regularly discovered that the yeast caused so much frothing in their septic tank that solids were forced into the leach field rather than settling to the tank bottom.
Opinions about what ought to be added to septic tanks to keep them "healthy" range from obscure possibility to ridiculous. At a class on this topic in Ontario an inspector insisted that a bacterial inoculation was needed in the septic tank whenever it was pumped. Nonsense.
There is plenty of bacteria left in the tank and entering it when it's used. Another inspector said he tossed a cat into the septic tank after cleaning. Although it was difficult to take such a comment seriously, he insisted that he was not kidding. Popular delusions and the madness of crowds has infected the onsite waste disposal topic as badly as the Dutch tulip craze affected gardeners.
Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems Special Issues Fact Sheet 1 EPA 625/R-00/008
Description of Septic Tank Additive Products
Because of the presence of significant numbers and types of bacteria, enzymes, yeasts, and other fungi and microorganisms in typical residential and commercial wastewaters, the use of septic system additives containing these or any other ingredients is not recommended.
The benefits of consumer products sold as septic system cleaners, degraders, decomposers, deodorizers, organic digesters, or enhancers are not significant or have not been demonstrated conclusively, depending on the product.
Some of these products can actually interfere with treatment processes, affect biological decomposition of wastes, contribute to system clogging, and contaminate ground water. The septic tank/soil absorption field system is the most commonly used onsite wastewater treatment system in the United States. It is relatively low in cost, has no moving parts, and requires little maintenance.
Septic tanks have a number of important functions, including:
There are three general types of commonly marketed septic system additives:
Odor control additives for septic systems: Other products containing formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde, quaternary ammonia, and zinc sulfate are advertised to control septic odors by killing bacteria. This objective, however, runs counter to the purpose and function of septic tanks (promoting anaerobic bacterial growth). If odor is a problem, the source should be investigated because sewage may be surfacing, a line might have ruptured, or another system problem might be present.
Canadian Ontario ministry statement 3(f)(ii) (above in this article) permits small amounts of chlorine bleach added to septic tanks as a measure for odor control. However we have not found supporting research for this view and in our OPINION that measure is not recommended because:
Phosphorous removers for septic systems: Another variety of consumer products is marketed for their ability to remove phosphorus from wastewater. These products are targeted at watershed residents who are experiencing eutrophication problems in nearby lakes and streams.
Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for aquatic plant growth and limiting its input to inland surface waters can help curtail nuisance algae blooms.
Aluminum (as alum, sodium aluminate, aluminum chloride, and activated alumna), ferric iron (as ferric chloride and ferric sulfate), ferrous iron (as ferrous sulfate and ferrous chloride), and calcium (as lime) have been proven to be effective in stripping phosphorus from effluent and settling it to the bottom of the tank.
An important side effect of this form of treatment, however, can be the destruction of the microbial population in the septic tank due to loss of buffering capacity and a subsequent drop in pH. Treatment processes can be severely compromised under this scenario.
"Yeast" which some of our clients like to toss into their septic tank is not helpful and may actually speed drain field failure by keeping the septic treatment tank contents in an agitated state. First, the aerobic or anaerobic bacteria that help break down sewage in the septic tank are not yeast, and don't need "yeast" as a food or for any other purpose.
More important, agitating a conventional septic tank so that the level of suspended solids is kept high will cause high levels of suspended solids to flow out of the septic tank, onwards to the drainfield where solids speed the clogging of the drainfield piping and trenches, thus reducing the life of the septic system and ultimately leading the the need for costly repairs.
Question: Question on the use of Yeast and Baking Soda in the Septic Tank
I was looking on the web for the ratio for yeast in the septic tank and come across your site "InspectAPedia.com" I grew up watching and participating in the contribution of yeast going into the septic tank from the sink and the out side at the access opening(that's what my dad would call it).
Knowing this and doing this has never really caused any problems in the past, at least not over a short time range (i.e. less then 3-5 yrs). Mind you as I don't do septic tanks or any kind of plumbing for a living, I'm just just noting that it wasn't always the case in my life time that yeast and baking soda were kept out of the tank, rather we put them in.
My question is: If in fact "yeast" tossed into a septic tank "agitates" the slug causing it to rise and "baking soda"( and other flocculants ) lower the concentration of suspended solids in septic tank effluent then why can't you use both? I'm no scientist either so bare with me. Is there a chemical reaction when the 3 are merged together? or does one just void out the other? - Mary & John
Reply: Skip the Yeast and Baking Soda additives to the septic tank
Ultimately, we have to return to these basic points: all discussed above in this article and elaborated here:
Baking soda in septic tanks:
Finally, baking soda and other flocculants are marketed as products that lower the concentration of suspended solids in septic tank effluent.
Theoretically, flocculation and settling of suspended solids would result in cleaner effluent discharges to the subsurface wastewater infiltration system.
Really? However, research has not conclusively demonstrated significant success in this regard. And the typical quantity that people would flush into a septic tank, a table spoon, or a homeowner sized box of baking soda is so dilute as to be irrelevant - and luckily, harmless.
So What Should I Put into the Septic Tank?
Use of Recycled Paper - Based Toilet Paper, US EPA Recommendation, vs. Septic Tank Enzymes
See TOILET TISSUE CHOICES where we address the EPA recommendation for recycled-paper content in toilet tissue. The EPA also provides a search engine to find suppliers.
To Maximize the Life of Your Septic Tank and Drainfield You May
Green link shows where you are in this article series.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about septic system and septic tank treatments, additives, or chemicals
Question: blocked drain between septic tank and drainfield
What can I do if the drain pipe to the gravel from the septic tank is blocked? - Karwan 7/20/11
Clearing a blocked septic drain pipe between the septic tank and the drainfield?
Question: septic tank leaked into the ground and is near a creek, what can I put into the soil?
My tank has leaked into the ground which is about 25 ft. from a creek. Is there anything I can put in the soil to clean up it up, that won't harm the creek? - Mike S. 9/26/11
Mike I'd do the following:
Question: Aerobic system producing excessive sludge
Hi - Great article. I am having an issue with my aerobic system producing excessive sludge that is floating on top of my tank. House and system are 5 years old and I have already pumped the tank 8 times. Sludge reappears within 2 months of pumping. We have adjusted the height of the pipe in the tank and have rebuilt the aeration unit. All contractors are stumped. What could cause so much sludge (bulked bacteria) to form?
Mike I'm not sure what's going on either.
I'm reluctant to suspect water chemistry and tend to suspect a design issue, presuming the usage and type of wastewater entering the system are normal. If it were a nursing home I'd suspect a problem with antibiotics.
Keep me posted.
Question: can I use Arm and Hammer Laundry Perfume and dye free powder in a graywater lagoon?
I am trying to figure out if I can use Arm and Hammer Laundry perfume and dye free powder in a gray water lagoon. The gray water system stays in a pond area and uses natural filters. This water only filters is never used again in watering or other uses. - Anonymous 10/20/11
If you are asking about using A&H laundry products at normal household usage levels it should not harm the lagoon system.
If you are asking about using such products to somehow "treat" the lagoon system, that would not be appropriate. Don't do it. If the lagoon smells, something is wrong with its design, use, or operation and maintenance that needs correction. A cover up of deodorant would be a mistake and risks contaminating the environment.
Question: should we use Rid-Ex each month to fix the effects of flushing baby wipes down the toilet?
We have incorrectly been flushing baby wipes down our toilets. When a septic cleaning company came to clean our septic they said we had this buildup in the tank. They suggested we use RIDEX 12 oz./month and clean it again in 1 year. After reading this article I am uncertain if this is the correct approach? Do you have an opinion? or other suggestions?
No, John. Using a root killer won't fix a problem in the septic tank. Pump the tank, check that the baffles are undamaged, and then use the system normally. Take a look at TOILETS, DON'T FLUSH LIST.
Question: Reader opinions on toilet paper and septic filters or lint traps
Do not put toilet paper or any other material except human waste in the toilet. Place garbage can in bathroom and place paper in the can. Dispose of paper with other household garbage. Will extend life between pumpings by years. Randy Green, 10/30/12
You can extend the life of your septic system by removing enough non-biodegradeable clothing fibers to carpet your living room each year by adding highly-technical lint traps that filter all the fibers from the washing machine discharge line. It is these non-settleable, drain field plugging fibers that you find adorning the landscape with spider web like features whenever you run into someone who has recycled his gray water for lawn and garden watering. - Sweetfilter 11/1/11
Reply: What's the difference in effect between toilet paper and fabric fibers in the septic system?
Randy, indeed in some countries it is common practice to keep a small, plastic lined waste container next to the toilet, into which used toilet paper and other wastes other than urine or excrement are deposited. I expect that keeping paper out of the septic system gives some added relief in areas where the system is of very limited capacity and perhaps where the water volume is lower than common in North America too.
But in normal use with a conventional septic system such as designs commonly used in the North America that does not appear to be necessary and I have not found an authoritative source that recommends it. If you or other readers come across such a reference be sure to let us know so that we can post it for others.
On the other hand, I agree completely with Sweetfilter that a septic filter that keeps cloth fibers and similar debris out of the septic system or even out of a drywell used to dispose of laundry wastewater and similar graywater is a great idea and will reduce soil clogging and extend the system life. See FILTERS SEPTIC & GREYWATER for details.
What's the difference in effect between toilet paper and fabric fibers in the septic system? Toilet tissue is claimed to break down into small enough biodegradable fragments that it does not add significantly to soil clogging in the drainfield. Illustrated in our photo (above left), we are running an ongoing test of RV toilet tissue and other tissues to see how they dissolve or break down in plain water and ultimately in water that contains the appropriate septic tank bacteria. See TOILET TISSUE CHOICES and TOILET TISSUE TEST.
Question: how do I choose the best treatment to keep my drains clear and to help my drainfield
The problem is that there are so many to choose from and I was hoping with your expertise that you could help me in the decision. I have narrowed it down to two and need to choose between them unless you know of something better.
Just an FYI, my system is almost 40 years old, not sure if that helps in your decision. I have narrowed it down to Rid X® and NewTechBio®. Can you please help me? - T.B. 3/6/2013
Reply: no septic additives are needed, nor recommended by experts
For a residence there are no regular-use septic treatments or products that you should be using in your septic tank or drainfield.
Worse, some of them are illegal in many states and jurisdictions (groundwater pollution issues) as you can read in the article above, and none of them is required for maintaining a septic tank or drain.
And worse still, also detailed in the article above, some of these products such as yeast-containing products, agitate the septic tank and shorten the drainfield life or even destroy it by pushing solids into the wastewater effluent.
Rid-X® is a combination of relatively harmless bacterial culture and some enzymes.
Disclosure: I too bought and used Rid-X® septic system treatment for many years when I owned my first home with a septic tank. The company would like you to dump a box of Rid-X® into your septic system every monty, by flushing the substance down a toilet. This treatment is without question good for the Rid-X ®company. But on reading the explanation from experts, it's easy to understand that it's not required nor recommended to use any septic tank treatments. While I continue to have affection for the company, I've gone cold turkey in the septic tank additive department.
Second would be to keep water such as from roof or surface runoff away from the drainfield.
At SEPTIC BIOMATS we include a section titled EXTENDING DRAINFIELD LIFE that may also be helpful to you in keeping that drainfield operating as long as possible. Frankly, as you report a 40 year old septic system I'm impressed that it is still working. That's a longer life than one would expect.
At SEPTIC LIFE MAXIMIZING STEPS we give ten steps that make giant strides towards keeping your septic tank, piping, drainfield and other components working as long as possible.
Question: adding a bioculture to a septic tank treatment?
Is there any criteria for addition of bioculture in septic tank treatment? - S.D. 11/21/2013
Yes, as discussed in the article above, there is absolutely no need to add bioculture to a septic tank. The best of these products do no harm, even though they are unnecessary and do not help. Worse, some such treatments are harmful, and in many jurisdictions, septic tank additives are illegal. Normally, even after pumpout and cleaning, there is adequate bacteria starter in a septic tank for it to work properly.
Even in a brand new septic tank, the first flush of wastewater into the tank and drainfield initiates the procedure. No additives are necessary. No expert, unbiased source, says otherwise. At InspectApedia in our septic system articles in the References section you will see citations of authoritative sources. To be generous to the bioculture sales companies, there are indeed cases in which the septic tank bacterial colony may be harmed.
An example is a septic tank serving a nursing home. In some such cases, the high volume of antibiotics entering the septic tank can kill off the necessary tank bacteria. However, in such cases, adding an after-market product such as a bioculture is futile. It too will be promptly killed off. A different wastewater processing design may be needed in such special cases.
A second example is the flushing of quantities of chemicals into the septic tank; (normal usages of laundry detergents and bleach are not an issue). In such cases the wastewater effluent becomes an environmental contaminant and tank bacteria may be harmed or killed off. In this case as well, adding a bioculture is not a functional solution; rather, ceasing the improper disposal of chemicals into the septic tank is required.
Finally, there MAY be some packaged wastewater treatment system designs that require certain chemicals or preparations in regular maintenance, but this does not describe standard septic tank and drainfield installations nor aerobic septic systems.
Questions & answers or comments about drain cleaners and septic tank or drainfield chemicals or treatments for regular or maintenance use. .
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Technical Reviewers & References
Septic Tank Chemicals & Additives - US EPA List, References, Products
Design Manuals for Septic Systems
Onsite Wastewater Disposal Books