How Much Does It Cost to Clean a Septic Tank?

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If you have a septic tank, you know it’s part of one of the most important systems in your whole home. And when you have a septic tank, it’s essential to know that keeping it clean is one of the most important maintenance tasks to perform on a regular basis if you want to avoid costly repairs and unlivable conditions. To keep this system running smoothly, learn more about the proper cleaning and servicing of your tank, including the process, the costs and the varying maintenance tasks involved in keeping your septic system functioning properly.

How Do Septic Tanks Work?

A home with a typical sewage system has pipes leading away from the home that tie into the larger municipal sewer. These pipes are tied into the home’s plumbing, carry all of the home’s dirty water and waste away from the structure and transport it to a facility where the water is treated and cleaned. When you take a shower, do laundry or use the restroom, the water and waste leave through the pipes and enter the sewer system immediately. A septic system, on the other hand, is quite a bit different.

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In rural areas where there’s no municipal sewer system, homes often have septic systems. The waste and water that come out of the home empty into one or a series of tanks. In these tanks, the wastewater naturally separates itself into three layers. Heavier sludge sinks to the bottom, watery waste called effluent sits above that and a layer of fats and oils rests on top. A pump in the main tank sends the effluent up to a drainfield, where it filters down into the soil below the drainfield’s network of pipes, which have small holes for the effluent to escape.

Although bacteria work to decompose much of the sludge that remains in the bottom of the tank, they don’t work fast enough to prevent that sludge from building up over time. When the tank gets to be about one-third of the way full of sludge, it’s time for a tank cleaning to remove buildup and sludge, preventing them from filling it and causing damage.

What Happens During a Septic Tank Cleaning?

Septic tank cleaning is also called septic tank pumping because it involves the sludge layer getting pumped up out of the tank for removal. A septic pumping contractor has a specially designed truck with a vacuum system on it. They use this to suck up the sludge and deposit it into a large tank on the back of the truck, which they then use to carry the waste away from your home.

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When the contractor arrives for the cleaning, they start by accessing the septic tank through the top cover and inspection pipe. They may do an inspection of the tank to make sure it’s in good condition and verify that you do need to have the tank pumped. The pumping process begins with the contractor sticking a long tool called a muckrake down into the sludge layer of the tank. This angular, hoe-like tool has sharp edges that break up and agitate the sludge so it’s easier to remove. After spending a few minutes breaking up the sludge and mixing it with effluent, the contractor sticks a large vacuum tube down into the tank. Using the muckrake and the vacuum simultaneously, the contractor continues breaking up sludge and removing it through the tube until the tank is sufficiently empty. They’ll also clean filters that are inside the tank and may clean the pipes that lead to the drainfield.

When you need your septic tank cleaned, it’s best to hire a contractor who specializes in this type of maintenance to perform the job. In most places around the country it’s illegal to perform DIY septic pumping; the work is dirty, and it can be hazardous, health- and safety-wise, if you’re not licensed (or even experienced) in what you’re doing. The Environmental Protection Agency also regulates the disposal of the sewage sludge that’s pumped out of the tank, and there are special ways this waste needs to be transported, unloaded and treated. A trustworthy, licensed septic pumping contractor will have the specially designed truck and other equipment to get the job done safely.

How Often Should You Have Your Tank Cleaned?

When you’re using your septic tank regularly, it’s important to have it cleaned regularly. In general, the more bedrooms and bathrooms your home has, the larger its septic tank likely is — and the more people you may have living in the house. Even if the tank is larger, it may still fill up faster when more people are living there. 

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HomeAdvisor notes that having the tank pumped every three to five years is generally a good guideline to follow. However, it’s best to have an inspection done between every one and three years to ensure the tank doesn’t need to be cleaned more often (and to make sure it’s in good working condition). If you’re living alone and not putting much waste into the tank, you may only need to have it cleaned every nine years or so. But if you have a family of five, you may not want to go more than two years without a pumpout. An experienced contractor can help you determine what’s best for your tank, taking different elements into consideration.

Costs to Clean Septic Tanks Vary Greatly

A variety of factors can influence the cost of a septic tank cleaning, including the size of the tank, your geographic area, the number of people in your household and the length of time you wait between cleanings – more sludge could equal more intensive pumping and more waste to dispose of, which elevates the cost. According to HomeAdvisor, the average nationwide cost to pump a septic tank is $400, and the typical cost range is between $286 and $529. On the very low end cleanings may cost as little as $200, and on the high end they might run as much as $1,000.

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Other maintenance tasks can have separate costs. HomeAdvisor notes it’s typical to spend anywhere between $100 and $1,000 on average every few years on separate septic cleaning costs, such as changing tank filters ($100–$150), having the lines cleared ($150–$400) and inspection ($100–$500).