What’s All the Stink About Septic System Inspections?

Local experts want to help give longevity to your underground sewage treatment plant, because what you’ve got working now is the least expensive option.


Septic systems are the unsung heroes for homeowners on the Key Peninsula.

They work tirelessly and discreetly handling nature’s call, and until something nasty happens, they’re often not given a second thought.

Though it’s important they are out-of-sight, local experts want to make sure septic systems aren’t out-of-mind.

Your Own Personal Wastewater Treatment System

For a complex system of tanks, pumps and pipes, septic systems have a pretty simple job: “Floaters float and the sinkers sink. All the liquid in the middle is pulled away and treated,” said Robert Suggs, an environmental health specialist for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. The most common septic systems on the Key Peninsula are gravity and pressure systems. Gravity systems are less expensive, but that doesn’t mean your property can support it.

Dirt Matters

If you’re building a home, the soil on your property helps septic designers determine the right system. Deep, undisturbed course soil is best. Gravity systems need about 48 inches of good soil for the drain field — about 36 inches below it and 12 inches on top. That’s a little tougher to find on the KP. Pressure systems are good for 36 inches of good soil (24 inches below and 12 on top). There are other options, but the rule of thumb is generally: the shallower the soil, the more expensive the system.

Tom Purdum from American Septic Design in Wauna said the soil in areas like Palmer Lake is ideal for gravity systems, but if you’re building a home in Lake Minterwood’s shallow and finer soil, be prepared to pay for a pressure system.

Purdum urged buyers to do research before getting a piece of property. He said it’s worth the investment to do soil tests to make sure the property can support an affordable septic system. “It’s cheap insurance. Otherwise, you’ll end up owning an expensive campsite.”

Maintenance is Key

Septic systems don’t have a life expectancy, but maintenance can be key to their longevity. Suggs says regular maintenance every three years, including pumping as needed, can extend a system’s life by one-third (see “First Cycle of Septic System Inspection Program Concludes in June,” KP News June 2023). Septic companies like Hemley’s in Gig Harbor can look at your system above ground and below ground, from the tank to the drain field, to make sure everything is settling or moving as it should.

“A well-maintained system can last for decades,” said Hemley’s owner Jerry Hemley. “Failed systems can pose threats to clean water and healthy ecosystems.”

There’s Financial Support To Help

Maintenance is important but can be pricey. TPCHD is ready to help those in need. Filling out a 10-minute form could help get $125 off routine inspections, $125 off riser installation, $200 off tank pumping, and up to $500 off for minor repairs. Show a septic company the approval letter and that amount will come off your bill. TPCHD reimburses the septic company directly.

Who You Gonna Call?

A plumber or a septic company? That depends. If something just isn’t going down the drain that may be a job for a plumber. If sewage is coming back up through other drains (check the lowest drain in your house – usually a bathtub), that’s a septic issue. “If it gurgles and burps, or makes funny noises, that’s telling you there isn’t enough air in your plumbing lines,” said Suggs. “That’s giving you a hint that something bad is coming.”

Educate Yourself

If you’re buying a home or if you don’t know what kind of system you have, get your septic system “as-built” at www.tpchd.org. The as-built is essentially the blueprints and map of the system.

According to Hemley, it’s common for homeowners to build patios or add sidewalks over their septic tank without realizing it.

Shannon Grina, a horticulturalist, and owner of Grina Landscape Design in Gig Harbor, said she looks at the as-built before starting any design job. Her goal is to make sure her designs add to the longevity of the systems while also making it accessible.

Gut Health

“A septic system is like your stomach,” Hemley said. “The more that goes into it, and the more stuff you put in that doesn’t belong there, the more it’s going to get upset.” Keep common household items like bleach, grease and fats, feminine hygiene products, coffee grounds, paint, paper towels and medicine from going down your drains. As for septic-safe wipes — there’s no such thing, so don’t flush them down. 

Rental Home Owners: Beware

Renters are some of the top offenders for putting stuff down the drain that shouldn’t be there. Hemley said rentals are where they see some of the bigger problems, especially during the pandemic when there was increased use of baby and antibacterial wipes.

“If it can be flushed, we’ve found it,” said Hemley, whose family has been operating the business locally since 1962.

The Root(s) Of All Evil

Keep trees at least 30 feet away from your drain field, but the further the better. Trees any closer should be cut down, but not removed from the ground. You don’t want to disturb the soil or cause damage to your system. Any plant with an aggressive root, especially during dry summers, goes looking for water and food. Septic systems have both readily available. “Once one root finds it, he’ll tell all his friends and they’ll all come over for dinner. You’ll have a big problem,” Suggs said.

Keep It Pretty, While Keeping It Practical

Grass is best for a drain field. Yes, it’s likely in the sunniest spot on your property and, yes, it’s like an underground sprinkler, but Grina said that doesn’t mean it’s ripe for a vegetable garden. In fact, don’t do that. There are pathogens in drain field soil that you don’t want in your food. Plus, plants like vegetables and annuals need a lot of water, something your drain field doesn’t.

Don’t put any fertilizers or weed killers near your drain field that may kill beneficial microbes in the soil. You also don’t want to put down any weed barriers or bark that stops oxygen from helping bacteria do their job.

If you do get the itch to plant something other than grass, Grina recommended shallow-root shrubs, a wildflower garden or just some ground cover plants.

As for those eye-sore green lids and white caps that pop up above ground, hide them with a lavender garden, ornamental grasses or any shallow root perennial that can spread out and cover the lids. You can also cover them with lightweight cobble rock.

 “Don’t just do what you think will look nice or else you’ll have problems,” Grina said.