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Septic Systems - SSTS

Subsurface sewage treatment systems (SSTS), commonly known as septic systems, are regulated by Minnesota Statutes to protect the public health and the environment through adequate dispersal and treatment of domestic sewage from dwellings or other establishments generating volumes less than 10,000 gallons per day.

Septic System Care

Proper septic system care and maintenance is vital to protecting public health and preserving valuable water resources. Failure to maintain and service a home’s septic system can lead to system back-ups and overflows, which can result in costly repairs, polluted local waterways, and risks to public health and the environment.

Homeowners should have their system inspected every three years by a licensed contractor and have their tank pumped when necessary, generally every two to three years.

By taking a few small, simple steps to care for their home’s septic system, homeowners can help protect the health of their community and their local waterways, while preventing potentially costly repairs to their septic system that can occur if the system is not properly maintained.

Many septic system failures occur during the winter holiday season, so the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is recommending homeowners to get their septic systems inspected beforehand by a licensed contractor before problems occur.

Put only things in the drain or toilet that belong there.

When we’re talking about septic system care and water resources, we shouldn’t be squeamish. What does belong in a septic system? Urine, feces, toilet paper (preferably that labeled as septic-friendly), other bodily fluids. If it’s not those things, or pretty closely related to those things, it doesn’t belong in the septic.

Things to Avoid

Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain, which can clog a system’s pipes and drain field.

Avoid coffee grounds, dental floss, non-TP paper products, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, liquid fabric softener (use fabric sheets in the dryer), cigarette butts and cat litter; these can also clog and potentially damage septic systems.

Avoid Bleach, Antibacterial soap, and Drain cleaners (More below under Working Bacteria).

Do not walk, park, or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.

Remind your guests of these cautions as well.

Working Bacteria

Maintaining the condition of the working population of bacteria in your system is generally not a first consideration in choosing the products we use. But the use of bleach, antibacterial soap, and other disinfectants can reduce the levels of the friendly bacteria necessary for the biological digestion processes that take place in your septic system. Even pharmaceuticals can disrupt the 'good' bacterial when flushed down the drain. And they can get into the groundwater. Check with your local pharmacy for proper disposal. A safe disposal bin is also located on the first floor of Ely City Hall.

House hold cleaners are generally safe to use when you have a septic system but drain cleaners are NOT! Even a small amount of drain cleaner can kill friendly bacteria needed for a functioning septic system.

Be water efficient

Be water efficient and spread out water use. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day. Too much water at once can overload a system if it hasn’t been pumped recently.

Winter Months

Getting your septic system ready for winter is critical. Let the grass grow. Extra grass length captures snow thus providing additional insulation. Again, be sure that foot, animal, and vehicle paths are NOT going to cross the connecting pipes or the mound. Fence it off if necessary. Mound some straw on vulnerable areas such as where the pipes exit the house.

If you close down your system and do not use it during the winter months, be sure that toilets, toilet tanks and U-traps under sinks are thoroughly drained. Using some (RV, not automotive) anti-freeze in those spots is a very good idea. Check the labels on the antifreeze you purchase. It must be safe for septic systems. Check with your plumber about the possibility of using an air compressor to 'blow-out' your plumbing system. Have your holding tank pumped before winter. If left full but not used during winter the sewage will get very cold, even freeze. Cold sewage will cause problem in your spring start-up. However, do not pump the tank in the fall and leave it empty over the winter which makes it more susceptible to freezing.


The EPA’s SepticSmart program encourages proper septic system care and maintenance all year long, helping to educate homeowners about the need for periodic septic system maintenance and proper daily system use. In addition to helping educate homeowners, SepticSmart also serves as an online resource for industry practitioners, local governments, and community organizations, providing access to tools to help educate their clients and residents.