When I was a child, I was fascinated by the round cement circle that sat on top of a mound of dark green grass in our backyard. Every once in a while, my father would lift up the thick gray disk and look down into the hole underneath it.

On occasion he would announce “it’s time to call for the honey wagon!” A big truck with a tank on the back would show up a couple of days later and drive on to the side yard until it reached what Dad called the cesspool. A huge hose was dropped down and then the awful odors would begin to waft through the air until the pumping was finished and the cover was dropped back on top of the chasm.

I had the courage to look one day and all I could see was dark liquid moving around inside a cement brick-walled cavern. We were lucky because our neighbors used an outhouse that couldn’t be pumped and it always smelled bad in there!

How The Septic System Works

Wastewater from your sinks, toilets and tubs flow into the septic tank or cesspool through an inlet pipe from your home. The heavier solids settle to the bottom of the tank and the lighter solids float on top to form scum. In between those layers in the middle of the tank is wastewater that flows to the leach field.

Companies that pump your septic system can tell how often your system needs to be pumped by the thickness of the solid and scum layers according to Mark Dalpe of Dalpe Septic Pumping and Dalpe Excavation Inc.

Maintenance Tips

Mr. Dalpe said the best thing you can do to ensure your septic will continue to function properly is pumping it on a regular schedule. He generally recommends every three to five years depending on use. Some systems may need to be pumped every two years and others every three to four, according to Mr. Dalpe. And if you have a garbage disposal, it should be pumped every year because the waste products from the disposal don’t break down.

Mr. Dalpe and the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs recommend the following tips to keep things running smoothly:

• Only use toilet paper; it’s the only thing that breaks down.

• Do not flush Kleenex, wipes (flushable and non-flushable), feminine hygiene products or paper towels, cigarette butts or diapers down the toilet.

• Do not use any additives that claim to keep the system flowing.

• Do not pour oils, fats or grease down the drain.

• Spread out the number of loads of laundry you do over a few days to prevent overloading your system.

• Do not use chemical solvents to clean the plumbing or the septic system.

Signs Of System Failure

Erma Bombeck, a famous comedienne, wrote a book that was published in 1976 titled, “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.” It was a humorous commentary about living in the suburbs.

These days, if you have the lush green grass growing over your septic it’s not necessarily a good thing, it can be an indication that your cesspool or septic system is not functioning properly. Signs of overflow include a muddy looking area in the location of the tank or leaching field and/or a rotten egg scent floating through the air.

Mr. Daloe said, “The first thing to do is not panic. The second thing to do is call a pumping service to come and empty the tank.”

“After the system is pumped, a Title V inspector will determine if the system is failing or working and issue a report,” said Sally Dalpe, office manager at Dalpe Septic Pumping and Dalpe Excavation, Inc. If the system fails, Ms. Dalpe explained, then this is followed by a site visit that includes an engineer, the town board of health, and a company that will excavate a hole for the percolation test. “The board of health and the engineer test the soil,” Ms. Dalpe said.

Many times it may be a repair job that is needed rather than an installation of a completely new system. “If you have a septic tank that is in good condition, then it may be a matter of replacing the leach field,” Mr. Dalpe, said.

If you have a cesspool, you will have to install a new system to meet Title V rules.

The engineer designs the plans for the new system, which can’t always be in the same area as the old one. It depends a great deal on the soil and setbacks (property lines), according to Ms. Dalpe. If you only need a new leach field, it’s still the same process that includes an engineer and a percolation test.

Several companies, including Dalpe Septic Pumping and Dalpe Excavation Inc., do all of the work from start to finish. “We handle the pumping, get an engineer, assist with the permits and do the installation of the new system,” Mr. Dalpe said.  


It can take a couple of weeks to coordinate the site inspection, arranging the percolation test, the town health department and engineer according to Ms. Dalpe. Once the site plans are complete, Mr. Dalpe will apply for the permits through the town and once that is complete, they can start the work.

It takes about four days to do an installation of a completely new system; larger systems can take a week or more. If a lot of unsuitable soil needs to be removed and trucked out to be replaced with trucked in sand, that alone can take up to a week and a half to complete. The septic tank is installed first, so the down time to connect to the house is about four hours when you won’t be able to use your sinks, tub or toilets. If they are only installing a leaching field, there is no down time at all.


Costs are dependent on many variables. “A lot is driven by the soil conditions we encounter and what the engineer requires for products in the leach field,” Mr. Dalpe said. “Some systems are designed with plastic products in the leach field and some are designed with concrete.”

While you may panic when you find out you need a new septic system, Mr. Dalpe said that time wise and price wise, “It’s more reasonable than you think it will be.”

Assistance With Costs

Barnstable County has a Community Septic Management Loan Program available for homeowners to comply with Title V regulations. It covers all costs of a Title V upgrade with a 5 percent interest rate betterment loan, repayable over 20 years.

Further information is available at