The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one-quarter of all U.S. homes have a septic system. These underground wastewater treatment systems are an alternative to conventional sewer systems. They are common in rural areas, but also found in some incorporated areas. If your septic system is in good condition and well maintained, you can usually flush a reasonable amount of toilet paper without concern.
The purpose of the septic system is to handle and treat the wastewater from the bathroom, kitchen and laundry. Typically, the system has an underground tank and a drain field. All the water runs from the plumbing into the septic tank. Liquids then flow into the drain field, where bacteria and viruses are removed as the liquids percolate through the soil. Heavy solids stay in the tank, settling at the bottom in a layer of sludge. Grease and lighter solids form scum on the top. Naturally occurring bacteria break most of this down, but over time the septic tank needs to be professionally pumped. Regular pumping is a smart investment. It protects the septic system, but more importantly, it protects the environment and the health and well-being of the community. The time interval for cleaning depends on how many people live in the home. Every one to two years is a good rule of thumb. If you have slow-draining toilets and sinks, plumbing backups or sewage odors in the bathroom or outdoors in between pumping services, there’s a good chance the system needs pumping or has a problem. The National Small Flows Clearinghouse recommends getting your system inspected if you notice one or more of these warning signs.
What to Flush
The National Small Flows Clearinghouse recommends that you put nothing in the septic system that can be placed in the trash. Never dump paints or chemicals into the toilet or drain. These are harmful to the environment and may permanently damage the septic system. Bleach, laundry detergent and household cleaners should be used in moderation. In the kitchen, don't let grease or coffee grounds flow into the drain. In the bathroom, nothing but human waste and toilet paper should be flushed into septic systems. Never flush paper towels, condoms, sanitary items, diapers or cat litter.
All Toilet Paper Isn’t Created Equal
Be aware that not all toilet paper disintegrates quickly, and ply -- thickness, or number of sheets -- isn’t always an indicator. The Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested 22 types of toilet paper before putting the Good Housekeeping seal on the True Green brand. One of the factors that netted the coveted seal was how quickly the paper dissolved, making it friendlier to household plumbing. Disintegration was also a trait evaluated by Consumer Reports in its testing of 25 types of toilet paper. White Cloud by Ultra came out on top. Check with your septic cleaning company to find out what products are recommended for your area.
Care of the Drain Field
If you don't have a schematic drawing showing the location of your septic system, you may be able to obtain one by contacting your local or state health or building department. It's important to know the location, because you cannot drive on it, or build a deck or other structure on top of it. It's safest to plant only grass near the septic system.