A septic tank consists of one or more concrete or plastic tanks of between 4000 and 7500 litres one end is connected to an inlet wastewater pipe and the other to a septic drain field. Generally these pipe connections are made with a T pipe, allowing liquid to enter and exit without disturbing any crust on the surface. Today, the design of the tank usually incorporates two chambers, each equipped with a manhole cover, and separated by a dividing wall with openings located about midway between the floor and roof of the tank.
Wastewater enters the first chamber of the tank, allowing solids to settle and scum to float. The settled solids are anaerobically digested, reducing the volume of solids. The liquid component flows through the dividing wall into the second chamber, where further settlement takes place. The excess liquid, now in a relatively clear condition, then drains from the outlet into the septic drain field, also referred to as a leach field, drain field or seepage field, depending upon locality. A percolation test is required prior to installation to ensure the porosity of the soil is adequate to serve as a drain field.
The remaining impurities are trapped and eliminated in the soil, with the excess water eliminated through percolation into the soil, through evaporation, and by uptake through the root system of plants and eventual transpiration or entering groundwater or surface water. A piping network, often laid in a stone-filled trench , distributes the wastewater throughout the field with multiple drainage holes in the network. The size of the drain field is proportional to the volume of wastewater and inversely proportional to the porosity of the drainage field. The entire septic system can operate by gravity alone or, where topographic considerations require, with inclusion of a lift pump. Certain septic tank designs include siphons or other devices to increase the volume and velocity of outflow to the drainage field. These help to fill the drainage pipe more evenly and extend the drainage field life by preventing premature clogging or bioclogging.
An Imhoff tank is a two-stage septic system where the sludge is digested in a separate tank. This avoids mixing digested sludge with incoming sewage. Also, some septic tank designs have a second stage where the effluent from the anaerobic first stage is aerated before it drains into the seepage field.
A properly designed and normally operating septic system is odor-free and, besides periodic inspection and emptying of the septic tank, should last for decades with minimal maintenance.
A well designed and maintained concrete, fiber glass, or plastic tank should last about 50 years.
Since 2015, only certain property owners in England and Wales with septic tanks or small packaged sewage treatment systems need to register their systems, and either apply for a permit or qualify for an exemption with the Environment Agency. Permits need to be granted to systems that discharge more than a certain volume of effluent in a given time or that discharge effluent directly into sensitive areas (e.g., some groundwater protection zones). In general, permits are not granted for new septic tanks that discharge directly into surface waters.
In Northern Ireland, the Department of the Environment must give permission for all wastewater discharges where it is proposed that the discharge will go to a waterway or soil infiltration system. The discharge consent will outline conditions relating to the quality and quantity of the discharge in order to ensure the receiving waterway or the underground aquifer can absorb the discharge.
The Water Environment Regulations 2011 regulate the registration of septic tank systems in Scotland. Proof of registration is required when new properties are being developed or existing properties change ownership.