(WWTI) — St. Lawrence County Public Health has provided guidance for homeowners regarding septic system maintenance in an effort to prevent sewage backups and contamination.

Septic systems eliminate wastewater from homes in rural areas without a central sewer system. The systems separate liquids from solids in wastewater and it’s important to maintain them properly. Failure to do so can cause sewage backups in your home and contaminate drinking water and swimming areas. People who come into contact with contaminated water risk getting sick.

More than one in five households in the United States depend on septic systems to treat their wastewater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

You can follow these guidelines in an effort to prevent costly and risky septic issues:

  • Pump out the septic tank every two to three years
  • Keep a record of pumping, inspections, maintenance and repairs
  • Map out the septic tank and components
  • Don’t drive or park heavy equipment over the septic system
  • Don’t build structures over the absorption field
  • Don’t flush strong chemicals down the drains
  • Avoid septic tank additives
  • Avoid garbage disposals or grinders
  • Direct drainage away from the septic system
  • Plant grass or only shallow-rooted plants over the field

How do you know if your septic system is failing? Look for the following signs:

  • Water and sewage are backing up into the home
  • Bathtubs, showers and sinks drain very slowly
  • You can hear gurgling sounds in the plumbing system
  • There is standing water in the drain field
  • There are algal blooms in nearby ponds or lakes
  • There are high levels of nitrates and/or coliform bacteria in water wells

A septic system is not designed to be used like a garbage disposal, the public health department warns. They say you should avoid adding solids of any kind, including the ones that are considered “flushable.” Solids like coffee grounds and food waste can take a long time to break down, upset the pH levels and lead to backups.