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3 Key Differences Between Cesspools and Septic Systems

Three septic tanks
Those who live within the confines of a municipal water system enjoy the benefits of easy waste disposal. People who live outside of city boundaries, on the other hand, often have to employ alternative methods of dealing with waste water. Virtually all new homes contain septic systems. Yet older homes sometimes contain a more antiquated system known as a cesspool.

Many homeowners mistakenly assume that the terms septic tank and cesspool refer to the same thing. Yet numerous differences exist between these two waste management methods. This article takes a closer look at three crucial differences between cesspools and modern septic systems.

1. Structure

At first glance, a cesspool does have certain similarities to the tank used in a septic system. Both consist of large chambers often constructed from concrete or cinderblocks. Yet cesspools contain perforations around their perimeter, which allow waste water to percolate directly out of the pit into the surrounding soil.

A septic tank takes a much different approach. Here the chamber itself has a completely water-tight nature. As waste levels rise, eventually they reach the height of an outlet pipe mounted in one of the walls. This pipe contains a filter that keeps solid waste in the tank, while allowing liquid waste to flow out to the drain field.

A septic system's drain field consists of a series of underground pipes. These pipes contain holes that permit a controlled flow of waste water in the soil. The extensive nature of a drain field's pipes allows a septic system to distribute waste water across a much greater area, ensuring even dispersal and minimizing the risks of oversaturation.

A cesspool, by contrast, has a much more limited range. As waste water volumes increase, the soil around the cesspool may become excessively waterlogged and soggy. Because such soil has reached its absorption limit, any further water entering the cesspool may lead to interior system backups or exterior flooding.

2. Treatment

Cesspools and septic systems don't just differ in terms of how they distribute waste - they also differ in terms of what they do to it. Simply put, cesspools don't do anything to the waste that flows into them. Liquid waste simply seeps out into the soil, while solid waste builds up inside of the chamber.

A septic tank takes a much more proactive approach to waste. The inside of the tank contains species of anaerobic bacteria that break down organic solids present in the waste. This reduces the volume of solid waste, creating a much more compact layer of sludge at the bottom of the tank.

The liquid waste in a septic system also receives the benefit of bacterial digestion. As a result, the waste contains a much lower proportion of dangerous pathogens. When properly maintained, a septic system provides a safe and efficient way of dealing with household waste.

Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for cesspools. Cesspools do not treat or breakdown waste in any way. Instead, cesspools simply act as disposal devices. For all intents and purposes, the liquid that enters the soil around the cesspool is little better than that of raw sewage.

3. Legality

Cesspools pose a much greater risk to both human health and the surrounding environment. Waste that leaches into surrounding waterways can cause serious ecological problems. For this reason, many states prohibit new cesspool construction. In some cases, existing cesspools may be grandfathered in to a property. 

In other cases, the law requires that homeowners upgrade existing cesspools to a proper septic system. Be sure to understand the regulations governing your area. Also know that large-capacity cesspools - those designed to meet the needs of 20 or more people a day - have been banned by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2005.

If you don't know what type of waste system your rural home contains, please contact the septic experts at AAA Whites Septic Tank Services.