About Septic Systems

The idea of moving to the countryside is appealing to a lot of people. Peace and quiet, beautiful scenery, the opportunity to be closer to nature. Everyone has that romantic dream of moving to the desert and playing cowboy or cowgirl. However, moving from a city or the suburbs does come with a pretty steep learning curve. Things that you never had to consider before suddenly become tasks that require some attention.

For instance, most city dwellers probably never give much thought to what happens when you flush a toilet, but when you move to the country the carefree conveniences of managed sewer systems disappear. Handling waste water safely and effectively is a priority when living in the country and septic systems are an important part of protecting New Mexico’s groundwater.

In the US 1 in 5 households operate onsite waste treatment facilities better known as septic systems. In New Mexico, more than 220,000 houses rely on septic systems, most of which are found in rural locations. How do you know if a home you’re interested in buying has a septic system? If it is in the country it probably operates a septic system, but you could also ask the realtor, ask the neighbors or be on the lookout for a hatch or manhole cover on the property.

What is a Septic System

Septic systems are essential in making sure groundwater is not contaminated, a threat that has serious consequences for wildlife and human populations in the area. A septic system is comprised of a tank and a drain field. Septic tanks are watertight chambers constructed from concrete, fiberglass or polyethylene that is buried underground. It collects and holds all of a home’s liquid waste. This includes water from kitchen sinks, bathtubs and toilets.

Once in the septic tank, the liquid separates. The solid mater falls to the bottom, any oil and grease floats to the top and water collects in the middle. As the water separates from the rest of the contaminants it is slowly released out of the tank into the drain field.

A drain field consists of perforated pipes buried in a specific medium, often fine sand, that will filter the water further as it is released from the pipes. The water travels down through the filtering material until it is safe to return to the groundwater.

In New Mexico, septic systems are regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department or NMED. This government body is responsible for inspecting, regulating and issuing permits and licenses regarding septic systems.

Buying a Home With a Septic System

Buying a home with a septic system already installed and functioning is fairly straightforward. You should speak with the sellers or their agent to find out if the system has had any issues in the past and to ensure it has been properly maintained. Ask about the location of the septic tank and visually inspect the area. Things to look for that might indicate there is a problem with the septic system include:

  • Wet or spongy soil,
  • An obvious odor,
  • Pooling water,
  • Liquid waste backing up into the house.

How to Maintain a Septic System

Septic system maintenance is less work than you might suspect. It comes down to being familiar with your system’s setup, knowing when it was last pumped and hiring a licensed service professional when you need to have it emptied next.

The most important task in septic system maintenance is having the tank pumped regularly and at the right time. Typically a tank will need to be emptied every 3 to 5 years but this can vary depending on, household size, tank size, water use, and how much solid waste has accumulated in the bottom of the tank.

Hopefully, you know the date of the last time a septic tank service professional visited your home. If you don’t your best option is to schedule one to come to your home. There are ways to visually inspect how much waste has collected in the tank but we don’t recommend doing this on your own. If your system has a more elaborate setup, like electric or mechanical pumps or floats, you should inspect it annually as these features, while more convenient, are prone to failure.

Now that you have scheduled a service appointment it would be helpful to the technician if you able to provide them with any information or documents you might have about your specific system. You should be prepared to document the date the tank is emptied and any recommendations the service professional makes for maintenance moving forward.

Most rural communities have at least one licensed septic service professional and your neighbors can probably recommend who they use. The National Onsite Wastewater Recycling Association has an online locator you can use to find a professional in your area as well.

Now that we have discussed how to maintain the tank portion of your septic system it’s time to talk about some good practices regarding the drainage field. Don’t park vehicles or store heavy objects on it. This will compress the soil and pipes slowing drainage. Don’t plant trees near it. This risks roots growing into and blocking the pipes. Divert rainwater or any other excess water away from the drainage field as this will cause the soil to become saturated and slow the flow of water from the pipes.

If You Plan to Build a Home, Plan to Build a Septic System

Often people moving to the country will purchase undeveloped property on which to build their dream home. If this describes your situation you will need to give some thought to the septic system.

New Mexico does allow homeowners to install a septic system themselves provided they complete a certification process and pass an exam. Installing a septic system in New Mexico will require a trip to your local New Mexico Environment Department. Here you can get information about the regulations that will affect your septic system installation. The NMED has some informational and entertaining photos on their site demonstrating how NOT to install a septic system.


Whether you are buying a home with a septic system or building a home that will require one you need to be aware of the maintenance needs that go along with a septic system. While not the most exciting thing to discuss, septic systems are a priority when it comes to keeping our groundwater clean and planning now can save you expense and headache in the future. If you have any questions about septic systems or living in rural New Mexico don’t hesitate to contact us at La Paloma Real Estate.