What is the Difference Between a Septic System and a Sewer System?

By Julie Russo

If you are in the market for a new home, you may have noticed that some neighborhoods are on public utility sewer systems and some neighborhoods use septic systems. Generally speaking, cities and towns, and their immediate surrounding areas, will be on sewer systems that are maintained by the local public works department. If a neighborhood is outside the area serviced by the local sewer system, the homes will generally use a septic system to handle waste water.

Large public sewer systems charge a monthly fee for their use, but offer the convenience to the homeowner of not having to maintain anything related to waste water outside of their home. Septic systems are the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain, but have no monthly fee, so are usually less expensive in the long run. However, some septic systems can be more expensive to maintain such as Low-Pressure Dose Systems that uses a pump to move effluent to a drain field or conventional systems that don’t percolate well and have to be pumped frequently.

If you are looking at homes in multiple neighborhoods, you will need to make quite a few decisions and choices in order to make the best decision of where to buy. Having some basic knowledge of the pros and cons of each type of waste water system will help in choosing between neighborhoods that are on public utility sewer systems compared to those on septic systems.

septic system

Where does the waste go?
Septic System: The waste goes into a holding tank.
Sewer System: Sewers lines carry waste to a treatment facility.

How does it work?
Septic System: Bacteria break down the solid waste and the liquid effluent is then released into the drainfield.
Sewer System: The facility removes contaminants and then discharges water back into local water supplies.

What is the cost?
Septic System: If buying a new home from a reputable new home builder, then the cost of the septic system is included in the price of the house.
Sewer System: The cost to use a public sewer system varies depending on location.  Some areas separate the cost of water and sewage, while others combine the two.

What type of maintenance is needed?
Septic System: Depending on the usage, septic tanks need to be pumped out yearly or every few years.
Sewer System: None

Who is responsible for the maintenance?
Septic System: It is the homeowner’s responsibility to maintain the septic system.
Sewer System: Your local municipality is responsible for maintaining the public sewer system.

What do you do if it fails to work?
Septic System: Call a professional septic repair company.
Sewer System: Call your local municipality public works department

What are the benefits?
Septic System: If maintained properly a septic system generally has fewer ongoing costs.
Sewer System: Sewer systems are very convenient and the homeowner has no responsibility for repairs.

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34 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between a Septic System and a Sewer System?

  1. Whoa. I’ve never, ever in my life heard so many people write about how life-changing it can be to read about the differences between septic systems and sewer systems. These bots are terrible. I read most of these posts in the cold, robotic voice of our eventual computer overlords.

  2. A friend of mine was telling me that he might be getting a septic tank installed, and we were curious about how it works. It’s interesting that you say that septic tanks actually has bacteria that deals with the waste! I know that I would want to know how long it takes to get everything cleaned up after it’s full.

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  4. My wife and I have been looking at home to move into. The lease on our apartment is expiring in a few months, and we’re ready to make the leap into home-ownership. I didn’t realize that a septic system is generally associated with lower costs if it is properly maintained. That’s a benefit that my wife and I are definitely looking for.

  5. It was interesting to read the difference between the two. Whenever I have heard people talk about sewer systems and septic systems I just automatically presumed that they were referring to the same thing. I’ve always thought the two terms could be used interchangeably. It was only a few days ago when someone mentioned something that confused me that I thought I needed to see if what they were saying was right. That’s what I was attempting to do when I came across your blog post. I finally figured I had been wrong all this time! Amazing.

  6. I had no idea that septic systems generally have fewer ongoing costs than having a sewer system. I can see why people might consider this a better option if they are looking for ways to save money. It seems like it would be smart to consider your situation and make a list of the pros and cons of each one for your situation.

  7. Thanks for pointing out the convenience of not having to maintain anything related to waste water outside the home. I am sure that most people would prefer to avoid working with waste as much as possible. I would think we can all still do our part to help the system run smoothly though. Even something like regularly repairing any drain systems on your property could ease the workload of municipal workers.

  8. My aunt has been thinking about having a septic tank installed on her property, but wanted to know a bit more about them before she makes any final decision. You wrote that septic tanks are the responsibility of the homeowner to maintain, and have no monthly fee. My aunt is a big fan of being independent and doing things herself, so perhaps a septic tank fits her personality just right. Thanks for the read.

  9. It is good to learn more about the difference between a septic system and a sewer system. I did not know that septic systems required more maintenance. It would be important to have these tanks pumped on a regular basis. In either situation, it would be best to seek professional help for inspection and reparation needs. This would ensure that someone certified and experienced will resolve the issue efficiently.

  10. Our house is 37 years old and the drainfield on the septic system needs to be replaced.The property is near a public stream .What can we do?

    • Richard, you will most likely need to consult with the county building/planning department to find out how close to the stream your leach field can be. You may need to hire a consultant to work out a redesign of your existing system that will meet with county requirements in your area.

  11. What do you do if your Septic has quit working and you need a new drain field and you may be too near a public stream?

  12. A friend of mine is looking at a house that has a septic system, and I was curious about how it worked. It’s interesting that they actually need to be pumped every few years. It’s nice that there are different options to get rid of your waste that aren’t too tedious.

  13. In our town if you have a break in your sewer pipe and it involves the house line that hooks on to the city line, it’s the homeowners responsibility to have it fixed. Several thousand dollars. Also I’d like to say, there is no such thing as a flushable wipe. I’ve had work done at home and on vacations and they always find a big clog of wipes that have been flushed. Even if it says flushable it will clog your system.

  14. I really like that a septic system has a lower cost when it comes to maintenance and upkeep. In my opinion, that makes the potentially higher cost of installation worth it. After all, those lower payments can help you save up a lot of money in the long run.

  15. Thanks for the great advice, I wasn’t actually aware that most cities would charge a monthly fee for use of the public sewer system. I can definitely see the reasons why people would want to run their own septic system if it means they can save a little money. I think it’s just important for people to know and recognize that septic systems require a lot of maintenance and you need to be vigilant to make sure they don’t have any problems.

  16. Thanks for explaining exactly how a septic system functions differently from plumbing that is hooked up to a sewer line. My husband and I have been looking at houses, and I noticed that many of them have a septic tank. I was worried that it would rule out some of our options, but it actually seems pretty low maintenance. I’ll just have to be sure to have it cleaned every year or so.

  17. I live in the city and I have city water and a septic and sometime I can small it in my front yards so I have to have it pump out two times a year the city will not allow anyone to work on it they said I have to hook up to the city sewer.

    • City sewer is a simpler way to go and can help you avoid costly septic system repairs, however there is usually a monthly fee involved. Septic systems work great as long as you are careful what you put in them and if the soil percolates well (is able to handle the waste water absorption), otherwise city sewer is a better way to go if it’s available. Sometimes the odor from the plumbing vents in the roof of your house gets pulled down to where you can smell it because of air flow and temperature making it seem like there is a septic problem when there isn’t one. One way to tell is if you can smell it all the time or not. If you smell the septic odor after a lot of rain when the ground is saturated or most of the time, you could have a septic system issue. If it’s only when it becomes cool outside or specific times of the day or year, it could just be the odor from the plumbing vents.

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  19. Nice Post! This is a great post. I like this topic.This site has lots of advantage.I found many interesting things from this site. It helps me in many ways.Thanks for posting this again. Thanks a million and please keep up the effective work Thank yo so much for sharing this kind of info

  20. I recently learned the difference between pluming systems that utilize sewer lines and ones that use septic systems. My grandparent’s cabin had a problem with the plumbing and it turned out that they needed the septic tank pumped. How often would repairs like this be required?

    • Callie, it’s a good idea to have a septic tank pumped every five years or so to avoid those types of problems. It’s generally required whenever a home is sold that is on a septic system unless the sellers can show that it has been pumped recently. Even then, most states will require an inspection.

  21. This is such an overlooked subject when buying a new house and it makes such a difference! People don’t realise the cost involved in a drainage system. A lot of good information about drainage can also be found here.

  22. John, this was just the information I was looking for about septic and sewer systems. My husband and I are hoping to buy our first home this year. We have found two home we really like and one has a sewer system and the other has a septic system. This information really cleared up some confusion I had between the two.
    Emily Smith

  23. I’m glad I found the difference between the two. My parents are on a septic tank, and I always thought that was their sewage system. Maybe I should figure out what kind of system I’m on. That would help me figure out how to maintain it.

  24. I like your very first tip about what can’t go through the system. For some reason people think that they can put anything down the septic system, but that’s not right. It will definitely be causing problems later.

  25. I think I would definitely prefer having a connection to the sewer system instead of a septic tank based on the factors you listed above. No matter which system you have, it is important to keep the plumbing clear of objects or substances that clog drains. You wouldn’t want a septic leak in your yard; nor would you want a backed-up sewer drain. Pay close attention to the signs that your plumbing isn’t working and have it fixed right away.
    Eli

  26. In my bathroom the other day it smelled bad. Do I need to get someone to drain that stuff out of my septic tank. I live in the city , but I am wondering what is wrong. It also smell sometimes outside around back, the flower bed against the house, also in front by the hedges. There is a drain there of course it has a lid on it.

    • Betty if you live in the city you are probably on a sewer system instead of a septic system. Septic systems need to be pumped every so often, but you don’t have to worry about that if you are on city sewer. If you continue to have a bad smell in your bathroom and just outside your house, you may want to have a plumber check it out to make sure you don’t have a leaking drain pipe. Best of luck, John

  27. Before finding this article I never understood how a septic tank worked. My parents have a septic tank on their farm property and all I knew about it was that it was a big stamped concrete enclosure. The diagram you posted of the septic tank and the flow of disposal explained everything to me within seconds.

    • Thanks Julie! This is good info for home buyers to take into consideration when considering which neighborhood to live in. JR

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