What’s the Best Toilet Paper for Septic Systems?

Research shows tissues break up about the same in laboratory tests, but experience tells pumpers that’s not necessarily true.

For some folks, the brand and type of toilet paper to use is an intensely personal choice. When something comes between the user’s hand and the source of human waste, product brand loyalty may be difficult to shake.

I suspect most people head for the same packaging every time when they reach the paper products aisle at their favorite grocery story. They might go for the cuddly bear family, the baby angel with wings, the quilting pattern or look for marketing terms like soft, velvet or comfort.

Pumpers might not be so quick to fall for the many bathroom-tissue marketing messages that fight for the consumer’s attention. You care more about results after the flush. How do different types of toilet papers move through the plumbing and react once they reach the septic system? What brands and ply configurations most often bring you out on emergency calls?

Given your experience with thousands of septic tanks, the question for you is: Do you recommend specific brands of toilet paper to your customers based on what you believe are issues of breakdown performance in the tank?


Many pumpers have strong opinions and believe sharing their considerable experience with customers is part of their service, according to Kim Seipp, education coordinator for the National Association of Wastewater Technicians and part of the pumping family for High Plains Sanitation Service in Strasburg, Colorado.

“We do advise people to stay away from the heavier toilet paper. You’re going to have more problems with the thick, strong, super-cushy and plush toilet paper that people want to use,” Seipp says. Her husband, Jeff, can identify three brands of toilet paper when he goes out on an emergency clog call: Charmin, Cottonelle and Quilted Northern. And they recommend using less-plush, one- and two-ply tissue, which they say causes fewer problems.

But not so fast, says Sara Heger, Ph.D., engineer, researcher and instructor of the Onsite Sewage Treatment Program at the Water Resources Center at the University of Minnesota. A few years ago, Heger co-authored a study, Biodegradability Analysis of Toilet Papers and Flushed Paper Product Under Anaerobic Conditions, on behalf of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. MnDOT wanted to know the optimal tissue to order for the state’s more than 100 highway rest stops with high-volume onsite systems.

The 10-page study illuminated experiments on the biodegradability of a dozen brands and types of toilet paper using “a widely accepted and standardized” biomethane potential test, or BMT. Light microscopy images were taken of the samples to determine fiber structure; and volatile solids, total solids and moisture content were gauged to evaluate anaerobic digestibility and biogas production.

Three papers showed the highest degradability in the MnDOT study in this order: Quilted Northern Ultra Plush, Equate Flushable Wipes and Kleenex - Kimberly Clark Professional. However, Heger says the study ultimately showed all samples performed about the same.

“The bottom line is there was no difference on how they broke down under anaerobic conditions. I think any opinions or recommendations about toilet paper are just that,” Heger says. “MnDOT was hoping to see a difference and make buying decisions based on (the study), but since there wasn’t any, they leave it up to regional staff (to choose toilet paper).”


But Heger says something that seems to leave the door open for pumpers to develop strong opinions … and ultimately share their feelings with septic system users.

“Based on (the study) and the lack of other information, I don’t know how pumpers could recommend one versus another unless they have personal experience,” Heger says.

According to the study, “It is important to mention that the operational parameters and the environmental conditions of septic systems are different from the conditions used in this experiment. … In addition, the loading rate (i.e., amount of paper flushed into the septic system) has not been taken into account for this specific test. These results can be used as a reference on which toilet paper would have the higher biodegradation. However, the specific degradation would depend on the specific conditions and operation of a specific system.”

Or as the Seipps might explain it in plain English, seeing is believing.

“When you put a piece of toilet paper into a solution, it’s going to dissolve, but the problem is the way people use toilet paper and what happens in the tank,” Kim Seipp says. “A lot of people use a bunch of toilet paper at once, and that leads to problems in the waste stream.”

To their way of thinking, bigger clumps of thicker toilet paper increase the potential for chronic trouble in the septic system. Bigger clumps happen when using the plusher papers, but the type of user in each home is also a factor, she says. On an emergency call, they’ll ask who’s flushing the toilet. Families with teenage daughters and younger children tend to introduce more paper into the plumbing, and that’s where the recommendation for generic single- or double-ply tissue is most important, she says.


But it’s not always user habits that lead to problems. Seipp says flatter plumbing runs and tanks with a concrete inlet baffle rather than a sanitary tee often account for the paper dams that cause backups. They noticed a big difference when they moved from the mountain region of Colorado to the plains, where pipe runs are naturally flatter and water moves slower through the system.

The Seipps observe that paper moves more efficiently into the tank and breaks up better in systems with a sanitary tee. These are more common in their region, but when they find a paper problem, it’s often when clumps get hung up around the concrete inlet baffle and don’t land properly in the tank.

“If you have a flat line or a long line with any bowing in it, that slows the flow,” Seipp says. The slow-moving waste stream — exacerbated by low-flow plumbing fixtures and efficient appliances like clothes and dishwashers — lead to buildups. Lighter paper will help, but if the homeowner isn’t ready for one-ply, the Seipps have other recommendations.

“We’ve had customers who don’t want to give up their Charmin, and if (clogging) is a problem for them, get the tank pumped more often,” Seipp says. “If there are problems, Jeff will tell people to take a 5-gallon bucket of water and pour it down the toilet once a week to give it a good clean-out.”

Seipp says the plusher brands are unmistakable when you open the tank; Cottonelle, for example, appears like cotton balls in the septic tank, and others exhibit unique textures. When do you know you should choose a different paper? “When they start advertising how many quarters it can hold or how soft and plush it is,” she says.


Seipp trust the observations of pumpers. “I know what we see in the field can be very different than what they find in research,” she says.

So how do you handle the toilet paper discussion with customers? Do you tell them to ditch the comfort they know and love to keep their pipes clear? Or tell them to ration the squares with the teenagers at home? Share your list of the best and worst toilet paper at editor@pumper.com and we’ll compare notes.


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