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These are large tanks that collect, and temporarily store human waste, breaking it down over time. They work via the principle of anaerobic respiration, where the solid waste is broken down without the presence of Oxygen, and reduced to basic mobile nutrients.
They are often used to feed irrigation systems, where the 'treated' liquid effluence is highly nutritious to growing plant life (assuming there is no overflow of raw, unprocessed waste). Estimates on the lifetimes of septic tank systems vary; some may work 10 to 20 years, others upwards of a lifetime or more, with minimal maintenance, except for periodic inspections and cleaning.
Most septic tanks operate a two-chamber separation process (some have three chambers), primarily to further sift the raw waste from the liquid nutrients, and prevent overflow of raw sewage.