In January, the unspeakable happened. The basement bathroom backed up from a clog in the pipe leading to the septic system. And boy did it back-up, all over my cork basement flooring. For two hours we cleaned an inch of waste all over the floor and bathroom. The damage to the floor was extensive and dry wall and insulation had to be torn out. The scenario could have easily been the same had it been a septic back-up.
What caused our back-up? A huge wad of toilet paper. I suspect someone threw a toilet roll down the toilet or was overly zealous with their use of toilet paper.
What did I learn from the Septic Backup?
- The pipe leading to the septic tank is only about four inches in diameter. Yep. That is really small.
- There is nothing I could do except to maintain the system.
From this accident, I learned a few things about how to maintain your septic system. Read on. You never want to be in a septic back-up situation. Trust me.
Maintaining Your Septic System:
Septic systems fail when the following occurs:
- Roots entangle the pipes.
- Heavy machinery crushes the pipes.
- Failure to clean the septic system timely. We clean ours every 3 years. The septic company will tell you how often they should clean out your system based upon the number of people living in the house. Ask your septic company to send you a flyer or call you when it is time to clean out your system. You will inevitably forget. Here is a time table chart based upon the number of people who live in the house and the size of the tank.
- The septic system is designed for a certain amount of people living in the house and there are more people living in the house than anticipated.
- Improper design.
“Nothing replaces careful planning. Regulations stipulate minimum separation distances between a
septic system and any surface water, ground water, and foundation drains to prevent flooding the leach field. Sites with impermeable soils, high clay content, or shallow bedrock will not absorb and treat septic effluent readily. Sites with steep slope (greater than 15 percent) may also pose challenges. These limiting site conditions may require special design and construction practices to avoid failure.”[Source]
- Soil saturated by storm water.
- Hydraulic overload. Hydraulic overload occurs when too much water enters the tank. Stagger showers, laundry and other water usage in the house to prevent hydraulic overload. Conserving water helps with this issue as well as lengthens the time period when you need to pump the tank.
- Age of the system. According to the Department of Agronomy and Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University, half the houses built in Indiana with septic tanks systems are over 30 years old. Indiana’s stats are probably similar to the rest of the country. Systems designed in the 1970’s may be inadequately designed based upon current standards.
- ***MOST IMPORTANTLY***Throwing diapers, baby wipes, paper products other than toilet paper, cat litter, cigarettes, coffee grounds, and feminine product in your toilets can lead to septic backup. In speaking with the Fremont County Planning Department, Wyoming about their online septic tank article, they told me the top products that cause issues are feminine products and condoms.
- Excess grease. Grease doesn’t break down and will fill up the tank.
- Use of a water softener. Oversize your tank and leach field if using a water softener. Backwashing can enter the tank and cause hydraulic overloading.
- Garbage Disposal Use: Using one can cause excessive solids which will require you to pump out the tank more often.
- Don’t dispose toxic cleaners or household materials such as paints down your drains. Septic systems contain living organisms which digest and treat waste.
How do you Know your Septic is Failing?
- Slow flushing toilets. We did notice the basement bathroom toilet wasn’t flushing as well. Now we know to call a plumber when this happens again.
- Drains will become slower.
- Lush grass in your absorption field especially during dry periods. And no, this isn’t from the wonderful fertilizer that you used during the spring.
- Liquid seeping along the surface of the ground near your septic system.
Department of Agronomy at Purdue University further noted in their report that failing septic systems cause raw sewage to leach into groundwater and surface water. Every failing septic system can discharge 76, 650 gallons into our waterways. Untreated wastewater contains excessive nitrogen, phosphorus, and disease-causing bacteria and viruses that harm the plant and fish population as well as contaminate ground water. Worse yet, surface water can become contaminated increasing a swimmer’s chance of contracting harmful diseases such as eye and ear infections, acute gastrointestinal illnesses, and hepatitis.
What You Should Do:
1. As I mentioned above, generally, septic tanks should be pumped every three to five years but it depends on how many people live in your house. See here for a chart. Alternative systems with electric pumps, mechanical components and float switches need to be checked once a year.
2. Be sure to buy septic safe toilet paper.
3. If you have a well, test your water to make sure there aren’t nitrates or bacteria in your drinking water.
4. Inspect the system yearly to make sure there isn’t ponding. In addition, small inspection ports should be installed at the end of lateral lines. According to the Ohio State University, Agricultural Engineering,
“By extending the inspection ports up to the ground surface they can be easily mowed over, while still providing easy access to check for ponding in a lateral, which is an early warning sign of a malfunction. Risers over the lid of a septic tank make it easy to inspect and pump the septic tank.”
5. Moreover, be careful not to change how water drains on your property so as to increase water drainage onto the septic field.
Join the Conversation
- Have you had a septic back-up?
- Any suggestions about preventing a back-up from the house to the septic tank?
- What is your septic tank maintenance schedule?