Things are backing up.  What next?


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand septic systems and their problems. After all, there are no moving parts. This is our 40th year in the business and everyday I go out and look at problem systems. I keep four (4) crews busy installing and repairing septic systems. My point is that I've done this for a while and you can rely on the following information.

I assume you already have a problem or you probably wouldn’t be visiting my website looking for information about septic systems. It is likely that things are backing up on you. Probably in your tub or shower because it is usually the lowest point offering the least line of resistance.

Facts are that a clog in the house sewer line occurs much more often then a septic system failure. Therefore, first assume you have a clog. Run a plumbers snake down the line. If the water goes down, you’ve cleared the clog and you are back in business. Of course, you may call a "Rooter" service for this job.

If it is a single fixture (kitchen sink, bathroom lavatory, laundry drain, etc.) that is backing up and everything else is draining, the problem is in the fixture line and not your main line. Again, use a plumber’s snake on this line to clear the clog.

OK, you’ve run a plumber’s snake in the main line and found no clog. Now its time to locate your septic tank and dig to expose the lids. When you lift the lids pay attention to the liquid level. You should be able to see the inlet to the septic tank. Is the liquid level "at or above" the inlet level?

If it is "at" the inlet level, you likely have an obstruction just upstream of the septic tank or at the inlet fitting itself. You may be able to clear it with a garden hose running it up the inlet fitting of the septic tank.

If it is "above" the inlet level, your problem is either a clog at the outlet of the septic tank or down stream of the septic tank, i.e. your leaching system has failed. The latter is the case 99.9% of the time

A failed leaching system may be only temporary.  If you’ve just had all your relatives over visiting for the last week or two, your leaching system may have been overwhelmed with all the people using the system.  Even so, you are very close to the real thing. Sorry. I don’t have good news.

A failed leaching system is a normal event. Even with the best of preventative septic system maintenance (more about this later), they do wear out, just like a roof or a set of tires. Leaching systems simply fail, it’s natural and there is no magic cure or fix. You'll need to expand your leaching system.

In our 40 years of business we’ve seen so many "quick fix" gimmicks, gizmo’s and chemical solutions. And many were not cheap at all. But, I have never seen anything last. The fact is that you need to expand your leaching system, period. Then perform some monthly preventative maintenance on your system and forget about it for 15-20 years.

Before I get into talking about how to prevent (stall) a failure, let’s talk about getting your system expansion done.

If you have read the FAQ’s I’ve written, you understand that the type and size of leaching system you need depends on water table, soil type and soil porosity (percolation rate).

Of course, you can check with your local health department to determine exactly what you need. But I would call several contractors (I said call several) let them come out and look things over. They know the local codes and soil conditions. Just listen and collect estimates.

To help a contractor try a little harder to give you good pricing, do not mention that you are gathering estimates from other contractors until they are in the middle of walking your job. Watch their demeanor and listen. You will get a good feeling for the right contractor and you will get the best pricing.

Now don’t necessarily accept the lowest price. The best contractor may not be able to match a small, under-equipped, under-insured, etc., contractor. Make sure you deal with a licensed and fully insured contractor. This is more important than price. Workers and passersby can and do get hurt around construction sites. People sue people (like homeowners) with things to loose. Do you get my point?

All leaching systems will eventually fail. That is a fact. But you can "stall" a system failure for years, saving thousands of dollars.

Remember that a septic tank is a processing plant. Everything enters at the top and exits at the top of the septic tank. It has 4-5 feet of water in it. It is in this liquid environment that bacteria begins breaking down solids into a liquid that exits to your leaching system.  But not all solids will break down naturally without a little help.

Natural solids break down well but certain solids (lint’s, greases, detergents) do not break down well at all. It is necessary to pump these accrued solids from your septic tank periodically to keep them from leaching downstream into your leaching system. That causes premature failure and a big expense.


How a Septic Tank Works
The Typical Septic Tank
Leaching Systems
Maintenance Suggestions
Things are backing up.  What next?
How to Locate your Septic Tank
What can go wrong?
Pumping your Septic Tank
Septic Tank and Cesspool Sizes

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