Many homeowners—particularly those that live in older houses—are not sure where their tank and field are buried in relation to the house. It is most important that you locate the tank because eventually it will need service. First find the pumpout and observation ports. Look for a surface or underground manhole, or a riser pipe that stands just above the soil surface. You can also also use a narrow steel rod about 1/8″ in diameter to gently probe the soil for the tank and distribution box. If you can’t find the tank, hire a professional to locate it for you.
Once you find the tank, try to locate the disposal field, which usually fans from a distribution box. Then diagram both of these features on a map that you keep in a handy place. Be aware, however, that finding the laterals can be hard—so much so that in some cases even septic contractors have difficulty locating all the components. They can use a dye test to reveal the location of failures, but this method may not pinpoint the actual sites of the laterals. Most important, pump out your tank on a regular basis. When the tank is not cleaned, solids build up until they spill into the disposal field, where they block the fiow of liquid. The frequency depends on the size of the tank and the number of people it services. Tanks should be inspected at least once every two years to determine the rate of sludge (solids on the bottom of the tank) and scum buildup. With ordinary use and care, a septic tank usually requires cleaning every three to five years (more if you use a sink-mounted garbage disposal unit). However, in many cases septic tanks can be operated for up to five years if properly maintained.
Depending on the size of the tank and your location, plan on spending about $200 for each pumpout. Before you contract with the service technician, ask him to check the tank baffles for possible damage. While the tank is open, the technician can also run some water from a hose into the distribution box to get an indication of how well the leach field is functioning. One caution: toxic gases build up in septic tanks, so never allow anyone to go into the tank. You should also exercise caution when simply peering in the tank.
Don’t plant trees or bushes near your disposal field. Roots can grow 30′ to 40′ from the base of a tree and rupture or dislodge the distribution box, connecting pipes, and laterals. Grass is the best vegetative cover for the disposal field. Also, don’t drive vehicles or heavy equipment over the disposal field. Watch for excessive water from inside the house. It will overload the tank, causing solids to rise to the top and clog the laterals. In the disposal field, excessive water can result in hydraulic overloading that reduces soil infiltration. One way to reduce the amount of water entering the system is to install water-saving toilets and
showerheads. Try to distribute dishwashing and laundry times throughout the week rather than at one or two sessions. Fix leaking toilets and faucets, and don’t connect sump pumps to the septic system.
Disposal fields rest just below ground in trenches of gravel. Laterals fail when they become clogged with solids or damaged by tree roots or vehicles.
Be careful about what you dispose into the system. Avoid pouring cooking oils, fats, and grease into the kitchen sink. Also resist using a sink-mounted garbage disposal. Don’t flush non-biodegradable items, such as disposable diapers, cat litter, filtered cigarettes, sanitary napkins or plastic tampon applicators, paper towels, condoms, or similar materials. Never flush toxic substances like used motor oil, paints (oil- or water-based), varnishes, photographic solutions, pesticides, insecticides, paint thinners or solvents. These chemicals can kill the useful bacteria in the tank and in the soil, as well as contaminate the groundwater.
Avoid biological additives, too, such as yeast or store-bought enzymes. None of these products have been found to have any significant value in improving performance or preventing failures. Don’t use septic system cleaners that contain toxic substances. Many over-the-counter solutions sold for septic system cleaning include chemicals that may be toxic, and they are generally not biodegradable. While these products may unblock a clogged disposal pipe, they can also contaminate drinking water or groundwater supplies.
Experts recommend that you avoid using cleaners that contain sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, or hydrogen peroxide. Also do not use any product that contains toxic chemicals in excess of 1 percent by weight, such as trichloroethane, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, methylene chloried, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, toluene, napthalene, trichlorophenol, pentachlorophenol, acrolein, acrylonitrile, or benzidine.
How To Tell If Your System Is Failing
While there is no 100-percent accurate methods for detecting a failing septic system, suspect a problem if you see the following indicators:
Toilets backing up into the house: First rule out a blocked soil line or other internal plumbing problem. Sewage or effluent seeping into the building or basement: Water from this problem will have a noticeable odor.
A sewage odor and overly lush vegetation may accompany the effluent. In a healthy system the grass should not be overly green over the septic field.
Effluent ponding on the soil surface in the area of the disposal field:
Unhealthy drinking water: Your well or your neighbor’s well has a foul odor, or analysis indicates contamination.
Remember that effluent on the ground is a serious health hazard and should be corrected as soon as possible. Do not allow children or pets near a failing disposal field.
What To Do If The System Fails
Contact your local health department if you suspect that your system is failing. Also seek the services of a professional septic system contractor. Then work with both of these parties to develop a plan of action.
With older houses it’s not uncommon to discover a septic system that is either underdesigned for the current amount of use required by the occupants, improperly located, or in a location that will no longer support the type of system presently installed. In most of these cases you have to replace the system with a new one that is up to today’s codes. While a new installation may be costly—typically between $4,000 and $10,000—a functioning septic system is essential to the operation of your house and the health and safety of your family.
A properly operated and maintained septic system can provide you with up to 30 years of service while protecting the environment from water quality contamination. As with so many parts of an old house, an ounce of prevention in septic systems is worth a pound of cure.
Barry Chalofsky is a professional planner with the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University, and the author of The Home and Land Buyer’s Guide to the Environment.