You want to avoid septic system failure at all costs because it can become extremely expensive. Commonly it is not the septic tank itself that is failing, rather the drainage field. The drainage field is where the greywater from a septic tank goes to be further filtered through the soil and then the clean makes its way into the ground water. There are a couple ways you can tell if your drainage field is failing.
When someone comes to pump your septic tank and they observe water pouring back into the septic tank from the drainage pipe it is a good indication that your drainage field is failing. Also, if you see puddles of water on the surface above your drainage fields there is a good chance that the soil beneath the drainage field is puddles of water on the surface indicate a failing septic system flooded and is failing. Another common indicator of failing septic system is plumbing that backs up, septic odors in your house, slowly draining toilets and sinks, and gurgling sounds in your plumbing. Also, if you do well water testing and the tests indicate that there are bacteria present in your well water then that is an indication that your septic system is failing.
Septic Tank Failure: The Solutions
There are five major causes of septic tank failure: the combination of clay soil and sodium from table salt, biomat overgrowth, broken pipes, over flowing septic tank, and root intrusion. Read more about these below.
Septic Tank Failure: Sodium & Clay
Another common problem is the combination of sodium and clay soil. Sodium is one of the main components of table salt which more than likely find its way into the kitchen sink and down into your septic system. Clay sticks together very well on its own and sodium causes it to stick together even better! The combination of sodium and clay often creates a substance called Harpan. Hardpan is waterproof, so the greywater cannot pass through soil and be filtered. In this case, the water just pools and eventually floods the soil and starts to appear on the surface. At that point you will notice a problem and you will have to take action straightaway. What I recommend is that you call a septic service as soon as possible if you see fluids on the surface above your leach field. Not to mention, stop using water in your house until a professional has inspected your septic system.
There are some products on the market that say they can break up the hardpan in drainage fields without having to do any excavating. You just introduce these products into your septic system via a drain or your toilets and they would make their way to the drainage field where they would break up the hardpan. I have never tried any of these products so I cannot vouch for their abilities.
You can easily test your soil to find out if there is clay in it, that way you will know to avoid allowing too much sodium to get into the system. Go outside and picked up a handful of soil and squeeze it in your hand. If when you release your hand the soil remains in a ball then you have clay in your soil. The more firm and the less brittle the ball is the more clay you have. Clay is not unique to one area of the world, you can find it anywhere, but a place where it is found often and regularly is in the southeastern United States.
Septic Tank Failure: Biomat Overgrowth
There is another cause of septic field failure although it is less common. That is the overgrowth of the biomat. Near the surface of a drainage field, around the inner walls, a substance called biomat develops. It is basically undigested raw sewage that should not be in the drainage field. It contains countless bacteria and microbes that are hard at work trying to digest it. The problem can get out of hand when there is too much grease and sludge that enters the drainage field and causes the biomat to grow cover the entire drainage field. As the biomat grows and becomes more and more dense it becomes a waterproof layer. When the water can no longer pass into the soil to be filtered it will again pool and eventually become visible on the surface. There are also products in the market that claim to resolve this biomat issue but I have not had the unfortunate opportunity of having to test them.
Septic Tank Failure: Crushed or Broken Drain Pips
A more common problem leading to septic tank failure is broken or crushed drainpipes. Some homes are built on lots that are very small and there is not an abundance of space for the septic tank and the drainage field. This can lead to pipes being installed under areas where vehicles may travel and the weight of the vehicle compresses the soil and can crush the pipes.
Also, if you live in a home that was built in the early 1940s, your septic system is probably doomed to fail, if it has not already failed. In the 1940s, pipes called Orangeberg, which are made out of paper and tar, were used for septic systems. As you know, paper is biodegradable and tar eventually becomes brittle and falls apart, so if these pipes lasted until now their days are numbered.
The only solution to broken pipes is to have the replaced. This can cost a lot of money and leave you without septic service for a while. You may want to look into Aerobic Septic Tanks as a temporary alternative because they can be installed above ground without much hassle. They are not allowed everywhere, so you will have to contact your local health department and inquire about your options.
Septic Tank Failure: Neglected Septic Tank Pumping
Another common problem of septic tank failure is waste solids leaving your septic tank and making their way down to the drainage field. Septic systems must have their contents pumped every 4-5 years depending on the size of the tank and the number of people using it. If septic system pumping is neglected the sludge at the bottom can build up to the point where it will fill your septic tank entirely. When this happens, the sludge can pass into the drainage field pipe and move into the drainage field. If this has happened in your septic system and the drainage pipes are clogged you may be able to clean them using high powered pressure washers. This service can usually be performed by licensed septic tank pumping companies.
Septic Tank Failure: Root Intrusion
Root intrusion is another cause of septic tank failure. It is never a good idea to plant anything over a drainage field, especially plants that have complex and deep root systems. If you do plan anything near a drainage field you will notice that these plants are larger and stronger and healthier looking than other plants in the area. This is because of the additional moisture and nutrients the plants are getting from the drainage field. Plants love to have moisture and nutrients and their roots will grow in the direction of highest nutrient concentration, which is directly into your drainage field and eventually in your drainpipes.
There are two ways you can deal with root intrusion, the first is mechanically removing the roots which can be difficult and time-consuming. The second method is using commercial chemicals to kill the roots which can also kill other vegetation in the area. The best thing to do is to avoid planting vegetation near or above a drainage system.
Once your septic tank fails you will be a unique life experience. In this case, “unique” does not mean fun. If you are lucky the problem can be easily resolved and for relatively little cost, but if you are unlucky it will take weeks to solve the problem and cost lots of cash. I feel for you.