State University Extension
Home Maintenance And Repair - 01500606
What Is Septic System Failure?
A septic system should effectively accept liquid wastes from your house
and prevent biological and nutrient contaminants from getting into your
well or nearby lakes and streams. Any, time these things do not happen,
the system is failing.
For example, when waste backs up into your home or liquid is bubbling
up in your backyard, the system has obviously failed. If significant
amounts of biological or nutrient contaminants reach your well or
surface waters, the system is also failing, even though it may appear
to be working just fine.
Why Septic Systems Fail
Most septic systems will fail sometime. These systems are designed to
have a lifetime of 20 to 30 years, under the best conditions.
Eventually, the soil around the absorption field becomes clogged with
organic material, making the system unusable.
Many other factors can cause the system to fail well before the end of
its "natural" lifetime. Pipes blocked by roots, soils saturated
by storm water, crushed tile, improper location, poor original design
or poor installation can all lead to major problems.
But by far the most common reason for early failure is improper
maintenance by homeowners. When a system is poorly maintained and not
pumped out on a regular basis, sludge (solid material) builds up inside
the septic tank, then flows into the absorption field, clogging it
How to Know If Your System Is Failing
Look for these symptoms to determine if you have a serious problem:
Sewage backup in your drains or toilets. This is often a black liquid
with a disagreeable odor.
Slow flushing of your toilets. Many of the drains in your house will
drain much slower than usual, despite the use of plungers or drain
Surface flow of wastewater. Sometimes you will notice liquid seeping
along the surface of the ground near your septic system. It may or may
not have much of an odor associated with it.
Lush green grass over the absorption field, even during dry weather.
Often, this indicates that an excessive amount of liquid from your
system is moving up through the soil, instead of downward, as it
should. While some upward movement of liquid from the absorption field
is good, too much could indicate major problems.
The presence of nitrates or bacteria in your drinking water well. This
indicates that liquid from the system may be flowing into the well
through the ground or over the surface. Water tests available from your
local health department will indicate if you have this problem.
Buildup of aquatic weeds or algae in lakes or ponds adjacent to your
home. This may indicate that nutrient, rich septic system waste is
leaching into the surface water. This may lead to both inconvenience
and possible health problems.
Unpleasant odors around your house. Often, improperly vented or failing
systems cause a buildup of disagreeable odors around the house.
Health and Economic Effects of a Failing System
The most serious effect of a failing system is the potential for
serious disease from the leaking and improperly treated waste.
Dysentery and hepatitis can be spread by these wastes. In addition to
the diseases themselves, mosquitoes and flies that spread some
illnesses can breed in areas where liquid waste reaches the surface.
Chemical or nutrient poisoning can also be a problem. Many of the
synthetic products you use around the house, such as strong cleaning
products, can be poisonous to humans, pets and wildlife if they travel
through soil to your well or on the surface to lakes, streams or ponds.
Excess nitrate levels in drinking water can pose serious health threats
to infants. The health of plants around your home can be seriously
affected, too. The waste from failing systems can kill many species or
cause increased growth of undesirable plants.
The economic costs of failure are no less important. The most obvious
effect is the direct expense of replacing your septic system. This
could cost $2,000 to $4,000. Also consider the indirect cost of losing
the use of your house while the system isn't working and the long-term
inconvenience of a system that doesn't operate properly.
What To Do If Your System Fails---- Immediate Actions
Follow these steps if you notice any of the symptoms listed above:
Call your local health department. This is the first thing you should
do. Health department staff members have the expertise to assess your
situation quickly and offer advice on how to cure the problem.
Have your septic tank pumped. Frequently, this will help the problem
temporarily, especially when it is combined with drastic water
conservation. The empty tank can hold several days of waste. (This
won't be effective if a clog exists between the house and the septic
tank, or if very high water levels are the cause of the problem.)
Conserve water in your home. This is particularly effective if your
system has not failed completely. lt can help lessen the problem for a
short time. Water saving devices and reduced consumption, especially in
your bathroom, can have a significant effect.
Fence off the area. If liquid waste is seeping to the surface, prevent
people and pets from getting in contact with the effluent.
What To Do If The System Fails----Long Term Options
In many, if not most, cases, redesigning and replacing the system in a
new location is the only practical long term solution. This type of
work should be completed only by a qualified contractor. Local health
department permits are required before construction can begin. The
chemical cures sometimes advertised are ineffective remedies for
severely damaged systems.
Other solutions may be of help in some situations, including:
Increase the size of the absorption field. This will help if the
original field was too small for the size of your family or if the soil
does not allow water to percolate very well.
Conserve water in your home on a long term basis. The smaller the
amount of water flowing through your system, the longer it will last.
For systems that perform marginally or leak nutrients into nearby lakes
and streams, this is a good alternative.
If periodically saturated soils are a main cause of problems, consider
installing perimeter drains. This system involves installing tile
drains underground at a specified distance around the absorption field
to help lower water levels. lt works in some but not all situations and
require the assistance of a qualified contractor Its location should
also be evaluated by your local health department.
Connect to a community sewage system, if one is available. Although the
long-term costs may seem high, the benefit of reduced worry and greater
responsibility are often worth this price.
If septic system failures are common in your area, consider
participating in the development of a or other similar alternatives.
These systems are designed for small communities and some rural areas
and are generally much more cost effective than large sewer systems.
How To Prevent The Problem
The key to preventing your septic system from failing is proper
maintenance. Regularly pumping the tank, being careful in what you put
down the drains, and avoiding such things as planting trees over the
field or covering the system with permanent patios and home additions
are important to keep the system running well.
Proper initial design is another critical aspect in preventing your
system from failing. Many septic systems are doomed from the start
because they are put in poor locations or constructed improperly. Be
sure a new system is installed in an area with proper soil conditions,
and at sufficient distances from your house and well (these factors are
regulated by local health department codes). Also make sure the system
is designed to meet your present and future needs. If, for example, you
are building a small home with plans to enlarge it as your family
grows, design the septic system to accommodate the largest size you
expect your family to grow to. Consider asking your contractor to
include such useful features as junction boxes and observation ports,
which aid in assessing the condition of the system.
Water conservation was mentioned earlier as a method to keep a marginal
system operating, but it is also an excellent method of preventing
future problems from occurring.
This information comes from Michigan State University Extension
bulletin WQ14, What to Do if Your Septic System Fails.
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status. Issued in furtherance of MSU Extension work, acts of May 8 and
June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thomas G. Coon, Director, MSU Extension, East Lansing,MI 48824. This
information is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial
products or trade names does not imply endorsement by MSU Extension or
bias against those not mentioned.
information.was reviewed as
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