joys of old house septic systems

adunateMarch 25, 2008

Our septic backed up this last weekend while we had a houseful of company for Easter. Thankfully it was contained in the toilet.

When we had it pumped yesterday, which we regularly do, they told us it was plugged from the baffle on back to the house. They are coming again today to rotor it clean.

Any idea why it plugged? Other than someone flushed something they weren't supposed to, which I guess we'll soon find out?

Here is a link that might be useful: Mushroom Factor

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Would someone kindly tell me what the justification is for pumping the septic tank annually, semiannually or even once every 5 years? In fact, there is strong evidence to indicate that pumping a tank is counter productive to its proper operation.

Let us examine the normal course of events when they come to pump your tank. The truck arrives and the operator opens the access cover of the septic tank. He or she as the case may be, then points out to the homeowner that the tank is full and needs to be pumped. Baloney, The tank if 5 deep, but the inlet to the tank is at the top of the tank and the discharge line from the tank to the leach field is only 6" below the level of the inlet pipe. The leach field is then designed to absorb an amount of liquid equal to the volume of waste produced by the structure on a daily basis.

The natural water level of the tank is determined by the height of the discharge line to the leach field, which is typically about 1Â below the top of the tank. Inside the tank there is a baffle that is solid until it reaches a point about 6" to 8" below the natural water line, then the baffle has holes that will permit liquids to pass from the first chamber into the second chamber. The first chamber is the sediment chamber. As the raw sewage enters the sediment chamber any heavy solids contained in the waste quickly settle to the bottom of the tank, while any floatable solids will remain on top forming a thick foamy sludge. Within hours any fecal matter, toilet tissue or other biodegradable materials break down into thick liquid slurry, which can then pass through the baffle into the digestion chamber while the heavy non-biodegradable solids collect at the bottom of the first chamber. In a healthy septic tank all the liquids contain a colony of anaerobic bacteria (bacteria which thrive in the absence of air), which perform the digestive process by literally eating the biodegradable materials. At this point we then have gray water, which flows into the leach field line. Although the leach field lines are laid underground, nonetheless there is a very small amount of atmospheric air that permeates the soil and enters the leach field lines. This small amount of air is sufficient to support a colony of Aerobic bacteria (bacteria which thrive in air) and the aerobic bacteria complete the digestive process by converting the remaining biodegradable material into various forms of nitrate and other chemicals that are natural plant nutrients. At this point the water leaches into the soil surrounding the leach field pipes and the grass covering the leach field completes the process by using the nutrients for its growth. (This explains why we are required to maintain a grass covering over a septic leach field.)

This entire process mimics the events that take place in nature, and if left to its own devices a septic tank will continue to function for years. On the other hand, when a tank is unnecessarily pumped the pumping process removes all the liquid that contains the bacterial colony. As a result the tank will be full of liquid within 3 or 4 days but it may take 3 to 6 weeks to restore the bacteria colony to a level necessary to maintain the proper operation.

The singular biggest reason that we must pump a septic tank it because the sediment chamber gets clogged up with non-biodegradable solids, such as used condoms, feminine hygiene products or those stupid disposable plastic toilet brushes.

The second largest cause of septic tank problems results from people discarding household chemicals down the drain and those chemicals adversely react with the bacteria colony.

In my house we have one cardinal rule. With the singular exception of toilet tissue, nothing goes in the toilet unless you ate or drank it first. Does this work? You be the judge, my septic tank was installed in 1979 and it has never been opened. At my granddads farm we have septic tank that was installed in 1961 and it has never been opened.

In my region pumping a septic tank is almost unheard of except in instances when abandoning a tank while connecting to a municipal sewer. In fact, there is only one septic tank pump truck serving three counties in this region and there is a proposal before the city council to have our municipal sewage treatment plant take over the operation because the current operator is giving it up for lack of business.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 1:24PM
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Many old house tanks are undersized (never planned on long showers, lots of laundry, etc.)

When the tank is too small, especially the surface area and is overloaded by usage and possibly flooded or failed leach fields, the solids float out with the gray water before settling and be allowed to do their thing (breakdown) thus the plugging.

No doubt big tanks and reduced usage can go for some people forever such as older couples and smaller families without pumping.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 3:42PM
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I have a friend whose tank finally backed up after 20yrs, at my other house,small tank, small leech field, backed up once a year, I would wonder how many systems are put in under the cover of darkness.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 4:31PM
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That may be the argument that the proponents of pumping would like us to believe but it simply is not factual.

Originally toilets required 5gal/flush, which was then changed to 3.5gal/flush in the late 50s and which is now mandated at 1.6gal/flush or less.

Laundry was done in wringer washing machines that required 15gal of water + another 15gal in the rinse tub, and most people used a double rinse tub, one to presoak and the other to rinse. That water was generally changed about 3 to 4 times during the complete washing event.

Primarily bathing was done in huge claw foot tubs that required 35 to 40gal or when there was a shower it was a 4gal/min flow rate. A standard bathtub now uses ½ that amount of water and showers are mandated at 2.5gpm. We also ran the water heaters at 180degF so we used a 50/50 mix of hot and cold and could stand in the shower for upwards of 30 minutes without the water getting cold, something that is almost impossible today.

It must also be remembered that in those days most women were homemakers and we cooked from scratch thus we consumed many gallons of water during the preparation and cooking process, not to mention that in many homes they consumed untold hundreds of gallons of water as they home canned seasonal foods, whereas today our culture primarily lives on carryout or pre-processed foods that go straight from the freezer to the microwave or oven.

In the 50s, 60s and even into the 70s any rural building lot where they intended to install a septic tank was required to be a minimum of 2acres and the total footprint of all structures on the land could not exceed 35% of the total land area. We were required to install a minimum of a 1250gal septic tank, while 2br required a 1500gal tank and 3br+ required a 2000gal tank, which is nearly twice the size of the tank requirements today. On top of that, we were required to have a minimum of three parallel leach field lines, each of which must be 60 long and not less than 5 of separation between parallel lines. As land prices went up, lot sizes went down and structure sizes increased so they began allowing shorter and shorter leach field lines. Today the total leach field area is a mere fraction of what the older homes were required.

It is argued that floating solids obstruct the leach field lines, but here again, that simply is not true. First of all, the internal baffles of the septic tank prevent any floating solid from entering the digestion chamber. In addition, the discharge line from the septic tank is required to have a dip tube that extends 1 below the water level so that floating solids may not enter the leach field line, except of course during that short interval after a tank is pumped when the water level is still below the baffles, but given that the tank will normally be refilled within 3 days that risk is minimal.

On the other hand, when a tank is pumped it removes all the liquid, and the major portion of the bacterial colony. It must also be remembered that the bacteria in the septic tank is anaerobic bacteria (bacteria which thrives in the absence of oxygen) and when a tank is pumped the entire vessel will be full of air, thus even the residual bacteria necessary to restart the culture is severely compromised by exposure to oxygen.

The notion that we must pump the septic tank because the lines back up is totally wrong. The tank is designed to hold the volume of waste created in three days, therefore at best pumping the tank could only alleviate the problem by three days.

The real problem is that people are allowing far too much non-biodegradable solid waste to enter the septic waste system, and the pump merely pulls that junk out allowing the proper flow of water through the system. The solution is easy, get a trash can and put the solid waste out to the curb.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 5:57PM
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I suspect the biggest problem with septic systems are kitchen disposals.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 8:22PM
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they built a small house in the early 20's, septic tank at best was 450 gallons, over the years, they converted the attic to two bedrooms, added one bedroom and a kitchen onto the back of the house and I came along and bought it as my first house. Had constant problems with the septic, go figure,, near the end of my 19 years there, had to have the tank pumped out once a year. Have no idea why it would buy a year of peace but it did. I cannot believe that there ever was a design involved to begin with. I know that was not the only house done that way, I had neighbors.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 8:25PM
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Lazy pup-

I could also argue- People used to only take baths once or twice a week, flushed only when brown, wore clothes 2-3 days, never let a faucet run (a sin).


Periodic preventive maintenance is required to remove the irreducible solids which settle and gradually fill the tank, reducing its efficiency. In most jurisdictions this maintenance is required by law, yet often not enforced. Those who ignore the requirement will eventually be faced with extremely costly repairs when solids escape the tank and destroy the clarified liquid effluent disposal means. A properly cared-for system, on the other hand, can last for decades and possibly a lifetime.

If it was me and I once had a field fail on old house, I would pump it, come on it was only like $75.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 8:35PM
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Interesting conversation going on here and thoughtful ideas. We had our tank pumped today and I had a chance to talk with the specialist pumping.

In addition to the regular advice, things we all should know such as not flushing feminine hygiene products, food, chemicals, etc., he also talked about many problems prevalant to today that we didn't have years ago. Big problems today are the unatural products that get flushed into our systems. Things such as antibacterial soap and scented, multiple-ply and additive-laden toilet paper all destroy the natural balance of the septic system. He also said they are finding more and more pharmaceutical traces showing up in human waste which also throws off the natural balance.

I found that last issue especially concerning. Not only are we poisoning our drinking water with pharmaceuticals, but also our soils.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2008 at 10:27PM
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Ron Natalie

Is your water softener backwash going into your septic? My neighbor has the same problem with the output filter continually clogging and I suspect this is the cause.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 1:09PM
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I have a newer septic. I use only the Scott type toilet paper, which breaks apart when wet, and do not have a garbage disposal. I also tell my wife not to throw any fats or oils down the drain. Also, use liquid laundry detergent. Powder cakes up. Other than water, toilet paper, poop, and pee, nothing else goes in there.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2008 at 10:56PM
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Wow I am glad I found this post. I have lived in this house for about 5-6 years. At first just myself, but then married...wife has been here about 3 years. I have never had a septic issue, never had a clog or backup, never had it pumped. I used ridex once a few years ago because I heard it was good to do...

Well, today I noticed the filmy water just past the tank - almost as if it has over-flowed and is leaking out the lid.

I have to admit I have now learned how bad it is to have a disposal which I do, and have dumped chicken grease, and other foods down it.

We have also had an enormous amout of rain, and melting snow this past month, and have been doing laundry more often due to a new puppy and his pee-towels from his crate.

I am really praying that I do not have a failed leach bed and just need to pump out the tainted scum and re-start my septic properly without the food and grease from food...

Anyone have any insight? I am fearing having to have a new system put in, new leach bed dug, or even worse a chlorination system requirement now that my system is possibly in jeapordy.

Does it sound like it is something that can be fixed or does it sound like I am screwed??


    Bookmark   March 29, 2008 at 8:59PM
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It's not uncommon for a leach bed to fail. After 35 years my clay tile pipe bed failed. Fortunately my 1000g tank was fine. $2,250.00 later and a lawn to rebuild, I sold my house 5 years later much easier when I produced the receipt for the work, putting the buyer at ease.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2008 at 11:18PM
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using a GD REASONABLY is fine on a septic system. the problem is tha tmost folks want to dump 5 pounds of meat, 2 pineapples, and a dozen bananas down them every day. we use our GD a few times a week when rinsing off dishes. the plates are scraped first, then whatever remains is sent down the GD. no problems fromthat what so ever.

now, the 3 inches of rain in under 3 hours last night seems to have flooded my field on my other septic system. my house has 2, one for the kitchen/laundry and 1 for the baths. funny how the one that serves the baths is the only one i ever have a problem with. during spring/fall, if it rains hard before the ground has had a chance to dry out, then we have problems with 1 toilet. the water backs up inthe line enough to keep this one from venting and thus it either backs up or it gurgles when it slowly flushes. the tub/shower right next to it never seem to backup or even drain slow, but they have a seperate vent.

i did have the other pumped last year, and the preivous owner had dumped at least 100 gallons of grease/lard down it over it's 30 years of service. but the field lines were fine, just hte line fromteh house and the tank itself were full of grease.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2008 at 12:27PM
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we had our septic tank pumped for the first time in 30 years. the previous owner said back then that we would never have to have this pumped if we used ridex once a month, since he had to blast and fill the lateral with extra rock. we didnt follow that religeously, but did add ridex occasionally. a few months ago, we noticed some blackwater starting to come out of the lateral about 60 feet from the tank.
we decided to have it pumped and the man who pumped it said that we needed it pumped about every 3 years.
he also said that ridex was a waste of money, and that we just needed to buy a pound of "bakers yeast" and put it in the same was as we would ridex. we would only have to do this once a year.
does anyone know if this is a good remedy instead of ridex? also.. my thought of unclogging the area with some blackwater is to put ridex in the same way as i used to, but right after i flush it down the commode... run the shower for about 20 minutes...thus forcing the ridex toward the area where the blackwater is. my thought is that this would help disolve any blockage if i could just get the bacteria to that point.
any help??? is this a dumb idea? its been about 3 weeks since we pumped the septic tank. the man left about 3-5 inches of sludge in the bottom of the tank so that all the bacteria wouldnt be taken away. thanks for any help you can offer. mike

    Bookmark   June 13, 2010 at 8:59AM
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