If your house is serviced by a septic system, you should take the time to understand how it works so you can maintain it, because improper maintenance is the No. 1 cause of system failure. When problems occur, you might notice them in the house or out in the yard, or you may get an alert from your septic alarm. You can sometimes fix septic problems yourself, but not always.
What Can Go Wrong
When a septic system is functioning properly, sewage enters one side, water comes out the other and the water soaks into the drainfield. The tank, which is the heart of the system, connects to the house and the drainfield by a series of pipes, and the pipes can get blocked. If the tank is at a lower elevation than the drainfield, the water must be pumped, and the pump can fail for various reasons, causing the tank to overflow. Finally, the drainfield itself can fail because the soil gets compacted or saturated with septic water or runoff from another source.
Slow, Gurgling Drains
If you aren't in the habit of monitoring your septic system and the system fails, you might not know about the failure until you start having plumbing problems. Your toilets will flush slowly, water will empty sluggishly from your drains, and the drains will gurgle. When this happens, it means the tank is full of water. Before you have a professional inspect the water level in the tank, try clearing the house's main drain -- running from the house to the septic tank -- by plunging the lowest toilet in the house or inserting a sewer auger through a drain cleanout. Check your septic alarm -- if you have one; if it's flashing, it means the pump isn't working. The problem may be simply a tripped breaker in the main panel, which you can reset yourself.
When the Tank Needs Pumping
If plunging has no effect and an auger reveals no root obstructions in the pipe leading to the tank, the problem may be simply that the tank needs to be pumped. A tank overflow may be indicated by sogginess and sponginess in the ground above the tank, especially when accompanied by odors. Before you call a septic pro to inspect and, if necessary, pump the tank, there's one more thing you should do: check the drainfield. If there is a problem there, water could be backing into the tank.
Symptoms of Drainfield Problems
Some drainfield problems take years to develop, while others occur suddenly as a result of a heavy rain, freezing temperatures or vehicular traffic that compacts the soil and damages the drain pipes. Look for lush vegetation -- it can be a sign of poor drainage that could be caused by soil saturation, soil compaction or roots that have invaded the drainage pipes. Standing water and sewage odors signify an acute problem that needs immediate professional attention to prevent your septic effluent from contaminating nearby water sources. Finally, have the distribution box inspected, if your system has a pump. That box, from which the drainfield pipes emanate, can get blocked and overflow.
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