How do you know when your septic tank needs pumping? - Homesteading Today
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  #1  
Old 02/12/07, 12:37 PM
 
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Location: Washington, USA
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How do you know when your septic tank needs pumping?

Bought this place last July. It had sat unused for a while before that. Had been rented out. Owner lived in it for a year maybe. So, with this sordid history I feel like I should maybe have the septic pumped just so I know what we're starting out with. Finances are tight, though. Can't afford to pump it right now if it doesn't NEED pumping. I will do it as soon as I have the cash to spare, but at the same time I don't want to mess up the leach field by letting it go too long.

How can I tell if it NEEDS to be pumped? There are some green plastic manhole cover things over by the septic alarm/power stand.

Also, I occasionally catch a whiff of septic smell outside the mobile home. Could this just be a "burb" from a vent pipe?

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  #2  
Old 02/12/07, 12:53 PM
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Make yourself a "septic dipstick" by wrapping some white or light-colored material around a long pole. Staple the material to the pole with your staplegun. Open the inspection pipe (or manhole) at the outlet end of the septic tank. Dip your stick to the bottom of the tank and remove. The black stuff clinging to the bottom of the dipstick is sludge. The sludge height should be no closer than 12 inches from the bottom of the septic tank's outlet baffle. If the level of sludge is below this distance, you do not need to have the tank pumped....UNLESS, there is a thick layer of scum and fat solids floating on top of the liquid in the tank. This scum layer should be any closer than 3 or 4 inches from the bottom of the outlet baffle.

This chart gives you a rough idea of how often a septic tank should be pumped:

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Last edited by Cabin Fever; 02/12/07 at 12:59 PM.
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  #3  
Old 02/12/07, 12:57 PM
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in wisconsin we are required to pump every year in some townships and every other in others if you don't put to many solids in it and not to much bleach to kill the good bacteria you should be fine for some time

i know of one house in the family that went more than 10 years without being pumped

but they put yeast cakes in the toilet the yeast and good bacteria eat up the solids


so get a good septic tank treatment (think of it like bread starter) it is a culture of bacteria and microbes that reduce the solids in your tank to a fine silt that sits at the bottom of your tank and is pumped out ocationaly removing this before it builds up enought to get to the exit hole into the drain feild

try not to use a lot of bleach you may even want to look into the seventh generation products they are dish soap ,laundry deturgent , ect.. that are safe for septic and grey water systems .

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Old 02/12/07, 12:59 PM
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Quote:
How do you know when your septic tank needs pumping?
When you flush and the water doesn't go anywhere. At least, that's how we knew.
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  #5  
Old 02/12/07, 01:04 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by southerngurl
When you flush and the water doesn't go anywhere. At least, that's how we knew.
When this happens, pumping the septic tank will not help. It means that the sludge from the tank has filled your leachfield. The soil is plugged with solids. No amount of pumping will cure this problem!

Greencountrypete: Yeast does nothing to help a septic tank reduce solids. Yeasts convert sugars to alchohols and carbon dioxide. Yeast is a mold, not a bacteria.
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  #6  
Old 02/12/07, 02:04 PM
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Again, it is STRONGLY recommend products such as RID-EX not be used in a septic tank. The purpose of a septic tank is to be a settling basin. What solids are left after the bacteria work on them settles to the bottom as 'black gunk'. What products such as RID-EX do is to keep the solids in suspension rather than letting them settle. In suspension they then then pushed out into the leach field every time someone put more liquid into the tank. They will eventually settle in the leach field and clog it up. Then you have to either extend or replace the leach field.

I understand selling RID-EX is against the law in some states.

All your septic needs to function properly is good old human poop.

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  #7  
Old 02/12/07, 03:56 PM
 
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I know for us one time that we noticed water around our clean out port! That happened after we had a lot of company out on a 4th of July party. Needless to say it was time. We were also in need of a new leach field. Our old one wasn't big enough it seems. Had that done and we've been good to go for many years now. (Pun intended )

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  #8  
Old 02/12/07, 04:05 PM
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Good question. Here's what scares me about mine. I don't know where it is, what size it is, where the access for it is, or how long since it's been pumped. I tried and tried to get this info out of the seller and realtor, but nobody, not even our own realtor, seemed to think it was important.

All I know is that it's in the front yard someplace and that so far everything is working fine. I should probably shell some money out soon and have someone out to inspect it, wherever it is. I hope THEY can find it.

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  #9  
Old 02/12/07, 04:13 PM
In Remembrance
 
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First check with the County Health Department. A permit might have had to be obtained when it was installed and it may still be on file. Permit likely has a plot sketch.

Septic tanks are normally found by probing with a metal rod with a T-handle. Most tanks are within 18" of the top of the ground. Once corners are found the location of the lids can be fairly easily determined.

I can tell where my tank is since the grass over it turns brown during a very dry period.

Some folks can tell where the leach field is since the grass is greener over the lines.

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  #10  
Old 02/12/07, 05:28 PM
 
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Location: Eastern Washington
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septic systems

In our county they now require the companies that pump the septic to take pictures of the location with measurements to verify where they are. These are then filed with the county. Keep your septic in good working condition ie: pump it sooner then later. You do not want the solids getting into the drain/leach field. Our septic has been in place since 1943 and is working well. We did have to redo the drainfield about 1975 but that was mostly because after grandparents lived here, we moved in with a family of kids. The gentleman that started the septic pumping company knew my grandfather........he said Grandpa's system was the "old" style but he knew what he was doing!! I am glad, because to tap onto the sewer line will run $ 8000.00!! When Grandma moved to a retirement home, it was $ 6500.00 for her to hook up to sewer (she only lived down the road from us)! It is now required to hook up before you sell, even if the septic is working. If you have any trouble with septic you have to hook up. So maintain that system well and it will treat you well! (and be aware of the counties and their rule changes, they are sneaky)

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  #11  
Old 02/12/07, 08:05 PM
 
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The results of my spelunking thus far:

Well, there are three green plastic "manhole covers" which seem to open into three separate concrete tanks, all in a row. Two of the manhole covers were just placed on top of their openings. The third manhole cover was secured with torx screws, the tool for which I have yet to locate in the mess of the workbench.

If the waste water from the mobile home is gravity fed into these tanks, then the entry point for the sewage was in one of the two unsecured tanks. I opened the first lid and peered in. There was a white plastic pipe entering the tank from the direction of the mobile home. The pipe had a tee in the tank. One half of the tee went straight down into the concrete tank, almost to the bottom (maybe five feet?). The other half of the tee went straight up but was only maybe twelve inches long.

There was a mat of unspeakable unpleasantness floating on top of the water in this tank. I had a length of PVC pipe that I used to sound the tank. I could feel a few (four? five? six?) inches of mush at the bottom of the tank, which I was careful not to disturb.

The second tank, slightly downhill from the first, had no mush in the bottom that I could discern. Also no raft of filth. There was a pipe leading through the concrete wall from tank 1 into tank 2. It seemed to be set up the same as the pipe leading *in* to tank 1: inlet pipe, tee to the bottom of the tank and a 12" stub pointing up.

Tank 2 had something that tank 1 didn't have. It had a pipe projecting into it from the direction of tank 3 (the one whose lid I haven't opened). This pipe entered the tank horizontally and had a 12" stub projecting up, with a lid on it. The lid had a couple of small holes in it. I forgot to check with my probe to see if this pipe had a tee the way the others did.

So, it looks like sewage enters tank 1. The solids settle out. The placement of the pipe between tank 1 and tank 2 allows for the liquids to move on to tank 2 while keeping the floating junk behind. In tank 2 there is further opportunity for solids to settle out before seeping through the holes in the capped pipe into tank 3. In tank 3 I believe the liquids are pumped uphill to the leach field in front of the barn.

I'll open tank 3 as soon as I can find the right bit. I'll wrap something around my pipe to take a more accurate sounding of the sludge, but it feels like I have lots of time yet.

Should I be doing anything about the floating stuff in tank 1?

(Thank you all SO MUCH for your assistance with this, by the way!)

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  #12  
Old 02/12/07, 08:17 PM
 
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Cabin Fever has has some good explinations, up above and in older threads if you search them. You need to inspect it to know. You _can't_ wait until there is a problem - then you 75% of the time have much bigger problems that will cost you a lot of money. As mentioned the drain tile will fill up and seal itself solid if the tank overlows with crud.

If you have an older unit with no inspection holes...... Dig up the cover & inspect it that way. If you don't want to do that.... Call a pumper. Spend the $150 - 300 and get it done. Ask how big your tank is - they will know from pumping it. Then follow the chart CF has. If you don't know where it is located - find out! Look in the house, see if you can determine the direction the drain pipe leaves, prob around the yard with a tile prob. The neck should only be 2 feet or less down, tile prob is pretty east to check 4 feet deep if you have to.

Don't ignore it. Some day it will bother - and then it is a big bother.

Some old systems end up draining into a field tile, and off into a waterway somewhere. They are _really_ cracking down on those, even in no-zone states. In theory you can just ignore those & they will 'work' for 50 years, happily floating your fresh gunk down the river..... It would be real nice if you had it pumped on schedule. Then it almost works pretty good, floating very little stuff down the rivers..... Still not govt appoved or real good, but at least better.

Yeast & the other additives are a waste of money. A good working septic tank works just like your tummy, digesting things down to liquids and - well basically ash, like left in a fire pit. As well as a little bit of sand & dirt & cotton fibers that go along in. And on top is a layer of grease floating, grease does not break down very well at all and will hang around on top.

If you have a big tank, and you live very conservatively the tank might last 20 years or more before filling up. If you put a lot of grease down the drain, as well as laundry fibers, and farmer's dirt & sand from a large family - the tank can fill up with that stuff in 18 months. That chart up above fom CF will help, but there is no way to know for sure until you have some experience.....

Anyhow, the additives don't work any better than just toilet poo to keep the process working. And any tank will, slowly or quickly, fill up with ash, dirt, fibers, grease, and plastic/rubber/ fiberous things. All do need pumping at some point - there is no such thing as 'never' needing pumping.

--->Paul

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  #13  
Old 02/12/07, 08:23 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by edayna
Good question. Here's what scares me about mine. I don't know where it is, what size it is, where the access for it is, or how long since it's been pumped. .
If you know where your main sewer drain is, than that leads to where your septic tank should be. My septic tank is about 12' outside from there. Any plumber type of person would easily find your tank. And as someone mentioned a permit has to be filed on record to show the date of installation and inspection, size and location of tank and field.
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Old 02/13/07, 07:41 AM
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Jennigrey, it sounds like you have a “compartmentalized” (ie, two-compartment) septic tank and a pumping station. As long as there is no sludge or floating scum in the second compartment (or second tank), you are in good shape. If you ever see any scum or sludge in that second tank, get the first tank pumped pronto! I believe that the setup you have leading from tank#2 to tank#3 is an effluent filter. The purpose of this filter is to trap any suspended lint or hair. This filter should be removed and cleaned on an annual basis. If it is not cleaned, it can plug and cause a back-up of sewage into the home.

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Old 02/13/07, 08:19 AM
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Believe it or not but a well working septic system will never "have" to be pumped or anything else. I know of systems that are 30 or 40 years old without anything ever being done to them and they work as well as they day they are put in.
My parents lived in the same house before they sold it for 27 years and never done a thing. When they sold the house it was check out and was found to be in great shape and did not need pumped or anything.

Now if your the type of people that flush things that should not be flushed then yes it will need pumped. Things that will not break down like well lady things (You know what I mean) should never be flushed as your just asking for trouble. But if you just use it for what it was made for them your have a life time of trouble free service from it.

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Old 02/13/07, 11:26 AM
 
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Micahn, what do you mean by "well?" If the water source is a well or if the system is healthy?

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  #17  
Old 02/13/07, 12:37 PM
 
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In Alaska, the department that oversees septic systems EXPRESSLY DISOURAGES using ANY additives in your system to "promote efficiency". This includes those products like Septic Care, Rid-X, and what-have-you. DEC says they can actually HARM your system.

On the real estate agents and seller not telling you about the septic - that is a BIG no-no here. The banks won't even finance a place without a new adequacy test of the leachfield.

Our second house was a nice place in this same town. In the 1980s a house was built on the lot prior to the one we bought. In the early 1990s that first house burnt down. They replaced the burned-down house with the one we bought. What we didn't know (and were too busy with all the OTHER details of the purchase to ask) was that the septic was the ORIGINAL system for the FIRST house. That was all fine and dandy but we didn't realize we were buying a 20-year-old leachfield, we just didn't think about it. It passed the adequacy test and things went off with out a hitch. A few years later we went to sell and had the test for the buyer. It failed!!! I looked at the tester and said, you tested this thing just a few years ago and it passed and we were told it was in fine shape! He said, well "it was going then". I said, we had no indication of it "going" or being on it's way out! He said, "Well, I have only two choices for the test - Pass or Fail. Your's passed then but it was going." I asked how the heck I would have known that, and he said "It's in the numbers." In other words, you would have had to have had a septic engineer explain the test results IN DETAIL to you as to how the water was making it through the septic system and trickling through the leachfield with the rise/fall numbers recorded at intervals to see that it was SLOWLY losing ground up with the outflow. Nice. The other problem that was not fully disclosed to us was that the well was lower flow than we were told (we were told 8 gallons per minute but the records showed much less and we didn't find out until we sold!!). Apparently, this low flow was such that the septic adequacy test COULD NOT BE COMPLETED when we bought the place so it was "done as best they could".

I was NOT happy about this situation and it cost us $4,000 we didn't have to put in a new leachfield. At the last minute. In winter. Grrrrr. We happened to be selling with the same agent that brokered the sale for the prior owners so she got a BIG earful from me when I got the news.

Anyway, the morals of the story are don't just take a "pass" for granted, talk to the tester and ask them what they think the life of the system is and if it is on it's way out anytime soon. Also, BE PRESENT for as many inspections/tests as you can so you CAN ask these questions while people are ON-SITE, not after they have filed and forgotten the property and moved onto 20 others. Plus then you can ask questions when the seller is present so they can't minimize things or cover them up from you totally. Harrumph!

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Old 02/13/07, 01:57 PM
 
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Oh yeah, we didn't answer the OP's question on the smell she's noticing. I don't know the answer - does anyone else here know?

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  #19  
Old 02/13/07, 08:12 PM
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jennigrey: As mentioned above that floating scum on your #1 is likely grease. If so, you might want to evaluate how it is getting into the tank. Is used cooking grease being poured down sink?

Also, garbage disposals are BAD for septic tanks as what gets ground up usually cannot be digested by the bacteria.

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Old 02/13/07, 08:57 PM
 
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I don't pour any cooking grease down the drain. Bacon grease is hoarded like gold. All the other greases and oils get poured into a tin which is thrown away when full. Also no garbage disposal, and there are strainers in the bottoms of the sink basins to keep chunks from going down the drain. Any food pieces go in the countertop compost. I suppose it could be there from the previous owner. Will it hang around that long? Is there anything I can do to encourage it to sink?

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