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We're closing on our house friday. It's been empty for about 2 years and I heard through the grapevine that the last owners didn't take care of the septic system and had problems with it backing up. (this was a foreclosure property-so, no disclosure papers).

Now, my questions:
What steps do I need to take to make sure we don't have any problems?(I've never had a place with septic before but it seems to me after 2 yrs that things should be pretty much settled with little backup problems)

What kind of regular maintance do I need to do to keep it in good working order?

The house had been winterized with the pipes apparantly being drained and antifreeze poured in. Will this cause problems with the septic and anything special I need to do because of this??
 

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Start by flushing yeast down the drain, this starts benifical bacteria in the tank, secondly, get a metal rod and probe to locate the drain field as well as the tank also. Look for tree roots that threaten the drain field, correct the drain field or add more at a different location. Back ups are caused by inadequate drain fields or a tank that needs to be pumped. Make sure there are no seeping water sources filling the tank with extra water.
 

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Try to find out as much as you can their are several different kinds of septic systems. Get it pumped ,get rid of trees any where near it ,treat it with root dissolver and bactera. You will get lots more help here.

mikell
 

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Septic systems back up because 1)the tank is full or 2)the drain field is plugged up.

You'll need to get the tank pumped.....assuming a tank even exists. Of course, the fluids have settled, but the "solids" in the tank probably haven't been pumped in a decade.

Cross your fingers and hope this is the cause of the backups. Worse case scenairio is that you'll find the previous owner didn't even have a septic system....but buried a 55 gallon drum or some other makeshift contraption. This will mean a complete NEW septic system.
 

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Don't panic yet. When you first get it pumped (it costs me about $200 here in north central WV) ask the folks to take the giant hose and let it 'suck' at the intake pipe from the house in to the tank. They just put the vacuum hose up to the messy pipe that lets wastes into the tank. This relieved me of a small problem I had. You can use a long rod to probe in there (yes, you get dirty-wear old clothes) to determine if it is blocked. Take a plunger and plunge at any basement drain to be certain water runs through it clearly.

Even if you need a new septic system, they are not as expensive as you might think unless you get the kind that processes the waste and releases very clean water near a stream, etc.

Run a drain cleaning product through each sink/tub. This is fairly inexpensive but will help you clean them out after sitting idle for so long. Especially important in kitchen sink and bathroom sink in my opinion.

When you get the septic pumped make note of the amount of gallons. This will tell you the size of your tank and allow you to assess whether it is big enough for your family or not, which is also a concern.

Check all the streams/creeks near the house for waste runoff, which tells you it is not being processed correctly.

Maintainance is having it pumped fairly regularly. For some families that means each year or every 18 months to 2 years. This increases the life of your tank and is worth it. There was a good discussion about caring for a septic tank ages ago--check this site or the archives.
 
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In states like mine (MN) the septic needs to be inspected whenever a dwelling is built or land ownership changes. Only approved septics are allowed, & 90% of them are mound systems which cost $5-12,000. Tanks must be pumped on a regular schedule, not to exceed every 3 years.

If you live in one of the few places left where there are no septic regulations, you still want a good working one. It is your own back yard after all, you want it nice. :)

So, you need to figure out what you have, and come up with something that works. A septic has 2 main parts.

A septic is like a big stomach & intestine. The septic tank keeps out oxygen letting most 'stuff' digest down to safe liquid, with a layer of undigestable grease on top and solids (cotton fiber, dirt, metal, etc) settling to the bottom. The middle liquid part flows out to the drain field where it is absorbed into the soil. The digestion process kills off most all the bad germs & bugs in the stuff going down the drain. What comes out the tank is kinda yucky but 99.9% harmless water with fertilizer in it.

The drain field should be fairly close to the topsoil, and should be in a dry location with soil that allows the waters to seep out. It is generally 3 pipes with holes in it each about 20-60 feet long to allow the liquids to ooze into the ground. A good growth of grass on it helps use up the liquid fertilizer parts, while you don't want any big plants near it to put roots into your drain tile. You do not want any heavy traffic on the drain field, as compacted soil does not allow the water to seep through, and you could collapse your tiles.

Every few years - depending on your tank size & # of people in your household - you _must_ pump out the tank. (People will come on here & brag that they never pumped their tank in 20 or 30 years without problem. This means they do not have a good proper working _septic_ system, or are living a non-average lifestyle putting almost nothing greasy or un-disolvable down their drains. If microbes can't disolve it into liquid, then it will stay in the tank - and this stuff builds up over the years. While a very, very large tank with a very frugal family can go many years, much more likely they do not really have a good proper septic system but are putting bad stuff into the enviornment.)

Once the septic tank starts working, treat it like a stomach. Feed it the normal digestable wastes it lives on, and keep bleaches, salts, harsh cleaners, anti-bacterial stuff, and non-digestable grease & fibers out of it. If you do this, it will be healthy & happy & live forever for you. There will be no need for yeast or those $$$$ additives people want to sell you. That stuff should be naturally occuring in there already. If you need to use additives, something is wrong - just like a healthy person shouldn't need pills to live.

Many old systems were put in poorly, or end up being hooked up to a drainage tile & all your waste is just going out to a ditch, lake, or river, more or less untreated. That's kinda bad. Others are in real gravelly soil & have no tank, just dump all the crude into an underground pit to seep down into the groundwater.


Many people put off pumping their tank. This fills the tank up with undigestable sludge & grease. At some point the tank has no room left for the liquid middle layer, and the grease and/or solids start flowing out into the leach field. this _quickly_ fills up the drain slots in the drain pipe, and plugs up the soil near the pipe so no water can move through this soil & pipe any more. The drain field is effectively ruined with no easy way to clean it - needs to have a new one built. The tank can't drain, and the water will backup into your basement or lower level or bubble up on your lawn.


So, you need to determine what you actually have. There are many different variations on good & bad septic systems, so you must figure out what's there. Look where the main pipe leaves your house, and look what is off in that direction. Locate the septic tank, if you have one. Any pipes sticking up out that way, or a depression where the ground settled, etc.? The tank (if you have one) is generally closer rather than farther from the house... From there you need to find the leach field. Anyplace that looks like greener grass, or water pooled up on a bad one, or is there a pipe draining onto the surface or into a creek off in that direction? Will take a little work to locate this stuff if no one can tell you what & where you have.

Then figure out what went wrong with it, and see what you can do to correct it.

If local laws allow, and you have good perc soils & a good slope to your land away from the house, a septic system is fairly simple & inexpensive. If you have poor everything and restrictive laws allowing only licenced pros to install & pump a septic, they are around $10,000 to install & the pros can charge you whatever they want to pump every three years because no competition is allowed....

Let us know what you find.

--->Paul
 

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Paul, from someone who works for your MPCA and is involved with the on-site sewage treatment program, that was a great post!

Terri listen to Paul!
 

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A few more ideas about septic systems...

Yes you do need to add bacteria to the system, but I would not recommend yeast. There are many commercial products available at the farm store and hardware supercenters specially formulated for septic systems. Roebic also makes various cleaners, though I do not know how effective they are. Don't pour products down your system that will kill bacteria, such as Lysol, bleach, and other bacteria killing cleaners. Small amounts such as hand soap and the occational toilet cleaning are ok. Also don't use the system to dispose of chemicals such as paint, cleaners, etc. You are running a bacteria farm that needs to be kept healthy.

Pumping does not necessarily solve problems with the system; it usually only buys you a little time until the tank soon fills up again, though pumping is necessary to remove accumulated solids from the tank. Pumping will not solve any problem with the field. You may wish to coordinate pumping with work you will do on the drain field to keep septic water out of your work.

Problems in the field may come from gunk in the drainfield lines plugging the holes, an undersized or improperly installed field, or even a crushed feed line running to the field. We had that black gumbo clay at one place that literally totally crushed the line from constant expansion & contraction. Sometimes settling at the tank will shear the line. The best thing is to dig out the exit line of the tank and check the condition of the line running to the field--free running water, or not, gunk in the lines, or not, etc. Water freely exiting or not answers half the questions and helps isolate your problem.

Install a cleanout running to and from the tank. Install a cleanout for each branch on the field. Make sure you fill in your hole with course gravel if you get into the drain field--dirt against a perforated drain line is a very bad situation. (Use schedule 40 and not the thin stuff to replace any crushed or broken solid lines if you have expansive clay and back fill with sand or gravel so the movement of the clay does not 'grab' the line.) The tank should not be too hard to find (it may be two tanks or a single divided tank). The waste line usually runs straight to the tank from the outside cleanout near where the line exits the house. If you have problem finding the tank with a probe (a steel rod to poke around in the ground to find the lid), you can also run a large snake down the line (someone needs to keep it rotating for you) and often you can hear the rotating snake in the line.

With the cleanouts installed, some companies can do what is called a jet wash. This is a high-pressure spray line run down the lines to clean out the pipe and the drain holes in your lines. If your field still accepts water, a good cleaning will often help. Some companies also have cameras they can run down the lines for inspection looking for roots and broken pipe.

Call around to the septoc companies in your area and ask for advice. Some companies will give you good advice, some will not; some will want to sell you an entire new $10,000 system when you only have a broken feed line (experienced that, but did not fall for it).

You should also try to minimize the amount of water going down your drain. Repair any leaking fixtures. You may wish to take your washing machine off the septic system if regulations permit. Also install low flow shower heads and water saving toilets.

Installation of a new system is quite expensive here, and I would try anything to resolve any problems before considering a new field. Here, if you are running solid pipe, you can do the work yourself without a permit or inspection. Once you run or replace any perforated pipe or otherwise modify the operation of the system, the county, permits, and engineering are required as part of the job. Give your county (or city if applicable) health department a call and they can fill you in on the regulations in your area.

Dale (DH of Mary, TX)
 

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Pumping a tank is preventive maintenance and is necessary! You can pay now or pay later, with later obviously being far more expensive. This maintenace avoids partially undesolved solids from entering into the drain fields and causing a problem there. The newest of tanks installed here have a filter from the tank to the drain field to prevent contaimination of the drain field. Listen to Paul above.
 
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We just had to replace the soil pipe in our house. The cast iron pipe outside had separated at the wall and was plugging up the pipe into the tank. Then we found that the pipe up through the roof had many cracks in it which is why the water leaked when the upstairs bathroom was used. Total cost was $800 and a pig. Well worth the money. We pumped the septic this time to find this out . It was last pumped 8 yrs ago.
Septics aren't much trouble if you have on sized correctly for the house and can keep your spouse from planting trees all through the drainfield.
 

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I hope the comment about listening to Paul was not made in respect to my comments, but only to support Paul. I agree to pump as preventive maintenance, but since the question is about an existing problem, pumping will not fix an existing problem if it is with the drainfield.

All problems I have ever encountered myself or discussed with others was always the field and not the tank (except one friend that found they had no tank, in which case pumping would not help anyway). I would NOT pump until determining the condition of and whether there is work to be done on the outflow side of the system. It is a waste of money to first pump hoping it is the tank, then pay again a week or two later to pump again in order to dig up outflow lines and possibly making modifications including installing cleanouts.

After determining and resolving the true problem, I would suggest pumping the tank (if not done in conjunction with other work) since the condition is unknown and then recharging with bacteria as it refills. If there are no problems discovered when moving into a previously owned home, pumping after determining a system is working may then be a good idea. You may wish to wait a few months to see if any problems are manifest since if the system is unused for a period of time, it will take some time for symptoms to reappear.

Dale


agmantoo said:
Pumping a tank is preventive maintenance and is necessary! You can pay now or pay later, with later obviously being far more expensive. This maintenace avoids partially undesolved solids from entering into the drain fields and causing a problem there. The newest of tanks installed here have a filter from the tank to the drain field to prevent contaimination of the drain field. Listen to Paul above.
 
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You have very good advise also Mary/Dale. You filled in a lot of good info.

My comments are an unscientific, simple explination of how the whole deal works. Most complex-sounding and mystical things in our life are actually made up of simple concepts and individual parts that are not nearly as mysterious as they seem - like a septic system. Pipe the goo out of the house, let it sit in a dark non-oxygen tank with some microbes for a while, let the fluids & benign nutrients drain away to feed a nice sod. Now it's easy to see why the tank needs to be pumped every so often, and how the different parts can be damaged with lots of bleach or grease or a broken pipe or too much rain in the leach area, etc. It's a really simple system. A few things I said are not totally exact science; but close enough to get the point across I hope, and a more understandable comparison that a textbook explination that loses people.

Now the hard part for Terri - find out if there is a real problem, what it is, & how to get it fixed so it is good but not cost an arm & a leg needlessly. With the background of the property, there will most likely be very little help from previous owners of locating the septic or explaining what problem it did have. Could be as simple as a clogged pipe leading out of the house, which only needs some snaking or jetting. Or as bad as a clogged leach field with no useable tank, which means a whole new system.

--->Paul
 

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Thanks for all the great advice. I just heard they had problems and the person who said this is someone who can embellish things at times(to put it nicely). I have seen 2 fairly large metal covers set in sqs of cement that I figure are part of the septic. They are not sunk in ane the ground around them is level(a good sign, right?) There are no trees around this area and when I go over today I'll have to look around and see if I can see where the leach field might be. There's no water sources around to worry about run off(there is a well on the upper part of the property a good ways away though) I know who the original owners of the property were and know that they took care of it, it's just the people that took it over in 95 that I don't know about.
Fortunately, we live in an area that isn't over regulated but I still want it to work well.
 
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