Septic tank backups can be a messy and inconvenient situation. A backup is also one of the most common septic system problems. However, diagnosing septic tank problems can be difficult, as the problem could be with the tank itself, or with the drainfield.
A septic tank is meant to collect all the waste from your home in a tank that is separate from the house. However, a backup means that your wastes are flowing in the opposite direction, and wastewater returns to your home. As you can imagine, this is releases a whole host of stinky and dirty issues, but it also poses dangers and health risks.
How the Septic System Works
A septic system consists of two main parts, the tank and the drain field. The former receives wastewater from the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room. When the wastewater enters the tank, the solid elements of waste sink to the bottom, which forms the sludge layer. Meanwhile, elements of grease and lighter solids float to the top, and this forms the scum layer. The separation of layers takes roughly a day for each inbound supply of wastewater.
Between these layers of scum and sludge, water pushes through and out into the drain field. The scum and sludge are eaten up by bacteria over time, and this prevents the top and bottom layer from growing too large too fast. However, sometimes the bacteria cannot keep up with the inbound volumes of wastewater into the tank. When this happens, impurities can get pushed out into the drain field. In any case, a septic tank must be pumped every three to five years to prevent the scum and sludge layers from rising too high.
Types of Septic Tanks
There are three common types of septic tanks used in residential construction.
- Concrete septic tanks
- Polyethylene/plastic septic tanks
- Fiberglass septic tanks
Concrete septic tanks are the most common, but because of their weight require heavy machinery to install. Polyethylene and fiberglass are much lighter, one-piece units. This makes them ideal for remote, hard to reach places. Before purchasing a septic tank system, check with your local building department for codes and regulations regarding onsite wastewater treatment.
Why Do Septic Tanks Backup?
A backed-up septic tank is a headache and can happen for many reasons. Some you can control, and others can happen at any time.
Here are some of the most common causes for septic tank backup:
- The Tank is Too Full
Your septic tank is designed to do its work independently, but that does not mean it can be neglected. As the septic system works to reduce the volume of solid wastes in your tank, it creates a sludge layer at the bottom of the tank that needs to be pumped out regularly. Not pumping your tank on a regular basis to remove the thick sludge layer can cause the tank to overflow and back up.
- Flooding/Heavy Rain
One of the most common causes of septic tank backups. After a period of sustained and heavy rainfall, the ground around your tank will be saturated. If this happens, then the septic tank will be unable to pump out filtered wastewater, which will obviously lead to your septic tank backing up.
A problem like this will not fix itself. The saturated ground will mean that the tank will begin to fill up with wastewater it cannot get rid of. This can cause issues to cascade. If there is no dry soil to absorb the clean water, waste and water mix together and flow out together.
- Increased Water Use
If you have been hosting many long-term guests or throwing parties every weekend, you could be filling your tank faster than it can keep up with. If your toilets get a lot of use, then your septic tank may struggle to keep up, which could lead to a blockage. Tanks come in all sizes. Make sure you know how big yours, so you do not overfill it accidentally.
Anything that could clog up septic tanks pipes will likely lead to the system backing up. Clogging is caused by something getting into the system that cannot easily be broken down.
The name for such an item is a Non-Flushable Solid.
Some examples include:
- Female Hygiene Products.
- Disposable Gloves.
- Cotton Swabs.
Putting anything other than toilet paper down your toilet is cautioned against for this very reason.
- Harsh Chemicals
The septic system relies on the natural bacterium within the tank. While we often think of bacteria as a bad thing, bacteria are great when it comes to your septic system. “Good” bacteria work in the tank to break down solid waste. Using harsh chemicals and household cleaners that rinse into your septic tank can kill the bacteria.
- Tree Roots
Trees are very hearty and survive the harshest winter cold and the worst summer heat. And their roots are no different. These hardy extensions of the tree continually grow throughout the tree’s lifetime and expand the tree’s stability and ability to gather nutrients. In fact, experts estimate that tree roots grow in every season, just as long as the temperature on the ground is above freezing.
However, spring and summer seethe most tree root growth, though some trees may see further growth in the fall. Though this spread isn’t incredibly fast, it is persistent in a way that many homeowners may not realize. Unfortunately, a tree planted in a backyard may slowly extend its roots towards the septic field system.
The area surrounding your septic tank and drain field has overflow water, nutrients and oxygen. These are all the essentials that tree roots will seek out to thrive. The roots can eventually grow through small cracks and wreak havoc on your septic system. Once inside your system, tree roots can block or even break drainage and distribution pipes and can quickly grow large enough to restrict water flow. Tree roots growing inside your pipes are one of the most expensive septic maintenance items.
- Pressure on the Tank
Septic systems are designed to work best when wastewater is allowed to spread out and filter through the soil. If you build a driveway, patio, or deck above the tank or drain field it could disrupt this process and lead to backups. The same goes for parking vehicles such as cars, tractors, or recreational vehicles over these areas. Their weight can cause soil to become compacted, leading to a cracked septic tank or an ineffective drain field.
Warning Signs of a Backed Up Septic System
It can be difficult to tell what is a sign of a backed-up septic tank. At first glance, you could brush off any of these signs as not a big deal. But it is important to take all of these warnings seriously and investigate the problem. Is your home showing any of these warning signs?
- Blackwater Overflow or Backup
When you use your sink, you may inadvertently wash biological materials down the drain, such as hair, skin oils and soap, which grows bacteria that is black. Some of these biological materials cling to the sides of the drain body as well as the drainpipe, forming a layer of film. This biological film provides a breeding ground for bacteria, which turns the film black. Sometimes the black film comes loose, for instance, when you pour drain cleaners or other harsh substances down the drain.
In many septic emergencies, blackwater (i.e., sewage) may backup into your home’s lowest level toilets and drains or overflow into the area around the septic tank. This can be caused by an overfull tank blocking exit baffles or by clogs in the pipes leading to the septic tank. Be very careful not to touch blackwater with your bare hands if you see it backing up into your home or overflowing the septic tank.
- Slow, Gurgling, Bubbling, or Clogged Drains
When properly functioning, your drains should clear about one gallon of water every 30 seconds. If your drains are draining slower than usual, it could be a sign that your septic tank needs to be pumped. When the tank is full, it can cause a blockage that prevents water from flowing through as quickly as it should. If you notice one drain slowing down, it may just be a clog in that pipe, but if drains all over your house are slower or gurgling after the water has drained, it could be a sign of serious septic trouble, especially when accompanied by an unpleasant odor.
- Foul Smells
A bad odor coming from your drains or near your septic tank could mean a leak somewhere in the system or an obstruction preventing waste from flowing freely through your pipes. Either way, you should have a professional inspect the area as soon as possible before it turns into an even bigger issue.
- Wet and Overly Healthy Lawn
One of the most obvious signs of a backed-up septic tank can be seen in your yard.
Look to see if your yard is excessively wet without reason. If there has not been a lot of rain and your yard is still wet, then it may be time to check your septic tank.
Also check to see if a part of your yard is looking very healthy. The sight of a particularly healthy piece of grass in the middle of otherwise normal patches is a telltale sign that your septic tank may be leaking. The leaking sewage acts as fertilizer which causes this overly healthy look.
If you have noticed one or more of these warning signs, it is time to take action before the situation gets out of hand, as there are real consequences of a backed-up septic tank.
Dangers of a Backed Up Septic Tank
A backed-up septic tank can cause bigger problems than just pooled water in your shower. Septic backup carries disease and is a real health hazard to you and your family. Drug byproducts, human waste, fungus, viruses, and bacteria all live in sewage. Contact professional help for assistance sanitizing your home if any sewage backup bubbles in.
Methane gas is highly flammable and can be ignited with a simple spark of a match. Many homes have gas ovens with open flames. If methane gas was to flow out through your kitchen drains and linger in the air, the possibility of a fire is just a spark away.
Not only is methane gas flammable, but extremely detrimental to your health if ingested. Someone who inhales methane may experience asphyxiation: the process of which one is deprived of oxygen. This can result in someone passing out as they can continue to inhale the toxic gas which can ultimately be fatal.
At the first sign of a backed-up septic system, you must either attempt to fix it or call a West Coast Sanitation professional for repairs.
Call West Coast Sanitation Today!
A great solution is to call and talk to West Coast Sanitation about your backed-up septic tank. Our trained professionals will assess the issue and figure out the best solution that won’t break the bank.
At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you don’t have time to deal with septic problems. If you think that your system has reached capacity, please give us a call right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.