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Whether you know it or not, your septic system plays a vital role. The importance of such a role only becomes evident when problems surface.

If you own a septic system, you need to know the signs of a failing installation, what causes them, and what your next steps should be.

Here are a few things that will let you know if it is time to replace your septic tank:


Septic System Basics

Most septic system owners have a vague understanding of how their systems work. A quick review of the components and functions of your system will provide a clearer understanding of how weather affects it.


  • Tank

Basic septic systems have two main parts: a septic tank and an absorption field. A septic tank is a buried, water-tight container usually made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. The breakdown of sewage begins in the tank. First, wastewater from the household flows into the tank through a drainage pipe. Then the tank holds the wastewater from the household long enough for the solids to settle to the bottom of the tank. During this process, oil and grease in the water float to the top and form scum on the surface. Finally, the liquid part of the wastewater (effluent) exits the tank and drains into the absorption field.


  • Drainfield

The second part of the system is the drainfield. The drain field is a shallow, covered, excavation made in unsaturated soil. This soil absorbs and percolates the wastewater, allowing harmful substances to be broken down naturally.


How Does a Septic System Work?

Septic systems are underground wastewater treatment structures, commonly used in rural areas without centralized sewer systems. They use a combination of nature and proven technology to treat wastewater from household plumbing produced by bathrooms, kitchen drains, and laundry.

A typical septic system consists of a septic tank and a drainfield, or soil absorption field.

The septic tank digests organic matter and separates floatable matter (e.g., oils and grease) and solids from the wastewater. Soil-based systems discharge the liquid (known as effluent) from the septic tank into a series of perforated pipes buried in a leach field, chambers, or other special units designed to slowly release the effluent into the soil.

Alternative systems use pumps or gravity to help septic tank effluent trickle through sand, organic matter (e.g., peat and sawdust), constructed wetlands, or other media to remove or neutralize pollutants like disease-causing pathogens, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other contaminants. Some alternative systems are designed to evaporate wastewater or disinfect it before it is discharged to the soil.


What Happens When a Septic System Fails?

A septic system failure causes untreated sewage to be released and transported to where it should not be. This may cause sewage to come to the surface of the ground around the tank or the drainfield or to back up in pipes in the building. The sewage could also find its way into groundwater, surface water or marine water without us ever seeing it. The sewage carries pathogens and other dangerous contaminants. Exposure to these pathogens and contaminants can make people and animals sick. They can also contaminate water sources and make them unsafe for drinking, swimming, shellfish harvesting and agricultural uses.


Signs of a Failing Septic System


1. Foul Odor

An unpleasant smell may not be the first sign you need a new septic tank, but it should make you investigate further to see if you can determine the origin of the odor. A slight odor around or near the tank is normal. The key word is slight. Once the smell becomes overpowering, it is time to call in a professional. Strong odors indicate trouble with the tank. If a rotten smell is detected inside your home, do not ignore it hoping it will go away.


2. Pools and Puddles In Your Yard

If a septic tank is working properly, there should be no reason for standing water in your yard. The water is likely sewage, so it probably will smell bad and be easy to detect. These septic puddles can be a health concern, so you want to get a professional in as soon as possible to drain and replace your septic tank.


3. Unusual, Bright Green Grass Above Drainfield

Have you ever seen people place mulch, fertilizers, and manure on their grass to help it grow? Sewage can have the same properties as manure, containing nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, and micronutrients that plants can absorb to grow. 

Therefore, if you notice any unusually green grass near your drainfield, wastewater is likely leaking into your lawn. Since grass is naturally green, spotting this symptom can be tricky. 

Wastewater will contribute to abnormal levels of greenness in your grass to an extent which you’ll definitely notice. Pay close attention to your drainfield to spot this issue before it becomes too problematic. 

4. Backed Up Pipes or Slow Drains

One of the most common observable signs of septic system failure is seen in slow drains. Such is observed with sinks bathtubs and showers. You would notice that water does not drain away as fast as it used to.

If this is detected, consider seeking urgent professional help.

Further probe of the system would reveal where the real problem lies. It may be due to a malfunctioning component or multiple parts. Allowing it to persist only worsens the situation.


5. More People or Drain Fixture In the Home

The home you first purchased may have suited your family size in the past, but families often grow and expand. If you have multiple children in the house, the water use only expands and could lead to septic tank problems. Babies may need minimal water, but as they get older, they will take more frequent baths and learn to use the toilet. Their daily water consumption will increase.

If you have multiple children, then the septic tank use could easily double. A septic tank technician can determine how much water use your home uses and the ideal septic tank size for your home. Calculations are done with water usage tables. With a larger tank, the home can handle multiple showers a day, expanded toilet use, and frequent use of a dishwasher.


6. Contaminated Well Water

The contents of septic tanks finding their way into surrounding water sources can pose serious health threats. This is a situation you want to avoid at all costs. If you have suspicions about your septic tank leaking, you might want to call for water quality testing.

This will focus on nearby water sources like wells etc.

When such water tests positive for nitrates or bacteria, urgent action will have to be taken. The chance of your septic tank leaking is significantly increased.

7. Current System Is Old

Another sign that you need to replace or repair your septic system is that it is old. Especially if it came with your home when you bought it, you should update your septic system so it is working properly. The actual life expectancy of a septic tank depends largely on its materials, while the life of septic system piping depends largely on the risk of damage from vehicle traffic, clogging by roots, or flooding by groundwater.

The life expectancy of a drainfield varies widely by installation type (conventional soil absorption system versus a sand bed filter, for example), by soil conditions (clay or rock or sand), and importantly, by the frequency of maintenance and cleaning which has been performed on the septic system.


How Often Does a Septic Tank Need Replacing?

Typically, a tank is expected to last as much as 40 years. While the likelihood of your tank clocking this number of years is possible, such isn’t always the case.

Damage resulting from roots, pressure from groundwater, misuse among other factors may reduce the lifespan.

When this happens, some septic tanks will need replacements as early as 15 years. This is far from the intended lifespan it was built to attain. Here, you can see that frequency of septic tank replacement rests largely on how it’s used and the conditions it undergoes by nature’s intervention such as interference by plant roots and the likes.


 Type of Tank Will Also Determine Longevity

The life expectancy of a septic tank will depend on a couple of factors, including the materials the tank is made from and what conditions it has undergone over the years. Septic tanks are generally made from steel, concrete, or plastic. The average life expectancy of a septic tank is as follows:

  • Steel Septic Tank: 20 to 30 Years Life Expectancy
  • Plastic Septic Tank: 40 Years Life Expectancy
  • Concrete Septic Tank: 40+ Years Life Expectancy

The lifespan assumes basic maintenance procedures have taken place. Additionally, if the septic system itself has not been overloaded with too much groundwater, if no harmful chemicals have been flushed into the tank, and if only one or two people live in the home, then you may be able to extend the life of the system beyond the average lifespan.


Call West Coast Sanitation Today!

Like everything else, your septic system requires regular maintenance. Have it inspected by a septic company near you at least once every year. During a maintenance session, your contractor will pump your septic system, conduct a drain test, and look for & rectify issues.

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.