If your home has a septic system, it has leach lines or a leach field. An essential component of all onsite wastewater systems, leach lines are the last step in a process that starts at your sink or toilet and ends with the wastewater being sent to the soil.
When the leach lines fail, the entire system fails. Knowing how to identify failing or failed leach lines might help you catch the problem in time and limit replacement costs.
Septic System Overview
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.
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.
What is a Leach Field?
A leach field is one of the major components that make up a septic system. Located underground, it is a network of small corrugated pipes that are connected to the septic tank via the outlet pipe and a distribution box that handles the pressure distribution by allocating wastewater into several absorption trenches in the yard.
Also called a drain field, the main job of the drain field is to remove contaminants like harmful coliform bacteria from septic tank effluent via perforated pipes or corrugated drainage pipe called leach lines that soaks the surrounding soil. Using the soil bacteria to naturally remove nasties before they reach the water table or groundwater.
Signs of Failing or Failed Leach Lines
When a septic system fails, it can be difficult to pinpoint which part of the system has failed. Any of these signs can help you identify leach line failure as being the cause:
- Pungent Odors: If you notice unexplained bad odors in your home, it could be a problem with your leach field. When the effluent and wastewater don’t properly drain, they accumulate on the surface of your soil and you’ll notice a nasty odor of sewage.
- Stagnant Water: Excessive accumulation of the effluent can result in standing water and you’ll see puddles of water in your yard if this is happening.
- Drainage Issues: If you’re experiencing recurring clogs and backups in your home, then you may have drainage problems in your system’s leach field.
- Increased Plant Growth: If you notice the grass or weeds are growing faster in the area by your drainfield, this is a sign that it’s leaking quicker than usual because the nutrients in the wastewater help fuel plant growth.
- Return of Flow: Reverse flow issues can be found during routine septic tank pumping and maintenance.
Reasons Why Leach Lines Fail
Listed below are some reasons why a leach field or drain field will fail
- Drainfield Age
Eventually even a well-maintained SAS will eventually clog and have to be replaced.
Just how quickly depends on several factors including original construction type, materials, and quality, field size, septic system usage level, soil characteristics, soil water or groundwater control, and of course septic tank pumping frequency to avoid sending solids into the fields.
But for all systems that depend on disposal and treatment of wastewater in the soil, the biomat that forms around drainage trenches, seepage beds, or soak beds, cesspools and soak pits eventually clogs.
- Lack of Septic Tank Maintenance
Septic tanks require pumping every 3-5 years to remove the solids that have accumulated thru their use. The way a septic tank works is that the waste from your toilets, sinks, showers and laundry enter the tank and bacteria breaks down the organic solids into sludge that settles to the bottom of the tank. Non organic material like plastics, grease, hair and soaps will accumulate in the floating scum layer. If the sludge or the floating scum enters the line that supplies the leach field your leach field will fail. The simple way to prevent this from happening is to have the tank pumped and not to flush anything that isn’t human waste or toilet paper.
- Excessive Water Use
Doing several loads of laundry while running the dishwasher on the same day can overload the septic system. So can a dripping faucet or a running toilet.
All septic systems need time to allow the wastewater to go through the treatment procedure. Otherwise, the wastewater is forced to flow into the drainfield at a faster rate than the drainfield can handle. This can lead to standing water or those soggy, spongy areas mentioned above.
- Trees or Landscaping Planted On or Near the Field
Trees and plants contribute to the overall curb appeal of your home. They provide a sense of natural beauty that would look good next to any home. Septic tanks on the other hand are unsightly but a very necessary part of a well-functioning home. Having your garden looking fresh is one thing, but having these trees and plants affect your sewerage system is a road you do not want to go down. If you are thinking about planting new greenery make sure you select trees that are sewer-safe.
- Driving Over the Leach Field with Autos or Heavy Equipment
Driving vehicles over the septic mound or other drainfield, even for a single project such as construction of a nearby structure or performing other site work, is likely to damage the system and lead to need for costly repairs.
- Building a Storage shed, Pool or Patio on the Leach Field
To maintain the integrity and longevity of your drainfield, you should never put anything heavy on top of any part of it. The drainfield may sit in an ideal spot for a new shed or patio, but you should avoid building anything that can weigh down on the sensitive drainfield structure.
- Distribution Box Failure
The distribution box is connected to the pipe that comes out of your septic tank and directs water to each of your leach field lines. Distribution boxes normally fail when something heavy drives over top of them and the box gets crushed. You may not notice that it got broken. If it breaks it could fill up with soil and stop the distribution of water to the leach field lines. This is an easy fix by replacing the broken box with a new one.
Lifespan of a Leach Field
Even without a catastrophic event, a leach field will eventually reach its natural end-of-life point. Even if the lines are well-maintained, microscopic debris will accumulate over the years and form a type of sludge that incoming liquids cannot push out. Your septic system is comprised of many different parts, and each can have its own lifespan. For instance, a steel septic tank can be expected to last between 15 and 20 years, while a concrete tank could last up to 40 years under the right conditions. A leach field, however, can easily last up to 50 years if properly maintained and protected.
Keeping Your Septic Tank Healthy
To keep your septic tank healthy, you need to keep the “good” bacteria in it. Harsh detergents, bleach, and chemical drain cleaners kill the good bacteria in your septic tank. One way to add good bacteria to your septic system is to flush a packet of brewer’s dry yeast down one toilet on the bottom floor of your home one time per month. Try using biodegradable and “septic safe” cleaning products such as vinegar and baking soda.
At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you do not have time to deal with septic problems. One of the ways you can maintain this balance and keep your septic system working like it should is to have your tank pumped regularly. Please give us a call at (951) 780-5922 right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.