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An Archived (no longer active) Forum for Septic Tank and Septic System Questions

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Note: the answers to questions presented on this forum are offered as suggestions only.   Any action taken as a result of reading something here is at your own risk.  If you are building or repairing a septic system, you must meet the regulations and laws of your local and state health departments.  The Think Tank is a forum intended to broaden the discussion concerning septic design.  It is not intended as a substitute for septic design on your property. All questions subject to publication.

Categories of Questions

How to Diagnose Problems

How is a Septic System Test Performed?    Dog Finds a Septic Problem    My Warning Buzzer Went Off    Tank Keeps Plugging Up    How Do I Find A Good Septic Designer?

Looking After Your Septic System

When Do I Switch to My Back-Up Drainfield?    When to Pump the Tank?    What About Tree Roots and Septic Systems?    Should I get Help with my Leaking System?

Adding To an Existing Septic

I Want to Hook Up An RV to My System    Is My Septic Tank Too Small?    Two Septic Tanks Needed In Large Home?    Placing Dirt Over Existing Septic

Building Near the Septic System

Adding A Pool in the Septic Replacement Area    Is It OK to Cover the Drainfield With a Pool Deck?    Tank Under My Floor

Site Evaluation (or Perc Testing)

High Water Table Problem    Adding A Pool in the Septic Replacement Area

Simple Failures

Help for a Slow Drainfield    Ugly Failure    Repair Strategy in MA    My Tank Leaks    Help-My Yard is Sinking!

Legal Issues

Illegal Septic Tank Going In Next Door?    Septic Systems Causing Illness?    Next Door Lot Drainage Problem    Moving a Drainfield Off My Land    Is Having an Off-Site Drainfield Wise?

Health and Odor Problems

Septic Tank Under the Floor smells    Septic Systems Causing Illness?    I'm Pumping Sewage Into the Bushes

Mound Systems

Can I Change My Mound's Shape    Peat Filter vs. Mound System    Frozen Mound Failure    How Do I Hide My Mound?    How Long Does a Mound Last?

Sand Filters and ATUs (Aerobic Treatment Units) 

My Sand Filter Failure is a Mystery    Bad Repair Required Sand Filter    My Sand Filter Makes Me Nervous    Sand Filter Failure    Wrong Spec for Sand Filter Sand?    My State Requires a Ghost Septic System 

Pumping Issues and Sewer Slope

Pumped the Wrong Tank    Difficult Septic Tank Pumping Job    Long Sewer Line Runs Uphill    What is Max Slope to build Septic?

Freezing Weather Issues

How Can I Get Rid of the Check Valve in my Pressure System?    Use of Check Valve causes Freezing Problem

Preventing a Frozen Sewer    Does a Weep Hole Protect the System from Freezing?

CAD Drawing Questions

Can't Open CAD File    How Good is the Rhinoceros CAD Program?    How Do I Get Started in CAD?    I Want to Convert CAD File for the Web    What CAD Program Do I Need?    Will the new 2006 Pressure CD Work in My Area?

Green Septic Questions

 Is there a Solar Septic System?    What Exactly is a Cess Pool?    Watering Plants With Greywater    Can My Composting Toilet Qualify Me for a Reduced Drainfield?

General Technical Questions that do not Fit Other Catagories

How Does Water Flow Inside My Septic System?    Good Web Site    Winery Septic System    Vaults, I Need More Info    Are Pressure Designs Available on Your CD?


Subject:  Will Your Plans Work in My County?

Posted:  Randy     October 20, 2005  

I design septic systems for my company that installs them here in the lake district. My county health department now allows the use of Infiltrator type vaults in septic systems. Local installers are all starting to use this product a lot. My boss wants me to get up to speed with the vaults. I have been trying to find AutoCAD construction drawings and design details all over the Web and it looks like you guys have a great product.

My question is this: With so many ways to skin a cat, how do I know that your plans will be approved here?

Randy, It is a mystery to me that there has never been a graphic standard for septic systems in the USA. Every one of the thousands of counties in all the states seem to have their own rules. At one time I searched for standard graphics and finally just decided to produce my own.

We now have a uniform building code even though people always said that places were too different from each other to apply uniform building rules. Health departments and state health boards hang on tightly to their authority and love to make up odd rules as anyone in the business is aware. The benefits of a uniform graphic standard would seem to outweigh the problem of needing special laws for special areas. We just happen to work in a field that is slow to embrace change in this area. We can buy different cars for rough roads or long commutes that conform to uniform crash standards. It should not be that much of a problem, and I think things will change soon.

The septic business now recognizes many proprietary components whereas in the past, only a few special items ever found their way into septic systems. A good example of such products driving the industry are the PVC vaults and smart panels. They have become a standard in most areas even if for some reason local health wants to keep them out. My standard CAD drawings available on this website recognize this and are producing a standard design set that works for most counties and parishes using readily available parts. Being CAD drawings, they can generally be easily modified to conform to local health rules of trench depth and lateral spacing and the like with a few small changes.

I have been selling standard plans for over three years, and my customers have found that local health departments are quite happy to have a uniform drawing standard. After all, if the vaults are approved in an area, should local health concern itself about how laterals are mounted inside the vaults? You will find that my instant drawing library will save you tons of drawing time in your work and the ideas are well tested in the field across the country. I am sending you a free Pressure CD to try.

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Subject:  Why the Weep Hole on the Transport Line?

Posted:  Darryl     May 23, 2005

Your site is very informational and I have returned several times to learn more about septic systems as I have experienced a few issues of my own lately.

 I have a question about my pump tank plumbing that I am unsure of.  I recently repaired the line exiting my effluent pump tank that was leaking and causing water to pool above the tank.  After I repaired the line I watched the tank pump itself empty and noticed that inside the tank the PVC pipe had a small hole in it that would spray inside the tank when the pump was on.  I think that the hole is intentional (allow line to drain back into tank, prevent freezing in winter, etc.) but wanted to check with a professional.  Is the hole in the line intentional or should I replace the line? Thanks Darryl

Darryl, This is an important issue and one that is not often discussed or well understood. I design all of my transport systems to drain back completely into the pump chamber but not through the "weep hole" that you saw. The hole at the bottom of your transport line is what you guessed, a squirt hole to drain the transport line after the pump shuts off. Unfortunately, this hole squirts sewage around in the pump chamber whenever the pump is running.

Draining the line between doses of the pump prevents freezing of the line in cold weather. This system of draining the line back into the pump chamber not only makes a mess, but spraying sewage causes the formation of Hydrogen Sulfide gas which is highly corrosive. Parts of the system exposed inside the pump chamber and the walls of the chamber itself are vulnerable to deterioration from this gas.

Because I work in central Washington State where on rare occasions temperatures can dip below minus 20 or more, transport lines must be freeze protected. Simply burying the lines below frost depth works fine for water systems, but parts of a septic system work better when things are shallow. The pump chamber for instance is hard to inspect and service through a small deep access riser. Also, at the other end of the system the drainfield works better when very shallow. The drainfield must be built within three feet of the surface in most states anyway.

Therefore a well designed septic system is likely quite shallow, and draining the lines between doses is the best method of protecting the lines from frost. Some pump manufacturers actually require a check valve with the use of their pumps, and some pumps have check valves built-in, so the weep hole is the only method available to drain the transport line in these cases.

Long transport lines may not drain back through a small hole in time for the next dose, and calculating such a system although not impossible becomes much more difficult and theoretical.

Systems designed by Eco-nomic, known locally as "GTO Systems", only specify pumps whose manufacturers stand behind this practice of draining back through the pump. I am willing to share my list of acceptable pump manufacturers with other professionals because unbelievably, many manufacturers that I have contacted are unaware of this issue at all or are unwilling to designate someone with authority to even discuss it with me. Some manufacturers insist on a check valve in the system because they are worried that with multiple pump systems, one pump can be driven in reverse by another sharing the same transport line. This will ruin the pump seals but we are talking here about drainback through the pump, not driveback. GTO Systems always use dedicated transport lines to the drainfield from all pumps and check valves if needed are located at the drainfield, so driveback is not an issue.

So a good way to check if your system large or small is well designed is to look for a check valve, or any valve in the pump chamber. Poorly designed systems often use ball valves or gate valves to regulate the output of a pump instead of having the designer calculate the output. Always use design to control output of a pump instead of a valve. When a system has problems, the first thing people do is twist the valves, messing up the precious settings.

The technology of septic design is changing as fast as the high-profile computer industry. But as with septic systems themselves, this technological revolution is practically invisible. The manufacturers who are knowledgeable about their own products and are responsive to the needs of designers in a changing industry will be around in the future, as will the septic systems that result. The others will not.

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Subject:  Sewage On the Ground in a Losing Battle With the Septic System

Posted:  Jennifer     March 20, 2005

Hi, I have a question and hope that I am making sense. We live in a home that is 51 years old. About 12 years ago we had a new drainfield put in our back yard but did not replace the tank. About three years ago my husband dug up part of the yard because our tank was getting full and he capped one of our drainpipes because he swore there was just tons of groundwater pouring in. Since then about once a week, he puts a sump pump into the tank and pumps the tank into the way back of the yard that has tons of bushes. So, my question has always been what if we got a new tank and hooked back up the pipe that was capped? Do you think that would help? I can't imagine we need new fields put in after just 12 years, but I do know our tank is only 500 gallons. Our kids are now older, barely home so the usage is not what it was years ago, but I'm trying to figure out the problem and if ground water can actually be a culprit in this. How would you fix a ground water problem? And do you have any thoughts on whether just a new 1,000 gallon tank and hooking back up the pipe (or not) would help? Thanks! Jennifer

Jennifer, What pipe was capped? If it was a drainfield line, it may compromise the function of a system already in crisis. From your description, your system may be failed and not taking any more water, or it may be waterlogged from ground water, or both. Any groundwater leaking into a septic system is bad, and should not be tolerated. It will eventually kill even a healthy system.

Simply capping one of the lines in the drainfield is not a sufficient fix. A new tank sealed to the surface would likely help, but the drainfield is usually close enough to the tank, so that measures must be used to protect both the tank and the drainfield from groundwater. The fix is usually in the form of improved drainage. You may need a French drain, or other drainage design, given that you have sufficient slope, and a place to drain the water away to that is not into a neighbor's yard. You will likely have to replace the drainfield as well, but a local expert should check your system and get to the bottom of your problems.

Pumping out a septic tank yourself onto the ground surface is not safe, and doing it that often is simply living in denial. I would get expert help right away before local health finds out. If they do, you and your family will have to move out till it is fixed.

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Subject:  How Long Will My Mound Last Before it Dies?

Posted:  Jeff     March 20, 2005

Approximately how long does a typical sand mound system last with proper maintenance? I know of in ground systems that have gone 30+ years, but I hear sand mounds don't last nearly as long. I am buying a house with a sand mound and was wondering how long it may be before it needs to be re-done. Thanks, Jeff

Jeff, Research indicates that conventional pressure systems survive about as long as conventional gravity systems. Mounds and sand filters have a higher failure rate with mounds kind of at the bottom of the list. However, I know of areas with excellent installers and smart designers where mound failures are practically unknown.

I believe that if you started with a good designer who could perform an excellent site evaluation and then create a design with the correct features such as a large number of small orifices in the laterals, lateral lines spaced at no more than eighteen inches apart, careful sand selection and you then had the thing constructed with the best installer you can find, and with attention to water use in the home and few serious overloads (elapsed time meter on the pump mandatory and you must know how to use it) you could expect thirty years from your mound or more.

One disadvantage mounds have over most other systems is that the drainfield is by design above ground. Severe winters will therefore be harder on mounds and certain special precautions must be taken. Check this message, and also check this website on questions about sand filters, because many of the same issues apply

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Subject:  Is an Off-Site Septic System OK?

Posted:  Gary     March 20, 2005

I�m looking at building a house and the lot that my wife and I want to build on has an off-site septic system. I�m guessing they used the off-site system due to the fact that the back yard has a 20 to 30 foot drop off.

Now to my question. What are the pro�s and con�s about the off-site system? Should we pick another lot that has the system on site? This is the first time I have heard of an off-site system so any help would be great.  Thank you  Gary

Gary, If the septic system is off the property, you need to confirm that the system and its replacement area are contained in a "perpetual sewage easement" that is tied to the lot that has the house on it and that the sewage easement is listed on the title. Mention this to the title insurance people at the time of the sale and make it a condition of sale that this issue is resolved to the satisfaction of your lawyer.

Off-site septic is rare and the only way to go in some special cases. The easement area will never be usable by the other owners for anything. If the other property is sold, you may have to be prepared to introduce yourselves and educate the new owners. I would also check with a qualified designer before the sale to ensure that the drainfield property is technically OK and large enough for the house you want to build, and that it meets all local regulations.

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Subject:  We want to Build a Pool in our Back Yard, But the Replacement Area is in the Way

Posted:  Mark     March 18, 2005

My wife and I are in need of some advice. We want to install an in-ground pool. However, it would sit dead center in our �repair area�. We asked the county to come out and move the repair area to the front yard. They said that this was not possible due to the soil not being good enough. Our idea now is to dig up the front yard however deep we need to, to replace the �not ok� dirt with better soil. Is this at all even plausible? And if not, what would some of our other options be? Are there people or contractors that can move the septic lines to other areas of the lawn? Are there other types of septic systems that would take up less space? Any advice is welcome.  Mark

Mark, The replacement area by law must be identified in the design. It is a spot to rebuild the drainfield when the original drainfield gives up the ghost. This area generally can not be reduced, even though more compact systems are available. Most health jurisdictions are extremely conservative in this. What you are proposing is known in the business as an "expansion". If what you learned about the soil on your property is true, you would be ill advised to trade a superior replacement area for a poorer one regardless of the anticipated value of the pool as an improvement, or for any other reason.

Given that you have soil on your property that is that different over a short distance between the front and rear of the house, plus you do not have enough room in the rear yard for both a pool and a replacement drainfield, It is likely that you already have a "difficult" site. You should be extremely careful to protect your replacement area. I get mail constantly from people who are living with a failing system and are without adequate replacement area, and in this business there is really nothing sadder.

Further, no, you can not disturb or replace soil and expect it to function as a septic drainfield. You will find constant references to "undisturbed soil" throughout all sewage regulations when it comes to both drainfields and replacement areas, they are not kidding. 

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Subject:  Tree Roots are Invading My Drainfield

Posted:  Ron     March 18, 2005

I have roots growing in my leach field and would like to know if there is a safe effective way of having them mechanically removed?  Thanks Ron

Root control in the septic system is sort of a tough question. Mechanical removal of roots in the drainfield pipes will likely cause more damage than the roots themselves. If the tree roots make it into the septic tank however, you would be surprised how quickly they can create a huge snarl-up.

In the tank, physical removal is mandatory, and pipes leading into the tank should be excavated and sealed to prevent future intrusion. Plastic pipe and glued joints are impervious to tree roots. Copper sulfate is the most common cure in the drainfield. This paper Controlling Tree Roots in Sewer Lines with Copper Sulfate from Oklahoma State University is an excellent source on how to apply this chemical compound.

Some health departments suggest horizontal separation between tree canopies and drainfields of at least 25 feet with water loving trees like willows and poplars even further. Some experts are not convinced that trees in the drainfield area all that harmful, and I tend to agree with them. Keep trees away from the tank though.  

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Subject:  I Have a Back-Up Drainfield, but When Do I Switch?

Posted:  Paul           Murfreesboro,  TN    August 4, 2004

We just moved into an 18 year old home this month and have discovered a septic problem.  The system has a solids tank that drains to a effluent tank on one side of a bull-run valve and a back-up drainfield on the other side of the bull-run valve. The effluent tank is emptied via a pump to the primary drain field which is about 200 ft away and 10-15 ft above the effluent tank.  I have noticed effluent backing up at the outlet pipe and running out onto the ground at a point just outside of the effluent tank (right as it enters the pipe going up to the drain field).  Is this a sign of drain field failure? I had the solids tank pumped today and turned the bull-run valve to the back-up drain field.  Should this "fix" the problem and how long should leave the bull-run valve turned to the back-up drain field?  How will I know if there is a problem with the back-up system? Thank you for any assistance you can provide. Paul

Paul, Your "primary" drainfield may be a replacement system. The "backup" is probably the original system. Your "primary" may be failed. I would go to the "backup" for at least 6 months - a year better. The only way to monitor either drainfield is with ports. I would put ports in both drainfields to check effluent levels in both drainfields at all times and keep the effluent depth at the floor of the drainfield at no more than 2" until both systems have stabilized.

You are correct that the primary is a replacement system.  The "back-up" system failed and the original home owners installed the now "primary" system after the failure.  How do I install ports?  Is there information on them on the site? Is switching back and forth between the two systems regularly the way to manage this type of system? Paul

A port is simply a 4" diameter pipe that has a cap on the top and is open on the bottom (no slots or holes in the side needed) and sits somewhere within the footprint of the drainfield. The trick of placing a port in an existing drainfield is not to hit a pipe as you dig. Use a small shovel or a post hole digger and go slow. When you hit the filter fabric, or other drainfield cover, cut a hole and keep going. Place the port to the bottom of the drainfield rock and no further (one foot below the top of the drainfield rock generally). Now you have a window into the drainfield. One or two inches or less is the normal depth of effluent at the bottom of the port. The spare drainfield should be dry. Do not switch until the spare has been dry for a few weeks. Switching back and forth is the only way to manage this system because you are having trouble with both systems. If the whole thing stabilizes and you are not using too much water in the home, you should be switching drainfields once per year. Look at the image on web-site of the squirt test. This drainfield has six ports, one at each lateral end. The ports also act as a risers for the laterals so that periodic squirt tests can be performed.

Fantastic info.  Thank you very much for taking time to reply with such detail. I will install the ports this weekend. Thank you again, Paul

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Subject:  My Sand Filter is Dying - Why?

Posted:  Ron     July 28, 2004

I have a sand filter that is one year old and has biomated. The BOD samples taken by the installer have come back 485 and 530. I took a sample and had it tested and it came back 270. Tests for grease and oils were not out of the norm. We do not have a disposal and our eating habits are healthy. What could be causing the problem?

What is the daily flow through the filter. Do you have an elapsed time counter on the pump?

I believe we are pumping no more than 385 gallons a day .The installer said he cut us back from somewhere a little over 400 down to 325 then raised it up. He claims that biomatting is the problem because of high BOD. Could high water usage cause a high BOD. We do not have a dishwasher or disposal that might contribute to the high level. Thank you for your time.

High water usage can cause high BOD - high water use reduces the time for solids to settle and cause carry-over into the sand filter. What kind of septic tank filter do you have in the system - a cartridge type filter will help a lot - also high loading due to surges can cause problems as well - checking the numbers weekly can give a false impression of daily loading - I would check both the pump and the ports daily in the evening for two weeks and keep a log book. Low depth in the ports soon after high water use indicates high transport time through the filter and comes just before failure. This check may be futile if the filter is gasping anyway.

If the above check for surge and filtering is OK, there are two places to go. First, the quality of the filter sand should be checked. Don't forget eye protection and latex gloves before digging in a sand filter or any wet part of the septic system. Take a sample and dry it out in the sun until powder dry. Take the sample to a lab for a soil analysis, or borrow a sieve set from a contractor or take the sample to local health to check for quality. The sand requires a mix of sizes of particles and more coarse particles than one might expect. One common cause of failure is the use of "natural" (low cost) sand from a private, rather than a commercial pit-run source.

The second thing to check is the design of the lateral network. I design sand filters with lateral spacing and orifice spacing no greater than 1' 8" (1' 6" is even better). This yields 36 orifices per bedroom. Your filter should have at least 100 orifices total if you are pumping 360 gallons per day and these orifices should be evenly spaced on a grid. Orifices should be no larger than 1/8 inch diameter. If your lateral network is spaced wrong or has too few or wrong size holes, you may have to replace it and perhaps buy a new pump. Distribution must be even across the filter. Perform a squirt test by replacing end caps with ones with orifices to match those in the laterals. The lateral end with the highest squirt height should be no more than 20% greater than the lateral end with the lowest. Remember to measure squirt height from the top of the lateral pipe to the top of the squirt stream.

Good Luck - let me know what you find.

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Subject:  My Neighbor's Tank is a Little Too Close

Posted:  Brian     April 8, 2004

Are there any distance-to-property line requirements for installing a septic system/tank?  We have a new house being constructed next to us and they are installing the septic tank right along the property line. Thanks, Brian

Brian, Every state and local jurisdiction have slightly different regulations - this site does not compile local regulations from the thousands of counties throughout the USA, in fact I doubt that anyone does - septic regulations are regional and local, subject to change and numerous.  

However, the most common setback between the tank or drainfield and a property line is 5 feet. Further, the setback from a line of easement is generally 5 feet as well requiring a normal side yard setback of 10 feet given a usual 5 foot side yard utility easement. Local health can in some special cases waive the side yard setbacks with proper reasons - however, if the setback is a state law, the state must approve the waiver (usually a lengthy process that most state health departments are reluctant to do). I recommend you obtain a copy of the neighbor's septic design from the local health agency and see first if the design includes any relaxations or waivers of setback to property lines or easements. This design is a public document and like tax assessment, any septic design must be made available for any property, although you may have to pay for copies. While at the health department, get a copy of their ordinance to check what the requirements are for setbacks to property lines. Now you can determine if the neighbor's septic system is legal.

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Subject:  What is the Test for a Healthy Drainfield?

Posted:  Steve     New Jersey    April 8, 2004

First of all, Great Site & answers to FAQs. My question is regarding a septic system inspection. We are selling our home and the inspection was done the middle of March while snow was still on the ground and melting. When a test is performed what test criteria is used for saturated soil? I was not around for the inspection, however, one of the comments on the report was that there was 3 ft of saturation - How was this ascertained? The back yard in general was very soggy and the leach field did not appear different from the rest of the yard.

I am kind of new to this, however, it looks like a major repair if the leach field is not allowing the correct saturation through the field soil. My lot is about an acre in size, 4 bedroom, 2.5 bath, built in 87, I have lived here 10 years with 4 people, now 3. Down-sizing is why I'm selling and finding out this wonderful info. I did have the soil fractured and have also periodically flushed various products down the toilet, and I have no smells, no toilet back-ups, but, do have a greener area over the field - not soggy though. Have had it pumped every two years & use bio degradable soaps and paper. Sorry for the rambling! Thanks! Steve in NJ

Steve, Septic system inspection is a great topic with many myths out there. As you have learned, septic system inspection uses a lot of  judgment. An experienced inspector has seen many failed drainfields. Besides the customary tank pumping and inspection of internal baffles, a thorough septic system inspection should include a check for saturated soil. A failed drainfield is almost always associated with saturated soil close to all of the drainfield trenches. The true test of saturated soil is usually done in one of three ways:

First, and easiest, inspection ports have been provided in the drainfield area during drainfield construction. The inspection ports not only provide access to the drainfield, but they show on the surface exactly where the drainfield is. A port is simply a vertical pipe with a cap, placed in the drainfield down to the bottom of the trench. Every available cap is removed and a piece of lath is dipped to the bottom of the port. Two inches or less of water is normal in the bottom of the drainfield. Anything over four inches means the drainfield is being stressed. High water in the ports indicates the need for a later check after the drainfield has rested for a day or so to make sure that the high water is not a normal spike following a busy weekend.

Secondly, if no ports are available, a test pit is dug next to the drainfield with a backhoe (after making sure no underground utilities are in the area), and soil samples are taken down through the soil profile on the walls of the pit. This pit can not always be dug without damaging the drainfield so some repairs may be necessary following the test. The test for soil saturation is to squeeze a sample of soil in the hand (latex hand protection of course) and attempt to get a drip of water. Water dripping from soil is a saturated sample.

The third method is to use a hand auger to extract samples from the area below the drainfield for testing. This test is the least reliable, because the inspector can not be sure that the drainfield has been located. The superior backhoe test above attempts to expose the side of one of the drainfield trenches to make sure conditions in the drainfield appear normal. This includes the thickness and color of the biomat, and the texture of the soil directly beneath the drainfield.

It is my opinion that unless the drainfield is failed with sewage on the ground (SOG), or at least one of the three tests above are performed, a saturated condition can not be definitively diagnosed. Others may disagree.

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Subject:  My Dog Smells Like Sewage!

Posted:  Bernie    March 27, 2004

Hello, We had a septic system installed 3 years ago and have not seen any problems up until now.  About a week ago, our dog came to the door smelling like sewage so when we went to investigate, we found, in our front yard (where the septic tank is) a circle of toilet paper around a pipe (I believe it is for clean-out or something). The cap for the pipe was in place but the top of the pipe is cracked (I believe from a lawnmower) so water and toilet paper was able to get out.  There is another "pipe" closer to the house that does not have anything coming up out of and nothing is backing up in our house.

From doing some searching, I came across information that speaks about high water levels in early spring (now) but I'm not sure exactly how that relates to our problem specifically or how we can deal with this problem.   Our tank is concrete and, though it slopes down to our raised filter bed, a pump is installed (regulations?).  We have a 4200 sq. ft home with 3 full baths and one half bath but have only my wife, my step-daughter and myself living there.  I don't believe we use an abnormal amount of water in our home either.

One concern that I do have is the disposal of tampons into the septic system and the effects that may have.  Do you have any ideas as to what could be causing this water to rise (and bring with it toilet paper, etc.) and what we can do about it.    Bernie

Along with returning birds, sunshine and nice weather, spring brings out septic problems. Along with my tulips and regular spring rush of building projects, I have several dozen questions like yours. People with problems should understand that the letters published here are the best of the many that I receive. I try to answer all questions, but I offer no guarantees.

With normal use, and a three year old system, your problem is more likely a plumbing type of problem. Why not have the tank pumped and checked? It may be a blockage in the sewer line before the tank, caused by slope problems in the sewer line, or a similar plumbing problem. You may want to call in a designer or excavator to check slope conditions within the system with a laser level. Local health would have the name of the original designer on file, as well as the original septic system plans. As a professional designer myself, I would want to know about any problem in a newer system I had designed.

Disposal of tampons in a septic system is not a good idea.  See also this question.

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Subject:  Is a Quick Fix Possible for a Slow Drainfield?

Posted:  Dave and Bonnie,  Pierce County, WA    March 27, 2004

We have a pressurized system in Pierce County, WA.  The tank is in the back/side yard and the drainfield is in the front.  The problem is that under high rains (and under heavy use), we get septic rising to the surface and making quite the stink!

The house is 7 years old and we have had this problem off and on for the last 4 years.  We had the tank pumped (and one of the baffles fixed) last year.  Also, the septic company suggested fracturing the soil to try and break the hardpan (injecting air and polystyrene beads into the soil to increase capacity).  All that accomplished was giving the front lawn high and low spots.

We have the plans and the one thing that stands out to me is the lines show a maximum depth of 6-9". I have never heard of such a shallow depth. Can you give me any feedback?

Dave and Bonnie, A shallow drainfield is good when soil depth is shallow. Sounds like poor soil as well. In these cases, the system must be put in the ground as shallow as possible to utilize all of the available soil under the drainfield for treatment.

Under these circumstances, what is a possible solution?

Without seeing your property, it is not a good idea for me to diagnose your specific problem, and the general problem is well covered on the website. However, your description is of a failed drainfield. The soil treatment method you attempted has a mixed success rate, and your experience is typical of many letters I get. The certain solution is replacing the drainfield in another location, but a definitive diagnosis by a respected local designer is your best approach. I always advise retaining and preserving the old drainfield for future use as a backup.

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Subject: Frozen Septic Caused by Check Valve?  I want to get rid of this Valve

Posted:  Mike,  Wisconsin     January 9, 2004

Hi, Your site is a real find. Thank-you for being there.

I have had an effluent pump failure and am in the process of tracking down a new pump. I am leaning towards getting a certain pump from a local company that is one of their 'High Head' models as we have a fairly good distance to the drainage field.

Some background: The old set-up had a check valve in it (which may have caused the pump failure as I believe a bit of water in the pipe froze in the valve....). I have read various parts of your site where you have explained nicely why you don't want/need a check valve. The fellow I had come out and trouble shoot the system indicated that there should not be a check valve there so we will not replace the check valve when we install the new pump.

My question is this: Would it make any sense to install a effluent filter at this point? How do the effluent filters deal with the back flow? How do they deal with cold weather? Is the current thinking about a weep hole the same (Not a good idea?) How would you design the connection with and without a filter?


Mike, The effluent filter (reusable cartridge type) now goes in the septic tank on the outlet side, and will not affect the pump chamber or discharge line, and is a good idea. I know of no filter kit for the discharge side of  a septic effluent pump.

To remove the check valve may or may not be OK depending on the design of the system. The freezing in the system that you experienced may not have occurred in the check valve as you speculated, and the check valve may be in the system for another reason altogether. For instance, if the drainfield was not designed for "drainback pressures", when the pump shuts off it may suck goo from the bottom of the drainfield into the lateral pipe system. If on your site, the drainfield is higher in elevation than the invert of the pump chamber, then the lateral lines must be suspended from the drainfield vaults or set on concrete blocks (if vaults are used in the system) and the laterals must not be lying on the floor of the trench. If in your system, any drainfield lateral is lower than the high water level in the pump chamber, then the highest point in the transport line will need a check valve open to the air to prevent the pump chamber from being siphoned dry when the pump shuts off. This is a possible second reason for the weep hole in the discharge line, a vacuum break.

I recommend you get a copy of the original plans from local health and study them before making changes. Remember, the pump you put in must match the one you removed, both in gallons per minute, and total dynamic head. Make sure you get advice on this from a qualified person, ideally the one who designed the system in the first place.

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Subject: A Costly Repair to a Cheap Septic System

Posted:  Candy,   Arkansas     October 3, 2003

This spring we moved into a beautiful home by the lake. Last week our septic system alarm went off and we had water around the lid in the yard. The local septic guy came out and said the screen had collapsed over the pump and the screen, the pump and the floats were ruined and had to be replaced. The electrical panel was not up to code, even though the former owners told us they had the system completely replaced a few years ago with the latest type of pressurized system. The whole thing cost us over two thousand dollars including trenching out to the septic system from the panel in the garage and replacing several pipes in the lawn sprinklers in the process. The septic guy said that the drainfield may need replacing due to a wet spot in the lawn for an additional three or four thousand. He did a little digging with an auger, but said he could not tell exactly where the drainfield was to assess its condition.

The question is this: If we have to replace the system, how do we know if the new system is a good quality system or a cheap system that will cause us further headaches? 

Candy, I get many questions such as yours, so based on your experience, here is an article to help you tell if your system is a good one or a clunker:

Do You Own a Good, Bad or Ugly System? & How to Tell

A cheap pressure system can be built without a reusable cartridge type filter (an additional $50 or so). Cartridge filters are much easier to maintain than the older and cheaper screened vault surrounding the pump. The screened vault is impossible to clean and hard to remove, especially if the screen collapses around the pump due to lack of maintenance. The cartridge lives under a green lid and has a "t" handle. It is simply pulled up and hosed off into the tank once or twice a year as needed.

A control panel with a disconnect breaker, is an extra $60 over a simple alarm box. The panel is usually required by electrical laws in most places within 50 feet and in sight of the pump chamber. Septic systems are often skipped over by the electrical inspectors. Some installers get away with putting in the alarm box instead of the panel, pocketing the $60.

An elapsed time counter (a $30 item, but only if a control panel is already part of the system) tells the home owner how long the pump has been running total. With this item, you can calculate how many gallons of sewage the pump has moved to the drainfield on any given day, week, month or year. This information is critical to diagnose a failed system, and can be used to prevent overload by a careful homeowner. Because every septic system is designed to handle a specific daily volume of sewage, checking the number from time to time, particularly after a busy weekend is the best way to prevent continual overloads that can kill any system.  The counter is like a car odometer and can not be reset.

Ports are 4 inch diameter plastic tubes with a threaded cap and set level with the lawn. They penetrate the ground and reach to the bottom of the drainfield. By dipping a stick down to the bottom of the drainfield, the owner can find out how much liquid is sitting in the bottom of the drainfield waiting to soak into the ground. An inch or two or less liquid in the bottom of the port is normal on regular days. Chronic higher levels in the ports mean trouble will show up soon.

Without these four items, the excavator can put a couple of hundred bucks in his or her pocket. Most of the customers will not know the difference. However, the homeowner will have a lesser system. Insist on these four items when you discuss the system with your designer. Make sure you get the items by telling the excavator that you will look for them when the system is turned over to you at time of final inspection. They can not be added later without difficulty. Also, your system needs to provide access to the pump chamber and the septic tank with risers (access tubes from the tanks up to the surface). You should see at least two green 24" diameter slip resistant fiberglass lids in your yard with stainless, tamper resistant flush mounted bolts (usually allen bolts). Three lids are even better to access the system without digging up the yard. One lid only and none of the four items mentioned above means that you have purchased the cheapest legal system. Excavators may try to convince you that these items are "bells" and "whistles". However, you may never see the excavator again once the system is in, and you will have to live with your system every day. Trouble usually comes on a dark and stormy night, and usually with a table full of guests, announced by the cry "MOMMY! The toilet wont flush!"

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Subject: I Want to Change the Shape of my Mound

Posted:  Ned & Pam,     Minnesota     October 1, 2003

We live in Minnesota, on a 2/3 acre lot with a well in the front. Our septic system is 34 years old and is failing. Soil samples indicate that a mound system will be required for the replacement system. The placement of the mound on our sloping yard suggests to me that a retaining wall along the closest edge of the field, which is 9' from the short end of the rock field, would be a nice way to landscape. This would add some extra soil above the sand but would not disturb the mound field. Does this sound feasible?  Ned & Pam

Ned & Pam, This should not be a problem to reduce the mound from the "high side" as long as the mound is oriented as it should be - across the hydraulic gradient - the direction of sub surface drainage (not necessarily in the same direction as surface drainage) - the length of the mound must cross the subsurface slope, and footings for a retaining wall would only interfere with drainage down-slope of the discharge - run it by the designer - also consider an above ground bottomless sand filter design if allowed, which in practical terms is a mound system without the side slopes - above ground sand filters take up less space, can be disguised as raised planting beds, and used as garden spaces as well. A sand filter with the addition of an air pump, should perform better than the mound.

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Subject: Covering Part of the Drainfield

Posted:  John     October 1, 2003

We are putting in a pool.  But we will need to partially cover approximately 20 feet of one lateral line.  Will this hurt the lateral lines. John

John, In spite of the pool, you must preserve space for a replacement area - why not see if you have enough space in the yard with the pool and the septic system and the replacement area and an added line to replace the one under the pool deck - if so, I would not have a problem covering part of the system, because you have the space to replace if something goes wrong. Use interlocking blocks instead of solid concrete over the line. Solid paving and car traffic are the things to avoid over a drainfield or replacement area.

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Subject: Adding An RV to My Septic System

Posted:  William   August 2, 2003

Can we tie our travel trailer into our residential septic tank?

It is customary for a few days - if you want to make the addition permanent, base it on the number of bedrooms in your home - do not put more people on the system than twice the number of bedrooms in the home. For example, if you have a 3 bedroom home, put no more than 6 people on the system permanently, regardless of if they are in the travel trailer or in the home, and regardless of the number of bathrooms in the home.

Adding an RV to a home will work only if the septic system is correctly designed for the number of bedrooms in the home. If you do not know if the system is correctly designed, check your record of the system at county health. Ask them specifically how many bedrooms your system is designed to handle. If your home has had extra bedrooms added some time after the original construction, in the basement, or attic - the system may or may not have been pre-designed or enlarged to accommodate these extra people. This is one of the ways unexpected failure of the septic system can occur.

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Subject: My Septic System's Warning Buzzer Went Off

Posted:  Ron     August 2, 2003

We have a pressurized system and had our 2 section tank cleaned recently and everything seemed normal.  From the tank, the sewage travels about 30 feet and up hill about 3 feet to a flat 15 x 40 foot drain rocked area which is the drain bed about a foot deep.  My tank warning buzzer has gone off a couple times in the last couple weeks.  A couple years ago we have had some trouble with the drain field bubbling above ground so we had it back-flushed to remove sludge from the system's PVC piping.  I am speculating that the bed cannot hold the volume of sewage when the pump turns on, and is draining back down the main line and into the tank.  Is this a plausible theory or is it more likely a tank/pump problem? In the mean time, I am thinking about back-flushing the system again.

Your theory could be correct - the bed should accept the volume of sewage if it is operating normally - check ports in bed if you have them for excessive levels. This is the proof that the drainfield has failed.

The warning buzzer is triggered by the top float in the pump chamber that trips when the pump is not doing its job for some reason. This can happen when the pump is worn out, or when the drainfield can not take the effluent that the pump is sending to the drainfield. In some cases, the backflow from a troubled drainfield causes the pump to continually cycle in a futile attempt to clear the pump chamber until the high level alarm sounds. Any alarm should be diagnosed right away to prevent worse problems.

The system is basically a rectangle of drain rock that has 3 fingers of PVC pipe running thru it, that distributes the volume of sewage in the pump cycle. No ports that I know of, but I will back-flush the system. If the bed is overused and approaching it's limit of usefulness, do you think it would be feasible, or even make sense, to add any extensions of perforated PVC pipe to increase the area to which the system pumps to? I am thinking this would be a temporary fix but hopefully it would delay relocating the drain field.  Maybe it would take enough pressure off the main bed to help it recover and work properly.

Ron, I think you are a little over your depth to repair this pressurized system without expert advice. You need to consult with someone familiar with your area and who has seen your site.

Good thought, thanks.  I was temporarily on the dark side of the moon, but with you brought me back.  I will have it back-flushed by an expert and ask for an assessment.

A final thought - the term "back flushing" relates more to water softeners and pool filters, than septic systems - you are probably referring to the flushing and "sweeping" of the inside of the distribution laterals in the drainfield with fresh water and a bottle brush duct taped to a flexible half-inch polyethylene pipe. If your system has been designed with this important maintenance job in mind (and some are not), it will help the distribution of effluent in the drainfield, if done every ten years or so. The laterals (the 1 inch diameter PVC pipes with one-eighth inch diameter holes or orifices along their length, that spread the effluent under pressure into the drainfield) tend to clog up with sludge over the years. The message below explains the cleaning method quite well. In your case, you had this done a couple of years ago. Not enough time has passed to justify having this done again, and little benefit will result. When effluent begins to flood the drainfield, distribution is not the problem, but soil saturation is.

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Subject: My Neighbor Messed-Up My Septic Drainage

Posted:  Laura   June 15, 2003

Our septic system was updated 5 years ago.  Last year a neighboring property owner placed a large amount of soil at the end of the field where our septic drain bed is located.  (Area is quite a distance from the drain bed).  The soil deposit caused a drainage problem on our property.  Until recently, we believed the problem was strictly from the dirt mound.  (Our property drains naturally north over the other owners land.)  Now, we are being told that the neighbor broke a drainage tile on his property at the time he dredged and then filled the area.  He now says he broke the tile and then filled it.  He says this tile breakage is really the reason we are now having drainage problems.  He now says he believes this tile runs 3 to 4 feet below our septic drainage field.  Help!  What are your thoughts?  Laura

Without viewing the site , I can only provide speculation, so you need an opinion from a local designer of septic systems to look at your property. However, it sounds like your neighbor may have a  French drain, or should I say Freedom drain on his property. It is possible that this drain keeps some of your drainfield from saturating. If your drainfield depends on extra groundwater drainage, this drainage should be built on your property, not on your neighbors. Your septic system can not depend on drainage systems on other property unless there is a perpetual drainage easement on your neighbor's title explaining the extent and details of this drainage. If your neighbor was excavating on your property, then he should fix the drainage and remove the dirt. 

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Subject: My Tank Plugs Up Regularly

Posted:  Robin   June 15, 2003

My system has two tanks 1000gal. The problem I am having is in the first tank from the house. The paper builds up at the end of the pipe. Every so often I need to open the top and move the paper or water will back up into the house. My system is 13 years old. I have it pumped every other year. There is only my wife and I living here.  Every time I have it pumped out I ask the person what may be the problem. I never get an answer. Robin

Perhaps the slope of the sewer pipe at the end of the run near the tank has insufficient slope to move things along. I would check the elevation of the pipe in two places. One at the tank inlet, and the other at the foundation wall where it leaves the house. You will need a survey instrument to do this with an accuracy of better than a quarter of an inch. The slope of your sewer should be between 1 inch every 4 feet of pipe to 1 inch every 8 feet of pipe. In other words, if the sewer line to the tank is 32 feet long, it should fall between 4 and 8 inches end to end. You really should check the pipe in the middle also to make sure that the first part of the pipe slope is consistent with that near the tank at the end, specially if the second tank was added to the system at some time in the past - hope this helps

P.S. Why two 1000 gal tanks? This extra tank may have been added for some specific and unknown reason and reduced the drainage slope for the system.

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Subject: My Drainfield Is Getting Old

Posted:  Jan,     Massachusetts     May 8, 2003

Hi, I found your web site extremely informative, describing and evaluating different types of septic systems without bias towards any of them. One subject was not mentioned however: septic system repairs or replacements. My interest in septic systems is forced by real need and not love to the subject, although very interesting. I have owned my 3 bedroom house for 20 years; house is 38 years old. Septic system consists of separate septic tank and huge, deep, bottomless, concrete perforated pit. System is working "OK" without overflowing, with two of us living here, but pit is full up to half of the riser (1 foot below the ground level) when kids are visiting for two weeks or so. Lot is 1/3 of an acre, front yard with septic system is 55' x 35'. Any suggestions? Sincerely, Jan

thanks for the compliment - you seem to have a cess-pool (dry-well) type septic system - you seem also to be up on the topic more than most home-owners - I suggest you find the best installer in the area and get a price on a replacement - plan to keep the current dry-well and you will probably never need to make another drainfield repair - look into the use of the bull run valve to switch back and forth between the old and new drainfields when you have a heavy week - i.e. keep the old drainfield as a backup - after a year or so without use, a drainfield or dry-well will usually recover completely to its original capacity

Thank you for your advice. I guess, I have to do it sooner rather than latter. Once more, Good job with your web site. Sincerely, Jan.

No, thanks for yours - you are right, the site does not cover many repairs to conventional systems - I will post this message for people with repairs in mind

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Subject: Results of Another Sand Filter Failure

Posted:  Blaine   March 31, 2003

Hello. I am the proud new owner of a sand filter system. In contacting a septic service to view this system, was told to toss  it and put in a packaged treatment system, this would be over 5 grand or more. Ok, now for some spec's, the whole system is about 6 years old, has a 2 chamber main tank with screen, a pump tank (new pump), a sand filter with a new pump, and a mound. Everything is fine with the main tank, pump tank, and the mound, this from the septic service. Now for the sand filter, the top two and a half feet of material was removed by the last owner, they had over loaded the system, the plastic pipes are exposed, the liner is in good shape but the septic service says the sand and gravel have mixed and this was due to a hydraulic over-loading of the system. Because of the sand and gravel mixing it would be better to toss the whole thing ? Would like your opinion. Thanks Blaine

Blaine, Six years seems too soon for a rebuild of the system - sand and gravel generally do not mix due to hydraulic loading if layered according to standard practice - most installers do not know this - is the gravel "pea gravel" or "drainrock"? - I say watch your water use and wait till the thing fails - you still do not know why the thing failed in the first place - for instance how was the system "overloaded" to cause the failure - does the system have an "elapsed time counter?" - if it does, if you do not exceed the design load, it may continue working for a long time - let me know

Thanks for the Information. Now to give some more details. I have learned the system was designed for 4 bedrooms. The last people that lived there had seven people, two adults and five children on the system. The material used was a small rock, like five-eights crushed minus, then the sand layer. The sand filter has been open to the atmosphere for about four months I learned, so at least it got some oxygen. It don't have an "elapsed time counter" . Yesterday I opened the two ends of the pipes that are on the mound, started the sand filter pump and flushed them out, nothing but water came out, took a stiff bottle brush, one that fit right, connected sixty feet of plastic conduct and brush it out, got just a very little bit of algae, flushed it again, installed threaded caps. One last thing, there is a vegetation mat starting to grow in the sand  filter. I assume that I will have to remove this and add material on top of the exposed pipes. What do I put on top of the pipes? The distance from surface to pipes is about two and half feet. Thanks again. Blaine

The large family was likely pushing the design limit of the sand filter even if it was designed correctly, depending only on their habits of water use. Leaving the filter open to the air is OK, even good, except that the 2.5 foot drop to the filter surface will be a problem. You will have to add dirt to level, but this will restrict aeration a little. You might add pea gravel to grade to allow some air into the filter and arrange a few potted plants for decoration. Grass is the usual cover though. I would remove vegetation and put a little pea gravel over the pipes and rake it flat. Place filter fabric over the pea gravel before backfilling with loam or gravel.

Your account of cleaning the lateral lines is very good and should be of interest to all readers who own a pressurized system, mounds, trench systems etc. This maintenance and check with flush and brush of each lateral line should be performed every ten years or sooner depending on use. Some sludge usually piles up at the ends of the laterals over time. Besides cleaning the effluent filter and checking things for deterioration, it is the only real maintenance required on pressurized systems. If you have a mound following the sand filter, the mound will not have sludge in the lines because the sand filter eliminates solids in the discharge (but not bacteria). The lateral lines in the sand filter require this attention to preserve even distribution of the effluent, and complete use of all of the filter surface.

I strongly recommend the addition of an elapsed time counter, particularly on a sand filter. This design is effective but very sensitive to overload, and locks up suddenly when overstressed. An elapsed time counter on the pump circuit gives run time in hours and can tell you exactly when your system exceeds design specs.

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Subject:  Addition Built On Top of Septic Tank

Posted:  Sandy    February 12, 2003

I bought a home from a local person and later found out he built a large kitchen addition over an active septic tank - my family and I did notice a strong odor entering the interior of our house occasionally - we would have to air our house out by opening doors and windows.  We have four children ranging in age 16 months to 15.  Could you let us know the dangers of having a septic tank under the house are and what the odor may be?   Thank you. Sandy

Sandy, Even though the tank may be under the floor, it should not give off an odor. If the addition was built over the tank, there may be other problems associated with construction of the system that require attention. Six people in the home including young children gives a septic system a workout and everything in the system must be in good shape. It is unlikely that local health or the building department inspected the kitchen addition and missed the tank, although I have heard of such things. Generally tanks must be at least 5 feet from building footings outside the walls of the house. The drainfield is usually at least 10 feet from a footing.

You need to have a licensed installer or designer investigate your system for a fix and to check on your local set-back rules. Local health may allow you to abandon the tank "in place" by pumping it out and filling it with sand. I have seen this done relatively inexpensively, as long as you have decent clearance in the crawl space to work. In the best case, a new tank will fit in the yard and existing piping can be re-routed through this new tank without disturbing anything else.

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Subject:  Solar Septic System?

Posted:  Shairn and Victor   January 10, 2003

I have two questions.

One, is: if we use composting toilets, is there any way to simplify our septic design since it is just handling greywater?
Two: are there solar pressure pumps available for pressurized drainfields?       Shairn and Victor

Shairn and Victor, State and local laws determine if you are entitled to a reduction in drainfield area by removing blackwater to a sealed treatment device, or even if such devices are legal in your county or parish. However, now that toilets have been engineered to use less than 2 gallons per flush (older toilets used to use up to 5 gallons) don't expect a big break.

Toilets in the average home now probably use fifteen percent or less of the water used in the home. An intermittent siphon made of plastic, for a few hundred dollars, can be used to periodically dose a pressurized drainfield without the use of electricity from any source. A siphon system can be designed to power a mound or sand filter, but only where the septic tank is higher than the drainfield by at least 5 feet.

I know of no "active solar powered" septic system. However, if you attached standard solar panels and batteries to the small pump that customarily moves fluids around in the septic system, it would be a solar septic system. Gravity type septic systems use falling water to function, technically a solar pressure pump.

Remember though, grey water is not harmless, and can contain the same pathogens (germs) found in septic tanks. It is a myth that greywater is safe and can be safely sprayed on landscaping plants. Check your local laws.

Your designer must meet all local regulations and solve the sewage disposal problem too. To get a siphon type septic system design, expect to pay more than the regular design fee is in your area for a regular septic system. However, you should pay less for the construction of the final system (over a standard pressure system) because you avoid running power to the tank, plus you do not have to buy a pump and control panel. Besides, you will pay zero for power over the life cycle of the system, although the "good" bacteria in the drainfield will work just as hard.

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Subject:  Septic Tank Leaks Into Basement Through Drain Hole

Posted:   Correll    December 30, 2002

This past weekend my basement began flooding with sewerage water. The amount of sewerage water that was coming up through the seams of the slab floor perimeter led me to believe that the septic tank had cracked somewhere on the bottom of the tank. When the septic company arrived and removed the manhole cover, sure enough the tank was almost empty. Given that the tank and house are only 6 six years old (at least that is when the tank was installed) the septic guy didn't think that the tank was cracked. Rather, he thought that the small drain hole, about the size of a quarter, at the bottom of the tank, was open. Sure enough, it was. Apparently, this drain hole is for draining rain water while the tanks are curing. They are supposed to be plugged with what looks like a rubber cork. He pumped the tank dry, climbed down into the tank, pounded in a new rubber cork brought in by his boss  (who has been the business for the last 30 years) and covered the whole area with hydraulic cement to make sure it didn't happen again. The septic guy seemed to think that the hole had never been plugged, although, when I had the tank pumped about 18 months ago, the tank was full. I said this but he said that it can take a while, depending on conditions. He relayed a story about a local whose tank did something similar after 20 years. Do you know anything about these plugs? I have tried to search the internet but cannot find any information about them.    Correll

Correll, It sounds like the pumper may have sucked up the plug during service. The idea of providing a drain plug in a tank that is supposed not to leak, is an odd idea, regardless of any reason. I can not think that the amount of rainwater that could fall into a manhole over the 8 to 10 days required to cure a concrete tank would ever justify the provision of a "drain hole" except perhaps in Noah's county, after the flood.

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Subject:   What Size Septic Tank do we need?

Posted:   Michelle & Steve     December 26, 2002

My husband & I are in the middle of attempting to put on an addition adding one bedroom to a 2-bedroom home.  We do currently have a 1000 gal tank & the Board of Health Dept is making us go through a list of things to get their approval before construction can begin.  They are indicating that it may be essential to upgrade the septic from 1000 gal to 1500.  Is this really necessary?  We certainly can't afford the cost of a whole new system.  Please let us know your thoughts!    Michelle & Steve

Michelle & Steve, In some counties, a 1000 gallon tank is plenty for three bedrooms. The state regulations usually dictate the size a septic tank must be, and county regulations can be more strict, but not less. The rule of thumb for tank size is one-and-a-half times the daily design flow. Therefore, if the design flow is 360 gallons per day for a 3 bedroom house (120 gal/bedroom x 1.5) = 540 gallons tank size. However, anymore this sizing formula has been abandoned for single family homes and is used only for apartment buildings and larger systems where regular maintenance is more certain.

For single family homes, a more arbitrary standard has been adopted in many states and counties. This standard includes much larger sized tanks based on the notion that people put off having their tanks pumped.

For single family homes, three tank sizes are commonly built due to somewhat universal concrete forms. They are 1000 gal, 1250 gal and 1500 gal. Generally, the 1000 gal tank size is considered ample for two and three bedroom homes with 1250 gal for four bedrooms and 1500 for 5 bedrooms. Additional bedrooms require 250 additional gallons each.

My State, Washington, for some reason is more liberal and allows 4 bedrooms on a 1000 gal tank with 250 gallons for each bedroom thereafter. Washington, however requires two compartment tanks.

 I am afraid that your county has the authority to require as big a tank as it wants, with not much for an individual to say. Counties attempt to be hard line about such things as long as everyone goes along with it. If you point out that their standards are too strict, everyone who has had to bite the bullet on an arbitrary rule will be upset with you, and the county probably already has its heels dug in deep anyway.

As a strategy, you might try to convince the health department that the new bedroom is actually an office by showing no door, or no closet in the plans (check with the building department to get their standards for identifying a bedroom). If you do not have more than 4 regular occupants in the home (2 people per bedroom) and your system is properly sized for the 2 existing bedrooms, then you should not have problems with the system. Click here to see that you have enough drainfield for your two bedrooms (a more important concern than tank size). The addition of an office, or even a bathroom in a home should not require any changes to the septic system, because you are not adding any bedrooms (people living in the home). Let me know how it goes.

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Subject:   Another Freezing Sewer Line Question - Use of Check Valve Questioned

Posted:   Ian,    Northern Ontario     November 14, 2002

I have been reading your forum and found the articles very informative.  We have a cottage in northern Ontario that has a septic tank.  Recently we have replaced the entire tank and now have a 36" pump chamber with a Sewage pump that pumps the raw sewage to the septic tank 180ft away (approx 20ft. of rise.)   I know that we have a check valve in the pump chamber.  The sewage line going to the tank is buried between 6" and 3ft. insulated with Tundra 1/2" wrap.  The chamber is buried only about 6" below the surface.  Finally the question.....  What do I need to do to winterize this system so that I can leave it for 3-4 months and is there any way of heating the line up to the tank to insure no chance of freezing if I do want to use it in the winter. Thanks in advance,   Ian

Ian, The best way to prevent freezing of a sewer line is to drain the line when not in use by having lines automatically drain back when pumps shut off. I have designed hundreds of systems that drain back this way and have never had a call back. See this letter for more on this issue.

It sounds like your system uses a Grinder Pump, which can not drain back because it pumps solids. The best design for a grinder, is to place the pump inside the house in the floor in a small pump vault. The discharge line, septic tank and large pump chamber can be buried outside, deep in the ground beyond the reach of frost. Then the effluent line can drain back into the large pump chamber through the pump.

A deep buried system, with multiple tanks close to the house, may be hard to get to with a pump truck for maintenance. Also, I suspect you may have a gravity system. Your grinder pump is only needed to get the sewage up to the remote septic tank. In this case, clear the pump chamber of solids by flushing with clear water. Fill the pump chamber with a low impact RV anti-freeze solution of the right mix to withstand your worst case freeze. Next, run the pump until the anti-freeze fills the discharge line all the way to the septic tank (open the tank and watch for the change of color). Make sure no fresh water will run into the pump system from dripping taps in the house, etc., or it will freshen the anti-freeze in the discharge line. However, don't de-energize the pump for the winter, unless the water system is completely drained. A frozen line is easier to deal with than a flooded house. In the spring, fire up the system and use normally. Don't worry about the anti-freeze hurting the bacteria.

Incidentally, to determine your anti-freeze mixture, 100 Ft. of Sch-40 discharge line will contain the following volumes:

1" diameter 4.5 gal.,  1.25" diameter = 7.8 gal., 1.5" diameter 10.5 gal., 2" diameter 17.5 gal.

Instead of anti-freeze, if you want to use the system periodically during the winter, do not use heat tape on plastic pipe. I would design a drain for the sewage line downhill from the pump chamber. Flush the pump chamber into the septic system with clear water, and then bypass the check valve and discharge the line downhill into a small gravel drain designed for the purpose. The whole thing could be hidden underground.

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Subject:  Shoddy Septic Design - Sand Filter Required

Posted:   Linda,     New York          November 10, 2002

Thank you . your site is very helpful.
I have to redo my existing septic system and ideas have been thrown out - like aeration system pumping station or -re-plumb the house , move the tank and install sand filter.  I just had a new tank installed 4 years ago and now the inspector is saying I cannot use it because it is not a two chamber-- that law was passed in 1991 and this tank installed in 1997. Thank you for ANY help or ideas to explain this stuff.   Linda

A lot of unclear items. If you had a tank installed 4 years ago, the inspector should have caught the issue about the number of chambers. Was the tank inspected by county health at that time? If not why not? Whoever is "throwing out ideas" is confusing the issue and not helping. If the person throwing out ideas is not qualified to design, repair or inspect systems, ignore their advice. Is the new tank in use now, or was it not put in service? Why do you have to "redo" the septic system? If the new tank came from a legal source, they should have known about the two chamber thing. What state are you in. Many states allow a one chamber tank system. However, if your state requires two chamber systems, you may be compelled to make this change. If the lack of a two chamber system was recently noticed by an inspector yet the tank was placed 4 years ago, why did this issue come up after 4 years?

You are so right. Four years ago the contractor was replacing the existing tank and was permitted to use a one chamber tank and grandfather to the existing piping ( which I have since discovered is a direct run off - no field attached) and so -- they -- "got away with" a one chamber tank. Where this tank sits is the real problem. It is too low to allow for a sand filter or any type of field. Even if I went with an aeration system. I would need a dual chamber tank or at least an additional tank and pumping system. - I am in NY - that is equal expense and additional electric and maintenance costs. Sooooo it looks like my best option is to re-rout the plumbing to cross the cellar to the outer wall, run the length of the house out doors to the front yard then join the new tank and sand filter system . Still $5000 - 6000 but the neighbor who chose the aeration said his cost $6000 ( Our houses are similar in design and levels - yards. )  So now, what kind of failure rate do sand filters , professionally installed,  have? The neighbor tells me horror stories of his sister's mound sand filter. I know that there are many variables,  and no answer you give me is an absolute. I am going with the sand filter design - I am just trying to know what to anticipate in the future.
Thank you so very much for your help and advice.      Linda

Linda, If you have to change to an alternative system (pressurized pumping type system), you will have to add a pump chamber anyway. The best way to do this is to add a 1000 gal, two compartment septic tank and use the smaller chamber as the second chamber of the system and the larger chamber as a pump tank. In other words the second tank is placed backwards. This makes the pumping chamber larger which gives a little more emergency storage as well as allowing a smaller dose height within the pump chamber which makes calculating the system a little more flexible. This should be acceptable to local health and reflects what should have probably been required first time around (a pressurized system), particularly if your close neighbor has an aeration system.

The sand filter system would be my choice at this time over a packaged aerobic unit. The sand filter is a good and reliable system if installed by an experienced excavator using the best quality clean sand (coarser better than finer using the ASTM C-33 specification) and high quality components. Frequent small doses are better than larger ones, orifice size no greater than 1/8", orifice spacing and lateral spacing within the filter should not exceed one-and-a-half feet (look for at least 33 orifices per bedroom regardless of any other factors), and include an air coil within the filter (you may need to increase aeration in a pinch). Failure rates are higher with mounds and sand filters than with conventional pressure systems, likely because these systems have more parts, not because of flaws in the technology. If you do the above, your potential failure rate will be well within conventional alternative designs.

I recommend you read over the material on this page concerning sand filter sand and sand filter failure and packaged systems. P.S. your inquiry exhibits a lot of patience considering the complexity and questionable advice and work you have had to deal with and pay for.

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Subject:  He Pumped the Wrong Tank, and Charged Me!

Posted:   Bummed,     Oregon          October 28, 2002

Here's my problem. After inheriting my Father's home due to his sudden death, I was advised to have the septic tank pumped by a plumber. (I had the plumber get the tree roots out of the line.) He located the tank for me, but when I tried to locate, and dig it a few weeks later, could not find it.
I then called a septic specialist(?!) to locate, dig and pump it out. He did this, after telling me that the plumber had not located the tank, it was in a different spot. He then proceeded to pump the tank he located. WELL, it was the old tank, no longer in use for at least thirty years! The newer tank was where we had told him we tried to locate it!  Now we are in a dispute over this. I believe he should pump the one in use free of charge. He says he owes us nothing. What the heck can I do? Isn't there a way to tell the difference between an old tank, and one that is in use??
I am so upset over this. I would appreciate any help or advice in the matter. Thanks so much. "Bummed Out" in Oregon

Bummed, The fact that you discovered an abandoned tank is good news. Consider yourself lucky to have found it without an accident. Abandoned septic tanks cause serious accidents when they eventually crumble, sometimes with only the weight of a child.

The way to abandon a septic tank following pumping, is to break in the top of the tank with a backhoe, and fill the tank with dirt. I recommend that this be done with all abandoned tanks, although local health may have a slightly different procedure. Your abandoned tank has already been pumped, you are not out any money here.

To determine which tank is active, and which one has been abandoned, just check the tanks after a few days. The empty one would be the abandoned one. If neither is empty after a few days, start looking for the building that drains into the tank. Make sure that you do not have two tanks coming from one building. Different colors of tracing dye (an inexpensive item) may be flushed from the various toilets to confirm suspicions. Local health can suggest a source, sell you some, or even give you some powdered or liquid dye in a baggie or bottle.

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Subject:  Relocating A Drainfield

Posted:   Roy,      Washington State Pacific Coast          October 10, 2002

I am wondering if it is possible to relocate drainfields?  We have property with a drainfield from another lot going through it that limits the building envelope and we'd like to increase this....  do you know where I'd start to research this question?  Thanks for your help.  Roy

Roy, What you are proposing is known as an "alteration". The main issue to consider is space and setbacks from water lines, buildings and driveways. Usually not a difficult job, depending on space. You either can or can not do what you want depending on the county rules. Hire a good designer to find out and then you will know. There are several space saving alternatives available in the world of septic design for a price if you wind up in a jam. Incidentally, you should not have a septic drainfield from another lot going through yours. Go to your county health department and pull the files for the offending drainfields and find out when, if and how the drainfields were approved on your property. If no permits were granted, then you have a simpler issue of adverse possession to resolve with the owners. Your solution may be allowed to use creative interpretation of the county health rules if the county was somewhat hasty in approving the encroaching drainfields.

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Subject:  I Don't Want a Frozen Sewer

Posted:  John     Colorado   September 29, 2002

The Think Tank is a great site, thank you.  I keep coming back to it.  I'm installing a PVC waste line from the back of my house to my septic.  Sloping at 1/4" per foot, the line rises out of the ground as it reaches the house.  Your site mentioned that if the slope is correct, I should not have problems with freezing.  I live in a harsh mountain environment in Colorado and am worried about it. Should I insulate this pipe or will it be OK?  If so, with what?  Thanks  John

John, Thanks for a timely question. As winter approaches I get questions about freezing pipes etc., and lately I am getting plumbing questions.


If you are going to be away from the home for extended periods, then no water will flow, and no freezing could happen. If on the other hand, if you are there all the time, with warm waste water flowing several times during the day, then the pipe will never freeze. This is due to warm water pushing the freezing front back beyond the area of the sewer. Therefore, the only problem with freezing will happen due to an unexpected trickle of cold water that could freeze and pile up in the pipe. Preventing toilets and taps from doing the slow trickle thing (regular maintenance), is a good protection from freezing sewers (you can check outside the home by looking in the cleanout for a small stream after things are quiet in the home or check at the tank outlet if you have access through a riser and lid - remember, a toilet flush can take 15 - 20 minutes to clear the tank).


You could rebuild the line at 1/8" slope per foot (1 inch of drop for every 8 feet of length, the minimum slope required by the Uniform Plumbing Code for 4 inch sewer line), and throw a little dirt over the pipe for thermal mass.

Keeping the sewer pipe covered with at least a foot or so of dirt will prevent the pipe from becoming super cooled by occasional atmospheric cold snaps regardless of the frost penetration in your area. Further, in spite of these precautions, and if there is still a problem during a hard freeze, then buy and spread a little straw, (6 inches at most) over the pipe during the worst weather, and it will never reach the critical temperature inside the pipe  required to cause a problem. If this is inconvenient, you can cover the sewer line with a 18 inch to two foot wide strip of two inch thick styrene (blue or pink plastic foam board) along its entire length, with dirt cover. No freezing of the sewer line should be possible with this precaution even in Barrow, Alaska.


Finally, in severe cold weather, homeowners may want to keep a few taps dripping to keep the water supply line from freezing. This could cause a freeze in the sewer line if the line is buried at shallow depth and if the trickle is too little. Too much trickle could put pressure on the drainfield if left running over several days. Each home is different, and planning at the time of construction for severe conditions is the best protection. Advice from experienced local builders is a great help as well if you can get it. 

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Subject:  Is an Uphill Sewer Line OK?

Posted:  Isaac   September 1, 2002

I have a question for the Think Tank about a sewer line that I have. It is a secondary line that comes from a guest building with a second floor bathroom that till now has been seldom used. The line travels about 250' downhill to a spot under our main house where it meets the main sewer line to the septic tank. The main line in our crawlspace is maybe 1-2 feet higher than the secondary line. The secondary line raises up at a 45 degree angle to meet it. I am guessing this is due to the newer septic tanks that were installed about 3-4 years ago by the last owner. This secondary line was not used by the last owner since then. I am wondering if it would need an effluent pump or small lift station. Or will I be alright with the line as it is? I just wanted to know about the septic before I turned on the water supply. Thanks for you help.   Isaac

Your line may work for a while. But, Murphy's law states that it will plug up the main line on a busy evening in the winter with a house full of guests. The part about the line going uphill to meet the sewer suggests that you will have problems eventually if there is any load on the line. You don't mention if the secondary line has a check valve, but without one, the secondary line could get plugged with backflow from the mainline. I don't like the sound of the situation. I think that the person who plumbed the system connected an uphill line to the job to cut corners. A lift station is a drastic fix. A good plumber or an excavator should be able to fix you up with a few hours of work, or at least explain that you need to re plumb a portion of the secondary line outside the building.

The entire sewer should follow the rules without exception. Check these links for pipe slope rules, and how to build steep sewer lines.

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Subject: Water Flow Within the Drainfield

Posted:  Natalie of Connecticut,   August 8, 2002

Suppose the regulations call for a maximum 20% slope for the leaching fields.  Should the septic TANK be at the same slope?  Suppose the septic tank is permitted at a steeper slope/   Is that common?  What are the drawbacks?  Natalie of Connecticut

Natalie, No, the ground slope (and I assume you mean the finish grade at the leaching fields and at the septic tank) have little relation one to the other. The grade is critical at the drainfield to prevent breakout of sewage. Because the sewage effluent is contained by the soil and the shape of the excavation, the slope of the surface and other excavation details are critical to the working of the finished system. Health departments also worry about possible structural failure of the soil, which can happen, but only on slopes much steeper than those we are talking about. The tank on the other hand is a container.  The tank can be on ground that slopes at almost any amount because the security of the tank is dependent on having a flat and stable place to rest. The bottom of the tank is six or more feet below grade and has little relation to surface slope. However a full septic tank weighs about as much as a good sized truck, and any construction is a potential source of structural failure. For a little more information check this link from this website: Hope this helps

(Later e-mail:) Thanks for responding to my queries.  Before I go to the website you recommend, please tell me how you define a "drainfield".  A drainfield is another name for a leaching field. I also have another couple of questions:

Consider the possibility of a 20% slope for the leaching fields, and a much steeper slope for the septic tank, a much steeper slope from the tank to the leaching fields, first.  Suppose there is simultaneous heavy inflow to the tank.  What would be the effect of the outflow on the leaching fields?  A heavy inflow into the tank results in a heavy outflow from the tank. However, the slope of the inflow pipe should not exceed 1/4 inch per foot regardless of the slope of the ground. The sewer slope must be maintained to ensure proper drainage within the pipe and to ensure that inflow into the tank is not excessive. This is accomplished on a steeply sloping lot, with a series of steps down with suitable gentle slopes in between. This is the "art" of the design required in even the lowly household sewer.    

Suppose there is a lot of effluent at one time, like, for instance, three toilets  being flushed at the same time.  What happens to the material that is flowing out of the septic tank?  See above - The septic tank contains at least  1000 gallons. The system is designed to compensate for occasional heavy inputs with the large volume of water in the tank. This is why pumping is necessary from time to time to maintain the excess volume to allow for settling of the sewage. Don't you run the risk of scouring the leaching fields if it's a packed leaching field? Technically yes, but in reality occasional strong flows are not associated with higher failure rates. The main cause of failure in the leaching field is chronic excessive overall flow volume per day exceeding the flow rate for the system design, not occasional overloads.

While in the beginning of the lifespan of the leaching field, it might not make too much difference, as the leaching field ages, might it not be that the openings from the pipe into the gravel pack are widened to the point where the flow-rate in the gravel pack is greater than you might want? There is not enough rate of flow in the system to cause physical changes within the gravel. In spite of the apparent force of a toilet flush, by the time the flow exits the downstream end of the tank, the flow rate is only a trickle that lasts for a long time.  

Suppose there is a very steep slope from the house to the septic tank.  Part of the purpose of the septic tank is to allow particulate matter to settle out in a reasonable manner, is it not, and to allow the clarified effluent to flow out of the septic tank and down to the leaching field, but while preventing particulate matter from clogging up the leaching field? If I understand your questions, it seems that you are concerned that excessive flow rates could effect the working of the septic system. This is a very good question that shows insight into the issue of hydraulic dynamics in our physical environment. The topics of surge effects and flow rates within a septic system do not occupy a lot of space within the literature of septic in general, although these conditions are critical to the working of the system. Although I have thought of this issue myself, I have seen little written on the topic. If you are, or plan to be a student of engineering or environmental science, this is a great topic for future study that could benefit the field enormously.  

Thanks again, Natalie of Connecticut

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Subject: Sewer Line In the Way

Posted:  Missy,   July 4, 2002

Hello, Wonderful site, wow, super informative. There is more here than I ever thought I wanted to know!!! But I do have a question. Currently under construction a new residence, 3 bedroom. Need to install a system. The soil is a dream, we are up here at 7300 feet and in an old glacier cut river bed. LOTS of nice medium sand and gravel. The question is: The size of the home is such that we are considering placement of two tanks, 1000gal. running into a field with infiltrators. The justification is to avoid running sewer lines back across a sub-grade level living area. Do you have any suggestions or ideas?? Thank you in advance for your expertise. Missy

Missy, The ironic term tight-line is sometimes used for a sewer line, or effluent line that delivers sewage into a D-Box, drainfield or septic tank by an indirect route. House design or lot slope can sometimes require such plumbing gymnastics. A good design always strives to avoid the use of tight-lines because the kinks, stretches and turns are a potential source of flow problems as a system ages. Also, buried lines in the yard and under slabs, etc. always seem to turn up in the wrong place when homeowners do minor construction projects. The original plans will become lost, and plastic sewer lines are difficult or impossible to locate in the yard, until, you start to dig.

One way to avoid stretching sewer lines across a site, or through the floors of a home, is by providing two separate systems on opposite sides of the house as you suggest. Additional cost is required for a second septic tank. The question to ask is whether the cost of running the tight-line will exceed the $500 or so, the cost of the additional tank. Sometimes two separate systems represent the only solution. There may be some further costs with this plan. The drainfield although serving the same number of people, may need to be enlarged based on uncertainty of use by the occupants, depending on the location of kitchen and laundry etc. Local health will have to approve the modifications, and they may have policies that make things too complicated. Also, it is really better policy to organize the drainfield area into one location and provide good access to it from the street or alley. Multiple systems on a single house can restrict site planning and future yard use.

Another solution is to direct the difficult sewage stream into a small lift station with a grinder pump built into the basement floor, or outside the basement wall. The lift station will force the sewage through a small diameter pipe and on up into the sewer line between the house and the septic tank. Again this approach may be a wash because the cost of a small lift station is around the cost of an additional tank. Let the constraints of the site be your guide. The lift station and grinder pump is very reliable and quiet in operation, but may be noticeable to sensitive homeowners, depending on the use of the basement room where it will live.

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Subject: Are Peat Filter Septic Systems, Better than Mounds?

Posted:  Steve, Western PA    June 16, 2002

Hello, I have found the Think Tank a very informative forum and I wanted to write because I have a question and you seem to have a lot of wisdom regarding septic systems :)  I am in the process of building a new home (haven't broken ground yet) on a small 1/2 acre lot that has no public sewer available in Western, PA.  I have got a recommendation for septic system called EcoFlow which I understand is manufactured in Canada.  The local EcoFlow dealer has convinced me that this is the type of system to go with, but I am scared that since it seems to be somewhat new, that it will end up being a bad investment with problems in the long term.  Do you have any knowledge about this type of system?  My depth to limiting zone is 26" and my perc rate was 9.45 min/in with a 5% slope if any of this information helps.  Would an alternate system be a better investment such as a sand mound?  I would not mind paying a couple extra dollars now that can save me more in the future.  I am told that the EcoFlow system will run about $12,000.00 for me installed and sand mounds would cost around $8,000.00.  Other than having the tank pumped as usual and replacing the peat moss in the EcoFlo tank every eight years, do you know of anything else that I may have to maintain?  Does any part of this system go bad over time?  I was told no by the local EcoFlow dealer except for the dosing tank pump, but I would like another professionals option.  Thank you in advance for any help you can provide.  Have a good day.  Steve

Steve, The EcoFlo w system is a packaged system (sometimes package system). My usual caution about the packaged systems comes from experience, some of it costly. These systems are covered with patents and usually come with a mandatory service agreement. This must be factored into the final cost estimate. There are two advantages I can see with a mound system and a disadvantage. The mound uses all "off the shelf" parts. That is, the mound will for ever be able to be repaired by any competent excavator using parts from the local hardware and plumbing supply. Further, the cost difference of $4000 is substantial and if the manufacturing company is bought out or closed, and it is a foreign company, you may be stuck for parts and have to build a mound anyway.

The advantage of the peat filter is that I this packaged system is very compact, and would probably take up much less space in the yard and be less noticeable than the mound.

Also, the peat filter system is very much like the textile filter system. These two are on the verge of becoming accepted (not experimental) technology, mostly because of their compact size and generally good grades for reliable performance. Maintenance for both systems is roughly comparable, keeping in mind that packaged systems may have limited places to go for parts.

A final word here is the regulatory climate in your county. In my State, Washington, the packaged systems must be backed up at time of construction with the alternative design that the packaged system replaces. This overly cautious approach guarantees that the innovations in septic design will certainly happen in other states because the home owner would be crazy to build two systems to do the work of one, but the regulators feel that the risk to the environment is too great, and a catastrophic failure of the new technology would inconvenience the homeowner more than the potential advantages. It sounds like your state and county are willing to let the new technology stand alone, and be backed up by the replacement area alone. Good for them. Hope this helps.

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Subject: Do Products To Help Septic Systems Really Work?

Posted:  Kurt, Debbie and Travis    May 30, 2002

Hi again! I wrote you back in Feb. about my neighbors mound problems, but now I have a problem that I'm hoping you can help with. I have a ten year old septic field that was producing a few minor wet spots in late winter. I live near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The two wet spots were about 2 ft. X 2ft. Since the snow melted and everything dried up, everything is back to normal. I had a fellow that has a septic mound business come out and test my field and he told me that it was saturated. He said that my high sodium well water and the heavy clay soil probably caused the problem. I have seen products such as Septic Sweep on the internet that say they can fix the problem. Do you know anything about these products? The man that tested my field said that they are a waste of money. He say's the solution is to build me a mound for about $7000.00, and give my field a rest for a year or two, then switch back and forth between the two. Do you think this is the solution? I should mention that when he tested my field, there was water about 2 feet down the hole. Thank you for your time. Kurt, Debbie and Travis

Hello again. You didn't mention how your neighbor's mound system problem got resolved. As for your system, it sounds like the fellow who you have talked to has the right approach. It seems that you live in a difficult soil area. Further, your water use may be pushing the drainfield into a failure mode. When this happens, you usually must replace the drainfield as has been suggested. The idea to save the old drainfield as a backup is a wise move. When a drainfield rests for about a year, it will usually recover, and provide overload protection for your new drainfield.

Newer pressure systems that are dosed by timers "Timed Systems" not floats "Demand Systems" (the traditional method of controlling the dosing frequency), can be set up to automatically divert occasional overloads to the backup drainfield. The smart panels can not only do this with a remotely controlled switching valve, but can keep track of the flows and warn you when you are pushing the backup drainfield too. There is no substitute for information when managing your septic system. At a minimum, every pressure system should have an elapsed time meter on the pump for the owner to keep track of flow volume. Would you buy a car without a speedometer? The elapsed time meter is a thirty dollar item that some people refer to as one of the "bells and whistles". Give me a break.

As for additives, yeast, dead cats and the other things people claim will help the system work, I am aware of no qualified research that shows that these things are of any help whatsoever. With due respect to Septic Sweep, and Liquid-Plummer and all of the other manufacturers of things to flush into your septic system, I just do not have any facts that would support the claims that this will help a septic system work in any way. Just my opinion. If any of the manufacturers of these products reads this, feels that I am off base, and has some university performed research to support an opposite view, I will post it here _ _ _ _ _ and let you decide for yourself. Contact me here:

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Subject: My County Requires a Packaged Evaporative System that is No Longer Available?????

Posted:  Chadd     April 22, 2002

I am a professional Engineer & Sewage Enforcement Officer for my county. I am currently attempting to research the Sundrive Biovaporator Solar Greenhouse Evapotranspiration Wastewater Disposal System and cannot locate the company, info., etc.  This is the only ET system allowed in my state.  Can you steer me in the right direction?   This would be VERY appreciated. Thank you. Chadd

Chadd, I have no knowledge of the Biovaporator Packaged System other than the following mention in the laws of the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection found on Google: (SYSTEMS APPROVED UNDER THIS LISTING: The only non-infiltration, evapotranspiration bed system currently meeting the alternate system standards is the Sundrive Biovaporator Solar Greenhouse Evapotranspiration Wastewater Disposal System marketed by Sundrive, Inc., 60 Sherman Road, Ottsville, PA 18942.).

The only hit I can find on "Sundrive" is for an European car rental company. I may be wrong, and the company may still exist, and may sell a fine and reliable system. However, it is more likely that this packaged system is no longer available. Please refer to this link for my statement on packaged systems. Evapotranspiration systems by their nature are very sensitive to climate due to the need for storage of effluent during times of no evaporation (rainfall). This further compounds the inherent risks of a packaged design, by exposing the system to the whims of the weather.      

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Subject: Difficult Septic Tank Pumping Job

Posted:  Richard     April 22, 2002

The top of the septic tank in the proposed replacement septic system for my property is not directly accessible by tanker/pumper. It lies 18 feet below the surface on which the tanker would park. It also lies 238 feet from the tanker. Is this a problem? (The effluent is pumped up to the leaching area near the roadside) - Richard

Richard, The limit of pumping vertically from a septic tank is about 20 feet straight up, if the pumper is parked right at the tank. Long horizontal runs of pipe will slightly reduce this vertical lift. Otherwise, long horizontal runs are mostly unlimited. Suction pumps use atmospheric pressure to force liquids up. This pumping method allows a lift of 32 feet in ideal conditions. The numbers for your site are right at the edge of what may work.

A portable or permanent pumping setup could be constructed for your site. A grinder pump lowered into the tank and a pipeline built to the nearest parking spot for the pumper would work if nothing else does. This rig may not be cheap, and a licensed pumper in your area is the best person to advise about costs, etc. The fact that your replacement is "proposed" suggests to me that you should work the maintenance of this system into the design at this time. Perhaps the old tank could be modified to become a grinder pump station into a more accessible septic tank placed up at the drainfield area.

It is eco-nomical to take future repairs and maintenance strategies into account at the time of original design and construction of the septic system. Swimming pools, trees, garages, paving, retaining walls and other construction can reduce replacement areas and block access to existing systems for maintenance and pumping. Original plans for septic systems must show replacement areas by law in most states. Older systems sometimes exclude these important details.

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Subject: I Want to Raise My Yard . . . Over the Septic System

Posted:  Mark      March 18, 2002

Have an existing septic system and drainfield.  Been there for years and working fine.  I want to add some extra dirt over top of the drainfield. Does adding more earth on top of the ground over an existing drainfield pose any problems?  Good site.   Mark

Mark, Don't do it. Most systems are built at the maximum depth allowed. The excavator who built the system was probably aware that the yard would look or work better with fill and chose to leave it for a reason.  The statement you made "been there for years and working fine" are golden words to a home owner - don't chance this.

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Subject:  HELP! A Sewer is Being Forced Down Our Throats

Posted:  Jonathon,    Langley, WA    March 11, 2002

I live on a little country lane that is completely serviced by septic systems.  For over twenty years our city has been trying to force a common sewer line on us--to the resident's strong opposition.  Once again, we face a ULID being forced down our throats.

Our community is happy with our septic systems, though there have been some failures.  Most of all, we are afraid that sewer will bring growth (as it allows for rezoning).  But the city's main argument has been about the detrimental health consequences of septic systems.  Our city planners are convinced that septic systems are unhealthy and threatening.  My experience is just the opposite: centralized systems pose great environmental risks.  For that reason, I am looking for information which compares the health and social consequences of septic systems versus sewers.

Do you have any relevant information (or   suggest another source) to help fight a local political battle to keep our septic systems?    Jonathon

You can imagine that remote, self sufficient properties are harder to tax than a string of homes along a linear system of services. Why not ask your city planners to provide the proof of the "detrimental health consequences of septic systems."  Ask them to make sure that their data is specific to a normal American community, current within the last ten years, and by a qualified researcher. I would be surprised if they could come up with such a report.  However, if they do, I would be glad to assess their data for you. I have been searching for such a report myself for several years without success. As I discuss on my site, there is plenty of smoke out there and not much flame. Good Luck fighting city hall.

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Subject:  What is the Difference between a Drainfield and a Cess Pool

Posted:   Doris,    March 3, 2002

I found your forum on septic systems very informative. I happen to have an installed cess pool in a residential house ( built. 1935 ) Do cess pools have gravity fed drainfields?  How are cess pools constructed compared to a concrete septic tank? Thank you for any info on my questions.

Doris, Cess pools are an older form of sewage disposal. They are generally deep circular pits dug originally by hand to a depth of 10 to 20 feet and 6 to 10 feet round. They are lined in brick or stone to prevent caving in but allowing the sewage effluent to flow out into the soil. These structures are sometimes known as Dry Wells because they are wells but above the water table. These structures usually have concrete lids, and can be dangerous if abandoned without being properly closed, cleaned, filled with dirt and covered.

Modern septic systems use a septic tank (generally a concrete box to filter out solids from the sewage), followed by a drainfield. The drainfield unlike the cess pool is made of long shallow trenches, usually no deeper than 3 feet underground. Cess pools are no longer approved (or at least no longer should be approved) for new houses in most counties because they are inject untreated effluent deep into the soil beyond the reach of air breathing bacteria. Treatment of the effluent is the goal of the modern septic system not merely disposal. Treatment is only possible in the upper zone of the soil where the air breathing bacteria are found in great numbers.

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Subject:  Canadian Mound Disaster

Posted:   Kurt, Debbie and Travis,     February 20, 2002

Hi there, I live on a acreage Southeast of Sherwood Park Alberta, and my neighbor who just built his house and septic mound three years ago has had nothing but problems with it. It started last fall when water started leaking out the side of his mound. Through the winter the mound has frozen up 4 times. The contractor that installed his mound keeps coming out and fixing the problem. Unfortunately the mound works for about a week then freezes up again. He has cleaned his tank yearly since he moved in, so that is not the problem. Wondering if you have any ideas what could be wrong.  Thanks.  Kurt, Debbie and Travis

From your description, I would say that poor drainage is causing the freezing and not the other way around.  Because leaking ("break-out") occurred in the fall, before the bitter weather set in, I suspect that the problem is an undersized mound for the soil type and/or excessive water use in the home.

To fix the problem, go through these steps:

First, establish the water flow through the system. If an elapsed time meter is not installed in the system panel, install one. If the installer says that an ET meter can not be added to the system, your designer has overlooked an important part of the work. You may have to rewire the system. Excess water flow is the most common cause of system failure, and often overlooked. Home owners often underestimate their water use. The elapsed time counter hooked to the pump circuit will measure hours of pump use in hundredths of an hour.   Pumps are rated in gallons per minute.  Doing the math will get the water use in gallons per day.  Check the counter daily, at the same time of day for a month, and record the gallons in a log book.

Second, repair or enlarge the mound based on the results recorded in the above log book, and a close look at the soil. Pay particular attention to mottling (soil that is saturated over long periods). Mottled soil is an indication of poor general drainage.  If found at a depth of less than three feet, the mound may have to be made a lot bigger. Include at least two ports in the mound (open pipes down into the receiving soil below the mound), and check water depth a few times a week and record in inches (or in your case centimeters) in the log book.

Third, mounds can be touchy. In the repair, pay close attention to the sand quality. Check the notes below, and make sure you have the mound sand sieved before repairs are done.

Fourth, protect the mound from freezing. Your location near Edmonton has deep frost penetration. A totally conventional mound design could experience freezing. A mound after all is built above the ground. In the fall, and until you are confident in the repair, cover the mound, and the ground above the septic tank with a good layer of straw (8 inches or so). A pattern of ornamental bushes planted in the spring will help prevent the straw from blowing around and will encourage an insulating layer of snow to form protecting the mound from freezing. These steps may seem excessive, but few things ruin the enjoyment of property more than septic problems. Let me know how it turns out.

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Subject:  High Water Table leads to Pressure System

Sent:   Steve & Karla,     January 12, 2002, follow up January 15     Pierce County, WA

I found out the soil type in the area of our proposed drainfield is Harstine Series, which is a sandy Loam with a Hardpan layer somewhere underneath.  Well during the site assessment they dug down 51 inches and no hardpan was found, but a water table at 40 inches was encountered. This rules out a gravity system in Pierce County, WA because health code requires 3 feet of vertical separation from bottom of on-site sewage system drainfields.  Is there any way to lower the water table? Any type of drains? Or maybe I can dig around and look for better test holes, except that they went pretty deep into the lot looking for soil samples. Thanks

Steve & Karla, I looked at the site evaluation that you sent.  The 4 test holes showed soil mottling (a condition of soil that shows the past presence of a high water table) at between 26 to 47 inches deep, and plant roots to 40 inches deep in three of the four holes.  This indicates that you will need a pressurized drainfield to meet the vertical separation of 24 inches versus a gravity system which requires 36 inches.  Of course everyone wants to be allowed to build a gravity system that avoids the extra cost of an electric pump, panel and the extra costs of maintenance.   However, Pierce County approves more septic systems than any other in Washington State (several thousand per year), and over 90% of them are pressurized (many counties in the state have less than 10% pressurized).

The site information you sent, particularly the plant root depth (an excellent indicator of effective soil depth for proper septic functioning),  indicates that your site is marginal at best for consideration of a gravity design, and I would expect that Pierce County reserves the few gravity systems that it allows for sites that are clearly without restrictions of any kind.  You may re-visit the site with a backhoe to dig more holes, but it could be a waste of time and money.  It looks like the best spot for a drainfield is up-slope of the house site anyway, so you may require a pump system regardless of separation.

The method used to drain an area to artificially get vertical separation is a curtain drain or French drain.  This is simply a trench dug around the area of the drainfield that is deeper by 24 or 36 inches than the deepest drainfield trench.  The French drain has a perforated pipe at the bottom and is filled with drainrock.  The water table in the immediate area is intercepted and diverted around the drainfield area.  Intercepted groundwater will probably be discharged to the surface below the French drain on a sloping site such as yours.  Your property looks a little small to provide a place to discharge that would not interfere with a neighboring lot.  French drains can often be discharged into an existing wetland without harm.   Also local health would have to approve this type of solution including trench depth. You should discuss this possibility with your designer bearing in mind that the cost of a French drain may exceed the extra cost of a pressurized drainfield.

We appreciate your quick and thorough answer to our septic questions.  One more if you don’t mind.  I’ve heard a lot of different stories on how often to pump the septic tank from 1-10 years and one family said they hadn’t pumped in about 20 years!  How could they all be telling the truth?  If nothing goes into the tank but human wastes, how long can you go?  Does it really ever decompose totally?  I know the septic pumpers would say to do it often but what really is a reasonable schedule for pumping?

The frequency of pumping is a great question.   The rule of thumb is 3-5 years.  The bottom line is "depends on use." Not all waste is organic. The Sludge layer in the bottom of the tank contains a lot of dirt from clothes washing that will never decompose. The Scum layer contains grease from dishwashing and will float forever in the tank.   When either of these layers encroaches on the baffles (threaten to leave the tank by under flowing or overflowing the baffles), or when the tank volume has been reduced, your drainfield is at risk and the tank needs to be pumped.

Therefore, cooking, washing and other variable habits make the pumping frequency uncertain.  If you move into a home formerly lived in by another family, always have the tank pumped immediately, and have the pumper check the condition of the tank and the baffles (plastic or concrete barriers that block the outlet from scum). Once you have lived in the home for two years, have the tank checked by a licensed pumper.  It may or may not need pumping.  Be there when the pumper checks the tank, or it will likely be pumped and you won't have the inside story.  He or she will check the depth of both layers.  Either the scum layer or the sludge layer will build up faster on the safe zone (roughly three inches of free space above the outlet baffle of the tank, and 12 inches of free space below the outlet baffle is required in a healthy tank).   You will now know how often to have the tank pumped.

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Subject:  Sand Filter Sand - ASTM Concrete Sand or Plaster Sand?

Sent:   Jay   January 2, 2002  Torrincton, CT

Gentlemen, Very Nice Web Page.  I am currently researching for information describing the technical aspects of what makes a better septic sand than other septic sands.  In the state of Connecticut, it is considered "Select Fill", but the characteristic they seem sensitive to is the amount of minus 200 mesh fines.  We currently operate three small granite quarries in the state of Connecticut, with a fourth to come on line.  One of the specialty markets is septic sand.

I believe C-33 is the ASTM call out for washed concrete sand. C-144 is the ASTM call out for plaster sand.  In your web page, you describe C-33 being a plaster sand. I am trying to understand the finer points of what our customers are looking for and why.  You web page is very informative. Thank you.  Jay

ASTMc33.jpg (23339 bytes)Jay, You are right.   ASTM C-33 Concrete Sand is the proper spec for septic mounds and sand filters.  The image on the right is a sieve report.  The spec for ASTM C-33 is the grey band.  The specific sand analysis is the dark line to the right of the grey band.  Local pits sometimes refer to the C-33 sand as Plaster Sand and have another specs for what locals call Concrete Sand, so I used a local term on the web site by mistake.  I have made the correction - thanks.

Drainrock or pea gravel on the other hand promote flow and storage in the in-between spaces between the particles, or void spaces. The more uniform the better for drainrock (about 28 % void space with perfect spheres), so golf balls or marbles would be better than drainrock for septic systems.  This is why the new vault technology is superior to drainrock.   The vaults provide 100% void space within the storage area of the drainfield.

The special quality of filter sand is that it contains a range of sizes of particles.  This slows the flow of effluent by surface tension on the particles. Filter sand contains a mix of sizes also to fill up the void spaces and create an environment for the air breathing bacteria to live in. This sand however, must be washed during crushing, and must contain no fine particles or dirt which would promote clogging. The best sand is a little coarser than standard concrete sand, based on experience and experiment.  However there is no better standard sand available than ASTM C-33.  Good designers get to know where the piles and pits of the right stuff are stored by crushers around the county.  It is not unusual to tell a customer exactly whom to contact for the best sand.  A septic system uses a relatively small amount, so in most rural areas, crushers will not create a special run of the good stuff.  Designers must pick from regular construction sand available in the local market.

Finding a good sand is done mostly by feel and eye.  Remember, no fine dirt (clean), and a little coarser than concrete sand if possible. Once a supply of sand is found, a composite grab sample must be sieved with a special set of sieves, and the resulting piles weighed accurately.  A report is prepared to document the sand. Similar reports are required by a health departments from time to time as part of an application for designs that require filter sand such as mounds and sand filters. The shaded area is where the sieve analysis must fall for a proper C-33, although as you can see, this sample falls outside the area a little on the coarser side and is considered acceptable by local health and the designer.

back to ASTM C-33 Sand   back to sand filters

textile1.jpg (5021 bytes)New materials are coming on the market that are better than the C-33 sand for some uses.  Ground glass can equal sand in some applications. Textile filters use an acrylic fluffy type material that is closer to an ideal filter media.  The image to the left, courtesy of Orenco Systems of Oregon,  is of the inside of a textile filter.  Below the piping network is the fluffy filter media that is superior to any natural material such as sand.  The loading rate of sandy soil for a gravity drainfield is 2 gallons per day per square foot of drainfield (GPD/SF).  C-33 Concrete sand in some sand filters can be loaded as high as 5 gallons.  The textile filter in the image can be loaded at 50 gallons per day per square foot.  Therefore systems containing this experimental material qualify as super-compact designs which can be crammed into very tight spaces.  A five foot square textile filter is all the filter that is needed for a three bedroom home with an enormous potential reduction in disposal area because the suspended particles in the sewage effluent are eliminated by the biological action in the filter. The disposal drainfield never develops a biomat and therefore can transmit many times the water into the ground as standard designs.

However, the advantages of super-compact designs can be negated if the state or local approving authority does not grant an equivalent reduction in the required area for such devices. If the approving authority uses septic regulations as a means to regulate land use under the guise of growth management, then the regulators have overreached with their regulations. It is a stretch to think that public health is compromised by density. The downtown of major cities can be very livable if utilities are built to appropriate standards. Developers and homeowners are not served by their regulators when land use density becomes the responsibility of health bureaucrats instead of planning authorities. Density rules have always been a part of septic system regulations with soil loading rates and drainfield and tank sizes and setbacks determining lot layouts. Lately however, you will likely notice that the preamble to legislation and news articles are starting to point fingers at septic systems as a major source of pollution. Here is a local example of our new updated state septic system regulations which now require designers to provide 100% of the drainfield and replacement areas even when expensive super compact systems like the textile filter are used as if they were likely to fail.

Also Washington has begun to enforce the "no override" rule for any commercial septic systems. When I heard of this one and contacted a panel company to ask about the availability of panels without override settings I heard laughter in the background and the comment "you must be calling from Washington State." Our regulators are making us a laughing stock, and comments to the state board of health are met with polite handshakes and blank stares. It is almost impossible to explain the implications of state regulations which are usually drawn-up and approved in urban areas for people living in the rural ones, to state legislators. Our rural representatives have little clout in the state legislature anyway which is controlled by the voters in the population centers around Puget Sound.

I will have to explain to my customer that in their restaurant, if the alarm sounds on the septic panel, that the toilets won't flush and the sinks won't run until the next pumping event in four hours. The wedding guests will just have to go home. I specialize in resorts because of shifting land use trends. In our traditional farming county, we are attempting to diversify our economy through recreational and resort development. This type of rural remote development usually has very large flows on a few weekends out of the year with long resting periods in between. Our state does not require that the 39 counties report to the state regarding septic system statistics other than applications for waivers of the rules that they should have anyway. Whatever information these regulators utilized to come up with the new rules they did not share on request. If the state had provided compelling scientific evidence to justify their draconian rule concerning overrides, I would be able to explain it to my customers. Unfortunately they have provided only the handshake and the smile.

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Subject:  Can't Open CAD File

Sent:   Dave P.Eng.   Calgary   Saturday, December 08, 2001

We have a large file with a .gcd extension that we believe is a generic cad file.  Could you tell us how we could determine this and what packages are available that would convert this old file to a format which can be used by current cad software.

Dave, I know of no drawing file other than Generic CAD using .gcd extension.  Few software packages recognize these files anymore.  However, Visual CADD 4.0.3 is a new program based on Generic and it does open the old gcd files.  It is windows friendly and has been developed by some of the old Generic people.

As far as I know, Generic files unlike AutoCAD, only have one version.  Get 4.0.3, or find someone with an old copy of Generic who can open it and return the file to you in DXF format or email it to me an I will do it. Most CAD programs will recognize a DXF file which is a universal exchange format developed by AutoCAD for just this sort of reason.

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Subject:  Septic Design for Sloped Lot

Sent: Steve   Sunday, December 02, 2001

Bought a 2.3-acre lot just outside Gig Harbor Washington.  The lot slopes about 15% with a short 27% spot on it.  Originally had a gravity system designed in1993 but new codes will probably require a pressurized system.  Since I have to put this type of system in now.  Could I have the drain field’s upslope?  What’s the maximum upslope grade?  I have a level area below the original drain field already cleared I was thinking of relocating the house below the drain field?  What are the chances of this working?      Steve

Steve, Drainfields can be designed easily to be upslope of the house.  A slope of 15 - 27% should represent no problem.  Slopes greater than 45% (24 degrees) can cause problems.  Check your local ordinance to be sure.  A drainfield a hundred feet above a house is not hard to design or expensive to construct (a slightly larger pump).

I want to share a case I know of, (not my design) where a drainfield was placed into a steep hillside above the house.   The house site was cut deeply into the hill.  Several months later, and after hundreds of gallons of sewage had been pumped into the drainfield, a structural failure of the soil happened.  The drainfield slid down the hill one rainy night pushing the house off its foundation.  Steep hillsides take special care.

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Subject:  Opinion about Rhinoceros CAD program

Sent:  Matej from Slovenia       Thursday, November 29, 2001

Upgrade" even though I never bought the original disk.  Call the company and tell them you are a student and twist their arm for an Upgrade price.  They will probably go for it rather than lose a sale.  Any of these programs will create excellent drawings for most small to medium design businesses like your Dad's.

Start drawing on your own using the help menu when you need to and join an internet CAD discussion group for free advise if you get stuck.   It is a lot easier to learn if you have personal help.  Ask your Dad to suggest an architect or mechanical engineer friend who uses CAD to spent an hour or two with you once you have the software and have got it running and printing.  Also read through my article once again for hints on getting started.

You will probably find it fairly easy and fun to draw in CAD.  You will be in demand.  Good luck

Note from inside the Think Tank: As a result of reading Krystal's letter, I produced the following article "Getting Started In CAD."

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Subject: Sand Filter Failure

Sent:   Jay, Oregon Coast    Original Post - November 03, 2001       New Post November 27, 2001

Hello.  I am interested in buying a piece of commercial property that is about 5 years old.  The current septic system is a sand filter system in a concrete frame, about 330 sq. ft..  After having it inspected, it was determined that the system had failed due to any of several possible reasons: hydraulic overload, system built below ground level, waste water from dental clinic and beauty shop.  On the property there are 4 toilets being used by about 20 people.

My question:  In rebuilding the system, and to allow for the waste water from the dentist and the beauty shop, what can be done to prevent early failure, or any failure in the new system?  I have read your page and I am wondering if a recirculating gravel system in line with a mound system would do the job.  Or should I just ask the dentist and the beauty shop to move elsewhere?

Thank you   Jay

Jay, The number of people in the building is unlikely to have caused the failure.  I would suspect design flaw or more likely, a hydraulic overload based on your information. Five years is too soon for a normal failure.  Sand filters are sensitive to overload and fail (lock up) in a hurry. Your filter at 330 sq. ft is good for about 360 gallons per day, the size for a three bedroom house.  This should be plenty for an office use of 25 people. However, I suspect that both the dentist and the hairdresser use constant water running in their operations. Either of these occupants could exceed their maximum based on the filter size.

I recommend in a case like this (I have not inspected the site, and this is free advice only)  that you put each business on a private in-line water meter, plumbers provide these for about $300 ea, and further, check the businesses for excessive water use.  Dentists with running sinks (old spit style operation) are out-dated and could cause excessive use.  However, the hairdresser is the more likely cause. Repairing the existing filter may work only if  you can: 1.control flow;  2. redesign distribution network to the filter which will require replacement anyway to increase "orifice spacing" and "dosing frequency".  This will probably also require a new and larger pump;  3. introduce air injection into the filter as part of the repair.  Otherwise a new and larger sand filter may be required.    Hope this helps

11/07/01,   I have a further question regarding the dentist and the hairdresser. How can I monitor what goes down their drains that might influence the healthy bacteria in the septic system?  Are there filters or something that can filter out harmful chemicals that might put the septic system in jeopardy?  When considering these factors is any one septic system inherently better than another?  If I take over this property, I don't want to lose these tenants, but at the same time, I don't want them to cause the septic system to fail in short order.  Again, thank you for your time.  Where are you located in the States?   Jay

Jay, The notion that "healthy" bacteria inhabit a well functioning septic system is a myth.   Yes, there are millions of bacteria in the tank, however these are anaerobic (water breathing) bacteria like those in the human gut.  Adding something to the tank will not help the aerobic (air breathing) bacteria that live in the drainfield and perform treatment (consumption of the anaerobes and organic particles). The tank, contrary to popular myth does not perform much treatment.  All septic systems and municipal treatment plants use the same aerobic bacteria in the process.  It is unlikely that anything you put in the tank will help or hurt the working of your system.  I have seen septic systems consume amazing things without problems.   This is because there are so many varieties of bacteria, their population is dependent only on food supply.  There is something out there in the soil that will eat almost anything.  However, they are sensitive to excessive water use.  If you can control this factor, and the system has been designed (or repaired) by a diligent and reasonably skilled individual, then you should experience no further problems.

I am located in Ephrata, Washington between Spokane and Seattle

11/27/01   John. I wrote you a couple of weeks ago about the septic system at the commercial property I was (am) thinking to buy.  The original sand filter failed and our DEQ reviewed and approved the seller's new design with the condition that when he built the new filter he would put an air coil at the bottom of the filter.  He put in the new filter the day before yesterday and the DEQ came out to inspect; it passed the squirt test, but when they found out he failed to put in the air coil, they failed him on the spot.  The seller, who is also a licensed septic system installer, said that he refused to put it in because it wasn't necessary.  Now that DEQ has denied his approval, not only can he not sell the property, but DEQ will come after him for not having an operating drain field.  Why in the world would he refuse to comply with what seems like such a simple demand.  Some people say he is just being pig-headed, but surely something else must be going on.  Is this component hard to install, expensive, difficult to obtain or's a mystery to me.  Can you shed any light on this matter?  Thanks again for your time.

Jay, Few industries in the country rival the septic system industry for weird lore and pig headedness.  I suggested introducing air injection into the sand filter in my original advice as a way to boost the capacity of the system.  All septic systems work by aerobic action (air breathing bacteria).   Adding air into the filter boosts the performance like a turbocharger boosts performance in a car.  This is simply a small electric pump and a delivery pipe buried within the filter during construction.  The parts are not hard to find, or expensive to buy, but it unfortunately can not be added after the fact.  At a minimum, the filter will have to be cleaned out and rebuilt, mostly by hand and shovel.   Most of the parts can be safely salvaged and reused. 

The original filter was likely under-designed for the job.  The installer may disagree with local health about a fix, but his design has failed.  This is no time for him to get pig headed.  I think this is what has happened.  The filter probably should be bigger to work properly.  Local health has offered a fix to avoid the expense of a new box (i.e., the air injection or air coil).  The guts of the filter will probably have to be replaced and rebuilt to county spec.  Let me know what happens.

12/12/01 John, I thought I would take a moment to bring you up to date on my septic story. After weeks of negotiations. the seller who, by the way, is also the licensed septic system installer, met all of DEQ's requirements: built a larger sand filter, the former was 330 sq ft, the new one is 360 sq ft; put in an air coil with compressor and has built the whole system with the required media, i.e. DEQ sand, DEQ gravel, etc.  Now, DEQ is worried about the tenants who are using the system, particularly the hair salon.  I have spoken to several "experts" who say that the fats and oils from the hair salons shampoos and the various caustic ingredients in dyes and hair strippers can be held as possible suspects in the initial failure of the first sand filter.  You seem to speak with a lot of common sense, but at the same time, I am wondering if there is a possible way for the hair salon to be more proactive in helping take care of my new septic system.  I will monitor his water usage and I will try to get him to use products which are environmentally safe, but I am wondering if there is anything else I can do (other than to ask him to move out) which can help him help me.  Any suggestions?  Also, regarding the air coil: DEQ wants me to run the compressor 24/7, but Orenco, the maker of the filter, suggests using it only when my system begins to fail (?!), or run it for 24 hours a couple of times a month.  Do you have any thoughts on this?

10/05/02 Jay, I was cleaning out my email and found your message to which I did not reply. From what you said about your tenant, I am not worried about the substances that they put into the system. The volume of water alone would be my concern. I believe that the system lasted as long as it did before failure because the filter was almost sufficient. The fixes that were used will likely take care of the problem without need for worry on your part. The only issue that I would be concerned with is the water volume. Good for you having bought the property with a problem and fixed it. As for air-pump running, pumps run a long time, and are cheap insurance.

Thanks, John, I thought you had given up on me. I have been monitoring the water usage of all the tenants and we have been staying below DEQ's recommendations and everything seems to be doing fine.  I appreciate your words of encouragement and I hope to have many years of relatively carefree service from this system.  Jay

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Subject: CAD Format Question

Sent:   Linda    October 21, 2001

I am a Web Design Teacher.  My students are designing pages for our high school web site.  For the "Tour" section of the web site, the graphic arts teacher created the school's floor plans using the CAD program. I need the convert the format to something that we can display on a Web page (JPG or GIF).

After reading your CAD info page I realize that CAD formats are vector images.  Would Adobe Illustrator convert the format?  If not what program should I use? Or can it be done?

Any help you can provide will be appreciated.     Linda

Linda, It is likely that your school floor plans can be translated into Adobe Illustrator and from there into various programs.  If you can get it into Illustrator, you will be able to get it out in various ways.  I have used Corel Draw 7 (which is a drawing program like Adobe Illustrator - and not to be confused with Corel/Word Perfect which is not a drawing program) to convert vector drawings imported usually as DXF files from vector graphics into lots of other files.  The range of output formats is vast.  PDF files can be used to send vector files over the web as Adobe Acrobat files, or AI (Adobe Illustrator files), or CDR (Corel Drawing files).  Bitmaps can be created from the vectors using Illustrator to make files like BMP (windows bitmaps), TIFF, JPG, MAC (MacPaint Bitmap), GIF etc. etc. 

There are two usual bottlenecks with your translation problem.  Earlier drawing (vector type) programs were often limited in their export formats wanting to confine the user into a captive structure.  This limitation often condemned the programs to small markets and obsolescence.  If your floor plan has been drawn in one of these programs you may not have a proper output format to get it into Adobe.  The other possible problem is that the Adobe program you have may not be a fully functional one or it may have inherent limitations.  Adobe Photo Shop for instance is different from Illustrator and will not work with vector graphics.  A fairly current copy of Adobe Illustrator should do it all for you depending on the format that you are starting with.

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Subject: How Do I Find A Septic System Designer

Sent: Sunday, October 14, 2001 1:33 PM

I need a professional engineering firm which specializes in the design and installation of septic systems in difficult soils. The area where I need the work completed is just south of Annapolis Maryland. If you are interested, please let me know. If not, is it possible for you recommend someone in the Annapolis area?    Thank you Douglas

Douglas, I am not connected with anyone in your area at this time. I would recommend that you approach the clerks in your local health department between noon and one o'clock (when the bosses are at lunch). Get them to give you the name of the two best designers in the area. Technically government agencies are not supposed to express bias or suggest favorites, but in the "small town" atmosphere of all health departments, everyone knows who does the best job day after day.

Your task is to quickly develop a relationship with someone inside the system and get them to suggest the name of the designer who can best help you with your job. This strategy also applies to finding a good installer. Hope this helps.

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Subject: Winery Septic System

Sent:  Andy    October 12, 2001

Do have any design information for a septic system for a commercial winery?  The main BOD would be yeast and yeast fermentation by-products.   Andy

Andy,   Each state has different rules for commercial disposal of water containing biohazards and biosolids.  Here in Eastern Washington State, which as you know has many great wineries, the domestic septic systems are all regulated as would be any system; household, residential or commercial that is connected to bathrooms or food service.  At this time, non-domestic commercial septic systems are unregulated.

However if the domestic sewage is mixed, the whole system becomes regulated, requiring permits and plan checks, final inspection etc.   When I design a winery system, usually the tasting room, food service, winery bathrooms and any residences are given a domestic system completely separate but in a common area with the process system.  No mixing of the two streams even in the drainfields occur.   Both systems are designed based on maximum flow volume (which is of course quite variable in the process of wine making as you know), and soil type in the drainfield area.

Variable flow volume such as a seasonal process, assembly buildings (churches, theaters) and resorts require special attention to problems associated with uneven flow.  Three methods to solve this problem that should be discussed with your designer to reduce overall system costs are: 1. surge tanks; 2. alternating drainfields; and 3. pretreatment devices.  I personally prefer alternating drainfields controlled by smart panels as the most cost effective approach because it uses only conventional parts. 

Plans for all systems regulated or not are sent to the local health district as a courtesy, and my clients have always agreed to this.  I have had good success using the above method.  Hope this helps.

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Subject: I Want To Use Greywater for Watering the Plants

Sent: Cheryl   October 05, 2001

I watched a program on PBS 6 or 7 years ago showing how to make a septic system that collected the gray water from the house and delivered it to plants all around the perimeter of the house.  The water finally ended up in a area of plants away from the house that filtered the gray water more. It was wonderful.  Do you know anything about this or can you help me with an all natural system ?  Cheryl

Cheryl, In my state and some others, gray water must go through the septic tank to be legal so the system you saw would not be allowed throughout the country.  People in my area still sometimes have systems that use wash water in the garden.  Grey water can be hazardous as the same bacteria are in it in lesser amounts as are found in the tank.  The system that is legal here and possibly where you are has buried lines, and is called a "Drip Line System".  This system distributes small amounts of water underground to specific plants such as around a house.  I would start by asking the local health department if this system is legal and then find a licensed installer or designer in your area to discuss design and cost.  The drip line may have to be placed no closer than 10 feet from the house.  By the way, a standard septic system can be considered "all natural".

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Subject: HELP!!!  My Yard is Sinking

Sent: Dana    Saturday, July 14, 2001

I live in northern Florida.  I have a septic system that is less than 3 yrs. old.  I have just started having problems with the drainfield getting sinkholes on top with water pooling in them.  My husband dug up one of the sinkholes and found that the pipes are backed up.  We were told that the Styrofoam product that was used instead of gravel is part of the problem.
We were told that we have to replace the drainfield.  We were also told that there have been a lot of lawsuits regarding this Styrofoam product.  Do you know anything about this Styrofoam product or if we might have some recourse.

I just can't bear to spend another $2000 on a drainfield that's so new. Any advice that you might have would be greatly appreciated.   Thank you!  Dana

Dana, It sounds from your e-mail that your system is failed and your drainfield needs to be replaced. This must be confirmed in the field of course but all the signs are there from your description. Your state allows the use of Styrofoam and other materials in the drainfield as an alternative to the more traditional drainrock. My research does not find that the use of Styrofoam as a drainfield medium is associated with an unusual rate of drainfield failure. You need to have a qualified person get to the bottom of your problem. I have found that premature failure is usually  caused by 1. excessive use of water in the home; 2. under-design of the drainfield due to a mistake by the designer in figuring out the soil type.

To figure out your water use go over your water bills if you are on a water system to determine if you are over doing it. A guideline would be more than 3000 gal per week inside the home (when the yard is not being watered) could lead to trouble. If you do not have a water meter or if you are on a private well you need to assess your water use to see if you tend to wash more than normal. Teenagers who take long showers or new babies in the home or bringing washing into the home are signs of potential trouble.  You could also compare your drainfield area (from local health department records or discussion with neighbors) to see if your house got a smaller drainfield than your neighbors for any reason.

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Subject:   What CAD programs do you recommend?

Sent:   Jennifer  July 03, 2001

I'm interested in your septic design drawings on CD.  I am still doing my drawings by hand, and I don't have a CAD program or Adobe or Corel software.  Can you recommend any moderately priced design software that supports the DFX import format?  What about Visio Technical, or Standard?  Are you familiar with TurboCad?  AutoCAD has always been too pricey for me.  Thank you.

Jennifer, Starting in CAD can be a long and winding road. I started in Generic CADD in 1990 and still use this program. I have AutoCAD 2000 and AutoCAD LT and never use them. I only use AutoCAD to translate drawings to the vast world of users who depend on this software. I would not recommend that you buy AutoCAD unless you see yourself working for a large firm that uses this software. AutoCAD is cumbersome, not particularly user friendly, and requires a large learning curve.

Unfortunately the older software that worked great in the past is not particularly compatible with latest windows and may not work well with the latest printers and plotters.  This old software is usually DOS based and is no longer being developed.

AutoCAD LT is limited and frustrating to learn. I used to use Corel Draw software and had continual problems and conflicts with the windows operating system and would suggest you stay away from this for the time being. Adobe is only a little better, but these drawing programs are not true engineering type drawing programs that you will need. Three programs appear to fill the gap right now and time invested in them will probably net the greatest gain. TurboCAD, Imagineer(SmartSketch) and Visual CADD seem to be going in the right direction. These programs, and all the ones discussed are compatible with AutoCAD and my drawings and most conventional drawing exchange software. Please read my article "Getting Started IN CAD" for more detail. Good luck, and please let me know how it turns out for you.

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Subject: Vaults - I Need More Information

Sent: Michael    Pennsylvania   Friday, June 01, 2001

Found your web site while doing research on septic system design for my Civil Drafting Technology class.  Found the vault concept interesting. I have not seen anything like this in the Western Pennsylvania area.

I am going to give the class an assignment to draw up a site plan using your vault approach.  If possible, I would like to get more information: 1.  What is the length, width and height of a typical vault segment?   2.  What is the typical width and depth of the trenches?    3.  I gather from the articles that the area inside the vault is open.    That is there is no sand or gravel filler.  Is this assumption correct?    Thank you for your consideration.  Michael

Michael, Each vault is 6.25 feet long, slightly less than 3 feet wide and 1 foot high. Trenches are the same as gravel type trenches at 3 feet wide, typically less than 3 feet deep. The vaults are open at the bottom, they have no gravel or other filler inside, they provide a void space only in the ground which of course is the only function of drainrock. Gravity vault designs include no central pipe, the floor of the trench is the distribution system (as with standard drainrock systems practically speaking) and pressure systems use laterals suspended inside the vaults spraying up towards the inside of the vault. Good luck on your assignment.  P.S. check out the manufacturer's web site

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Subject: Pressure Systems on CD

Sent: Chris  Tuesday, April 03, 2001

I am interested to know if some of the septic system drawings on your CD  include the use of a pump chamber, effluent pump, infiltrators, dose systems and effluent filter. thanks, Chris

Chris, This CD concerns mostly the vault system (Infiltrator) in use with gravity septic systems. The industry seems to have accepted the vault technology and the design drawings reflect this.  However, the designs include the traditional drainrock systems as well. Under review is a new CD concentrating on the pressure septic systems showing designs and details of pump chambers, filters, panels, plus the incorporation of the vault technology in pressure designs for single houses and small communities.  We will assess sales of the gravity designs and decide to develop the pressure CD.  Thank you for your interest.

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Subject: How Do I Hide My septic system

Sent: Barbara, Orlando, Florida  October 23, 2000

Can you tell me what type of expert to contact for assistance in disguising my drainfield in the backyard of the new house I'm building.  It destroys the aesthetic value of the property as it is about 40 ft. long rectangle by about 20 feet wide and about 4 feet above ground level coming directly behind my house to be.  I am most distressed about the situation.  Thank you for an informative web site.   Barbara

Barbara, Take Heart. There are many ways to turn your frog into a prince. I have seen some beautiful raised planting beds created on a septic system and they make excellent bases for this. You can disguise a mound or a sand filter in the following way.

A mound has sloping sides. These sides may be stepped by adding treated wood boards and filling with dirt to make a stepped planting bed. Get the plans for the septic system from your local health department so you don’t hit a pipe or better yet, contact the septic designer for a little help here. Your neighbors will be jealous when your landscaping is finished.

If your system is a sand filter it will have straight sides like a box. You can cover the sides with wood and arrange an excellent garden right on the top. I saw a commercial building once that had a sand filter in front of the entrance. They turned the sand filter into a planting box with low bright yellow shrubs. Very few people were ever aware that the "planter" was really a sand filter. Adding another low planter in the area will further disguise the septic system.

Show this message to your builder or landscape architect and let me know what you come up with.

Thank you so much for those ideas.  My septic contractor is re-doing the bed to make it more of a square shape.  It will be directly off the back porch.  The idea of the raised planting bed will be perfect because I can make that part of the backyard a courtyard.  My gardens are English cottage style anyway.  I take it from your comments that I can plant anything on top the system except for trees?  I think mine is a mound but we did have to fill with sand per permit so I'm not sure.  I will let you know how it ultimately turns out.  Your interest in this EXCRUCIATING problem is greatly appreciated and you gave me some great ideas!!!!!!!!!!!!Thanks. Barb

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