Questions & Answers

Yes I get a lot of questions...but I find it rewarding when I can help people walk through the issues they face when building/buying/selling a home with a septic system. It's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it.     

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The following are actual questions I have received over the last few years and the answers I give (some are compilations).  If you have a question and can't find it answered on this page already, feel free to email me by clicking here.  I do try to answer in a few hours/days but when I am on the road or get overloaded it may take me a little longer to respond.  However if you don't hear from me within a week it may mean I never got it thanks to the spammers overloading our systems, so send it again. 

You may also want to include your phone number and the state you live in.  With some of the more involved questions the answer may be faster/easier in person than me typing it out.  My wife calls me a "pecker" because I still do the hunt and peck style of typing (at least that's the reason she gives).  And knowing your state can make a big difference in the solution.     

Many of the questions I get are of the same nature, "I want to buy a house with a septic system...I bought a house with a septic system...I’m having problems with my septic system" etc.  And often the answer is just pointing out the simple, common sense solutions that people will slap their forehead saying, "Why didn't I think of that?"  

It starts out with a brief description of why we need proper onsite systems and walks through the issues involved with septic systems.  Take a few minutes to look over this page to see if the answer to your question is here already. If not, feel free to send it in (click here) or even just to say hi and give your feedback.  One of the most common emails I get is from people that say, "I found your site last night and stayed up until 2 in the morning laughing my butt off at your responses.  I particularly liked what you said to the cheap..."

You may notice that many of these questions come from a female perspective. This shows that:

  • More women are buying homes.
  • Women are taking a more active roll in home maintenance.
  • Men are pinheads and don’t like asking for least this is what my wife says. 

Questions---- Answers

We have some hunting property that our family has used since the 40's.  The only building it has is an old shack and an outhouse.  This has served it's purpose well but now my brother and I are planning on building an actual house or cabin with running water, toilets, showers, kitchen sink, washing machine, etc. when we bring the wife and kids.

However when we went to the county to get a permit, they said we would need a full septic system.  After calling a few contractors in the area, we found out this would add at least another $4,000 to our costs of this project.  

Since we are only going to be using this property on weekends I don't see why we should have to spend this kind of money on something that is not going to be used year round.  I say they are going too far.  Why are they doing this? Dan F

Every home produces wastewater...even a weekend cabin. That wastewater contains parasites and viruses (from human waste), nutrients (manure...again from human waste) and chemicals from cleaning compounds. If you just dumped this wastewater into a ditch, like they did years ago, any people that came in contact with these contaminates could get sick and die, like they did years ago. Animals that come in contact with this brew, like, dogs, cats and mosquitoes, can acquire these health hazards and pass them a long to humans.  

FYI: Mosquitoes have killed more people by spreading disease than all the wars put together.   

The fact is, in the year 1900, the average life span of an American was 49 years old. You see in those days people didn’t give a whole lot of thought to sewage treatment.  Often raw sewage was just piped to a ditch, lake or river.  Needless to say, waterborne disease was rampant.  A disease causing parasite would often get into a local water supply and people would start getting sick.  And because there were no  antibiotics available, many of these people would die. Nasty deal wasn’t it.

There has been a lot of damage from un-treated sewage entering our lakes, rivers, oceans and drinking water supply's...this is why most areas of the country are requiring you put in a proper system to deal with your wastewater.  

As far as your concerns about the cost:  

  • I would say this property was paid off a long time ago by your grandparents, which means all it is costing you now is a share of the property taxes every year.  In other words, you ain't exactly paying top dollar to begin with. You scored a pretty good deal.  
  • Owning a home is a responsibility and making sure you do not pollute the environment or water supplies is part of that responsibility.  If you do not want that responsibility, then sell the property and stay in the city.  But if you are going to make poop, you gots to take care of it.  
  • You are whining about adding 4 grand to a property that you probably got for free and will be worth a lot of money to you in the future.  Put it in perspective and it doesn't look too bad.  


I inherited a house from my father last year that has a cesspool. We just received a notice from the health department saying we need a new septic system before we can do anything with the property, even if we want to sell it.  But the current system is working fine. Why should we be forced to do this?  Lloyd and Linda C.

Cesspools have been used extensively around the world.  But they are designed basically for disposal only, not treatment because they do not effectively remove the contaminates present in wastewater.  A cesspool is a deep pit dug in the yard with a cover put over it and the sewage was dumped into it.

Problem is, these pits are often dug right down into the underground water supplies and the sewage is pulled right back into the house through the well. There are still a fair number of homes around the country that you can flush a red dye down the toilet and 20 minutes later it will becoming out of the kitchen faucet. Real nasty deal, huh.

Also, the deeper you go in soil the less oxygen there is, the less oxygen there is the less aerobic bacteria there are and the less aerobic bacteria there are the less treatment takes place.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that  anyone started looking at septic systems as actually performing treatment, not just disposal.  

Research illustrated that the  shallower you are in the soil the more oxygen there is...the more oxygen there is the more aerobic bacteria there are...the more aerobic bacteria there are the more aerobic bacteria there is to "eat' the parasites and viruses present in sewage.  

Today’s systems are comprised of a tank to allow for settling and storage of the solids and a shallow drainfield to disperse this now relatively clear liquid over a large area of soil.  

As the effluent migrates through the soil, the aerobic bacteria do the job on the bad boys and chemical/mechanical processes take the clean up even further.  

Also the shallower the drainfield is the more evaporation will take place so not all of the water going through the system has to percolate down through the soil.  Bonus round...Jim 

We bought some property 5 years ago. Now we are getting ready to build but have been told by others in the area that we may not be able to go with a regular septic. What are we going to do? Karen T.

If you are located on high ground with 6 feet of dry, sandy loam soil, you have a great site for a septic system.  But not every site is going to meet that criteria...and those great sites are getting harder to find.  Think about it, when people start building in an area, they pick the best spots first.  People that come in later are getting what is left over.  

You will also find this problem a lot when buying older homes.  Often older homes will still have cesspools and/or systems that won't fit today's codes and/or will not meet the needs of today's families (our water using habits have changed over the decades).   

There are several options, the easiest and cheapest is the standard, gravity-fed trench system. In the past these trenches were filled with gravel but there are now other options like chamber systems that use open bottom plastic "domes" that eliminate the need for gravel. These types of systems use the soil around the drainfield to perform the treatment process.

These are the most desirable because they use no electricity, have no pumps to burn out and use large diameter pipes that do not plug easily.

However, if you have high groundwater tables, tight soils that will not accept water at a reasonable rate, a lack of soil (like in mountain areas) or near a body of water, the soil can not perform the treatment process and an alternative system will be needed. These include mound systems, sand or peat filters, aerobic systems, or constructed wetlands.

Many people do not want these types of systems because:

  • They cost more. 

Well they do cost more because they are much more involved to install, but they are usually still cheaper than hooking up to a city sewer system.

  • They have a higher failure rate. 

This is also true and this is because they use pumps and smaller diameter pipes to move the effluent...these items plug easier which cause them to fail easier. However, these premature failures can be prevented if people take steps to prevent this plugging.  Jim

I live on a lake and put in a new $8,000 septic system 2 years ago.  But now the city wants to run the sewer main out to our area and hook everyone up to it.  

Most of the people don't seem to care either way.  Some (like me that have a new septic) don't want it, but a few do because they need to up-grade anyhow.  The city has been very vague about the cost and just tell people it will be better.  My brother had the same thing happen to him in a different state and they wound up paying over $30,000.  I fear we are going to get the same deal.  

What can we do?  Or are we stuck with it.  Jean

PS.  I know one of the council members owns property on the lake and is pushing for this.  

This is a common problem facing communities today, particularly in lake communities.  Back in the days when people first started building in areas, not much thought was put into what they were going to do with the waste water.  In many cases they simply put in cesspools or ran the sewage straight out to a ditch or even the lake.   

When there were only a few homes in the area it wasn't that big of a deal, but over the years as more people built, the problem got worse.  Now there are thousands and thousands of these small communities around the country that have a sewage nightmare on their hands.  A common profile of one of these communities is, 10% of the homes/businesses have proper septic systems, 30% to 50% have systems that are questionable, and the rest are a situation that I don't even want to be within 5 miles.     

Now, as people become aware of the health/environmental/financial damages (no one wants to live in a poop infested neighborhood so the property values start dropping), a few in the community start pushing to get the problem cleaned-up usually the local unit of government people.  

But the solution is not easy.  Hey, everyone wants to clean up the environment...until they find out it is  actually going to cost them something.  Then they get real quiet and their wallets slam shut like a bear trap.  At that point they are looking for the cheapest way out.  

Often a nearby community will offer to help them out by running the big pipe out to them.  But this is not necessarily the act of kindness it may seem, it is a business proposition.  They will treat your waste water, but for a price/profit.  No one does something for free.  And to clinch the deal they make offers that seem very attractive, like spreading out the costs, alluding to state funded grants to help pay for it, and occasionally a few under the table pay-offs to key people to push the deal through.  

The local leaders see this as a quick and easy way to get the poop cleaned up (and maybe with a few bucks on the sly) are glad to pitch it to the people.     

Another situation is where a consultant is hired to assess the area, make suggestions and then help them through the process of acquiring a contracting firm to do the design, installation and help find the  funds via loans and grants to accomplish this process.  But once again all is not what it seems.  

In one small community, a consultant came in and suggested a very intricate, expensive, high-tech/high-maintenance system (that will cost 6 figures a year to maintain) and helped the community acquire a nice grant program.  The entire system cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 million dollars and a portion of this paid for with a nice grant.  

But after it was all done a few little items came out: The consultant was not the unbiased participant everyone thought...he was actually employed by the company that installed that very intricate, expensive, high-tech/high-maintenance system (that will cost 6 figures a year to maintain).  And the grant that ALL of us tax-payers contributed paid about half so the people in the community paid 1½ million dollars for this system out of their own pockets, but the kicker is, they didn't need that intricate, expensive, high-tech/high-maintenance system (that will cost 6 figures a year to maintain) at a cost of 3 million.  

Because they had very good site/soil conditions, they could have gone with a low-tech/low-maintenance system that would have cost them about 1 million dollars, not 3 million, not even the 1½ million with the grant...and the maintenance would be a fraction of the costs.  But the community has their sewage problems taken care of and the consultant/design/installation firm had a nice payday and will make a lot of dough performing the maintenance over the next few decades. 

The point is, if people would have checked out all of the options before they made a decision, they could have saved a considerable amount of money.  

Here in Minnesota, there are several people that want to put together a program that will help small communities.  They want a pool of non-bias experts that would be available to go out to a community, do an assessment of the needs and conditions.  

Then bring people from the community to one of five sites around the state that have examples of the different styles of systems, show them the cost differences and show them which choices they have per their site conditions and requirements.  This way the people that live in a community will know they are getting the best deal. 

The fact is, there are many options to deal with sewage from homes and businesses.  In some areas, because of bad soil/site conditions and the types of sewage being generated, a sewage treatment plant is the best option.  But in many cases there are cheaper and more effective ways to deal with waste water...replacing existing systems and if necessary, up-grading them with  engineered systems like mounds, sand/peat filters, aerobic systems.  This can be done on an individual basis or as shared (cluster) systems...and in many cases they will be far cheaper than the big pipe.  

The catch is, if you want to fight the city, you need to get everybody on board and that is tough.  There are always a few arrogant Mellon heads that will go against the grain just to be different. If everyone wants septic, they will say they want city sewer and refuse to up-grade their own septic systems.  If you want help organizing your community let me know.  

I'm not saying sewage treatment facilities are bad, to the contrary, sometimes a centralized facility is the ONLY option...What I am saying is there are many choices available for homeowners and communities and those that have to live with those decisions should be made aware of all the choices BEFORE a choice is made. There are standard systems, mounds, sand filters, aerobic systems and many areas can use a combination of individual and cluster systems (several homes on one system) which often can be better and cheaper than a sewage treatment facility. But the sad fact is, often the final decision is made by one or two people (because no one bothers to get involved) and their choices are prompted by some smooth talking salesman selling their technology.

In the classes I put on, when applicable, I focus on these choices and the proper way to deal with this situation (by showing the people how to come up with a good game plan).

My name is Paul XXX and have a septic system.  The township is proposing a sewer plant expansion and part of the proposal will include putting my street on city utilities.  I have called the court house to try and get the particulars on what it will cost me and they have said about $10,000 and I will have to hook up within 2 years of the installation of the main.  My questions are: Do I have to hook up and does this sound like a good idea?  Thank you for your time.  

In most cases, IF YOU HAVE A SYSTEM THAT MEETS CURRENT CODE REQUIREMENTS AND IT IS FUNCTIONING PROPERLY, they can not make you hook-up.  Only when that system fails can they force the conversion.  But keep in mind, they want you to get hooked-up now because they can start charging for that monthly usage.  

Also be aware of this, you will start paying for that main going past your house (on your property taxes) as soon as they put it in.  Then when you get ready to hook-up you will pay another fee for this.  And that 10 grand...this is only an estimate.  Chances are good it will run more than $10,000.  

What should you do?  Well it depends.  If you (and your neighbors) all have older systems (20+ years) and have small lots with little room for expansion, then get hooked-up and call it good.  But, if you (all) have newer systems and/or have plenty of room to put in a new system when and if necessary, then I would try fighting it.  But you will need to work with the rest of your neighbors to block this.  In most areas of the country you will need a majority of the people to overturn such a plan.  Let me know if you want help organizing this.  Jim    

What will a septic system  cost?

Going to be building in a development where they use septic systems.  How much is it going to cost me?  Butch

The costs of a septic system will vary around the country according to local labor and material rates.

In the mid-west where materials and labor rates are reasonably priced, a standard, gravity-fed tank and trench system will run $3,000 to $5,000. The cost to pump/inspect the tank (every 1 to 3 years) will run $75 to $150 per pumping.

Engineered systems, like mounds, sand/peat filters, aerobic systems and constructed wetlands will run $6,000 to $10,000. Occasionally they can run in the $15,000 dollar range. Cost to operate and maintain will generally run about $8 to $15 per month.

A cluster system, where each home has their own septic tank but empty into a community drainfield will generally cost $5,000 to $8,000 for the initial install and $5 to $10 per month to operate and maintain.

Any type of septic system, if it is used properly, has the potential to last 20, 30, 40 years or more. Some systems will need pumps replaced periodically and treatment media rejuvenated.

Of course the proper operation and management of any system is dependant on educating the people that use those systems how to properly use those systems...something that has been missing from the equation from day one.

Conversely, a sewage treatment facility will usually cost $12,000 to $30,000 to get hooked-up and $350 to $1,000 per year.  

Now when you get to certain parts of the country, because of higher local costs, these figures can increase by 50% to 100%.  Jim

When you buy property and are going to put in a septic system, there are safeguards that are supposed to protect you.  The way the process is supposed to work is, you, as the property owner, hire a septic designer to assess the site and design a system that will meet the needs of the home and will work with the existing site/soil conditions. They then present this plan to the local agency in charge of septic systems, usually the health or zoning office. They approve or disapprove the plan. Then a septic installer installs the system according to that plan. Then the building inspector comes to the site and inspects the system to make sure the system was installed properly (according to the plan). 

This is the way it is supposed to work...but it doesn’t always go according to the rules. The skill requirements of designers, installers and inspectors varies greatly from state to state. In some cases these people are woefully under trained and because of this lack of standards, some of the systems going in are failures waiting to happen. This is why you as the homeowner must take an active role in this process.


We are looking to buy some property in an area that will need a septic system. What should I be looking for? Robert M.

When you know where you want to buy, talk to neighbors that have built in the area in the last few years and ask them what kind of system they had to go with (don’t rely on what someone had a system installed 20 years ago...the codes have changed and there is a good chance what they have won’t fly today). 

Talk to the local health dept and some of the local contractors to see what is commonly being used in the area. The reason you want to do this is to prepare yourself for what you are going to don’t want to buy a property, plan your house out to the penny only to find that the septic system is going to put you over your budget.

Once you are sure of the property, hire a good septic designer to do the necessary tests and design the system, BEFORE you design the house!!! Go out with them and tell them where you would like to situate the house, but let them give their input...sometimes just moving the house a few feet in one direction will make the difference between a regular, gravity fed system and a more expensive pump system.

I had some friends that were going to build and I tried advising them on this but the wife didn’t like me a whole lot and wouldn’t listen. The irony is, if they would have listened and moved the house about 10 feet to the west, they could have gone with a gravity fed system for about $3,500. As it turned out, they spent more than $8,000 because they (she) put the house right where the drainfield should have gone.  Go figure.  


My husband and I just bought some property and we are going to build our house next year. While searching the web for information on homebuilding I saw very little on septic systems. Then I ran across your site. What should we do to make sure it is done right? Shelly N.

Before you start designing the house, call a good septic designer and have them assess the site for where and what type of system you will need. Listen to their suggestions. They will know what type of system you need.  

Also, if they say you can not go with a regular system, ask them about ALL the different types of systems you may be able to go with and the advantages/disadvantages of each type.  If they are pushing you toward one type of system it may be because that is the only type of system they may want to take your copy of the site/soil conditions (make sure to get a copy) and call/visit a few other contractors to get their opinion.  They may say what the first guy is trying to sell you is way out of line. 

Want to install the system yourself?  Think about it first. 

I bought property several years ago and will soon be building our home with myself doing much of the work.  is it possible for me to do the septic or should I hire that out?  Robert F. 

If you are going to install your own septic system you will need to learn 3 things:
· Depth of the seasonal water tables.
· Perk rate of your soil.
· Your state and local code requirements.

The code requirements are easily obtained from your health or zoning office. However I will warn you they are not the easiest documents to translate. The water tables and perk rates are not so easy to get because these tests have to be performed on the property and unless you have done soil borings or perk tests before I would STRONGLY suggest hiring a certified septic designer to perform these tests. This will cost you $200 to $500 but is well worth the investment.

I have seen many times where the homeowner has gone through the time and trouble to install their own septic system only to have the state inspector show up after the job is done and tell them the system is not up to code and it will have to be re-done. Not a fun thing to have happen, particularly when they often will not let them live in the house until the replacement system is installed. Best to have a professional involved that can help prevent these errors.

The soil borings will tell you how deep you can have your drainfield (you will need 3 to 4 feet of dry soil between the bottom of your drainfield and the seasonal water tables) and the perk rate will tell you at what rate the soil will take water (if the soil perks too slow, the home will put out water faster than the soil can accept it causing overloading, if it perks too fast the sewage will not be properly treated). Once you have this information you can get started.

When you know where you are going to install the system stake off the area to prevent heavy equipment from driving over the ground and compacting the soil. I always suggest over-building your system. If you have a 2 bedroom house (the number of bedrooms are what is used to gauge the size of a septic system) you should build the system for 3 bedrooms...3 bedrooms, size it for 4, etc. You will also want to factor in other information into the size of the system, i.e. daycare or beauty salon operating in the home, frequent entertaining, etc.

Before you say this will add a lot of money, understand this, the biggest cost of a septic system is A tank and drainfield, not the size of the tank and drainfield. To increase the size of a system to the next level will usually only add a few hundred dollars.

The minimum size of the tank should be 1,000 gallons, preferably 1,250 or 1,500 gallons. Two 1,000 gallon tanks is even better (the more tank area you have for settling the better). Install an effluent filter in the exit baffle just after setting the tank.

The drainfield should be made up of 4 to 6 legs." Longer shallow trenches are better than short and deep. I prefer trenches be 36" wide and 24" deep, 12" of 3/4" to 1½" rock, 4" PVC distribution pipe with ½" holes, cover the pipe up with 2" of rock, cover with geo-tech fiber (to keep the top soil from filtering down into the drainfield trench), then cover with top soil. The trenches should be 25’ to 100’ long. The bottom of the trench and the pipes should be level or no more than 4" of slope per 100’ (you don’t want the effluent to flow downhill and load up one end). Chambers are also a great alternative to using rock.

If you are on flat land you will want to use a distribution box where the individual lines branch out from. On flat land you will also want to crown the area over the drainfield to divert rain and snow melt.

On sloping land you will want to use a drop box system. This is where the trenches are perpendicular to the slope, when the first trench fills up the effluent spills over to the next trench located 6’ to 10’ further down the hill, then to the next trench and so on.

Note: Many states now require you include an area for the replacement drainfield (when the first one fails) when you design the system. Instead of just designing it on paper, save the (future) higher labor/material costs and put it in now. Then use a diverter valve to switch from one field to the other every few years.

The tank should be a minimum of 10’ from the house and the drainfield should be 100’ away from the well (FHA regulations), 50’ to 75’ away from a body of water and a minimum of 10’ away from lot lines. You also want the tank as shallow as possible for ease of servicing…you do not want to dig 6 feet every time you want to pump/inspect the tank. Of course these guidelines are based on a typical system. If you need an engineered system because you have heavy clay that won’t perk or high water tables you are opening up a whole can of worms.

Find a good designer, have them do the soil tests and get their advice. Also make friends with the local inspector...tell him you want his/her help with your system. If you come across like a know-it-all-jerk he/she will not go out of their way to help you and can make your life a living hell.

At any rate, once you get your system installed make sure you start using it properly. I hope this helps. Let me know what you find out or if you have any other questions...Jim


I am a single woman and am planning to buy a home in the Atlanta area. The house I have been looking at is about 20 years old and has a septic system. According to your website you say I should still get an inspection done. But a local contractor says it will cost me at least $300. The sellers are very nice and have assured me it works just fine and actually looked offended that I would even consider an inspection.  They have assured me it works just fine.  With the down payment and moving costs, money is tight and I can’t afford to waste it. Do you really think it is necessary? Barbara R.  

People sell homes for a variety of reasons...job transfer, job promotion, loosing a job, growing family, shrinking family, tired of the location, tired of the house...but another reason is when the septic system fails and they find out it is going to cost them big bucks to fix it, or because they found out that the codes have changed and their current system does not meet those code changes and will need extensive/expensive up-grading. Rather than invest the money into a new system they simply pump the tank and sell the house to someone else. A few days, weeks or even months after the new people move in they start having problems (or the health dept comes to them and says the system needs to be brought up to current code).

When they call the sellers all they get is, "It worked fine when we were must have done something to break it." And unless you can prove they knew there was something wrong with the system when they sold you the house, you are stuck with it. This is why you want a proper inspection anytime you buy a home with a septic’s easy to get money knocked off the selling price because they are usually making a good profit on the house anyway and they are looking to get the deal’s tough to get money out of the sellers after they spent the cash on their new home.

Another common occurrence is, the people really don’t know that the system is defective or out of code. They built/bought the house 20-30 years ago, but the regulations were quite different than they are now. Back then, they may have approved 250 sq. feet of drainfield buried 6 feet deep, but that won't do today. Shallower drainfields and 450 sq. ft is more up to code. However it has worked fine for the last 30 years as the couple raised their family because it started as new so it took a pretty good beating and the amount of water families used back then was a lot less. Over the years the ability of the system to handle water has been diminishing, but the kids have been moving out one by one reducing the load on the system so no one noticed any problems.

Now the kids are all gone and the couple has retired and the septic system? It works fine for them because they are only using 75 gals per day. Eventually they decide to sell the house and head south. But when they sell the house to an active family that starts using 200-300 gals per day...the system fails and now the accusations start to fly.

The sticky part is, with the typical, courtesy inspection that the health depts., mortgage companies and home inspectors do, the system appears to work and they approve the system/sale today, but in a few months when the system fails, they say, "Opps...missed that one, but you will have to get the system fixed." And you are the one picking up the tab. Drag.

When you know it is the house you want, inform the sellers you would like to have the system inspected. Tell them you just want to make sure. If they refuse to let you inspect the system, walk away or go into it knowing you are going to be shelling out some cash for a new system (and it always seems the health department will wait until the house is you).

To get a proper inspection done call a septic contractor, not a home inspector. Home inspectors inspect homes, not septic systems (I know of only one home inspector that even comes close to doing a real septic inspection, most do nothing).

A proper property sale inspection is actually a fairly involved process:

1. The contractor will first do a visual inspection looking for signs of surfacing effluent around the drainfield.

2. They will then dig up the manhole cover to check the liquid level in the tank. If it is low then the tank either has a leak or was recently out. Note: Some tanks do not have a manhole cover. Instead they are 3 or 4 flat slabs and they lift one off. A real cover can be installed for easier future servicing.

3. They will look at the contents of the tank, if there are condoms, kotex, paper towels, etc. in the tank this will indicate the system has been abused. If the toilet paper products are not breaking down this will indicate an over-use of chemicals hindering the bacterial process in the tank.

4. Assuming the tank is full, they will then run 100-200 gallons of water into the system, then start pumping the tank. If this 100-200 gallons of water begins coming back into the tank from the drainfield it will mean the drainfield is slow or failing.

5.When the tank is empty, they will estimate the size of the tank in gallons and visually check to see if the in-let and out-let baffles are in place and of the proper size.

6. They will then dig-up the distribution box to check for a high content of sludge and the number of drainfield lines.

7. From there they will check the length of the drainfield runs by running a line into each pipe and using a probe to get the depth of the trenches. With this information they can estimate the square footage of the drainfield. In some cases they may have to dig into a trench to get this information.

8. They should then take a soil boring to ascertain the depth of the seasonal water tables.

At this point the contractor will have enough information to give you an opinion on the system. The obvious question is if the system is functioning, but a more important question is, does the system meets current code requirements. Many people have purchased a home with a toilet that flushes, but at some point they find out the septic system is too small, too deep, or nothing more than a straight pipe out to a field or they, as the new owners will be forced to put in a proper system.

The contractor should then give you his report in writing with estimates for any suggested up-grades. If the system does need any work, you take this estimate to the sellers and factor it into the selling price of the home.

If the system gets the OK...them you know you are starting out with a good system. This inspection process will cost you $150-$500 but is well worth it...I can’t say it enough, many people have found out after buying the house that they will be forced to fix the septic system and it gets tough when you just spent every penny you have on a down payment and moving expenses.

A few tips:

  • Get a full service contractor, one that does designs, installations and pumping. A pumper can pump and inspect the system, but they generally don’t fix problems which means you will be calling a second contractor and a second billing. A full service contractor can not only do the pumping and inspection, but they can also do any repairs you need...often a missing baffle or broken pipe can be fixed right then.
  • As long as you have them out there, and the system checks out, have them jet the lines in the drainfield to remove any built up sludge and have them install an effluent filter in the tank. These filters stop the larger solids from reaching the drainfield and most system failures occur when the drainfield gets plugged with solids. You are going to want these things done sooner or later so you may as well have it done now.
  • To find a good contractor, call the health/zoning department and ask for a list of certified contractors...then ask them who they would use if they wanted a system inspected, they will usually steer you in the right direction.

Some contractors will not need to check the size of the drainfield because they installed the system or know who did.

Do you have to worry about contractors selling you work you don’t need? Not very often...these people are busy enough and don’t need to "manufacture" work to make a living.

Once you know you have a good system, then start using it right, don’t over-use water or chemicals, have the system pumped and inspected* every 1-3 years, put a filter on your washing machine (to stop the smaller solids from plugging the drainfield) and you may never have a problem with your system.

*A pumping inspection is a lot less involved than a purchase inspection...a pumping inspection is just opening the manhole to pump the tank, visually looking inside the tank for things that shouldn’t be there, and hosing off the effluent filter.

And in defense of those selling a house with a bad system...some don’t even know they have a bad system, "The toilet flushes so it must be working." I recently saw a situation where the sellers, when they learned 2 years after selling the house that the system was not up to code, voluntarily paid for the replacement, even though the buyers never even contacted them. They were shocked to learn the system they had lived with for years was not a good system.

Feel free to print this out and show it to your contractor...Jim

A week later

Boy am I glad I listened to you. When I brought up the inspection again the sellers flat out refused to allow it. Sensing something was wrong I contacted the health dept. and they had quite the tail to tell. It seems the system has had problems for years and they have been after them to get it fixed. They even poured a concrete patio over the tank so there is no way to even get to it. The county man said the system is on their hit list and in the next few years they will make whoever owns the house get it fixed. My only regret is someone else will buy the house without doing their homework and they will get suckered like I almost did. All I can say is thank you and keep up this valuable service.  Barb


My husband and I bought a house last June with a septic system and I just found your website and after reading it realized we should have had a proper inspection done. Is there anything we can do now?  Jesse W.

This is a very common situation because no one bothers to tell people that they should have the system inspected BEFORE the sale.  

The first thing I would do is have the system inspected ASAP to see what you are working with.  The contractor should...[see the suggested inspection process above].  

If the system checks out then you are in good shape...but if they find problems you will need to...[see method of approaching sellers for reimbursement below]. 


We bought our house about 3 months ago and now we are having problems with the toilets over flowing and we have a soggy area in the yard. Is there anything we can do now or is it too late?  Tim E.

This is why I always tell people to get the system inspected BEFORE you sign on the dotted line.  

But since you already bought the house you will have to try to recover from the situation as best you can. I would ask your neighbors and local contractors if they were aware of a problem before you bought the house. If there was, get statements from these people. You will also want to identify why the system is the drainfield too small, too deep, in a high water table, or did the exit baffle just fall off.

Get a full service contractor, one that does designs, installations and pumping. A pumper can pump and inspect the system, but they generally don’t fix problems which means you will be calling a second contractor and a second billing. A full service contractor can not only do the pumping and inspection, but they can also do any repairs you need...often a missing baffle or broken pipe can be fixed right then.

They will first pump the tank and estimate the size of the tank in gallons and visually check to see if the in-let and out-let baffles are in place and of the proper size.

They will then dig-up the distribution box to check for a high content of sludge and the number of drainfield lines.

From there they will check the length of the drainfield runs by running a line into each pipe and using a probe to get the depth of the trenches. With this information they can guesstamate the square footage of the drainfield. In some cases they may have to dig into a trench to get this information.

They should then take a soil boring to ascertain the depth of the seasonal water tables.

Some contractors will not need to check the size of the drainfield because they installed the system or know who did.

At this point the contractor will have enough information to give you an opinion on the system. The contractor should then give you his report in writing with estimates for any suggested up-grades.

If they do find a problem, you will want to politely contact the sellers and inform them of it. Don’t go in talking trash and making bad, they will only go on the defensive and start fighting back. I would approach them with, you started having problems with the system and found out the system needs some work and you were hoping they could help with the costs. If they balk, SOFTLY let them know that the courts could hold them totally responsible because they sold a house with a bad system and didn’t disclose this information.

The reason I say do it softly is taking people to court can be very time consuming, expensive and you do not know which way a judge will go...they may say you should have checked the system out before you bought it. Even if they do rule in your favor you still have to get the money out of these people...and they may never pay up. For many people, just the threat of court and a compromise will motivate them to settle...piss them off by dragging them straight into court and they will fight it all the way. Why should you settle for anything less than the full amount? Because something is better than nothing and (I hate to say this) you should have had the system inspected before you bought...a mistake I don’t think you will make again.

And in defense of those selling a house with a bad system...some don’t even know they have a bad system. The system may be slow but they may only have 2 people and barely using it so the failing system may not be evident. "The toilet flushes so it must be working."

But now the new owners are a family of 5 and really use the system hard making the failure evident. I recently saw a situation where the sellers, when they learned 2 years after selling the house that the system was not up to code, voluntarily paid for the replacement, even though the buyers never even contacted them. They were shocked to learn the system they had lived with for years was not a good system.

A few tips:

  • As long as you have them out there and if the system checks out, have them jet the lines in the drainfield to remove any built up sludge and have them install an effluent filter in the tank. These filters stop the larger solids from reaching the drainfield and most system failures occur when the drainfield gets plugged with solids. You are going to want these things done sooner or later so you may as well have it done now.
  • Install a washing machine filter in your house...these tiny fibers are usually a major source of problems with any failing septic system.
  • To find a good contractor, call the health/zoning department and ask for a list of certified contractors...then ask them who they would use if they wanted a system inspected, they will usually steer you in the right direction.


We sold our house last year and now the people we sold it to are saying the septic system needs to be replaced. We never had any problem in 20 years.  How can they say we should pay for this? Leah F.

Because if you sold them a house with a bad system and didn't tell about it you should pay for it. On the other hand, they should have had the system inspected before they bought.  

Just from the tone of your letter, I don't think you are trying to pull a fast one. Although you didn't say how many people were in your house when you sold or how many moved in, I think your situation is one that your system was slow, but if it was just you and your husband, you were hardly using the system and the problem was not showing itself.  

Now I bet a family with kids has moved in and they are using the system to capacity and now the slow system has become evident.  

Were I in your shoes, I would explain this to the people and offer to pay for half of the up-grade (20 years in the house, I would say you made a few bucks on the deal).  If they don't like that offer and start threatening court, I would say, "Tell me where and when." 

On the other hand, if you were having problems before you sold, pay for it all and shame on you.   

FYI-If you are planning on selling your house, have the system inspected prior to listing it.  You want to know if it meets code and if it is functioning properly.  If problems are found, you can either fix them (and increase the selling price to make up for this cost) or reduce the selling price accordingly, tell any buyers what the system needs and sell the house as-is.  Do not cover this information up!!!  Buyers have up to 2 years in many states to sue the sellers in these cases and you don't want to get that un-expected expense out of the blue.  

An hour later

Wow!  You must be a mind reader.  It was just me and my husband and the new people have 4 kids.  I called my husband as soon as I got your email (I still can't believe you are a real person with real answers) and he agreed with you.  We did make out well and can afford it and my husband is a lawyer, he doesn't want to fight it out in court.  Thank you      


 My neighbor has a problem with his septic system. When the wind is right you can smell you know what and when they are doing laundry  you can see the sewage running into my yard. 

Is this dangerous?  I don’t like it, this is my neighbor and I don’t want to seem like a troublemaker. What can I do?  (Please do not use my name in your column).

Rock…Hard place. Guess where you are at? On one hand, you don’t want to squeak on the people you have to live next to and be considered a dink…on the other hand, you don’t want to be drinking today what Fred and Wilma had for dinner last night.

What I would probably do is drop a few hints that this is a health and environmental disaster in the making and the health dept could come down on them if they get caught, "Why my brother’s neighbor got fined…" If the shmoe doesn’t pick up on the hint the I would make an anonymous call to the health dept and tell them about it. I don’t like saying that but this guy is @#%^ing all over you every time he flushes the toilet. Not cool.  


Our toilets are starting to flush slow and we have a wet soggy spot in the yard where our leechfield is. How do you know if you have a failing system? Robert

If you have these obvious signs, sewage surfacing in the yard and/or backing up into the house, then you have a failing system.  This is not real tough to figure out.

There are 3 main reasons that a properly designed/installed system fails:

  1. Hydraulic overloading-In other words, you put more water down the drain than it can handle. A septic system can only handle a certain amount of water per day. For a 3 bedroom house the system should be designed to handle a maximum of 450 gallons of water per day. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out that if you are putting 600 gallons of water into that system every day something is going to go wrong. The obvious solution is to stop using so much water. Note: although this can be termed a temporary failure and easily correctable by reducing water consumption, when you are using water at this rate it will cause other long term damage. First, this water that is going into the system at a high velocity will not allow the solids to settle in the tank (as is the purpose of the tank) and will get flushed out to the drainfield (adding to cause number 3 of failures). And second, this water will agitate the existing contents of the tank and will flush more solids out to the drainfield.
  2. Chemical overloading-Harsh chemicals like automatic toilet bowl cleaners kill bacteria in the toilet, but that killing process does not end there…it continues through out the system. Eventually the good bacteria in the tank and soil will be killed off as well causing a failure. Note: although this can be termed a temporary failure and easily correctable by reducing chemical usage, when the bacterial action stops in the tank, the solids stop breaking down and can easily get flushed out to the drainfield (adding to cause number 3 of failures).
  3. Solid intrusion in the drainfield- solids that are supposed to remain in the tank get flushed out to the drainfield and plug the pores of the soil and will no longer allow the liquid to flow through it.  This is what is termed a permanent failure.  

Think of your septic system as a 2-stage filter.  The tank is the first part of the filter: as wastewater enters the tank, the solid materials contained in this wastewater settle in the tank.  The liquid moves on to the drainfield where naturally occurring bacteria in the trenches and soil surrounding the trenches then "eat" the parasites and viruses present in this liquid.  

The problem is, the liquid leaving the tank is not crystal contains tiny solids and these solids will begin plugging the drainfield and soil.  Some of these solids will break down in the field (feces, toilet paper), but if you get enough of them out there they impede the draining process...the water stays in the field area longer and will drown the aerobic bacteria.  Once the aerobic bacteria are gone (leaving only anaerobic bacteria which are 20 times less efficient than aerobic bacteria) the system goes into failure.  What you have is essentially a dead pool of water because now the cleaning solvents build up in the field killing off the rest of the bacteria.  

Now if you pump the tank and stop using the system for a few years, the field will drain, the aerobic bacterial colonies will repopulate, the organic solids will breakdown and the system will start working again.  But there are 2 problems with this.  First, not many people can go 2 years without using water and more importantly, many of these solids are non-biodegradable and will never breakdown in the drainfield.  

The leading source of non-biodegradable solids is washing machine discharge.  Washing machines discharge a tremendous amount of tiny fibers (lint) that do not have the necessary mass to settle in the is like a powder and gets flushed right through the tank out to the drainfield.  Most of our clothing and carpeting is manufactured with polyester and nylon (we live in a wash and wear society).  BACTERIA DO NOT EAT PLASTIC!!!  There are cases of huge, hi-tech Laundromat septic systems failing in less than 2 weeks.  This shows the damage lint will do to a system. 

Other sources of these non-biodegradable are "wet strength" paper towels, cigarette butts, feminine hygiene products, and condoms.  

The way to minimize these solids from getting out to the drainfield and plugging it up are:

  • Pump the tank on a regular schedule.  As the solids build up in the tank, they take up space...the less space there is in the tank the less space there is for settling of the solids.  If you let those solids build up too far, when you put solids in one end, it will push solids out the other end...right into the drainfield.  
  • Refrain from using large volumes of water for prolonged periods.  When mom does 7 loads of laundry on Saturday morning along with 5 people taking showers, the water is flowing through that tank/system like a machine gun.  The solids in that effluent will not have an opportunity to settle out and the existing solids in the tank can be stirred up causing them to be flushed into the field as well.     
  • Install filters-Effluent filters go in the tank and stop the larger solids from getting out to the field.  Washing machine filters (these attach to the washing machine discharge hose) will keep the fine partials out of the system.  USING FILTERS IS THE BEST METHOD OF KEEPING SOLIDS OUT OF THE DRAINFIELD!!!      

How long will a septic system last.

We have 5 children and my sister that lives with us. Our first leechfield failed after just 5 years. Now this one is going on 3 years and there are signs of this one failing as well. What is going on? All our contractor says is we have bad soils and none of the systems in this area last very long. HELP!!! Bonnie L.  

First, your contractors should be designing the systems in your area to deal with the problem soils.  

Second, keep in mind, when a properly designed septic system fails, they usually fail because they get plugged with solid materials that won't breakdown.

Gravel trench systems will usually last 15-25 years.

Graveless chamber systems, 10-15+ years.

Sand and peat filters, 10+ years.

Mound systems, 5-10+ years.

Aerobic systems, 5-10+ years.

HOWEVER!!! I have seen gravel systems fail in as little as 4 years and mound systems last 30+ years.

Get a certified septic system designer out to assess the site/soils and have them design a system that will work with what you have.  

Then start using that system properly and the way you make any system last longer is by keeping the solids out of the treatment media (drainfield) and you do that by using effluent and washing machine filters. If you use any system right it can last 100+ years.  Jim

I have read your site from top to bottom and found it to be the best source of septic system information available on the internet.  Thank you for making this knowledge accessible to all.  I do have one question however:  I see you state a septic system can last indefinitely, but then I read responses to people that they should replace their septic system.  Could you explain this.  Thank you.  Leonard C.    

First, the basic design of systems from 20, 30, 40+ years ago were woefully inadequate.  They were too small and too deep.  

Second, the materials used back then were not as durable as they are now.  Orangeburg pipe (oil-soaked cardboard or clay pipe used in the drainfield would easily collapse and the concrete used for the tanks was often a mix waiting to crumble.  

Third, people that used septic systems were never taught how to use those systems and abuse was the norm.  

Today we design systems that are sized to deal with the flows from the house and they are designed to treat that waste water.  We also use better materials, like PVC pipe and plastic chambers that will not collapse.  Tanks are made from a higher quality concrete or plastic composites.  

There is also the fact that people are learning how to use and maintain those systems.  Also research has pointed out one painfully obvious problem that causes septic system failure...septic systems fail when the soil/media treatment portion of the system gets plugged-up with solids that won't breakdown.  Now we know that if you want a system to last you can install filters in the tank and on the washing machine to keep these solids (particularly polyester and nylon) out of the soil/media.  

This is why a properly designed/installed system put in over the last 10-20 years with today's better materials AND used properly will last...Jim   

If you have a failing septic system, try a tune-up. 

We started having problems with our septic this fall.  There is a wet spot in the yard and it has even backed up into the laundry room a few times.  The pumper says our system is shot and needs to be replaced, but it is only 11 years old and we are hoping there is something we can do before paying this guy to dig up our yard.  Thank you in advance for your help.  Donna P. 

This is the standard answer I give to people when they are having problems with their system.  It starts with the obvious and cheaper things first.  In many cases, homeowners get back to me a few months after trying these tricks with the news that their system is now functioning.  These things may help you also.

When most septic systems fail, the tank doesn't fail, the drainfield and the soil around the drainfield fails, and what causes this failure is when solids like lint, grease, toilet paper, etc. plug the pores of the soil/drainfield.  Now water will no longer migrate through the soil and it pools in the area of the system and/or backs up into the house.

Assuming you have a good system, meaning it is a system that will function, but has failed because the soil has plugged, there are a few things you can do to try and correct it before you holler uncle and go for a full replacement.

The first is what I call a tune-up on the system...this is where you have the tanks pumped and inspected (through the inspection cover...not the inspection pipe), then the contractor installs an effluent filter in the tank to prevent any more (larger) solids from reaching the soil. You should then have them jet (clean) the lines in the drainfield if need be. Sometimes gunk can plug 1 or 2 lines causing the effluent to overload the remaining drainfield and the contractor can get a good idea if the drainfield lines need it when they look in the d-boxes (the pipes will full of gunk).  

And as long as they are working on the system you can also have them put a riser on the tank…this will make it easier for future pumping/inspections (and cheaper because they will not have to charge you a digging fee).  You can cover the riser with a or some decorative structure like a fake, old-fashioned well-house or windmill. 

However these risers are a safety issue!  The old method was to use concrete.  But the gasses in your tank will eat the concrete causing it to get weak.  In the 1990’s many contractors started using plastic risers and covers, but the problem with plastic is they can get easily damaged when hit with a lawn mower.  There have been several cases over the last few years where a child has stepped on a cover and because the concrete  has rotted away from underneath or the plastic damaged and the cover will no longer "lock" in place, it spins on it’s axis, the kid slides into the tank and the cover slams back shut (see to read about a few of these cases).  This is where some type of cover is critical…it will protect the cover from damage as well as keep it out of sight from those curious little ones.            

Then you want to treat the drainfield with a dose of Septic Scrub.  Without getting into windy explanations of the chemical processes that take place in a septic system, Septic Scrub (about $250 from  1-888-35ARCAN) is an environmentally safe peroxide-based treatment that can eliminate the buildup of sulfides in the field.  At the same time it can oxygenate the field allowing the aerobic bacteria to repopulate and help it continue to regenerate.  You pour this treatment right into the distribution box over four days.  And this is one of the few environmentally friendly cleaners available. 

Some contractors may have this stuff already so ask them what they would charge you for it.  Keep in mind, they are going to have to come back four days in a row so they will have to get paid for it.  But if you are a trouper you can do it yourself. 

Also, don't let them talk you into using their secret formula handed down from his grandfather!!!  Although illegal in most areas of the country, some contractors still use harsh acids to clean out drainfields.  These acids may clean the drainfield, but where does that acid go…down into your drinking water supply.  Lots of birth defects and high rates of cancers in areas where these pinheads practice this.            

Sodium (particularly if you have a water softener) can be hard on soils almost turning it into concrete.  You can try a gallon or two of Septic Seep (1-800-372-9637) into the distribution box. This can help condition the soil and reverse any damage caused by sodium (about $40 a gal.  Get 2 gals and try it).  But if you are going to try these treatments, do the Septic Scrub first, and then wait a few weeks before the Septic Seep (the two products can interact lessening their effectiveness).   

From there you install a filter on your washing machine (1-888-873-6505 or to keep the fine solids out of the system and start conserving water and chemicals.

The whole idea is to give the system a chance to heal itself. A septic system is a living organism and has the potential to breakdown some of the solids that have accumulated in the drainfield soil and start working again. But you will have to take it easy on the system for a few months to give the healing process a chance to work. 

Depending on local labor rates (how much the contractor charges to pump the tank, install the effluent filter, jet your lines, install a riser, etc) and the costs of the filters and treatments, you are looking at dropping $700 to $1,500, but keep in mind, the filters and risers are a one-time purchase and you will want them regardless.  Think of it like your car; every now and then you need to get new tires and brakes.  No one likes to spend the cash but it needs to be done.         

If that doesn’t do it you may need to take it a step further and do what I call a super tune-up and this is where you have the soil fractured (Terralifted) as well. Terralifting is a machine that drives a 1" steel probe into the soil in and around the drainfield. Air is then injected under extreme pressure (300 psi). What this controlled explosion does is create thousands of tiny fractures in the soil...these fractures will allow the soil to drain and the bacterial colonies can re-populate. I have used this process in several research projects and it works like a charm. Again you will want to go a little easy on the system until the bacterial colonies re-populate. The big advantages of Terralifting the system is the low cost ($800 to $2,000) vs. a new system and you don't have your yard all fact you usually can't even tell they were there.

Now lets say you get your system working...what you want to do is identify what caused the system to fail in the first place and change those practices to prevent another failure...or you will be back in the same boat again. This is why you want to install washing machine and effluent filters to keep the solids out of the drainfield. You will also want to start having the tank inspected and pumped (when necessary) on a regular schedule.

Of course in some cases these things will not work because you don't have a proper system in the first place.  If your system failed because it is too small, was installed in an underground water table or if you have an old cesspool system (that are outlawed in most areas of the country because they do not do a very good job of treatment) you need a new system, and you find that out when the contractor first does the inspection.  

And in some cases, even if the system does meet code, it may not be worth getting it going again because the tank may be getting weak and ready to cave-in or the pipe in your drainfield is Orangeburg (cardboard soaked in tar) and is going to collapse eventually.  In cases like this you may as well replace the system with modern components.   

Good luck and let me know what you find out...Jim


Occasionally I get a good one.  

I wrote you last week about my septic tank problems.  You told me to do this tune-up.  Having my tank and leechfield cleaned is going run $175.  The filters are going to cost me $300 and that septic seep stuff is another $50 and you don't even garentee this will work.  Then I would be out $500 and still need a new system.  What kind of advice is that.  You are full of $&(#.      

Oh yes, I remember your email.  In fact I still have a copy.  You are the pinhead that boasted, "I gotta real good deal on my septic system when i build my house 8 years ago because the contracter misunderstod me and put in a bigger system than the law requiered and i didnt approve it."  You also stated, "I saved a lotta money by not having my tank pumped because I use XXXXX that I flush down toilet once a month."      

In fact, the entire gist of your correspondence was about what a cheap clod you were and how you took actual glee in chiseling people and taking shortcuts.  

Per your assessment of my advice: It was just that, advice.  And free advice I might add.  No one is saying you need to follow it.  And since avoidance of capital expenditures is paramount to you, I would think you would have appreciated the method of which I suggested you proceed.  I suggested you start with the CHEAPER processes first rather than, god forbid, you should have to pay for a total replacement.   

Even if the tune up doesn't work and you do need to replace part or all of your system, you will still be able to use the filters so all you would be out is $200.  I would much rather put up $200 to see if I could save $5,000.  But I guess you are too stupid to see that.  Would it make you feel better if I paid for this?  I think you can guess where I would suggest you put that proposal.   

And to be totally frank, I hope your system is shot and the next contractor gets even with you for skinning the first contractor.  By the way, you should start using spell and gramer check you acehole.     

Another pinhead heard from

Why would it not be acceptable to route the washing machine effluent away from the septic tank - say to a hole in the ground?  RR

Could you drink it?  No...because it is contaminated with soaps and even parasites and viruses and it needs to go through the treatment process.  


Do you know the difference between ignorant and stupid?  Explain why a soap is a 'contaminate'.
Where do the parasites come from?  Do you think the "treatment process' kills viruses?
You could drink it.
Thanks pal

Ignorance is absence of facts...stupid is lacking the intellectual capacity to comprehend the facts.

Contaminates are items that create an adverse reaction to a host. 

·        Soaps are a "contaminate" to humans because:
They will act as a surfactant.  In other words, it moves things through the human host so fast you won't have time to make it to the bathroom (more on these effects in a minute). 

·        The more aggressive soaps, like those containing bleach, can chemically damage your body and yes, even kill you.

Soaps are a "contaminate" to the environment because:

·        They have nutrient value and if these nutrients make it into a body of surface water (as they inevitably will) they will encourage plant and algae growth (a major problem in our coastal areas).

Soaps, because they generally act as a surfactant, will move parasites and viruses out of the washing machine to the point of discharge and if you are simply discharging to a hole those parasites and viruses have the potential to be spread through direct contact (children playing in it) or indirect contact (dogs rolling in it and transferring it to you when you pet them) or mosquitoes breeding in it (transfer occurring when the females feed on a mammalian the way, mosquitoes have killed more people than all of the wars put together). 

As far as the source of parasites in washwater; babies/children/pets have been known to occasionally to have accidents that soil clothing and blankets with vomit and feces...even adults have had bouts of illness (or excess alcohol) that generate soiled items that require laundering.  But these parasites and viruses can also come from people blowing their noses on their sleeves or even the act of robust flatus can transfer these little items.  And for those people that are stupid enough to consume soap, well, you get the picture.  

However these critters are no match for the hostile environment in a proper soil treatment system.  Why by the time that effluent travels two feet through proper soil they are killed either through electro-chemical processes, mechanical means or they are consumed by bacteria and amoebas that naturally exist in soils.  And guess what happens to that is converted to inert organic elements.  Bonus round. 

Oh, and there is also the fact that without the dilution factor soaps will damage the soil…but I won’t go into that. 

And that is why you don't want to simply discharge washwater to a hole in the ground. 

So what are you...ignorant or just plain stupid?

Regular maintenance, when and how to pump the tank and the big question... additives.  

We live in an area that has slowly  developed over the last 30 years (we built our house 3 years ago).  Everybody seems to have a different idea when we should have the tank pumped, some say we should have it pumped every 5 years, others 10 years.  My husband says we never have to do it because he uses an additive.  I have some tell us to add yeast and cabbage.  My father says we should put in hamburger.  An older man I work with says we should never pump the tank because we will remove all the bacteria and the system will fail.   

The strange thing is, some of the newer septics in this area have failed while some of the older ones are still working.  

My questions are: 

1. When and why should we have the tank pumped?

2. Do additives really help? 

3. Why have some of these systems failed while others work?  

Thank you in advance and thank you for the best site I have found on septic tanks.  Marie F.  

The reason you want to pump your tank is because the solids will build up faster than they can breakdown.  Eventually they will build up to the point of where they get forced out to the drainfield and cause a failure.  But when you pump a tank you don't just pump it, you have it inspected as well:    

A good pumping/inspection will be:

  • The contractor will look over the drainfield to look for tire tracks or signs of heavy foot traffic.
  • They will then dig-up and expose the manhole cover and look at the contents of the tank. They will be looking for bad items like kotex, tampex, wet-wipes, condoms, etc, that will not break down in the system. They will also look for low bacterial activity indicating an over-use of chemicals.
  • They will then pump the tank while looking for a large amount of water draining back from the drainfield which can indicate a slow or failing drainfield.
  • They will then check to make sure the in-let and out-let baffles are in place and of the proper size.

At this point they should give you an assessment of the system and suggest any changes in your usage patterns, i.e. keep the kids off the drainfield with their 4 wheelers, stop flushing the kotex, tampex, wet-wipes, condoms down the drain and cut back on your chemical usage. Also at this time they could suggest a few other things like:

  • If they see potential problems, they could jet (clean) the lines in the drainfield.
  • An effluent filter could/should be installed that will take the place of the exit baffle.
  • If the tank is more than 2 feet deep, they could install riser bring the lid closer to the surface for easier access next time.

This is what a proper pumping/inspection is, however not many contractors go into this detail. To contractors, time is money so many simply stick the hose down the pipe, suck it out, grab the check and head out of town. This is why you want to ask the contractor (up front on the phone) if they will do these things. You may pay a little extra for this service, but it is well worth it because if it catches something in the beginning before it becomes a major problem, it could save you thousands of dollars down the road. On the other hand, if your exit baffle falls off and you don't catch it, solids will plug your drainfield and you won't find out until the sewage is pooling in your yard and/or backing up into your house. Now you may be paying for a whole new drainfield and the damage to your yard that goes with it.

And something else you should understand, once you have the riser and effluent filter installed, these are a one time cost so you don't have to pay for this again and it makes the pumping/inspection process easy and simple in the future.

The tank should be pumped/inspected every 1 to 3 years...1-2 people in the house=every 3 years, 3-5 people in the house=every 2 years, 6+ people=every year. It will usually cost from $75 to $200 to have the tank pumped/inspected (however in some parts of the northwest it can run up to $300). Now lets say it costs you $150 and you are having it done every 3 years, that is $50 per year of sewage treatment. If you are having it every 2 years it is $75. On the other hand you would pay the city $300 to $800+ for that same year of treatment. Thinking about it like that, pumping the tank is pretty cheap.

2-Most government agencies will tell you to never use additives and I agree with them to a point.  One problem is, there has never been a lot of studies done on the effects additives have on a septic system (although I have heard one University has done some research and they found negative effects from some types, but I have never seen the data).  However I have heard from a lot of people their system was working fine until they started using these additives and then had problems.  

I personally think where the problems come in is, people start to believe what it says on the box, "END COSTLY PUMPOUTS" and because they are using this miracle drug, they never have to think about what they put down the drain or worry about pumping their system again...WRONG! You still need watch what you put down the drain as far as items that will not breakdown like polyester, nylon, etc. 

Does this mean there is not a place for these additives? No, they can actually be of some benefit…UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS, like if someone in the house is undergoing chemo or long-term antibiotics. The use of these drugs MAY reduce the "good" bacterial colonies in the system and MAY need a boost, particularly if you have an aerobic system. But it is usually best to speak to a local septic professional that is familiar with your system.

3-Why do some systems seem to fail when others don't?  Septic systems are a lot like people.  Chances are good if you smoke, drink to excess, eat a high fat diet and don't exercise you will have major health problems by the time you hit 50.  And if you look at the statistics, this is true. 

But then you see a guy that drinks a fifth of bourbon, smokes 3 packs of Lucky Strikes, hits the greasy spoon every day and has been doing this since the beginning of time...but he is 92 years old.  It defies logic.  

The same thing holds true for septic systems...some people do everything wrong and never seem to have a problem.  But if you look at the numbers, the chances of you avoiding a problem with YOUR system go down considerably when you treat your system right.     

Do you need a washing machine filter

I read about using a filter on the washing machine to remove the lint before it goes down the drain in a home magazine.  This makes sense to me because I worked for a plumber when I was going to collage and saw first hand the damage lint does to pipes and septic systems.  It was one of the most common problems we saw.  

Now that I own a home with a septic system I want to protect the system.  The problem is my wife.  We have a first floor laundry room and she doesn't want a filter that will detract from her decorating scheme even though we have 3 kids and are doing laundry constantly and definitely need this filter.  What can I say to change her mind?  Tom K.

Make a deal with her, tell her that if the septic system fails, she will have to pay for the replacement and the landscaping costs.  But tell her to start saving for this now.    

There are people, like your wife, that will say they don't want a filter in their laundry room.  My wife was the same way...until she saw what was really coming out of our washing machine.  Now if I have the filter disconnected for some reason, she refuses to do laundry.  

If they think a filter in the laundry room (that no one sees anyhow) is distracting, what will she think when she has a yard full of sewage and the big yellow machines are chewing up her nicely landscaped yard? 

Some men will say hooking up a filter is a waste of time...until they are faced with a failed system.  Then the tune changes.  I had a guy tell me about his installation.  He had his washing machine discharge through the filter and into a 30 gallon drum.  Then he had a small pump to push it up 7 feet to the discharge line (a common New England installation).  When I said it sounded like a lot of hassle just to put a filter in he said, "I'll tell you what a hassle is...writing out a check for $13,000 to replace my 5 year old septic system.  And because we had a small lot I now have a big, ugly mound system that takes up my whole back yard.  THAT was a real hassle."  

The fact is, washing machines discharge a tremendous amount of tiny material fibers. These particles are so small that they do not have the necessary mass to readily settle in the tank and because they are being discharged with such a high volume of water at a high rate, they stay in suspension and are flushed through the tank out to the drainfield where they start plugging the pores of the soil. 

To make matters worse, most clothing and carpeting is now manufactured with synthetic materials like polyester and nylon which will not breakdown in a septic system. The filter described on page 3 at will remove these partials before they go down the drain.  At $150 it is cheap insurance. 

In fact several states are now considering making filtered washwater a code requirement because they are realizing it is a lot cheaper and easier to prevent a septic system from failing than to get a failed system repaired and many septic manufacturers are strongly recommending filtered washwater (they do not want their systems to fail and ruin their reputation). 

Does this mean if you don't filter your washwater your system is a goner?  No.  Just like everyone that smokes is not going to die of lung cancer or heart disease.  But those who don't smoke statistically live much longer and better.  

It's something like having car insurance.  You can go for years without actually needing it, but if you ever do...I know a guy that said paying for car insurance was a rip off and bragged to everyone he had driven for years without it.  Had a good job, lots of cash, nice house, plenty of toys.  

Then one day he ran a stop sign and plowed into somebody.  No one got killed, but there were some significant injuries and because the accident was his fault, he got handed the 3/4 million dollar tab of which he could not pay.  He lost his license and landed in jail (for not having insurance).  And because he could no longer drive, lost his job.  He then lost his house, his toys, and has one hell of a lien on him that will probably prevent him from ever getting anywhere again.  

And the last time I talked to him all he could do is complain about how he was getting screwed by everyone.  No one is screwing him, he screwed himself.  If you don't want to take steps to protect yourself, then don't whine when it comes back to bite you in the butt.  Pay up and shut up.  Jim       


We are at our wits end.  We have a beautiful view from our deck and want to use it to entertain on, but sometimes the sewage smell is so strong it is embarrassing.  It seems to be coming from the vent on the roof.  HELP!!!  T&D 

The vent pipes from the roof are there to equalize the pressure in the drainlines as the wastewater goes down the drain…without vents your drains would gurgle, glug and drain slow. The other purpose is to vent the sewer gas away from the living area. However, in some cases the wind conditions will blow the gas down rather than up and away. The best solution is to install a vent filter (about $40) from or 1-800-622-8768.

These are activated carbon filters that remove the odor and do something else…they keep things like leaves and animals out of your plumbing system. I once found a huge, dead squirrel in one of my toilets. He had gotten in through the vent pipe and finally found a way out, but luckily the lid was down and he drowned. Can you imagine what you would think if you just sat down, took care of business, then looked at what you thought came out of you? Can you imagine what it would be like if he was still alive?


Our home is only 1 year old. We have a problem with an odor in our house.  It seems to be strongest in the basement near the laundryroom.  We had the tank pumped but that only seemed to help for about a week, now it is back.  Should we call a plumber?  Betty C.     

Often in new houses you have an unfinished bathroom or laundry room that before the room is finished, the plumbing traps will dry out allowing sewer gas to come back into the house. In existing homes the problem may come from a seldom used bathroom.

Try pouring a ½ gallon of water down every drain in the house. When or if you get to a larger drain for a toilet, stick a wet rag into the pipe...make it a big one so you don't have to worry about it falling into the plumbing lines.

If that doesn't do it let me know and we can look at some other problem/solutions.

Good luck...Jim

A water softener.

Our water is very hard but I hear a water softener is bad for a septic system.  What can we do.  Lisa C.  

Water softeners can cause problems for 3 reasons:

1.-they can use a lot of water.

2.- the sodium can bind with certain types of soil sealing it off.

3.- the sodium can weaken the concrete in the tank.

The solutions are:

1.-Get a softener that uses less water when they regenerate and one that generates on demand...not a timer. Think about it, with a timer it will regenerate every few days whether you are using water or not (even when you are on vacation). A demand system will regenerate only when you use about 1,500-2,000 gals of water, or about once a week.

2.-There is a treatment (one of the few additives I recommend) that can repair the damage to soils from sodium called calcium polysulfide (Septic Seep) that costs about $50 (see page 3 of ).

3.-Install a mini septic system just for your water softener (link at the bottom of page 3 of ).

Should you go to the trouble of installing a mini-septic system for your softener? First, keep in mind that every cup of water that goes down the drain must go through the treatment process whether it needs it or not and that the discharge from a water softener is white water and does not need to be treated and any time you are keeping water out of the system [that does not need to be treated] is a's not a bad idea.

However, the urgency of this potential problem/solution will depend upon a few good is your septic system and how many people are in the house? If you have a good septic system AND there are only 2 people in the house (which means you probably don't stress your system very much)...I wouldn't deem it a pressing necessity. On the other hand, if your septic system is maybe a little undersized, a more complicated and expensive engineered system and/or you have 6 people in the house I would strongly suggest it. You can do it yourself fairly easy on a week end. The nice thing about a mini-septic system like this is you can also put the discharge from your central air conditioner in it.

What I try to impress on people is...there are a lot of negatives you can do to your system and they will shorten the life of your system. However, there are a lot of positives you can do to extend the life of the system like pumping the tank every 1-3 years, conserving water/chemicals, putting an effluent filter in the tank and a filter on your washing machine, not flushing the wrong things down the drain, etc. These positives can minimize the negatives.

Good luck and let me know what you end up doing...Jim

PS. Do not put (even filtered) washwater into this type of will kill it in a few years.

Toilet paper and other paper products.

We are thinking about buying a house with a septic and I have a question about what type of toilet paper we can use.  I remember as a child going to my grandparents who had a septic and they used to put the toilet paper in a garbage bag and burn it.  The thought of doing this really disgusts me as we have 3 small children and I can see them digging in the trash.  Tell me we do not have to do this.  Nicole P.     

Back in grandma's day systems were small, very small and they needed to be babied.  Often they were a 300, 400 or 500 gallon tank with a puny drainfield.  But back in those days people used less water so a small system was acceptable.  Today we use water differently.  Families will chow water at a voracious rate taking showers/baths, washing 7-15 loads of clothes per week, etc.  Just talk to someone in their 60's,  70's or 80's and ask them what it was like to bathe daily with hot water at a premium and what using a wringer washing machine was like.  

Today we are used to comfort.  Want to take nice, long, hot problem.  How about a whirlpool bath.  Hop in.  Need some clean clothes, just toss them in the AUTOMATIC washing machine and hit the button.  Oh yes, things have changed and subsequently the septic systems have gotten bigger to accommodate those changes.  

But first, just to make sure, use white paper...the dyes in colored paper MAY cause problems and there is no sense risking damage to your system just for the sake of a color scheme.

Second, the type of paper you use will depend on how many people are in your house. The more comfortable stuff like charmin and northern are tougher to breakdown in a septic tank, but if there are only 2-4 people in the house it is not that big a deal. On the other hand, if you have 6+ people in the house you may want to use the cheaper, 80 grit stuff because it will breakdown easier (but keep a roll of the good stuff stashed for your own personal use).


I started having problems with our septic system.  I took you advice and had the tank pumped and inspected.  What the contractor found was hundreds of wet-wipes (I have been using because it says safe for septic systems on the box) were plugging the baffles.  He sucked them out when he pumped the tank and I had him jet the lines as well.     

These wet-wipes were made by XXX and when I called them to tell them about this problem the person I talked said they had got a lot of complaints about this.  But when I asked if they were going to change their advertising they said no.  I don't understand why they won't warn people about this and feel it is very irresponsible.  Marsha K.         

I agree, it is irresponsible...and I get a lot of email about this problem.  Looking at it from their perspective, if they do say "Not for use on septic systems" they will be cutting out 25% of their potential sales.  That is a huge slice of the bottom line.  This does not mean you can not use these just means you can not flush them down the toilet.  

When it comes to what to flush down the drain, stick with the white toilet paper.  Jim  

What type of cleaners

Jim, love your site.  Just one question, what kind of cleaning supplies and laundry detergent can I use?  My husband says no bleach but I like a clean house.  Lori 

A properly designed/installed septic system is not the fragile thing many people think they are.  Using common, everyday cleaners is fine...but it does pay to read the labels.  If it says "Wear full body armor when using this product" you may want to pick a different one...not only for your septic system but for your personal safety as well.  

Stick with liquid detergents when it comes to doing the laundry (many) powders have fillers that can damage a septic system.  The occasional use of bleach, like one or two loads a week is OK.  Jim    

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