Managing waste: Household septic systems - Part 3

Knowing the signs of trouble in your septic system can save dollars in costly repairs and protect individual health and the environment.

More than 30 percent of all Michigan households rely on a septic system to handle their household waste water. Proper design and location of the system is the first step in having an efficient and environmentally friendly system. Proper use and maintenance is the second step (See: Managing waste: Household septic systems - Part Two). Protecting the system and knowing the signs of trouble are the third step.

Ways to protect your system:

  • Inspect the tank each time it is pumped. Make sure there are no cracks in the tank that could allow effluent to leak out.
  • Install an effluent filter on the tank outlet to prevent carryover of solids into the absorption field.
  • Do not drain pools or hot tubs into the septic system or over the drain field. Do not connect your sump pump to the septic field.
  • Do not plant deep-rooted plants, such as trees or shrubs over the drain field. Grass is the best covering for the field.
  • Don’t drive cars or other heavy equipment over the drain field. This compacts the soil around the pipes and could damage the pipes.
  • Do not build, pave or set heavy items, such as swimming pools, sheds, etc. over the drain field. The field needs oxygen to work efficiently. These things will reduce the amount of oxygen getting into the drain field.
  • Mound the soil slightly over the drain field to encourage precipitation to run off the field rather than soaking into the field.
  • Reduce water use in and around the house. The less water that goes into the system, the less water that the system needs to process.
  • Do not put household chemicals down the drain. A septic system is not designed to neutralize chemicals, including paint, solvents, oils or pesticides. 

Signs of trouble in a septic system:

  • Gurgling sounds in the pipes when water is used or the toilet is flushed
  • Slow running or backing up drains may indicate a clog in the house pipes, the sewer pipe leading to the septic tank, the tank itself, the drain field or roof vent
  • Sewer-type odors in the house or yard
  • The ground over the drain field is mushy when you walk on it
  • The grass over the drain field is greener, more lush and/or growing more quickly than the grass around the drain field
  • Frequent intestinal illness of family members. A failed septic system can contaminate the well water if they are in close proximity to each other
  • Excessive weed growth or algae blooms in nearby ponds or drainage ditches may be the result of increased phosphorus or nitrogen from a failed septic getting into surface water 

If you observe any of these signs of trouble, call your County Health Department immediately and have your septic tank pumped out as soon as possible. That will give you some time to determine what the problem is and what steps need to be taken to correct it. Review your options. Do not base your decision solely on price. What may be the least expensive option can have negative impacts in the long run on your family’s health and the environment.

For more information on managing your septic system, educational publications including Home*A*Syst (WQ 51) and Managing Your Septic System (WQ 39) are available through the MSU Extension Bookstore for little to no cost.

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