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What You Need To Know About Septic Systems

septicA Primer On Septic Systems

Several months ago, I wrote about a problem I encountered with a septic system that serves a rental home I own.  You can read about that post HERE.

In that post, I briefly mentioned how my septic system was designed (built using concrete pipes abutted together where the septic effluent just seeps out between the pipes back into the ground), and some things to be aware of when getting your system pumped.  Just recently, my tenant in this home contacted me because the drains were backing up and he thought that we were experiencing the same problem as last time (drainfield clogged).  I knew this couldn’t be the case, and queried him as to his disposal habits.  Of course, he denied any wrongdoing and stated the problem couldn’t be a clogged pipe.  It just couldn’t!

What Goes In Must Come Out

My first encounter with on-site sewage processing came when I moved to Woodinville WA in the mid 1990’s.  Growing up in San Francisco CA, we tossed everything down the sewers.  Of course, we didn’t know any better.  Click HERE for a quick peek at what the sewers in San Francisco look like from Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs.

When you live in a home with a septic system, you have to be very careful about what you pour down the drains and flush down the toilets.  Rather than delve into the nasty specifics, just remember that the only things that should be flushed down the toilet are wastewater and toilet paper.  Nothing else! If you have a garbage disposal in your home, you should avoid using it if possible since the faster you accumulate solids in your septic tank, the more frequently it will need to be pumped, plus there is a greater risk of clogging your drainfield.  Also avoid pouring grease or oils down your drain, since they also can clog your drainpipes and restrict the flow of water through the system.

Do You Have An As-Built?

I discovered during my last septic incident that my septic as-built (drawing of the septic system “as it was built or installed”, usually with distance measurements from the home) was nowhere to be found.  If you don’t know exactly where your septic tank access lids are located, you should contact your local health department to obtain a copy of your as-built.  It should be kept with all your other important home files.  If you don’t have them available when it comes time to pump your system, the septic pumper may end up charging you a hefty fee to locate and remove the soil in order to gain access to the tank lids.  This additional fee can add hundreds of dollars to the cost of the pumping.  Also, if you don’t have an as-built, take measurements at the time of pumping and create your own as-built for future reference.  Better yet, take a photo of the site and draw your measurements on the printout.  I forgot to do this last time, and I spent an additional hour digging in the wrong place before I located my tank and uncovered the lids!  This time I remembered…

Put A Lid On It

Septic_Tank_Riser_LidIf your tanks are buried deep in your yard, and you don’t want the hassle of having to dig them up each time for pumping, you may wish to invest in tank risers and lids that reside on the surface of the ground.  They usually cost a few hundred dollars to have them initially installed, but well worth it in the long haul as long as you don’t mind the look of them in your landscaping (see photo to the right).

Sewers Or Septic, Which Is Preferred?

Living in a home served by sewers isn’t 100% carefree.  As a homeowner, you are responsible for all the pipes located on your property, even after it leaves your house, up to where it connects to the sewer main.  I’ve seen tree roots tear up side sewer drains in homes located in Seattle, and the costs to repair them can be enormous.  Aside from the occasional problems and pumping, living with a septic system can be relatively low cost and pain free as long as you are mindful of what you flush down the drains.   My little home was built in the 1960’s, and it was trouble free for nearly 50 years and even still only cost about $2000 to fix it earlier this year.  Add in the $500-600 for pumping every 3-5 years and the cost is still less than it might be living on sewers with an average annual cost of $400-500.

Renting A Home With A Septic System

If you’re renting a home serviced by a septic system, you should be aware that your rental contract may have language in it that makes you responsible for some or all costs associated with the tank pumping and/or any clogged pipes that come as a result of your negligence.  Being a tenant doesn’t reduce your responsibility.  If in doubt, be sure that you ask your landlord prior to signing any paperwork.  As it turned out, the drains in my little house were clogged before it reached the septic tank, which means that something went down the drain that shouldn’t have.  And, according to the guy that flushed out my system, those things didn’t just jump into my drains by themselves.  Don’t you just hate those septic gremlins!  What do you think? Would you prefer to have sewers or septic servicing your home?

When REALiTY BiTES, bite back!

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  1. Ane

    Well written Daniel,
    I would, without any doubt, prefer being on a public sewer system. I do not like the idea of all the septic systems around Cottage Lake seeping into the ground and in the lake, I would not go swimming in that water.
    The other problem is that if you live here in the area, it is very difficult to expand your house, if you want to add on to your house, the codes do not allow you to build more than a certain distance from the drainfield and they are looking at the space you have now for a second drainfield, if your first one fails.
    This is certainly just my opinion,
    Ane Brusendorff

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