- Barbecue Skewers
- Drain Snake
A Couple Of Hours
Bruce W. Maki,
I'll be the first to admit that septic tanks are an unsavory
topic. But the average person's reluctance to discuss things like
human waste just illustrates the reasons that septic tanks have
problems... everybody wants to just flush it and forget it.
<Sigh> If only home ownership were so simple.
I'll modify a popular expression: What goes down, comes
around. With a septic system it's important to remember that
what you ate yesterday is still close by... just below the back
yard, actually. And it won't go away on its own.
Some Technical Info:
A septic system is essentially a way of separating the
water from the solids, and then letting the water trickle
through the soil until it reaches the water table. As this
waste water slowly filters through the soil, any bacteria
supposedly die off. I imagine what kills the bacteria is a
lack of oxygen, a lack of light, or a lack of suitable
nutrients. The wastewater will eventually end up back in your
well water, but only after a long time. It's not a pleasant
thought, but it's reality and there is supposed to be no
health risk if the rules are followed. You believe in
recycling, don't you?
The system is simple: the plumbing fixtures drain into the septic
tank, which is a fancy holding tank with baffles
(separating walls) to prevent things like floating solids (use
your imagination) from easily exiting the outlet pipe. Only
liquids are supposed to exit the tank's outlet pipe. These
liquids flow to the drain field, which is made of one
or more perforated pipes that allow the wastewater to
enter the soil. The soil has to be capable of passing quite a
bit of liquid, so a percolation test is done on the
soil before permission is granted to construct a septic
In the tank, the solid floating stuff eventually settles to
the bottom, and the bacteria naturally present in human waste
help the solids to decompose slowly.
The first sign of trouble occurred one winter afternoon when I
went into the basement to paint some pieces of wood. When I got to
the bottom of the stairs I heard water dripping. I thought the
kitchen sink plumbing was leaking, but with a closer inspection I
realized that the water was coming from the drain pipe. Uh-oh.
||This wye fitting had been capped off with red
electrical tape by a previous owner. There was a tiny jet of
water squirting from there.
|I quickly placed a bucket under the leak.
Judging by the squirting leak, I knew that there was water
trapped above this level.
But I did not immediately conclude that the septic system was
backing up. I first had to rule out a plugged drain line.
||This is an inexpensive drain snake. This tool
costs less than $10 at most home centers. This snake is only
about 15 feet long, which is adequate for some plugged drains,
but not all.
|The business end of the drain snake has a larger
coil of wire, which can cut through some clogs. More expensive
drain snakes (and there are many available) may have more
elaborate 3-pronged cutting blades for the truly tough sh--, I
||When the water had drained enough to let me cut
away the tape on this wye fitting, I stuck the drain snake
down the hole.
True, this taped-up fitting isn't exactly code, but because of
this flaw I noticed water spilling on the basement floor, rather
than having wastewater back up into the bath tub (typically the
lowest drain system entry point), which is what happens to a lot of
|When I sent the snake into the drain, I
determined (from the sounds) that the wire was going into the
branch on the left, following a path that I drew here in red.
So I knew that I needed to remove the clean-out cap just below
||I placed an empty trash can on some sawhorses,
which just happened to be the right level to put the can just
under the clean-out.
The following pictures are only a re-enactment:
|This type of clean-out plug is different from
most. Most use a threaded plug or cap, but this plug only
needs to be turned a few degrees and then pulled out.
In this case, there was no pulling required, because there was
considerable water pressure behind this plug. Knowing this, I put on
a raincoat. I figured if I was going to deal with the
potential of spraying waste water, near face level, then I might be
able to turn my head if a geyser came my way.
||Using two hands, I slowly backed the plug out a
bit, like this. But in reality water came gushing out,
and there were chunks in it. <eeeeeww>
I held this position for a good ten minutes, until the
pressure had subsided. Then I yanked the plug and ducked.
Everything went into the trash can. <whew>
|This is a neat little plug device made by Genova,
I believe. There are these ears that hold onto tabs on the
pipe fitting, so any fitting of their brand can be used as a
||After the tidal wave had passed, I shone my
flashlight into the drain pipe. This pipe runs straight into
the septic tank, but there is a slight turn downward about 4
feet downstream, so I could not see directly into the tank.
The water that still lay in the pipe went down slowly. By
the time I got my camera ready, the liquid had subsided.
The symptoms were consistent with a plugged drain, but also with
a slow-draining septic tank or plugged-up drain field.
At this stage I ran the drain snake down this pipe, hoping to
meet some obstruction. But I didn't. With only a 15 foot snake and
no knowledge of the tank's location, I could not be sure that the
snake was reaching the tank. There could have been an obstruction
more than 15 feet downstream.
One option I considered was buying, renting, or borrowing a
longer drain snake. But since the tank had not been pumped in many
years, I figured it needed the cleaning anyway.
Besides, I would prefer to know what's going on in the
septic tank, rather than just guess. A backed-up tank can
mean that the pipes in the drain field are plugged, or that the soil
around the drain field is saturated with waste particles, which can
prevent water from trickling downward. This latter condition is
serious and expensive... the solution is to build a new drain field,
which can cost a few thousand dollars, and is not a simple job in
January in Northern Michigan. And the soil around the old drain
field may need to be hauled away to a landfill. That would get
The next morning I looked in the Yellow Pages and called some
septic pumping companies. One suggested that I call the county
health department to see if there was any information on file that
might indicate the placement of the septic tank. For the 8 years my
girlfriend has owned this house the tank had not been pumped. When
she moved in, the previous owner had told her that the tank had been
recently pumped out.
The health department was able to fax me a copy of the most
recent permit, which was for a new well in 1980. It showed the
septic being on the west side of the house... but the drain
pipe goes out the east wall. It's not likely that the drain
line would run all the way around the house.
Nevertheless, I scheduled a septic pumping company to come out
the next day. I had 24 hours to find the septic tank or they would
charge me extra.
||Just outside the wall where the drain leaves the
house, I dug a hole. About 6 inches down I hit a pipe, which
was covered in a thin wrapping of fiberglass insulation (red
arrow). At this point the pipe turned downhill, which
correlated with what I saw inside.
|Following the pipe straight out from the house,
I dug another hole about 10 feet from the building. I located
the PVC drain line, about 2 feet deep.
I then dug another hole, about 10 feet from the previous hole.
||I hit paydirt, so to speak. I couldn't believe
it, about 18 inches down I hit concrete, and after clearing
away a little bit of dirt I could see the circular edge of the
It took only a few minutes to dig out the entire hatch.
I pulled on the handles but the lid was too tight.
Judging by how tightly the lid fit, I suspected that the
cover had never been removed. But, I'd never even seen
a septic tank before, except in new construction.
||I stuck a scrap of steel pipe under one handle,
and then used my big Gorilla bar (a brand of pry bar) to lift
up on the pipe. It popped the lid right off.
|Yuck... Yes, that's what you think it is...
I didn't know what to expect. But I had taken a course in environmental
engineering in college, which discussed topics like septic
tanks and the design of wastewater treatment plants. I had
heard horror stories about septic tanks being so packed full
of solids that the pumping service had to chip away at
it. I expected the worst.
So I went to the storage shed and got a 7 foot long steel fence
post. I plunged the fence post into the tank.
||To my surprise, the post (1) sank right to the
bottom. Whew! The stuff on top was about 4" thick, and
there was liquid below it (2). I swished the post around a
bit, and I could tell that there was a slight amount of solid
sludge at the bottom of the tank. But otherwise, it seemed
According to my old environmental engineering textbook, septic
tanks typically have a layer of scum on top. This scum may settle to
the bottom over time.
|Since the pumpers where coming out the next day,
and this was January, I covered the hole with a sheet of foam
insulation, then a tarp, and held them in place with a couple
of boards. Luckily, the ground was not frozen anywhere in the
yard, but the weather was expected to turn colder that night.
I didn't want any trouble with frozen soil.
||The next morning the pumping service called me
and asked if I had found the lid. I told them of my experience
and the lady said I should also uncover the back lid, which is
typically right near the back edge of the tank. She suggested
I try locating the corners of the tank. "Sure" I
said, then went about trying to find something that would be
strong enough to poke into the soil.
I had some evil-looking long steel shish-kabob skewers. I
tried poking them into the ground. They worked great. Even
with all the rocks in our soil, I was able to tell when I was
hitting the tank.
Using these pokers I located all of the corners of the tank. I
was just digging up the rear access hole when the honey wagon
|The pumping service truck was able to get right
into the side yard. The truck engine drives the vacuum pump,
so there's a lot of horsepower behind it.
||The pump operator just stuck the hose into the
tank and swished it around some. It took only about 15 minutes
to pump out the tank.
He was certain that this septic tank had never been pumped. From
what I've learned about the previous owners, that did not surprise
|He also removed the small cover at the back and
cleaned out around the outlet pipe.
||It's hard to see because everything's covered
in... ummm... crap... but the arrow points to the PVC
outlet pipe. It did not appear that solids were getting out of
the tank and into the drain field.
After this photo, the pumper man started packing up his hoses to
leave. I went inside and flushed a toilet, just so I could see the
water come gushing into the septic tank. I know what you're
thinking: "he's like a little kid..."
But... the water only trickled into the tank. That didn't seem
right. I told Mr. Pumper. I suspected that there might be a
plug in the drain line. He said he knew what the problem might be.
We dug another hole and uncovered a third access hatch, at
the front edge of the tank
|When he removed the small access hatch, we could
see the problem. Somebody has been using too much paper...
He explained how sometimes the installers let the pipe (3)
extend too far into the tank, getting too close to the first
baffle (1). So a big wad of paper (2) would be prone to
hanging up in this small space.
||So he picked the clog out with his shovel, and
the water came gushing out of the pipe (red arrow). Wahoo!
|Following his suggestion, I cut off the extra
pipe length with my reciprocating saw. I held the off-cut with
a pair of pliers, to avoid having it drop into the tank.
Someday somebody else is going to pump out the tank, and this
piece of pipe could jam up their equipment.
We had a lengthy discussion about septic systems. I was
curious to find out their opinion about Rid-X and other
products that claim to add bacteria to your septic system so
the contents will bio-degrade on their own, and not need
pumping. He said that those products don't do much, and most
people kill them off by dumping chlorine bleach down their
drains. Anti-bacterial soaps also can kill off the bacterial
action in a septic tank.
He pointed out some numbers: You can spend $8 a month on
Rid-X, which would be around $100 a year, for something that might
work, or you can get your septic tank pumped every 2 or 3
years as is recommended, for a whopping $130, and you'll know
the exact status of your system.
I'm a cheapskate, but I think that $130 for this type of
peace of mind is money well spent. Deferring this maintenance
too long could result in a ruined drain field, which could
cost thousands to remedy.
I'll point out that septic pumping services seem to be
doing a booming business, in spite of companies like Rid-X and
Miller-Plante that sell bacterial supplements that are
supposed to put the septic pumpers out of business.
Being the curious type, I asked the man where they take their
precious cargo. I had heard that septic pumpers dumped their
contents at a municipal wastewater treatment plant.
But he explained how his company had a huge agricultural machine
that injected the sewage into farmer's fields.
||And lo-and-behold, along came that machine.
What a coincidence!
Actually, the honey wagon got stuck trying to leave
side yard. Since their special tractor just happened to be
only a few miles away, he called in for backup firepower. They
used this beast to tow the pumper truck out of the soft soil
in our side yard.
Even with all that snow on the ground, the soil was not frozen
very hard. And the clay around here makes for spongy ground. This
should serve as a warning to y'all: Let the honey wagon stay in the
driveway (or on the street) and let them use their extra lengths of
hose to reach your tank.
|These giant rake-like tiller blades dig into the
soil and those hoses direct high-pressure septic wastes into
the ground. This approach does not place any additional burden
on the municipal wastewater treatment plants, which around
here are all near maximum capacity, so I've heard.
I don't know what they're growing in those fields, but I hope
they let that stuff decompose for a few years before they harvest
ingredients for my morning corn flakes. (They only apply this type
of fertilizer to fields used for growing livestock feed.)
And that concludes the cycle, right back where it started.
Now you know... the rest of the story.
1. Thanks to Walt Steuer Pumping Service of Traverse City, Michigan
for their information about septic systems.
2. Environmental Engineering, by P. Aarne Vesilind and J.
Jeffrey Peirce, Ann Arbor Science Publishers, 1982
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