Pumping a septic tank. Never Been Pumped:

Fixing A Backed Up Sewer Pipe:
Getting A Septic Tank Pumped Out

Related Articles:

Tools Used:

  • Shovels
  • Barbecue Skewers
  • Drain Snake
  • Buckets
Skill Level: 1-2  Time Taken: A Couple Of Hours

By , Editor



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 system.

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.


My Story:

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 mean, stuff.


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 houses.

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 this area.

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 cleanout.


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 expensive.

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 access hatch.

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.


Opening access hatch on septic tank. 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 mostly liquid.

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.


Locating edges of septic tank with barbecue skewers. 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 arrived.

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. Pumping septic system.


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 me.

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... <who, me?>

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.

Imagine that.

Plugged drain line at entrance to septic tank.


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 my 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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Written January 23, 2002