Protecting Your Septic Tank

Heavy rains or large amounts of water around a septic tank, can cause flooding by making it impossible for water to flow out of the system correctly. This may cause unpleasant and costly problems. Here is a breakdown of what those problems may be, what (if anything) you can do to avoid those issues, and when to call in a professional to help deal with septic tank complications after heavy rains.

HOW DOES A SEPTIC TANK WORK?

A typical septic system is made up of a septic tank and drain field, or soil absorption field. A septic system relies on the natural soil to treat wastewater before returning it to the groundwater. When your household produces wastewater (bathroom, laundry, kitchen, etc.), it goes down into the septic tank which is designed to hold the wastewater long enough for it to separate into three layers. Sewage solids sink to the bottom to form a layer of sludge, water and some suspended solids form the largest layer in the middle (effluent), and cleansers, oils and hair float to the top, forming a layer of scum. The liquid layer wastewater then exits the tank and enters the drain field where it is then discharged through piping onto porous surfaces, allowing it to filter through the soil. Before being discharged into groundwater, the soil treats the wastewater by naturally removing harmful bacteria, viruses and nutrients.

CAN MY SEPTIC TANK FLOOD DUE TO RAIN?

During heavy rain, or when other situations arise that oversaturate the ground with water, drain fields can become overloaded and flood. This can cause sewage to backup into a home through toilets or sinks, or cause it to flow to the ground surface. This is not only an unpleasant experience for most homeowners, but can be a health hazard. A flooded system may also cause drains to work slowly or toilets to not flush properly.

WHAT CAN I DO TO AVOID SEPTIC TANK FLOODING?

During heavy rains, limiting water is the number one thing you can to to avoid flooding. Shorten (or skip) showers, avoid washing laundry, running the dishwasher and (as unpleasant as it may seem) don't flush the toilet after every use. Never flush any non biodegradable materials down your toilet (think baby wipes or certain sanitary items) and make sure you are using septic safe toilet paper. It's also important to use biodegradable cleaners in your home.

Be careful not to unintentionally saturate the area around your septic tank by leaving a sprinkler on for too long (while on vacation, for instance), not noticing a busted water line in your yard or not diverting water away from the tank while draining a swimming pool. 

Outside your home, make sure you know where your septic tank is located. Never park any vehicle over the septic tank. Additionally, during flooded conditions (when the ground is saturated with water) never dig or work around the septic tank. You will also want to be aware of trees and other foliage with deep roots, and avoid planting them near your septic tank as roots can cause costly damage. Have your septic tank inspected and pumped every two to three years by a licensed professional.

WHAT TO DO IF MY SEPTIC TANK FLOODS?

If your septic system floods and sewage comes back into your home, first make sure to avoid as much contact with is as possible and thoroughly disinfect any areas the wastewater has touched. If the flooding is in on the ground surface outside, keep all persons and pets away from the area. If you use a well for drinking water and flooding came up to the well casing, do not drink the water until it can be tested to ensure it is safe.

Septic tank flooding may require a professional. If you smell a sewage odor, your drains are slow running or wastewater or sewage backs into your home, it is time to call a professional to come inspect your system. Additionally, if after the rain has stopped, water fails to recede over your drain field, or you notice soggy areas or sewage surfacing in your yard, call in the professionals.