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Septic Systems

How to Find a Septic Tank

How to Locate a Septic TankIt is not easy to find a septic tank. The first thing to do is contact the local health/zoning office to see if they have a plan on record.  If the system is fairly new you have a chance, but many states didn't start keeping records until the 1990’s and even still they are spotty at best.  Even if they do have a drawing on file, it probably will not match exactly what is in the ground, but it should be close.  If you can find out who installed the system they should be able to tell you where to find the septic tank..     If none of that pans out, then you will want to identify where the sewer main leaves the house.  If you have a basement or crawl space you can look for a 4” black pipe…look where it goes out of the foundation.  If you don't have a basement/crawl space, or the sewer main is under the foundation, you will have to look for the lowest drain in the house.  This is usually a floor drain in the laundry area and this is generally the area where the pipe will leave the house.   Once you have an idea where the pipe exits the house you want to go outside to that part of the house and take a ¼” or ½” steel rod about 5’ long (concrete re-bar will work but a stainless steel rod is better because it doesn't “stick” to soils as much) and start probing the ground next to the foundation until you hit the pipe.  Be careful.  Poke too hard and you could poke a hole in the pipe, particularly if it is older cast iron pipe. Once you find it you will want to move further out a few feet at a time to track the pipe until you find the septic tank.  Tanks are usually 10 to 20 feet away from the house.  Once you find the tank you will want to probe around it to get the outline.  Tanks can be round, square or rectangular, but once you know the size you can start digging right in the middle.   You are trying to find the manhole cover, it could be in the very center, it could be on the inlet side, it could be on the outlet side, there could be 2 or 3 covers, there could be none.  Sad to say there are no standards when it comes to tanks so you get what the manufacturer had at the time.   Finding the distribution box can be a little easier.  It is usually about 10 to 20 feet away from the tank and sometimes you can spot it just by looking at how the grass is growing.  Often the grass will grow greener over the drainfield lines and if you can see the pattern on the lawn where the lines come together, there it is.  If not you can find the distribution box the same way you found the tank. However, it is seldom a snap process, it can be extremely difficult to find the septic tank and distribution box. Many is the homeowner whose yard looks like a minefield by Sunday night, and they still haven't found the tank or d-box.   The obstacles you can run into are:·        Tight clay soils.  Clay can be difficult not only to stick a probe into; it can be tough to pull it back out.  ·        Rocky soils.  You think you hit the tank so you start digging only to find a rock.  And that can happen over and over.   ·        Deep systems.  More than 2 or 3 feet deep can be a real treat to track and dig.  ·        Older systems.  Back in the old days people did what ever they wanted.  Sometimes you will find pipes that seem to twist and turn then disappear into nothing.  Other times you will find something really inventive, like a Volkswagen buried in the yard and being used as a cesspool.  Swear to god, it happens.   This is why I suggest biting the bullet and hiring a full service contractor to find the septic tank (I say a full service contractor because some pumpers will only pump tanks, they won’t find them).  And often a good contractor can tell where everything is just by the lay of the land.  And if they can't spot it by eye, they have the tools to find them easier, some even have small radio transmitters that they can flush down the drain and track as it goes through the system.      And here is another thing, what happens if you do find the septic tank/d-box…what are you going to do after finding it?  Do you have the tools and know-how to replace a missing baffle?  Do you have a line jetter or rooter sitting in the garage? How about that 3,000 gallon pump truck to empty the tank?  Probably not.Of course once you have the pro find everything, you can mark it (there are small markers you can use to landmark the system) and know where everything is.   No one likes to spend money on things like locating your septic tank, but put it in perspective: if you had city sewer, you could easily spend $300 per year for sewage treatment.  Over 10 years that would be $3,000.  Spending $200 to $500 to have your system located and maintained is not too bad.  And if you take care of your system, which means pumping the tank every 1 to 3 years, practicing wise water/chemical use, an effluent filter in the tank and a washing machine filter in the house, the cost to maintain your system could drop down to $25 per year.  Not a bad deal when you think about it.   

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Mound Septic System Information

Mound Septic System Information PageA mound septic system is used for aberrant soil conditions.  In order for effluent (waste water) to be completely treated it must pass slowly through 3 feet of dry soil.  If you have a high water table, lets say at 1 foot below the surface, you need to bring in 2 feet of soil (sand) to get that 3 foot of separation.  Then you build the drainfield on top of that....thus a mound septic system. The pipes in a mound septic system are laid out in a double H pattern. The pipe is 1½" in diameter with ¼" holes. A mound septic system use 2 tanks...this first tank is used as a normal tank (for settling of the solids) and the second tank has a pump in it that when the water level reaches a certain point or with a timer, the pump kicks on and pushes the effluent to the  mound...because of the small pipe and holes, the effluent is distributed (under pressure) evenly throughout the mound.      A mound septic system is also used when you have rocky soil because the effluent will run right through it without being treated.  Conversely, if the soil is too slow mounds can be used because a large portion of the effluent is returned to the atmosphere via evaporation so a mound will make up for slow soils.      The mound septic system is really the grand daddy of alternative systems.  They were developed in 60's by the University of Wisconsin and can pretty much be used in any situation.    The drawbacks to a mound septic system are:   ·        They are more expensive.  To dig a trench and fill it with gravel is fairly easy and therefore relatively inexpensive.  To build a mound is a lot more involved (even requiring special tracked equipment) and obviously cost more to build.  ·      They are ugly.  Essentially they are a lump of dirt in your yard and very few people find this attractive.  However there are people that are using paver blocks and decorative plants to landscape them and many of them actually enhance the yard because they are so beautiful.  The University of Minnesota Extension Service has a publication on landscaping mounds.    ·        They fail more frequently than a conventional system.The 3 main things that kill a mound septic system are:   1. -Suspended solids in the effluent.  A mound septic system, like an aerobic, sand filters, drip and spray irrigation and wetland systems, use pumps to move the effluent through the system.  They also have smaller diameter pipes with smaller diameter holes.    The primary cause of pump burnout and pipe plugging is solids in the effluent.  These solids damage the impellers in the pumps and plug the holes in the pipes.  These solids also plug the pores of the soil (which is the major source of any system failure...tanks don’t fail, the soil fails and the soil fails when it gets plugged with solids).  This is why it is critical to use effluent filters in the tank and washing machine filters in the house to keep these solids out of system.  The total cost of these filters is about $300.    Often the contractor or homeowner plays it cheap and doesn't want to spend the extra money on these filters, but when the system fails in 3, 5 or 7 years, and they find out it is going cost another $6,000 to replace it, that $300 looks pretty small and they wish they would have spent the extra dough in the beginning.  Even replacing a pump can cost $300 to $600 so these filters pay for themselves in short order.        2. -Overloading the system with water. Systems are sized according to the worst case scenario. Most families will only use 100-250 gallons of water per day...but the system will be sized to 500 gals per day, plenty of cushion...but if you have leaking fixtures like toilets and faucets you can overload the system in a matter of days. You avoid this by making sure you don't have plumbing leaks.   3.-Putting too many harsh chemicals into the system killing off the bacteria in the tank and soil. Your system works on a natural bacterial process of bacteria in the soil and tank that "eat" the nasty things in the wastewater. If you put in chemicals that kill these bacteria the system will fail and you prevent these problems by paying attention to what you are putting down the drain (normal amounts of cleaning supplies will not hurt a system).   If the system is overloaded with water you stop using so much and the system will dryout and start working again. If you kill off the bacteria you can stop using chemicals and they will grow back...but if you plug the system with solids it gets tough to recover can jet the lines but you will still have solids in the soil...sometimes you can get them to breakdown, sometimes you can't. The best way to prevent solids from reaching the mound is to install a washing machine filter to keep the very fine solids out of the system and an effluent filter (in the tank) to prevent the larger solids from getting out to the mound or any type of system for that matter.   Not cheap to install and maintain.  Uses pumps that burn electricity and burn out.  Good for removal of pathogens and better at removing nitrogen…an issue near bodies of water.   Sand filters-with a sand filter you have 2 tanks (just like a mound) but the effluent comes out of the tank and is sprayed over a box of sand that is buried underground.  The effluent filters through the sand then is pumped to a regular drainfield or mound.   Not cheap to install and maintain.  Uses pumps that burn electricity and burn out.  Sand gets plugged and needs removal/replacement.  Good for removal of pathogens and better at removing nitrogen…an issue near bodies of water.   Peat filters-same as a sand filter except peat takes the place of the sand.    Not cheap to install and maintain.  Uses pumps that burn electricity and burn out.  Peat degrades and needs replacing every 6 to 17 years.  Good for removal of pathogens and lots better at removing nitrogen…an issue near bodies of water.  Recirculating Sand filters-with a sand filter you have 2 tanks (just like a mound) but the effluent comes out of the tank and is sprayed over the buried sandbox.  The effluent filters through the sand then is pumped to a tank where it is pumped back through the sand filter 4-6 times (for better nitrogen removal) then discharged to a regular drainfield or mound.    Not cheap to install and maintain.  Uses pumps that burn electricity and burn out.  Sand gets plugged and needs removal/replacement.  Good for removal of pathogens and better at removing nitrogen…an issue near bodies of water.

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