My Septic Guy

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We have been having trouble with a sewer/stinky home perm smell in the bathroom closest to our drain line, as you may have read here. It took me a few days to determine that the bathtub in the kids’ bathroom was draining slowly because some dunderhead was not using the plastic hair trap I bought at Wal-Mart. This pissed me off to no end; a plastic hair trap/drain cover is a two-dollar and fifty-cent answer to a two-thousand dollar problem. We thought we had beaten the stank by un-clogging all the downstairs drains and making sure the P-traps (thank you, Deja!) were working. We were wrong.

With trepidation, we dared the back yard and lifted the lid on the second chamber of the septic tank to find that it was overflowing, which would explain the darker soil near the cover. Oh my. A full second chamber could only mean a few things: (1) the baffle was clogged; (2) the septic pump was fritzing; or (3) worst of all … our drain field was clogged. I immediately jumped online and researched septic companies in our area. Goebel Septic came out on top for its A+ Better Business Bureau rating and customer reviews. Goebel it was!

Somehow, we managed to get to this past Monday, the earliest appointment available, without our system backing up into the house. The kids drove up The Gorge Amphitheatre to see Black Sabbath during the weekend, so the only liquids and solids assaulting the tank were mine. (I also avoided Taco Bell and did no laundry.) Like all Poopreporters, I anticipate a septic company’s visit with both wallet fear and morbid fascination. What would my septic person find in the tank? Socks? Taco Bell? Jimmy Hoffa? Luckily for me, the only aberrant items in the tank were a few batteries.

Damned kids.

As Septic Guy performed his smelly but honorable job, I asked question after question, taking notes of all that he said. I was lucky; Septic Guy was extremely nice and knew quite a bit. Besides, he was wearing a Duck Dynasty shirt his wife and kids bought for him; how bad could he be?

The main issues with our tank were that it was full, as was the outgoing baffle. Once Septic Guy rinsed the baffle out, water began to flow into the drain field easily. And then he cocked his head to one said, and said, “Huh. I believe your pump is still running.” He opened up our pump and began to smile. “This is the luckiest thing that your tank is full and you called,” he said. “Your floaters fell off.”

In case anyone does not have a septic pump, here is a very basic description of what it is and what it does. A septic pump makes sure that water does not back up into your house, mainly areas below ground level, like your basement, if you have one. We had a basement growing up on Pennsylvania, and when rough storms knocked the power lines, the extra rain coupled with a defunct septic pum always, always left us with anywhere from two inches to a foot of water in the basement.

The septic pump has sensors in it that look like the things in the back of your toilet tank, the balloons that rise with the level of the water and tell your toilet the tank is full (ballcock? hehe, ballcock). If the water rises to the first floater, the pump will turn on and pump the water. If the pump is broken or not working for some reason, the water level will continue to rise in the pump. It will then reach the emergency floater, which will set off an alarm in your house. If you live in a housing area with many other houses, and you constantly hear some ridiculously loud beeping or buzzing, it is probable that someone's house is unoccupied and their septic tank alarm has been set off. I hate that noise.

Part of my pump was “running dry” because the floaters had fallen off their set places. Septic Guy told me I must be the luckiest customer he has had in some time, because the pump was running continuously but had not burnt out. Had the tank not filled up when it did, I would have been paying for a new septic pump and a tank emptying. We both think the stupid zip tie a previous company service agent had used to re-tie the floaters up had just broken in the past couple of days. Since Septic Guy was not certified to deal with the electrics of the pumps yet, he put in another order for someone to come out later this week and install a permanent floater-hanger-thingie. Whatever; it’s better than worrying about zip ties that will rot out in two years.

As it stood, I paid for a regular 1,500-tank pumping, a few bucks for the county septic dumping fee, and tax. The second service order will be minimal according to my formal price quote. Goebel has an excellent reputation, unlike some of the septic company scam artists in our area, so I am not worried.

Septic Guy then told me something that piqued my interest: “Your tank isn’t breaking down stuff like it should.” We started talking about what types of water usage goes on with us, and what types of stuff we put into our tanks. He even mentioned anti-bacterial soaps and medications, such as for high blood pressure. All of this led to our discussing Rid-X and other options to keep the septic bio-load up to par.

Here is some of the new information I have now, regarding septic tanks and their ability to break down solids, like poop or toilet paper. Any of the following can be a cause for a tank’s needing a little more help in that area:

1. owning large or multiple fish tanks and performing frequent water changes using a siphoning system like the Python.
2. living with someone (or yourself) who takes medications, such as those for high blood pressure.
3. using anti-bacterial soaps or products.
4. doing large amounts of laundry.
5. flushing bleach into your drains, due to clogs, laundry, or any other issue.
6. excessive use of drain cleaners.
7. having running toilets or faucets, i.e. having a constant excess flow of water going into the septic tank.

The beneficial bacteria supplementation can come in one of many forms. While Septic Guy recommended that I use Rid-X every month for the first six months that the tank was filling up, I found that I could save a ton of money and use what the old plumbers swear by: a big old cake of bread or brewer’s yeast. This made sense to me as a aquarist. If I have to make large water changes due to a tank infection or crappy water, I always add Bio-Zyme powder. The powder is comprised of beneficial bacteria starter. Once it gets wet, it takes roughly 24 hours before the bacteria starts aiding in the nitrogen cycle that all aquariums rely on for life.

According to Septic Guy, our large fish tanks, excessive laundry burden (thanks to the three young people siphoning my youth) do give us cause to use a product that increases the beneficial bacteria in our septic tank. Recently to boot, I was forced to make multiple water changes in our 75-gallon Amazon tank because of a tremendous infection and subsequent red and green algae blooms. I must have used close to 300 gallons of water in a three-week period on the fish tank alone. I have not mentioned how much toilet paper my teenage daughter uses, either. Jesus.

But here is something else interesting that he told me about Rid-X: “Rid-X is great for when a tank is recently emptied, or when you might have experienced some bacteria dilution, but it can ruin your drain field if your tank is already full.” When I asked him why, he said that the toilet paper and scum on top of the tank can sneak into the drain field because of the excess breakdown and pass to the drain field. Once these types of solids enter your drain field, you are looking at a major problem.

Finally, here are some important maintenance practices to keep in mind regarding your septic tank:

1. Believe it or not, RV toilet paper is horrible for your septic system. It breaks down so well that it can sneak past the outgoing baffle and enter your drain field. This can clog it. Ouch! Septic Guy recommends a decent two-ply that is not quilted.
2. Pull the outgoing baffle out of its holder at least every six months and hose it out. Ew. He recommended that I get some rubber gloves and to be very careful when hosing the solids out so as not to let them drop into the baffle's resting place; if they did, then they could sneak into the drain field.
3. Flush NO fats, oils, or greases down your drains. The “FOG” ingredients, as he called them, can only be removed by special enzymes that usually only professionals can get their hands on. In fact, flush nothing but poop and pee, and in the rare, Jagermeister-infused occasion, barf. FOG material contributes to the scum layer on top of the effluent (see the video link below), which can hinder proper biological decomposition.
4. Adding to Number Three, do not flush tampons, pads, hair, or flushable wipes. Do not flush condoms.
5. Have your tank drained roughly every three years. When your septic guy comes, ask him to check out the floaters in your septic pump. At least have your tank looked at every three years.
6. If you do find yourself doing much more laundry than normal, or if you have to increase your water usage, septic tank-wise, for any reason, consider proofing some yeast and flushing it into the system before you go to bed.
7. Check all of your toilets and faucets for leaks. Even the slightest constant running of water can dilute the bacterial in your septic tank.
8. Check your septic pump every couple of months. Make sure that the floaters are in place. If you have no idea what to look for, bug the hell out of your septic guy the next time you call him out, like I did.
9. This is my personal addition to this list: If you are going to have your septic tank serviced or drained, be smart and research the local companies before choosing one. When I researched the companies who serviced our area, I found that two of the companies had amazingly bad ethics. One company’s Yelp reviews page was 40 comments long of people describing bait-and-switch tactics: company septic guy arrives on site, uses a camera to show customer a clog, says he must come back in order to fix it better, and then returns with another septic guy who quotes triple the original quote. Most of the reviewers said they decided to use another company and paid one third of the original quote to have the issue fixed. Another company gave worthless one-year guarantees that had hidden fees. Ten minutes on the internet could save you hundreds, even thousands, of dollars.

I am sure that many of you have advice to add. Please do so!

Finally, here is a link to a great video that describes how your septic system works. It runs less than four minutes.

Part Two of CCE Septic System's five-part video series: home septic systems

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7 Comments on "My Septic Guy"

ChiefThunderbutt's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatorf 5000+ points

Ah septic tanks! A step above the old outhouse but still prone to problems. The only ones I have ever had to deal with here in Middle Tennessee had no pumps, everything about them worked on the principle that water ran downhill. When the field drains were not clogged and were installed in sufficient length for the amount of users they worked fine. When they were overloaded or the field drains were clogged they seemed to release the odor over a wide area that used to be confined to the inside of your privy.

I recall many times that we sat around in my backyard inhaling the delightful aroma coming from my barbecue grill mingled with the disgusting aroma of last weeks groceries that had been processed through the intestinal tracts of my family. If you walked through that part of the yard, easily identified by the lushness of the grass there, your shoes made squishing sounds and you were not allowed to wear them in the house again until they were thoroughly scrubbed.

Thank goodness I am connected to the city sewage system now.

If I had two faces do you think I'd be wearing this one?

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ pointsf 5000+ pointsg 4000+ pointsh 3000+ pointsi 2000+ pointsj 1000+ pointsk 500+ pointsl 100+ pointsm 1+ points - Newb

Ouch! I cannot even begin to consider having a stressed or overwrought drain field. Luckily for us, the baffle's being clogged did not allow for solids to hit the drain field, and the drain field is no wetter than the rest of our back yard.

Of all the items in the house that we would spend money on, I believe the septic system is one of the ones that does not incur my wrath at doing so. It's odd; some people will spend hundreds of dollars detailing their over-priced cars, but they balk at having to pay for the septic tank to be drained. Not me. I can get around in my sturdy, 12 year-old (and pampered) Elantra GT just fine. On the other hand, I am at the mercy of our septic tank to break down doody like a champ.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969

ChiefThunderbutt's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatorf 5000+ points

The reason we had septic system problems was because we were in a red clay area with soft soil and over the sixty or seventy years since the tank had been installed it had sunk into the ground far enough that the outlet was actually below the field drain lines.

At that time (1970's) the field drains could have been re-dug for around $400 but the landlord, who lived out of state, was reluctant to do so because I was only paying $75 monthly rent.

We lived in that old house for many years and have many fond memories of the location. The house was on a slight knoll which seemed to have been attracting humans for many years. Our chickens scratched up many arrowheads and other flint artifacts from the Mississippian Era in the front yard.

If I had two faces do you think I'd be wearing this one?

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ pointsf 5000+ pointsg 4000+ pointsh 3000+ pointsi 2000+ pointsj 1000+ pointsk 500+ pointsl 100+ pointsm 1+ points - Newb

It sounds so quaint, with the exception of the doody issues. I want chickens.

We are still experiencing a bit of the sewer gas in the house, but I hope it will dissipate once the tanks fills with water. I read somewhere that tanks have a gas baffle that is supposed to lead the stink to the drain field. Do you know anything about that?

.....hugging bunnies since 1969

runninggrrl2's picture
Comment Quality Moderatork 500+ points

I would just like to take this opportunity to say that for the most part, I am very grateful for city sewer services. Sure, I may have to pay for it out of my water bill and property taxes, but it is so very worth it to not have to deal with septic issues.

An apple a day keeps the ExLax away!

Anonymous's picture

My husband and I just bought a cabin, and it has a septic tank. Neither one of us has ever had a septic tank before, so we aren't sure how to keep it clean. Sounds like we have some tools we need to get to keep the system clean.

ChiefThunderbutt's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatorf 5000+ points

With our move to the Cumberland Plateau a year ago we are back in a house that uses a septic tank. When my daughter was living here with a husband and two teenage sons the field drains were stressed to their limit and after four showers in a row, particularly during rainy weather, the smell of sewage would be discernible in the yard.

That is no longer a problem with only two occupants in the house and the only noticeable difference in that part of the yard is the extra greenness of the grass. That would probably be a good spot for a tomato garden next year. I spent many years in Japan eating veggies that were fertilized with poo and suffered no ill effects from it.

If I had two faces do you think I'd be wearing this one?

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